Early Childhood Education

Action Research


Action research is generally understood as a type of applied research in which the researcher is actively involved in the setting that is the focus of inquiry as well as in the research itself. Most often, the aim of action research is to investigate practice (as in the case of teacher action research) and to improve the quality of an organization and its performance. Bogden and Biklin (1982) describe it as “the systematic collection of information that is designed to bring about social change” (p. 215).

Action research is usually organized in a seven-step, iterative cycle that begins with (1) identifying a problem, proceeds through (2) observation, (3) data collection, and (4) reflection on the dimensions of the problem, to (5) designing a change that addresses the problem, (6) implementing the change/taking action, and (7) assessing its effectiveness through observation, data collection, and reflection. At the heart of this process is systematic reflection on action that leads to action. Action vis-a'-vis action research, as McCutcheon and Jung note, “implies that the practitioner will be acting as the collector of data, the analyst, and the interpreter of results” (p. 144).

As a method of inquiry, action research is situated in a very rich and quite mature tradition of research that reaches back to Dewey (1933) and his call for “reflective action” that would lead toward inquiry-oriented practice. As a specific form of research, it is most often associated with the work of Lewin and his colleagues in the 1940s and 1950s whose work was centered on social and psychological problems created by prejudice, segregation, and isolationism. Today, action research figures prominently in formal inquiry in a variety of areas from education to government to business—any area in which understanding interrelationships and practice is useful in determining ways to initiate and support change.

The methodological precedents for action research emerge from qualitative research particularly in the areas of anthropology and sociology—fields that seek to describe the human condition in all of its variety. The analytic methods employed in action research are often generated from and synchronous with actual practice. Thus, a teacher doing action research might use everyday formative assessment tools like classroom maps, running records, or samples of student work to address her inquiry; and a social worker might use interviews, anecdotal notes, and log entries to address hers. Because action research is capable of bringing together numerous variables to define understandable portraits of the complex dynamic of human interaction, it can serve both as a contrast and a complement to experimental studies where the variables must be few and precise.

Further Readings: Bogden, R. C., and S. K. Biklen (1982). Qualitative research for education. Boston: Allyn & Bacon; Dewey, J. (1933). How we think: A restatement of the relation of reflective thinking to the educative process. In Jo Ann Boydston, ed. The later works (1925-1953). Vol. 8. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 105-352; McCutcheon, G., and B. Jung (1990). Alternative perspectives on action research. Theory into Practice 29(3), 144-151.

Frances Rust