The uses of writing in action research


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The battle over what constitutes validity in the various forms of educational research is one which rages on. Here is not a suitable place for an exposition of the forms these battles take. Suffice it to say that much of the disagreement about Action Research stems from the quantitative research paradigms (see Introduction) and centres on the means whereby action researchers arrive at their solutions.
Claims to validity in Action Research are connected to claims about pupil/student learning. If you can point to evidence of pupil learning then your research can make greater claims to validity. This is because action research exists to enhance the quality of learning of the learner.
In my experience, evidence of pupil learning is always, at least initially, thin on the ground! It seems to be quite in order for teachers to produce eloquent claims to their own development, but this is not wholly sufficient for an action research enquiry. Integral with these insights ought to be the emergence of a greater sensitivity by the teacher/researcher to the effect she is having on her pupils. The reason for this state of affairs has to be in part that it is easier for a researcher to reflect on her own practice, and to have access to the evidence necessary to prove it, than it is for her to accrue evidence that the pupils have learnt something from their interactions. A conversation I had with a student, Carol Black after her second teaching practice (March 1991) and before her final write-up, is of relevance here:
C. How do I know it’s because of me? I mean, they might have learnt the same things from someone else. Or more? This is the problem I have with action research? I suppose it’s because we haven’t got a control group.

M. ...Are you saying you can’t prove that you had the final say in


C. ....Yes, I suppose so.

M. In the sense that you can say 2+2=4, no I suppose not. But you are in a position to make a professional judgement about what happened. You can point to evidence of what you did, and how they reacted. What they said, wrote, etc..... You see, the way you interact in the classroom with the kids will create an atmosphere that will change their understanding. You could do the same content as another teacher, but they wouldn’t necessarily learn it in the same way as with another teacher. And anyway, the idea of having a control group negates everything action research stands for. Human reactions and interactions can’t be compared as if they were hothouse plants, or better still, products from a conveyer belt.
So, validity does not rely on external proof. Let me explain. I am not trying to imply that valid claims can be made by a single person without reference to others. What I am saying, is that the action researcher first helps to create a critical world around her/himself. S/he has her/him self, the pupils, the classroom, colleagues, and other interested people (hopefully!). These are the sources of interest and endeavour. From this partly given, and partly negotiated environment, s/he is attempting to improve the quality of the children’s learning through the improvement in her/his own practice.
What does Evidence of Pupil Learning look like?
Look first at the chapter on data collection. As you can see, the comments about evidence of your own development are generally fused with those of your pupils. However, as I mention in the footnote on page one, this chapter was written after the others because it was only after a period of second teaching practice that these points came to light for me. Look especially at the points raised about pupil comments.
It can take many forms. It can be:

1) Pupils’ work

2) Pupils’ written/oral comments over time

3) Your evaluations after each lesson

4) Colleagues’ contributions
Note the order of these. The pupils’ come first.
The concept I would like to discuss here, is the one about ‘over time’. In one second teaching practice, many of the students saw fit to conduct a questionnaire (see end of chapter three). This, however, despite the work that had obviously gone into it, yielded a disappointing amount of information. This is discussed in greater detail in chapter three. However there is an underlying principle which should be followed by researchers if they want to conduct such a method of data collection. It is not adequate to give out a questionnaire at the end of a series of lessons which you have been focusing on for your enquiry, and expect it to yield detailed evidence of learning. Such an act reveals a lack of understanding about how learning takes place, and the ways in which it can be voiced by the learners. It is an improvement on this state of affairs to conduct periodical questionnaires, one at the beginning, one in the middle and one at the end, for example. There are dangers here as well (see chapter three), but there is at least the possibility in these circumstances of making a professional judgement over time. And this is the crucial point that is sometimes missed. Your period of time could be as long as three years, or as short as two weeks.
You must have seen the Tom and Jerry cartoons in which Tom is battered with some heavy object, turns sideways, and has become two dimensional. And yet in the next frame, he’s as three dimensional as ever. (Bear with me, the analogy is going somewhere! ) Questionnaires conducted at one moment in time are like the two dimensional Tom, no colour, no life, no dynamism. Flat and uninteresting. And not characteristic of the real Tom at all. Questionnaires implemented over time as one method of evidence-gathering, are like the fatter Tom, colourful, lively, (more!) interesting and believable, foibles and all! And healthy too! Let me say, though, that questionnaires are very difficult to conduct meaningfully, and you should treat them with caution.
Evidence of pupil learning can take many forms, and the most useful are those in which you can point quite clearly to developments in the pupils’ understanding. To comment that you ‘have a feeling’ that they were enjoying it and therefore learning something, is not going to stand up to a Validation Group. (See section on Collaboration for further details about this.)
However, if you were able to show that over a period of time that the children were revealing changing perspectives, new insights about the content and/or the process of what you were doing, or behaving in a way towards which you had been working with them, then I think you are in a position to say that they have learnt something as a result of your enquiry. This is a thorny and difficult area, but its importance cannot be stressed often enough. Action Research will not tolerate wishy-washy and tentative statements which when scrutinised are not really substantiated in any significant way. Every claim has to be backed up.

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