Empathetic validity and action research in educational development

As part of my doctoral studies I have recently undertaken an action research project relating to strengthening approaches to feedback practice. Informal reconnaissance led me to believe that feedback practice is very siloed. At the same time in the planning process I encountered a paper by Ball  (2009) who showed that collaborative practitioner centred action research  in itself can bring about the questioning of ones own practice, put simply, discussing the feedback practice of others shines a light on the way that each of us works and we then ask questions of ourselves and review how we might act differently.

Informed by this, my action hunch was that the development of an electronic sharing resource for good practice could be a mechanism for modelling good practice and bringing about transparency. Influenced by Ball, I envisaged that ensuring ownership of this resource by those who would use and populate it could act as a catalyst for critical dialogue around practice.

In seeking exemplary practice to populate the resource it became clear that there were some issues to address first. The project got messy in the way described by Cook (2009).  The intended action therefore was put on hold, and became a second project phase. This was clearly emergent work in progress.

The action research methodology permits these off-piste directions and in my search for good practice to populate the resource, I generated four spin off cycles to explore what is good feedback in this context? How can feedback practice be developed?  What are the barriers to developing good feedback practice? What conditions might be needed for the benefits of practitioner sharing to be realised?

I have take away learning about all of these points but by far the greatest learning from this research has been  the development of empathy with those engaged in the process. I have a much better sense of their experience and in staff development terms this is important for productive ways forward. My data was not vast and my conclusions didn’t add a lot to the already overflowing pool of literature on this topic, but it felt valuable. Trying to justify your research in terms couched in feelings is something that even I, as a self-confessed navel gazer, am not used to doing. In reading around this I was drawn to the work of  Dadds  who described a phenomenon called empathetic validity which refers to “the potential of the research in its processes and outcomes to transform the emotional dispositions of people towards each other, such that more positive feelings are created between them in the form of greater empathy” (2008, p208)

Whether empathy can really be incorporated a project aim I am not clear, I imagine it either happens or it doesn’t, but its benefit for me has trumped any of the the intended consequences of this project.

Ball, E. (2009). A participatory action research study on handwritten annotation feedback and its impact on staff and students. Systemic Practice and Action Research, 22(2), 111-124. doi: 10.1007/s11213-008-9116-6

Cook, T. (2009). The purpose of mess in action research: Building rigour though a messy turn. Educational Action Research, 17(2), 277-291. doi: 10.1080/09650790902914241

Dadds, M. (2008). Empathetic validity in practitioner research. Educational Action Research, 16(2), 279-290. doi: 10.1080/09650790802011973

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