Prompted by CARN’s conference 2018 theme ‘Daring and Doing’ … I have been reflecting on whether I/we are being bold and brave enough in how we support colleagues in pedagogic action research. Within the action research projects that I see, amongst my own students and elsewhere, there appears to be a scale of boldness and impact … projects appear to …

  1. Cause a reaction in students (happy sheets and satisfaction)
  2. Cause a change in ‘my’ practice (focus on routines and methods)
  3. Cause a change in ‘my’ outlook and values (making realisations and personal transformation)
  4. Cause a change in others’ practices (convincing and evidencing)
  5. Cause a change in others’ values (persuasion and challenge)
  6. Cause a change in institutional practice (making the case)
  7. Cause a change to the structures that govern and shape practice (enabling)
  8. Cause a change in institutional culture (organisational transformation).

In reality, I see  more activity at 1,2 and 3, than 6, 7 & 8. Prompted by Stella Jones-Devitt’s Zombies in HE  metaphor (see WONKHE and THES) I gain a sense that action research could be simply reinforcing the illusion of control while we sleepwalk through substantial change in the sector.  This would be of less concern if the ethos of action research were not underpinned by emancipation, equity, empowerment and challenge. I don’t want to undermine great work here – I am personally heavily invested in supporting colleagues to develop their practice, and to use action research as a lens for personal development, and I see direct impact on students – but I think it is healthy to ask questions.

At the moment I have more questions than answers …  Is the act of formalising action research through programmes inadvertently limiting the scope and direction of action research projects undertaken by staff, as they play it safe to pass?  Are colleagues concerned not to be too radical because of the need for success in the terms of assessment criteria, particularly early on in their careers?  Is the type of action research, now dominant in HE, reinforcing rather than seriously challenging the status quo with a production line of minor changes? By example, while abhorring the basis of TEF, some practitioner researchers use related data sources and have their ‘successful outcomes’ contribute to the TEF submission; or, after deploring burdensome administrative assessment systems, researchers may seek to make incremental improvements for marginal gain rather than radical shifts in approach.  Does the desire to publish research add to the positive framing of issues and occurrences withing practitioner research? Is action research for staff development losing its emancipatory roots?  Too many questions … but perhaps for those of us supporting action research it is time to ask whether we are inadvertently contributing to a zombie culture, or whether we are truly enabling colleagues to stay critical and academically honest, and to be both bold and brave in their thinking.

I’d be really interested to hear from others supporting Action Research in a pedagogic context, to gauge thoughts on some of these points ahead of a conference session ‘A critical discussion of the role of action research in academic staff development’ with Professor Lin Norton at CARN later in October. We want to hold up a practice that we dearly value to scrutiny. Get in touch via the comments, email, Twitter, or any other means.