Action research in education can be traced back to the 1940s and the work of Stephen Corey at Teachers College, Columbia University. Corey and his collaborators maintained that every teacher is a potential researcher and that participating in group research was necessary for good teaching. Action research fell out of popularity in the late 1950s, as policy makers began to depend on experts to create new educational knowledge and curriculums.
Interest in action research was renewed in the early 1980s when Donald Schön published his book The Reflective Practitioner (1983). In this work, Schön argued that professionals such as teachers must look beyond prescriptions and formulas to guide their instruction. According to him, in the real world of educational practice, problems that need to be addressed by teachers are not simply givens, but must be constructed from the reality that exists. This reality is often “puzzling, troubling and uncertain.”
Schön’s notion of the teacher as reflective practitioner set the stage for reconsidering Corey’s earlier ideas concerning action research. Specifically, Schön called for teachers and other school personnel, including counselors and administrators, to do research about the settings in which they worked—to do research as participant observers. In doing so, it was assumed that they would, in turn, be able to reflect, further on their practice.
What are the basic elements of action research? According to education author G. E. Mills, action research involves four areas: (1) identifying a focus of research, (2) the collection of data, (3) the analysis and interpretation of what is found, and (4) the development of an action plan based on one’s research. Action research can include both qualitative and quantitative data collection. It does require, however, that teachers become active observers of what they teach and how their students learn.
Action research as a model significantly complements the social and cultural foundations of education since it empowers teachers to better understand the classrooms in which they work. It also encourages them to use knowledge gained through observation and other data collection techniques to reflect upon their work and what they do in their work in schools. In particular, action research has the potential to help teachers contextualize what they actually do, and to better understand the reality that surrounds them in their day-to-day lives in the classroom.
- Mills, G. E. (2003). Action research: A guide for the teacher researcher. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
- Schön, D. (1983). The reflective practitioner: How professionals think in action. New York: Basic Books.
- Schön, D. (1988). Educating the reflective practitioner: Toward a new design for teaching and learning in the professions. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
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