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Tutorial 6: Resources

Tutorial 6:  Beginning the First Cycle

Tutorial 6:  Beginning the First Cycle

A) Framing your Research Question

As soon as one suggests the activity of framing a research question, for most people, this invokes experimental design with baselines and controls. Action research is a different way of working. Hopefully, by this point, you can describe how it is different. The biggest difference from experimental research is that action research is open-ended, iterative, and transformative. You are not mapping out the sequence from start to finish at the beginning. You are identifying a problem that you care about. You are thinking of small changes that are within your sphere of power to alter and then you are going to use what you learn from the experience to suggest the next cycle of change. Often students start by wanting to change the world -- but they come to see that significant change cannot be done alone and that the steps to large-scale change often start small. In fact, after one or two cycles, there is often a common insight that comes from looking at the data. The action researcher finds that they need to change the way they see the problem.

This was particularly clear in the progression that one teacher, Anne Smith, had as she began her project. She thought her project was going to be about getting "D" students to invest a bit more effort by taking away the option of a D., But in the end, she found that she completely shifted her role toward her student and her perspective toward their work. Her students shifted from seeing her as someone who judged them, to someone who was on their side working to help them be successful. Reading her action research e-portfolio is a good way of seeing how to move from cycle to cycle, and understand how the problem evolves, and identities shift over time.

In the activities for this tutorial, you are asked to complete an exercise leading up to framing your cycle 1 action research question that involved moving from values to questions.  Here is a link to some examples of how others have completed this process that might help you. 

Hopefully, you looked through the examples and saw how these action researchers began with a plan which then evolved as they worked. You can follow the e-portfolios of some of these projects which are published in the Center for Collaborative Action Research to see how their ideas progressed. But the important thing is that each action researcher found an area where he or she could effect change. A cycle can be as small as changing the way you talk, or as large as rethinking the way people work together. These action researchers looked at how things were while thinking about how they would like things to be. The change started small and the evidence that they collected moved them to the next cycle. This progressive problem-solving can form a path to deeper understanding and expertise.

Framing Question

B. Taking Action

Some things to keep in mind as you begin your first cycle:

1) SCOPE: Your whole job or a large project is not your action research, it is the CONTEXT for your action research. You need to focus your conceptual microscope on one small part. Think of a strategy that you are going to use to accomplish your goals. If you think of a situation when you say to yourself, I wonder what would happen if I......, you have the start of a possible cycle of action research. Then you have to ask yourself some questions:

  • Will this action help me achieve my overall inquiry question?

  • Is this something I need to understand better?

  • Will the outcome be important to me and worth the time to investigate and analyze the outcomes?

2) INQUIRY: A good action research question is one that you do not know the answer to. Your action research questions should not be directed toward gathering evidence about something you have done before that you want to promote as successful or effective. Evaluation research is better suited for this task. You should be asking a question that will lead you to explore. You are trying to understand if and why something works. For example, you might have to start up a program you have done before. Was there something that did not work as well as you would have liked? In your review of the literature, maybe you got an idea of a different way of approaching it. So now you are going to try this different approach. You don't know how it will work in your setting, or with your partners. This is a good project because you are exploring something where the outcome is unknown, but you hope it will move you in the direction of improvement.

3) COLLABORATIVE DESIGN: Action researchers are less concerned with baselines, controls, and treatments--these concepts are a part of experimental research. Instead, action researchers are looking at change over time from different perspectives. Each cycle is a baseline for the next one. The goal is to understand why the change works or doesn't work in the setting. Knowledge development comes from reflection on one's actions and from the inquiry into how these actions cause reactions in others. Understanding change from the perspectives of others in the social setting is an important part of the process. Reflecting to make sense of what you are learning and how it relates to your theories of action is critically important. 

4) NONLINEAR CYCLIC PROGRESS - All of us would like everything we try to be successful, but action researchers develop a healthy attitude towards calculated risks and possible failure. Being willing to try something that might not work often takes courage and confidence. The courage to explore new territory and the confidence to learn from situations that did not turn out as well as expected are good skills in the action researchers' toolbox. Cycles that are unsuccessful are often followed by ones with more success. It takes more than once to figure out the best ways to work.

Taking Action

C) Reflective and Descriptive Writing

Both descriptive and reflective writing are important in documenting your action research for yourself and others. Memory is reconstructive. It uses bits of evidence to reconstruct scenes and events. A rich description can preserve one's time-sensitive way of seeing a set of actions and reactions. Without careful note-taking throughout the process of action research, it is very difficult to remember the conditions as the memories tend to reconstruct with the benefit of evolving knowledge. In any process of change, it is important to keep a research log—notes that describe what is seen and heard. A good researcher is always aware that their point-of-view is not the only one that defines reality. The more evidence of the perceptions of others that are collected, the deeper the researcher's understanding will be of the multiple perspectives on the same actions. Descriptive writing aims to be low inference. For example, writing "the students were excited, engaged, and did an excellent job on their projects" is drawing an inference from observation. A lower inference description of the same event by an action researcher might read, "The students spent most of the period focused on their projects with relatively few distractions. They did not want to leave at the end of the period. I assessed each of the group projects in terms of the objectives set for the activity."

Reflective writing can and often does contain descriptions of events—but the goal of the writing is very different. The focus is not on what happened, but on why it happened and on how what happened connects to the past events and ideas, and possible futures that such events might herald. The reflection is what the mirror shows of mind—one's thinking about these connections. So while a reflection may begin by describing an action or a consequence of an action, it quickly leaves the details of what happened and uses some aspect of the situation as a springboard for exploring the writer's analysis and synthesis of actions or consequences like these and why and how they are connected. For example, the researcher might have noticed something about the way people work, some problem might serve as a metaphor for something that occurs frequently, or an event might trigger relationships to situations that were similar or different in the work of others or in the researcher's own past experiences. Another possibility is that the connections might link to some change in the way the researcher comes to see the events, a shift in perspective.  The development of a new individual or group skill might alter the way people interact with one another, and the reflection might dwell on those relationships. Something learned about the people involved in the action research might lead the researcher to question the way they think about an issue. For reflective writing, the mirror shows what cannot be seen—the thinking that the researcher is doing about the action and the consequences of the actions for now and for the future.



Metacognitive structures for keeping notes (or writing your blog). 

1) Reflection on what you observed. --These are the easiest to write, and it is often

easiest to start here. These reflections tell the reader what happened. Instead of

saying "all participants thought it was a terrific experience. It was a great success, and they want more."  You might write  something like..."Most of the participants were actively engaged all of the time and when the time was up many of them kept working for another 10-15 minutes. When leaving most expressed positive comments and we have been asked to hold a similar session next week."  The second description allows the reader to make the conclusion that the session was successful.

2) Reflection on why it happened. -- Writing about what happened is only the first step.  Now the question is why did it happen?  Why were participants engaged or not engaged?  What was the part of the action that was most critical?  The researcher begins with a theory of action or predictions about what might happen. The reflection begins with what happened but then moves to why it happened and how this compares to the prior theory of action. The researcher notes things that match and things that deviate from the theory of action.

3) Reflection on how this ties to your past and future experiences. -- An event can be a trigger to look more deeply at one's past experiences and project to future experiences. This is an exploration of the mind. How are events linked and what might this say about future directions? This is highly personal and can also deal with emotive content. Did your action help you learn more about your values and the directions you want to take in your work? Was there something in your past that influenced your actions in ways that were not productive?  

4) Reflection on conceptual knowledge structures -- An event or experience can change how we think and in doing so can change our identity. This reflection returns to the larger history of ideas and tries to place this event in the history of ideas. For example, how does this event shape your educational philosophy? Does it help you see learning in a different light? Did you learn something about group processes that connect to ideas that you encountered in your literature review?

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