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     Tutorial 2:Understanding Action Research

Tutorial 2 Resources

A. Action Research Approaches

Close Cousins of Action Research 

  •  Appreciative Inquiry 

  • Lesson Study

  • Design Research

  • Formative Evaluation Research

  • Practitioner Research 

  • Reflective Practice/Self Study

  • Teacher Research

  • Action Inquiry

  • Improvement Science

 Identifying the non-negotiable or defining characteristics of action research is difficult because action research values multiple perspectives and worldviews, and encourages participants to own and create their knowledge.  This results in a family of approaches as action research evolves to serve practitioners and communities with which they work in their learning process.  Here is a listing of some of the family members and close cousins of action research. 


Action Research Family 

  • Action Research

  • Collaborative Action Research

  • Participatory Action Research 

  • Community-Based Participatory Action Research

  • Youth Action Research

  • Action Learning 

  • Participatory Action Learning and Action Research 

  • Exploratory Action Research



Action Research Family

Action research is collaborative and participatory so why do people add more modifiers?  The reason is that there are different ways in which different players work together in the context of the action that is introduced and studied.  To see a definition of action research visit the Action Research Special Interest Group of the American Educational Research Association (AERA), USA.


Collaborative Action Research often focuses on the relationship of the practitioner action researcher with other action researchers, some of which might come from different settings like the university.  The balance of power and decision-making in this collaborative partnership can affect the definition of the research activity.  If expertise coming from outside of the setting dominates, the nature of the activity may shift away from collaborative action research and toward Design Research. Similarly, if the reason for researching the action is to validate its success, rather than to understand the change process, the researcher partnership might be engaging in Formative Evaluative Research. See the  Center for Collaborative Learning CA, USA, for a definition of Collaborative action research. 


Participatory Action Research suggests a collaborative relationship with a team of practitioner action researchers in the same setting.  In this arrangement, each person is doing their own action research, but the action that is being studied has many authors.   So the multiple understandings come from their collective work.  Here are some links to follow this type of action research: Cousins & Whitmore (1998); Greene (2006); Whitmore (1998). Here is a website on Participatory Action Research by the Institute of Development Studies, based at the University of Sussex, Brighton, UK. 


Community-Based Participatory Action Research suggests that the action researchers are working within a complex community working and listening to how they want to proceed.  They may, or may not define themselves as action researchers, but they understand that the action is shared and that they are part of the activity system, including stakeholders that are not part of the setting that is being altered. Community-based participatory action research focuses on who "owns" the problem and giving voice to groups that are often marginalized when solutions are proposed (Ramsden, McKay, & Crowe 2010; Wallerstein, Duran, Oetzel, & Minkler (2018); Wallerstein & Duran (2006).  Here is A Short Guide to Community-Based Action Research by Taisha Bonilla and Tahirah Farris from Los Angeles, CA, USA.. 


Youth Action Research refers to youth tackling problems or issues (Ozer 2017).  They try, by their actions, to create change. Some excellent examples are described by Carlos Chiu in this work with students and teachers in Peru.  The work you see in the student videos was done by student action researchers who did not receive either money or class credit for their community work. 






















Action Learning is a way of highlighting the continuous learning aspect of the action research process.  This concept is somewhat similar to informal action research (Beck, 20l7). For more about action learning see the World Institute for Action Learning


Participatory Action Learning, Action Research is a philosophy, a methodology, a theory of learning, and a process for professional and community engagement (Wood and Zuber-Skerritt, 2012; Zuber-Skerritt and Wood,  2019).  It involves a partnership with community members with university researchers.  Action learning makes the project feel more inclusive as there are lots of different roles and ways to be engaged in the project. Here is a review of Lesley Wood's new book on this approach by Mariëtte Koen in South Africa. 


Exploratory Action Research is described as the first step in the iterative process of action research.  These two documents describe this approach to action research.  

Champion Teachers: Stories of Exploratory Action Research (2016) in Chile

A Handbook for Exploratory Action Research (2018)

Close Cousins to Action Research

Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is a way of starting with what is working well and then using action research strategies to better understand and improve it  (Reed 2007; Watkins, Mohr, & Kelly 2011). To learn more about this approach, see the AI Commons  Website by the David L. Cooperrider Center for Appreciative Inquiry at Champlain College, Burlington, Vermont, USA. in continuing partnership with Case Western Reserve University’s Weatherhead School of Management, Cleveland, Oh, USA.  


Lesson Study  (jyugyo kenkyu) is an approach to professional development that originated in Japan 150 years ago. It was introduced to the United States in the late 1990s and is now widely practiced in over 50 countries. Lesson study places the teaching of a shared lesson as the action and has a set of protocols for understanding the outcomes.  lesson study focuses on improving teaching and teachers increasing pedagogical knowledge and beliefs thus supporting instructional improvement, and student learning (Lewis, Perry, Friedkin, and Roth 2012). The Lesson Study Group at Mills College is an insightful community in the US to learn more about Lesson Study.  Catherine Lewis shares an overview on CBS.


Practitioner Research does not have to be action research, as practitioners can engage in any of the many forms of research (Anderson, Herr, & Nihlen  2007; Cochran-Smith & Lytle 2015; Coughlan 2014.  Some people make the assumption that any research done by practitioners is action research, but this is not necessarily the case. While action research is generally practitioner research, not all practitioner research is action research.  


Reflective Practice/Self Study is the first part of action research but does not require the practitioner to make the results public, to share the results of the learning with others.  Many of these approaches will be described in these resources. Here is an annotated review of books on professional or reflective self-study. 


Teacher Research can be any form of research that teachers do, including action research, but not limited to it. At George Mason University, teacher research is described in a way that is very similar to what most authors understand as action research. And at some point, they suggest that action research can be a synonym for teacher research.  The description of action research posted on this site is more closely aligned with what we have called reflective practice.   This shows the variation in the way that people working in the field have of conceptualizing these terms. 

Action Inquiry draws on action research and recasts evaluation research to help navigate complexity when enacting collective leadership. It is an approach to learning and inquiry that combines research and practice for the purpose of transformational change, often applied to leadership practices.  (Sharp,  2018); Tobort, 2004)


Action or Improvement Science is explicitly designed to accelerate learning-by-doing (Argyris, Putnam, & Smith 1985; Friedman, Razer, & Sykes 2004). It's a more user-centered and problem-centered approach to improving teaching and learning that is highly similar to action research supported by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching

B. Definitions of Action Research

1. Collective Definition by the Action Research SIG of the American Educational Research Association

The program chair of a conference must be able to decide on what is, and what is not action research to determine which papers to accept. The leadership of the Action Research SIG of the American Educational Research Association (AERA) wanted to put a definition on the website, but the challenge was who would write it.  It was clear that any of the officers could write it, but we needed it to represent the views of all of us.  So we created an adapted version of a Delphi process to craft a shared definition(Rowell, Polush, Riel, and Bruewer, (2015).  The process is described and the definition is posted on the Action Research SIG


It begins this way:

Action research seeks transformative change through the simultaneous processes of taking action and doing research, which are linked together by critical reflection. Action research practitioners reflect upon the consequences of their own questions, beliefs, assumptions, and practices with the goal of understanding, developing, and improving social practices. This action is simultaneously directed towards self-change and towards restructuring the organization or institution within which the practitioner works.

2. Professional, Organizational, and Scholarly Transformational Learning


 At the Center for Collaborative Action Research, Riel (2013) defines action research as a process of cyclic learning that capitalizes on day-to-day work experiences as opportunities to gain a deeper understanding of one's effort to improve practice. Action researchers gain a deeper understanding of the social, political, and physical forces that shape actions in complex social settings. It is a way of learning more from practice by questioning, listening, watching, acting, analyzing, and reflecting.


Action research can be done in a formal way with results that can be shared across contexts, or it can be conducted informally as a way of learning from and improving one's practice. When conducted formally, action research can provide new understandings of relationships that can become the basis for further study. When carried out informally, action research can become a habit of mind, a process of progressive problem-solving that leads to a form of adaptive expertise (Bereiter & Scardamalia, 1993, Bransford, Brown, & Cockling , 1999). This way of defining action research was designed for graduate students looking to increase their understanding of technological innovations by using them in new settings. While this process may shift the balance of power in the workplace, it is less likely to involve the emancipatory force of giving voice to marginalized groups that some see as a defining characteristic of action research (Freire, 1993). 
















Jean McNiff defines her approaches to action research from a values perspective. She focuses less on "the how" or methods of action research and more on "the why" you engage in this process (McNiff, 2017).  She provides her views on action research in a concise booklet ( which offers excellent help for novice action researchers. Another resource that she made available on her website is  Value and Virtue in Practice in Practice-Based Research (2013).  Her view of action research is strongly rooted in values.  The value search activities in this tutorial are inspired by her work. In Value and Virtue in Practice-Based Research, she defines action research as a  value-driven process in which people interact and learn from each how to understand their practices and situations and to take purposeful action to improve them.  She works internationally to provide professional development through action research. 



4. Action Research as the Development of  Living Educational Theories

Jack Whitehead created the concept of "living theories" to talk about the theories of learning and change that educations develop through practice.  His definitions of action research focus on this process of theory building and the importance of honoring one's ability to create theories. This serves the many students that he guides in Master's and Doctoral dissertations.

A Living Educational Theory (Living Theory) approach focuses attention on the experiences and implications of living values that carry hope for the flourishing of humanity. These values are life-affirming and life-enhancing values that give meaning and purpose to the researcher’s life. They are clarified as they emerge in the course of researching questions such as, ‘How am I improving what I am doing?’ They form the explanatory principles and standards by which improvements in both practice and knowledge creation are judged.


5. Action Research As Methodology 

Focusing on Action research as a methodology is a way to highlight the evidence-based nature of action research. A good paper to read is by Feldman and Minstrell.  They address a number of concerns in defining action research in a way that makes it useful as a methodology for the study of teaching and learning in the sciences. This way of defining action research serves university-based learning in science education. 



6. Action Research and Social Justice: Giving Voice to Marginalized Groups
For some, the term action research is linked in definitional ways with the specific value of promoting social justice. Michelle Fine does some of the best research with marginalized groups, youths, people of color, and people of different sexual orientations.  Polling for Justice (PFJ) was amazing participatory action research (PAR) project designed by a research collective of youth and adults. The focus was on the experiences of youth experiences (ages 14-21) with the justice and injustice of the police system.  The project was an interdisciplinary collaboration among faculty and students at the City University of New York, youth advocates, public health researchers, lawyers, educators, and a committed group of youth co-researchers.  The team worked together for over two years. A survey co-constructed by the youth working with adults to document how their lives intersect with civil institutions, specifically the police.  Their findings tell the story in ways that are more powerful because of the participation of the community. 
1. Action Research for Health Care Providers

A common assumption is that action research is a tool for educators because it is well-suited as a path of learning for educators.  However, action research can be used to address social issues in any community and as a form of learning in any profession.  We include a link to work that is available in healthcare as an example of how the profession interacts with the process.  This article by Hilary Bradbury and Svante Lifvergren: Action research healthcare: Focus on patients, improve quality, drive down costs focuses on how action research creates a social learning context for all of the stakeholders including the patients. 


2. Action Research for Literacy Instruction in Workplace Education

This handbook, developed by Marice Taylor, has a number of excellent resources. It was created to help literacy instructors to use action research in workplace education programs. The second part contains eight action research case studies. The case studies illustrate the process of conducting action research including critical reflections.   It ends with some great activities and resources for doing action research. 


3. Action Research in Organizations


David Coghlan and Teresa Brannick (2014) have been the voices directing action research in organizations for over a decade.  The 4th edition of their book is a clear and useful guide for doing action research in any context, but its strength is that it helps action researchers navigate the challenges of workplace action research. The second edition can be read online. 


4. Cultural Humility: People, Principles, and Practices

A concept that you might find helpful as you contemplate your action research project is cultural humility. Vivian Chavez published a video in four parts explaining the concept of cultural humility. The three principles of cultural humility hold for action research as well.

  • Lifelong learning and critical self-reflection

  • Recognizing and changing power in balances

  • Institutional accountability










"More than a concept, Cultural Humility is a communal reflection to analyze the root causes of suffering and create a broader, more inclusive view of the world. Originally developed by Doctors Melanie Tervalon and Jann Murray-Garcia (1998) to address health disparities and institutional inequities in medicine, Cultural Humility is now used in public health, social work, education, and non-profit management. It is a daily practice for people to deal with hierarchical relationships, changing organizational policy, and building relationships based on trust. The film tells stories of successes and challenges, and the road in between, when it comes to developing partnerships between community members, practitioners, and academics. It encourages us to realize our own power, privilege, and prejudices, and be willing to accept that acquired education and credentials alone are insufficient to address social inequality. "


D. Communities, Organizations, and Journals

Universities and organizations that publish  action research projects: 

Joseph Shosh - Moravian College Action Research Projects

Jack Whitehead - Action Research Network and Projects and the Educational Journal of Living Theories (EJOLT)


Center for Collaborative Action Research, Pepperdine University (CCAR)

University of Notre Dame - Catholic Collaborative Action Research Network


Social Publishers Foundation- Practitioners' Research


Networks to join:

Action Learning Action Research Association(ALARA) based in Australia

American Educational Research Association - Special Interest Group in Action Research


Action Research Network of the Americas (ARNA)

Collaborative Action Research Network- (CARN)


The Network of Education Action Research in
Ireland (NEARI)


Journals to read: 

Action Research Journal — Sage Publications

Educational Action Research — Taylor and Francis

Inquiry in Education Journal (i.e.)

Complete List of action research Journals 



3. Action Research for Professional Development - A Values Approach 

C. Contextual Factors in   Action Research 

three planes.jpg

Personal Transformation    Organizational Transformations     Scholarly Transformations




Argyris, C., Putnam, R., & Smith, D. (1985). Action science: Concepts, methods, and skills for research and intervention. Jossey-Bass.                

Anderson, G., Herr, K., & Nihlen, A. (2007). Studying your own school: An educator’s guide to practitioner action research. Corwin Press.

Beck, C. (2017)  Informal Action Research: The Nature and Contribution of Everyday Classroom Inquiry. In Rowell, L.

Bruce, C. Shosh, J. & Riel, M. The Palgrave International Handbook of Action Research.

Bereiter, C., & Scardamalia, M. (1993). Surpassing ourselves. An inquiry into the nature and implications of expertise.    Chicago: Open Court. Download options.

Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (1999)How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school.         

National Academy Press. Full Book Text Online.

Chevalier, J. M., & Buckles, D. J. (2019). Participatory action research: Theory and methods for engaged inquiry (2nd ed.). Routledge.

Cochran-Smith, M., & Lytle, S. L. (2015). Inquiry as stance: Practitioner research for the next generation. Teachers College Press.Coghlan, D & Brannick, T. (2014) Doing Action Research In Your Own Organization, (4th Edition). London: Sage. ISBN-13: 978-1446272572

Coughlan, D. (2014). Doing action research in your own organization. Sage Publications.

Friedman, V., Razer, M., & Sykes, I. (2004). Towards a theory of inclusive practice: An action science approach. Action Research, 2(2), 167–189.

Lewis, C., Perry, R., Friedkin, S., & Roth, J. (2012). Improving Teaching Does Improve Teachers: Evidence from Lesson Study. Volume: 63 issue: 5, page(s): 368-375

McNiff, J., (2016)You and your Action Research Project (4rd Edition). Routledge: NYC. ISBN-10: 1138910058

McNiff, J.,(2010)  Action Research for Professional Development.  Dorsett: September books. ISBN 978-1-902047-03-4

Ozer, E. J. (2017). Youth-Led Participatory Action Research: Overview and Potential for Enhancing Adolescent Development. Child Development Perspectives, 11(3), 173–177.

Ramsden, V. R., McKay, S., & Crowe, J. (2010). The pursuit of excellence: Engaging the community in participatory health research. Global Health Promotion, 17(4), 32–42.

Reed, J. (2007). Appreciative inquiry: Research for change. SAGE Publications, Inc.

Rowell, L. Polush, E. Riel, M, & Bruewer, A. (2015). Action researchers’ perspectives about the distinguishing

characteristics of action research: a Delphi and learning circles mixed-methods study. Access online at


Taylor, Maurice, (2002).  Action Research in Workplace Education: A Handbook for Literacy Instructors. Partnerships in Learning.   The full text can be downloaded:

Tervalon, M. & Murray-Garcia, J. (1998). Cultural humility versus cultural competence: a critical distinction in defining

physician training outcomes in multicultural education, Journal of health care for the poor and underserved, Vol. 9,

No. 2. (May 1998), pp. 117-125.

Torbert, W. R. (2004). Action inquiry: The secret of timely and transforming leadership. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.


Wallerstein & Duran (2006)Wallerstein, N. B., & Duran, B. (2006). Using community-based participatory research to address health disparities. Health Promotion Practice, 7(3), 312–323.

Wallerstein, N., Duran, B., Oetzel, J., & Minkler, M. (Eds.). (2018). Community-based participatory research for health: Advancing social and health equity (3rd ed.).Jossey-Bass.

Wood, L & Zuber-Skerritt, O., (2012)PALAR as a methodology for community engagement by faculties of education.South African Journal of Education 33(4):1-15 Full Text. 

Watkins, J. M., Mohr, B., & Kelly, R. (2011). Appreciative inquiry: Change at the speed of imagination (2nd ed.). Pfeiffer.

Freire, P.  (1993 ). Pedagogy of the oppressed.    New York: Continuum Books. Literature Guide Summaries

Zuber-Skerritt, O., & Wood, L. (Eds.). (2019, in press). Action learning and action research: Genres and approaches.

    Bingley, UK: Emerald.

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