(not) Action Research

I had the great pleasure of attending the SSAT National Conference in Manchester (#SSATNC17), which provided a rich mixed-bag of speakers, including the ever-brilliant Paul Kirschner, and the utterly inspiring Professor Phil Scraton who spoke about his work uncovering the lie about the Hillsborough Disaster.

In addition to the main stage speakers, there were a wide range of breakout sessions; my favourite of the conference being Shaun Allison (@shaun_allison) talking about the great work he and his team at Durrington have been doing to develop a research-informed culture of practice.

One session I was particularly looking forward to was on Action Research. I have long believed that Action Research is a potentially powerful tool for teachers and school leaders to bring about small but radical changes in practice. But I have been frustrated, really, with the poor reputation that Action Research seems to have with some amongst the education community.

So, as I sat in the session on Action Research, I couldn’t help find myself a little saddened, and beginning to understand why AR has such a poor reputation. The projects which the session leaders were discussing were perfectly reasonable and clearly had the potential to improve, for example, staff wellbeing. But I became increasingly curious as to what bit of this was actually AR. Having teachers conduct investigative projects and engaging in reflective practice is, on the whole, a Good Thing as far as I’m concerned – but why not call it something like Research Informed Reflective Practice, or just Reflective Practice? Why use the monicker Action Research?

As Professor Stephen Gorard (@sgorard) tells us in his book Research Design: Creating Robust Approaches for the Social Sciences (2013), much of what is called Action Research bears little resemblance to what was initially conceived by Lewin, originator of the term Action Research, who called for scientific rigour. According to Gorard:

Unfortunately, other commentators have used Lewin’s title of ‘action research’ to describe their own approaches, which are nothing like this. They eschew the robust science called for by Lewin, and take on only the idea of participatory reflective progressive problem solving. (p154)

So, I asked Gorard what he thought about teachers going Action Research, to which he gave this response:

Looking through the #ActionResearch hashtag on Twitter reveals quite a range of ideas and projects, some of which actually look quite interesting. But very few seem to be in the original, Lewin, mould of AR. Furthermore, I think it would actually be pretty difficult for teachers to engage properly in AR. Lewin said that AR “will have to include laboratory and field experiments in social change” (cited in Gorard, 2013, p.153). It is conceivable that, if working with researchers in universities, teachers could participate in elements of AR but, quite frankly, we do not have the resources at our disposal to actually run proper AR projects. At the very least, teachers do not have full access to journal libraries in order to conduct proper literature reviews; neither do we have adequate research design and methods training to conduct this type of work. I wish we had, and hope that this will become the norm at some point in the future. But as things stand, teachers simply cannot engage in proper AR.

I wonder if the term Action Research is being applied to not-actually-action-research projects in the hope of giving it a sense of academic rigour, or purposefulness, to add weight to what they are doing. Sadly, in my view, it has the opposite outcome – it can look like teachers play-acting at being academics, and we really don’t need to do this.

I think what these teachers are doing is, in the main, pretty good: engaging in an informed process of deliberate reflective practice, trialling interventions and strategies with their own pupils and colleagues, and assessing the effectiveness. I would urge more teachers and school leaders to foster a culture where this becomes standard practice. I would encourage teachers to take up their digital quills and write reflective blogs – to engage in Self Writing.

But let’s not call it Action Research. Let’s call it what it is: Reflective Practice, or Research Informed Problem Solving. Or teaching.




Gorard, S. (2013) Research Design: Creating Robust Approaches for the Social Sciences London: Sage