Generating Educational Knowledge Through Teachers Third-Generation Action Research

Generating Educational Knowledge Through Teachers Third-Generation Action Research

This is a post-print version of Tim Cain & Kate Domaille (2008) What sort of knowledge is generated byaction research?, International Journal of Research & Method in Education, 31:1, 89-94.OMn017aWrt.e.04iyeA1gl038rlaS0io.n-0nNE8r7a0ia 0_t2eia&Alin/NA 7no1Ad pXdnFi_7@rnr ar24 iFtd(lali93s prcnJ2oa07lroc0etni72oiun0cs57nrt8i9)0ns./a.8a1scl07g .1ou4m9fk3 0mR-75ee29sl83ne82a3 r@(cohtni alsicnnadel )iM.coet.uhkod in Education

Action research: a methodology for change and development, by Bridget Somekh, Maidenhead,Open University Press, 2006, 225 pp., £18.99 (paperback), ISBN 0-335-21658-7

Action research for inclusive education: changing places, changing practice, changing

minds, edited by Felicity Armstrong and Michele Moore, London, Routledge, 2004, 160 pp.,

£21.99 (paperback), ISBN 0-415-31802-5

In the 60 years since Kurt Lewin first used the term, action research has been enthusiastically

embraced by many education professionals as a means of improving practices in teaching and

learning. Indeed, action research has so proliferated, and understandings of it have so developed,

that it has become possible to distinguish types (e.g. Carr and Kemmis’ (1986) typology of

technical, practical and emancipatory action research and Noffke’s (1997) distinction between its

personal, professional and political dimensions). There seems to be a widely held acceptance that

action research is a powerful tool for bringing people together and inspiring them to work

together towards a common purpose. What is less generally accepted is the premise that action

research is capable of generating knowledge. Indeed, Somekh describes her anger at a conversation, in 1983, in which teacher research was dismissed as a means of ‘empowering teachers rather than having any value in terms of generating knowledge’ (86), and there is still a sense in the academic world that action research is not ‘proper’ research, in the sense of contributing valid and reliable findings. So the books reviewed here present a useful way of exploring the question: ‘What sort of knowledge is generated by action research?’

Somekh’s book presents cases of action research in which she has been personally involved,and a recurring theme is that action research can and does generate knowledge and understanding.She describes this as ‘insider’ knowledge, ‘not accessible to traditional researchers coming fromoutside’ although usable by others, ‘particularly when the details of the original context are fullydescribed so that judgements can be made about its potential usefulness in other settings’ (7). Her cases of action research are each accompanied by a reflective statement that amplifies and illuminatesthe knowledge she believed to be generated through the action research process. Suchknowledge includes (but is not restricted to): generating hypotheses, identifying problems andgenerating strategies for dealing with them, generating new ways of seeing phenomena, interpersonaland self-knowledge, and ordering existing knowledge. She is rigorous about what constitutesknowledge; for her the generation of new knowledge involves an element of surprise, andshe cautions against research which is ‘a bland process of confirming the already known’ (97).

Her early forays into action research involved generating hypotheses such as ‘class discussions

on poetry are counter-productive because the tensions of the discussion situation increase

the pupils’ perceptions that poetry is “difficult”’ (66). She describes her thinking at the time (such

as was embedded in the cause-and-effect formulation of this hypothesis) as ‘rather simple’ but

nevertheless bolstered by an enormous amount of ‘evidence embedded in day-on-day experience’that is available only to insiders. Knowledge produced by her cases involved identifying problemsand generating strategies for dealing with them. For example, in a project that encouraged teachers to undertake action research, she found that the teachers read transcripts of classroom conversations quickly and without much interest. To enable them to read the data in more depth she found that ‘it was essential to hold practical data analysis sessions in which teachers shared their data with colleagues’ using analysis techniques such as ‘pattern analysis’ (98).

Other cases gave Somekh new ways of seeing phenomena. For example, having described

various tensions that arose in the course of one project, she wrote: ‘I learnt how to stand back from confrontations and view them with the detachment of a researcher, understanding that they

originated largely in institutional culture and structures and were not primarily personal’ (150).

Here, as elsewhere, she explored two further types of understanding: what Gardner (1983) terms

‘interpersonal’ and ‘intrapersonal’ knowledge. The first is achieved through empathy, for example, when she explores the constraints and motivations of policymakers with whom she shared ‘somewhat strained relationships’ (128–9). She achieved the second partly by her engagement in action research and partly by reflecting on reading:

Having by this time developed an understanding of the self as multiple and responsive rather than

essential and unitary, based on my reading of Mead (1934), Goffman (1959) and Garfinkel (1984), Ilearnt that action research provides the opportunity to construct your ‘self’ as powerful rather thanpowerless and to seek for ways of maneuvering towards a goal rather than accepting that it is goingto be unachievable. (151)

A further type of knowledge is that which orders, or structures, other knowledge. For example,

Somekh describes an action research project which identified and analysed the generic competences that expert managers used; these were grouped into conceptual, interpersonal and impacting competences (147–8).

Somekh’s book is the product of a very experienced, very well-qualified researcher, at theforefront of her field. Each page is peppered with the names of the people she has worked with,including many of the ‘great and good’ of UK education. In contrast, Armstrong and Moore’s

collection of action research projects are mostly first attempts at action research by teachers, often working for a higher degree or in the UK government’s Best Practice Research Scholarship

scheme (now, sadly discontinued). Nevertheless, they provide an equally compelling case for

action research generating a variety of knowledge, and the opening chapter, co-written by the

editors, explores the relationship between action research and knowledge in some detail.

Armstrong and Moore insist that ‘action research generates knowledge … through processes of

observation, reflection and critical engagement with ideas and practices’ (2). They understand

knowledge as including ‘raising fresh issues and challenging previous assumptions and theories’

(2). Thus, ‘the generation of theory’ includes the impacts that research projects have on ‘the way

you – and others – understand other theories, beliefs and practices’ (9).

Although the quality of the individual action research in Armstrong and Moore is varied,

some powerful projects are reported, and three studies in particular claimed my attention. First,

Val Thompson’s chapter focuses on her work with Hannah, a wheelchair-user student in a Further Education college, as she attempted to procure for her the financial support to buy computing equipment to which she was entitled. Thompson’s study explores the structures and attitudes that presented themselves as barriers, compounding, rather than alleviating Hannah’s problems. In the process she discovered that, to Hannah, ‘poverty was a more disabling barrier than impairment’(27). Later, Thompson shared her findings with the staff who were responsible for allocating funding. She says: ‘I felt great discomfort because they clearly felt criticised by my construction of Hannah’s experience … there was also a feeling that many of the difficulties Hannah faced had arisen because of externally imposed requirements and restrictions’ (29). However, Hannah herself found her involvement in the project ‘therapeutic’, and together she and Thompson were able to procure the hardware and software that she needed for her studies.Second, Catherine Sorsby’s chapter tells of her attempts to include the Learning Support

Assistants (LSAs) in the process of including children with ‘special educational needs’ in a

primary school. Through a series of eight workshops, Sorsby and the LSAs sharpened their understanding of their roles in the educational processes. Through visits to other schools they discovered new ways of supporting children and, through reading the work of activists in the disabled people’s movement, they ‘became more conscious of insider perspectives and issues relating to human rights’ (55). Following the workshops, Sorsby noted that most of the participant LSAs changed from seeing disability through the lens of a medical model, to adopting a more helpful social model. Sorsby herself ‘learned more from the group by resisting the urge to provide prompt answers to questions’ and reported that the whole group reached ‘a heightened awareness of relationships and practices which they had previously taken for granted’ (57). She includes quotations from participant LSAs which I find utterly convincing: this was important work which led to radical, grassroots-led, change.

Finally, Kathy Charles’ chapter details the attempts made to include Joe – a boy with difficulties

relating to the autistic spectrum – in his Key Stage 2 literacy lessons. Her initial observations

revealed him having no interaction at all with his peers, but sitting ‘with his head down, his gaze

fixed on his fingers … rocking with his eyes closed … tracing patterns on the carpet’ (94). Charles

recognized that there had been few attempts to talk deeply with Joe about his education and that

this had resulted in his behaviour being labelled, for instance, as ‘stubborn’ and ‘refusal to accept

adult direction or support’. She carried out two interviews with him, one on his own, and one

where he was accompanied by Jack, another boy, who provided Joe with informal peer support

and prompts. These interviews showed that the ‘level of social interaction demanded by the

lesson was a major cause of distress’ (99). In particular, he was uncomfortable about his seating

position, at the front of the class, and the level of noise he encountered. Following the initial interview,his position was changed, he was provided with his own reading book instead of being

required to share, and Jack was asked to provide brief and specific support during literacy lessons.

A post-intervention observation, further interviews with his class teacher, his LSA, a student

teacher, Joe and Joe and Jack together, revealed that he was happier about his new seating position, he no longer fiddled with the carpet, he organized himself more effectively and had greater social interactions with his peers, particularly with Jack and his friends. Finally, there seemed to be a greater increase in the teacher’s sensitivity to Joe’s difficulties.

Reading these studies in the light of Somekh’s book, I found myself asking ‘Did these studies

generate knowledge and, if so, what sort?’ These questions came into sharper focus when I

compared Somekh’s belief that ‘action research … involves the development of knowledge and

understanding of a unique kind’ with a statement by Feldman (2007, 25): ‘action research … does

not create a unique form of knowledge’. (Feldman argues that philosophers have ‘given up on the

demarcation problem’, i.e., they no longer struggle to find ways of separating different forms of


One might argue over semantics but to me, these statements cannot both be true. Mulling over

my reading, especially of those chapters in Armstrong and Moore, I found that what stayed in my

mind after reading the more memorable studies, more than the realignment of existing educational theories, was a powerful sense of empathy. For example, Thompson experienced at first hand the sheer physical activity needed to get round the college site, in order to see staff who had to sign grant application forms, and she understood empathically the discouraging effect caused by the dismissive attitude of some administrative staff. Similarly, Sorsby came to understand the experience of LSAs, and ‘the subtle differences between acceptance and tolerance of roles and responsibilities that smother initiative and may lead to passivity and lack of personal development’(54). Again, when Charles writes: ‘Joe found it impossible to focus for any length of time on the shared text or any teaching activities. He would frequently become distracted by noisesoutside the classroom, small pieces of fluff or dirt on the carpet’ (94), I sense her empathic

understanding. Certainly these studies give to me – and maybe to you too – the sort of empathy

that you sometimes see in ethnographic studies, but less often in other forms of research.

If it is the case that action research can generate empathic understanding it is worth asking,

‘of what value is such understanding’? To Gardner (1983) empathic understanding is connected

with interpersonal intelligence – the ability to understand the intentions, motivations and desires

of other people. It is a function of the mind, is valued (as far as we know) in all cultures and is not

distributed equally to all people. To me, this implies that people with more ability to empathize

with others have more knowledge (for instance, of how to empathize). Furthermore, these studies provide evidence that people can develop empathic knowledge of others, by observing them, by talking to them, by stepping into their shoes metaphorically (or sometimes almost literally). I would argue that Thompson, Sorsby and Charles generated empathic knowledge of others through the process of action research. I would further argue that this empathic knowledge was communicated to me, through the report for, although I did not have a strong emotional response, I certainly felt for Hannah, Joe and the LSAs in their various situations.

Given the dramatic and enduring levels of disadvantage in society it would be hard to argue

that empathic understanding, such as can be generated through action research is necessarily less valuable than scientifically generated knowledge. We tend to see knowledge as falling into two types: the objective, generalizable, scientifically generated stuff (e.g. ‘water boils at a 100 degrees Celsius’) and the personal, subjective, context-generated stuff (e.g. ‘I like coffee’). However, I think there is a case for seeing knowledge as more varied and differentiated than this – and also more messy. Empathic knowledge (’the physical landscape of our college is a nightmare for people in wheelchairs’) is not simply objective or subjective; it lies somewhere in between these poles.

However, there is another problem; whereas there are clearly established means for evaluating

scientific knowledge, there are no such means for evaluating empathic understandings.

(Whitehead and McNiff (2006) make a similar point in relation to the generation and evaluation

of personal theories.) I believe this problem is worth tackling, and that one way in which it can

be addressed is by action researchers such as those discussed here.


Carr, W., and S. Kemmis. 1986. Becoming Critical: Education, knowledge and action research. London:


Feldman, A. 2007. Validity and quality in action research. Educational Action Research 15, no. 1: 21–32.

Gardner, H. 1983. Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. New York: Basic Books.

Noffke, S.E. 1997. Professional, personal and political dimensions of action research. In Review of research

in education, ed. M.W. Apple. Washington DC: American Educational Research Association.

Whitehead, J., and J. McNiff. 2006. Action research: Living theory. London: Sage