Reflection and Action Research: How do they work together?

A question from a student prompted me to try to further clarify how action research (AR) and reflection work together in practice. The literature is full of associations between AR and reflection, but it can still be hard to fathom what reflection within AR looks like.

AR is a deliberate and mindful process which needs data – this is a point that I took from David Tripp’s work. Sometimes I am asked if ‘something’ that was done in the run of practice could be framed as action research. Perhaps someone tried a new teaching strategy, or introduced a new assessment technique, and looking back realised that their work appears to be a bit like AR. In such cases I usually start a discussion to help them understand why it can’t be AR. I ask a) if the project was deliberately designed as AR and was therefore guided by AR principles, which includes having a strong ethical base, and b) whether there has been some clear data collection, rather than retro-fitting the label of AR to thoughtful practice, or reflection in- or on- action. Action research is more than a collection of reflections.

Still, there is a need to be reflective in the process of undertaking action research and in the reporting of the work – but what might this mean? The cycle of research in Pedagogic AR, and AR more generally, tends to involve key steps like reconnaissance, planning a course of action, undertaking some action and undertaking a form of evaluation. In the diagram below I suggest that reflection journey is an essential, parallel, and interwoven companion to the much cited action research cycle (see for example Lewin in Smith 2020; Arnold & Norton, 2018).

An action research cycle layered with reflective wuestins to show that the two processes are interconnected.
Two track model of PedAR

In this diagram I am suggesting that reflection shapes the research, and the research shapes the reflection. At every stage of their project, the researcher should be asking reflective questions to help them to make decisions and to forge a way forward. The research plan should not be fixed, but instead it should always be seen as provisional and subject to change. One of the reasons to change the plan may be because of realisations coming out of the reflective process.

Action researchers might also periodically pause to think how they themselves are being changed by their work, this too can change the path of the research. A few examples will probably help.

Example 1: Max

Max is using Pedagogic AR to investigate the way students use technology in class and is introducing more apps to support academic skills. As the research progresses, she notices that two of her students are not at all engaged with the app use. After discussing with the students she realises that one of them has cause for concern about their digital footprint and feels very uncomfortable, while the other has had a broken device for several weeks but didn’t want to say because she was unable to afford a replacement. Max realised that these were significant learning moments for her. She reflected on how she might help the students, but she also questioned her own thinking. She wondered whether she had assumed too much about her students; willingness to work exclusively digitally, without alternatives; she wondered if she had really worked in partnership with her students – how could she have she got this far and not noticed these issues?; and, she wondered if her research had focussed to much on achievement and results, and not enough on experience. After this moment she made some changes to her project. She made sure students had a better way to identify their difficulties, she gave more choice about participation, she introduced fortnightly quick discussions about the experience to be more responsive to issues arising, and she now challenges colleagues who make similar assumptions about the digital experience of ‘all students’ as if that were a single thing. Going back to the diagram above, the research had fuelled a reflection that caused a change in Max’s ways of working, as well as her underlying assumptions. These changes last a long time. This fed back in to the research to shape and re-shape her methods.

Example 2: Asha

Asha was undertaking a Pedagogic AR project about the experience of commuter students. She wanted to take an action to better support this group of students who reported some difficulties through the Students’ Union. She started off by saying that she would start a social event on a termly basis to promote belonging. She discussed her plan with a close colleague who said that she wasn’t sure it would work because commuter students may not be able to make such an event, grouping commuters together might exacerbate the sense of differentness, and she added that we really didn’t understand what the difficulties were for the individuals within this umbrella group we call commuter students. Asha took time out to reflect and realised that she had leapt to action. She changed her plan. Her new focus was simply to understand the experiences of commuter students to start a conversation and trigger a wider response. She planned to undertake narrative interviews and then to use the outcomes of these to support other colleagues in her team to understand the experiences shared. With the help of a colleague, Asha took time to reflect and asked questions about her assumptions and the nature of the research issue. She was prepared to self question and reflect on her beliefs. That pause for thought changed the research and it also generated a deep and lasting value within Asha’s practice. She learnt to listen and to seek evidence before acting. This change is something which may last through her whole career. The act of reflecting significantly changed the research too.

In both of these examples (both slightly adapted from real cases, for emphasis and anonymity), the act of reflecting was deep and questioning. This required openness.

Reflection should be a deliberate part of PedAR. It can shape every stage of the project and it can bring about great personal learning. If reflection doesn’t come naturally, then planning reflection points in to a project may help act as a reminder to pause and reflect, perhaps asking questions like – Who am I helping? Who may not be benefitting, and why? What did I assume? Am I sure that my assumptions are reasonable? Have I opened my self up for critique? Am I getting truly honest feedback? Reflecting on these types of questions can be uncomfortable, and they can lead to more messy looking projects (but that’s OK).

In summary, reflection should steer action research; it is a process through which we can let the research affect us and take hold of us. This rarely happens without a deliberate effort though. When considering action research, perhaps it may be useful to remember the ‘two tracks’ of research and reflection running in parallel, rather than focussing solely on the commonly published stages of AR.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s