One of the unresolved issues I have when supporting others in pedagogic action research (PedAR) was articulated in a collaborative autoethnographic paper released last year when, with Lin Norton, I asked how do we move away from pedagogic projects of utility to projects which are more deeply transformative (see Arnold & Norton, 2020). I observed that many practitioner projects seek to make incremental changes to everyday practice rather than really challenging assumptions and critiquing the status quo. Now, clearly not everything can be, or should be, revolutionary. Sometimes incremental, step changes are important and meaningful, but I felt that my support for colleagues was perhaps not sufficiently encouraging the type of action research which challenges and changes.

A few years ago, a colleague undertook a project to simply understand different experiences amongst students from diverse backgrounds and with specific characteristics. She conducted a narrative interview study which collated stories from commuter students, students with specific food and environmental beliefs, LGBTQ+ students and students of colour. Her work was brilliantly challenging. It created the seeds of change and years later there has been an institutional ripple effect. This action research had little action beyond listening and sharing. This was research FOR action, not ON action. The clearly defined cycle or ‘steps’ of Lewin was hard to see since the action was in the data collection, narrative formulation and the sharing.

Action research is described as both practice improving and emancipatory, and as a philosophy rather than a method. The language can be often tricky, and the models and cycles can be attractive simplifications. However, as we consider projects which improve practice and fulfil a model, I do wonder whether the emphasis on emancipation and transformation can get lost. As action research continues to be used in a pedagogic context, perhaps we should take care not to conflate the principles of action research with precise steps that may be used to enact said principles. Following ‘the’ steps is no guarantee that the principles of AR will be upheld.

As we move to support and guide projects, I will be asking colleagues to explicitly consider whether their version of PedAR is to be an action based project with the evaluation of a set intervention e.g. change and evaluate the way students are supported in assessment, or whether it may be action oriented where the study is to prepare for and inform change e.g. exploring the way students experience a personal tutor relationship. Both approaches embody the principles of AR, though in different proportions. The table below takes some of the features of action research and positions them for the two different types proposed.

Action led research e.g. Abdel Latif (2021); Benegas (2020); Ramlal & Augustin (2020)  Changing assumptions within personal practiceInforms and guides actions; a description of changes to practice provides evidence for othersHighly practical with an obvious actionCollaborates -typically with colleagues and studentsData is generated to evaluate actions; data drives incremental improvement
Action oriented research  e.g. Niemi et al. (2015); Robinson (2017)Research asks critical questions to inform action or further explorationTheory frames the research and insights are generated through the data to inform decision making and wider reflectionResearch is focussed on meaningful problems and challenges and the ‘action’ is the exploration of the issueCollaborates typically with colleagues and studentsData is used to develop a fuller understanding of an issue in context  

Through this, I hope that I have captured the two flavours of PedAR that I regularly encounter. To be clear – I am not saying there are ONLY these two types of action research. Perhaps there is a study to be done here …. !! We have a bumper group of action researchers this year, so we’ll no doubt explore this further.

Abdel Latif, M. M. M. (2021) The research‐teaching nexus in a graduate CALL course: An action research study. Journal of computer assisted learning. [Online] 37 (1), 69–79.

Arnold, L. and Norton, L. (2020) ‘Problematising pedagogical action research in formal teaching courses and academic development: a collaborative autoethnography’, Educational Action Research, 00(00), pp. 1–18.

Banegas, D. L. (2020) Teaching linguistics to low-level English language users in a teacher education programme: an action research study. Language learning journal. [Online] 48 (2), 148–161.

Niemi, R. et al. (2015) Pupils’ documentation enlightening teachers’ practical theory and pedagogical actions. Educational action research. [Online] 23 (4), 599–614.

Robinson, P. A. (2017) Learning spaces in the countryside: university students and the Harper assemblage. Area. 50, 274-282.