Messiness in action research

Action-reflection cycles may give the false impression that action research
always follows a linear path. Action researchers face real-life issues that are
rarely straight forward and linear” (Whitehead, 2016, p3).

“There is a messiness in creativity in research that needs to be embraced. This 
includes a feeling of chaos and of not immediately finding order” (Whitehead, 2016, p4).

The messiness of action research is widely known (see for example Whitehead, 2016; Cook, 1998; Goodnough, 2008). The symptoms of messiness in the research process can include a sense of uncertainty, frustration, disorientation and perhaps a sense of being overwhelmed by possibility.  In my experience, the distance between the literature and reality on action research can bring about a sense of ‘I must be doing this wrong’ amongst inexperienced researchers .

Like so many other aspects of academic life, exemplification may help those undertaking action research to realise that the mess is in fact normal and productive. It is part of the sense-making process. Lin Norton and I wrote a guide to action research in higher education which aimed to discuss,  describe and exemplify the reality of action research. We particularly highlight what non-linear projects might look like.

Additionally, in a discussion with colleagues, I have collated some further examples of mess in action research. By sharing these it is hoped that others who are in the throes of similar work can see hope! Here are four tricky areas of the research journey:

  • Finding focus: Initially it can be difficult to locate the precise focus of the research amongst all of the fruitful possibilities. Comments such as ‘there were twenty different issues that spin off as I start to think about my topic‘ are typical at the start of the research process. The situation can leave people confused as to how to locate the specific aspect of the ‘problem’ to investigate. By example, someone wanting to inject creativity in to teaching could consider the pedagogies or risk, playfulness, learning games, outdoor learning spaces and nature,  co-creation, technology for creativity and the possible role of formative, low stakes playful assessment. Pragmatically, there comes a decision point where the researcher must decide on a focus and accept that they can’t address all strands of the issue at hand. Making that decision of precise focus can be hard as it means putting important issues on one-side. How to decide on the focus will be highly individual, it may be based on stakeholder need, personal interest, or gaining a sense of which area will be most productive. Failure to find the focus can cause a major stalling of research, so while issues in this area of messiness should be mulled, discussed, sketched and thought through, there is a danger in dwelling. Just make choice and go forward … the issues that aren’t covered could be a future piece of research. Be guarded about the difference between thoughtful reflection, and rumination/procrastination.
  • Messiness of process: It is very misleading that action research models are neat, fully cyclical and contained. In reality the process of action research can be very untidy. Defining a problem and undertaking reconnaissance can lead to action steps, or it can lead to the researcher going back to the beginning to redefine the issues to be addressed. Process can also be messy because of the existence of multiple strands within an action, e.g. developing a problem based learning project can have learning and action about design, learning and action about the action researchers facilitation skills, and a focus on learning gain and responses of students. Two things may help. Draw the action research process so that there is clarity over the actual steps in the journey. Second, action research is about much more than ridged models, it is about the values of collaboration, self-reflexivity and questioning prior beliefs based on evidence and realisations, it’s about change and discovery, and it’s about trustworthy insights. These overarching principles trump the need for neatness. When stepping back and looking at the process of the research, it’s important to look at the overarching aspects of the research. Don’t get hung up on following a generic process. If in doubt use others as a sounding board to check the coherence of the steps you have taken. Seek out both critique and validation.
  • The trouble with representation: In action research there is a danger that the views we hear are homogenous, rather than diverse. We can ask volunteer students (who by default may be engaged), we can ask those who engaged in a specific class (rather than those who didn’t turn up) and we can ask those colleagues who use specific technologies rather than those who do not. If action research is to challenge our assumptions we need to seek out other views, and this can get messy! It means that we don’t necessarily have a convergent set of data from which confident findings can be made. After seeking multiple views and voices the researcher may need to step away to make sense of occurrences, and the might have to lose any desire to create neat conclusions. Sometimes the complexity of having a situation with multiple views, built on multiple realities and values, can’t be reduced to simple outcomes. There may be a need for action researchers acknowledge this complexity, and understand that sometimes multiple positions can’t be overly simplified. They should accept that the outputs and conclusions of the research might not be clear cut, and instead may be such things as more empathy for different views, giving voice to those who are rarely heard, and an insight in to the messiness. These are, after all, hugely powerful outcomes.
  • The assumption challenge: Action research is intended to be a reflexive process, which means the researcher continually reviewing what they believe and why. Developing the skills to do this may be a long process. Nevertheless it’s important to keep asking what are the beliefs that lead me to think this or that? From time to time, the answers to these questions will be problematic. This shouldn’t throw the research in to turmoil. By example, a researcher looking at how they can engage students with online news content in their subject area considered motivating the use of RSS feeds and social media. After early explorations it became apparent that students had no desire for these activities. This was initially attributed to their laziness and disinterest. After engagement with the students and reflecting on these assumptions, the researcher realised the lack of engagement was because the students were not sufficiently independent and they were under great time pressure, to the point where they only worked only strategically. The researcher reframed their challenge as one to do with levels of independence and reducing and redesigning course content, leaving space for more speculative learning activities. This took the project in a different direction. Changing direction in response to realisations is encouraged, since there is little point pursuing false assumptions however neat they keep the research!

There are, I’m sure, many other ways to feel the messiness of action research, but overall a value based, rather than rule based outlook will help find a way forward. Talking to others to guide the way forward is a must, and never being afraid to tweak or significantly change direction in light of information and realisations is important to. It strikes me that there is a lot of synergy between the action research messy bits, and working through the liminal state associated with threshold concepts. There is a thick fog, maybe the need to go away and come back, and the need to conceive the issue in different ways. Collaboration and reflection remain important though, it’s where breakthroughs and great leaps occur. To return to Cook, ‘if we miss out the ‘messy’ bit … the creative part of our work can be lost’ (1998, p106).

We simply need to ride the wave of messiness rather then fight it.

(Picture sourced from the Arnold archives!).

Cook, T. (1998) The importance of mess in action research, Educational Action Research, 6:1, 93-109.

Goodnough, K. (2008) Dealing with the messiness and uncertainty in practioner research: The nature of participatory action research, Canadian Journal of Education, 31:2, 431-457.

Whitehead, J (2016) Embracing the ‘messiness’ of action research in enhancing your educational influences in learning with the Network Educational Action Research Ireland (NEARI). Notes for a presentation by Jack Whitehead to a meeting of NEARI in Dublin on the 16th January 2016. http://www.actionresearch.net/writings/jack/jacknearidublin120116.pdf

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