Making the Case for a Centre for Change Studies

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At the beginning of Duncan Green’s book How Change Happens, he makes the point that within universities there is no dedicated area researching and teaching about change,

‘It turns out they [academic disciplines] each operate with separate and often conflicting theories of change and there is no ‘department of change studies’ to sort it out.’  (Green, 2016)

As an employee of Oxfam, he commissioned a report considering how different disciplines understand the nature of change, it is well worth a read. The idea of a Centre for Change Studies makes a great deal of sense.

Green, as with an increasing number of academics, has found the use of complexity theory a useful lens in understanding the emerging processes inherent in change, as well as offering insights in how to influence and affect change. Complexity centres have already started to spring up in various guises within the university sector, the most famous being the Santa Fe Institute. These centres thrive on the interdisciplinary nature of their work, bringing different perspectives to bare on a single area of interest. These different perspectives, coming as they do from disciplinary starting points, offer both mutually supportive expertise and critical insight from many directions.

So why a Centre for Change Studies? Presently, a series of issues and processes are emerging which may fundamentally change the way in which we perceive and act in the world. The classification of the Anthropocene, worsening climate change and its often non-linear consequences, globalisation, social acceleration, the rise of artificial intelligence, medical and genetic advances, socio-economic inequalities within and between countries, the rise of post-democratic political systems, and signs of the beginnings of chronic resource depletion. These processes are suggestive of the possibility of radical and rapid and complex change. Many of the solutions and accommodations to these problems will and must emerge from innovations within specialist disciplines. However, understanding the processes of change and how we can understand and manage them require a specialist field drawing on expertise from many perspectives. We also need to help develop professionals to become sensitive to the complexities and processes of change, understanding these ideas and issues in ways that allow them to work more critically and assuredly within their own contexts.

At a time when the utility of academia is being called into question in some quarters, the development of a medium for researching, understanding and mitigating against the impacts of faster and more acute change processes seems like a good place to start in reconnecting with issues which have major practical and political implications.      

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Some Initial Forays into Holiploigic Planning

I’m currently involved in getting ready for teaching two modules on a masters course after the winter break, and given my inability to just pick up sessions and resources from a previous year, I decided to work with a colleague to reimagine and redevelop the module content and approaches for a specialist pathway focusing on Innovation and Reform in Education. Because we are strong believers in praxis, we thought it would be a great opportunity to explore some of the elements of an outline for holiploigic development I have pinged across my twitter stream previously, shown again below.

holiploigic-planning

The thinking behind this schematic is to try to bring a deeper approach, and explicit philosophical perspective, to curriculum planning. Curriculum must be seen as interpenetrating with the other complex systems of teaching, learning and assessment, all of which need to be allied with serious discussion about of elements of the process which revolve around and underpin, such as media of activity (face-to-face, blended, distance). We haven’t been able to spend as much time as we might with a new module, in part because we have little time between now and the start of teaching. However, yesterday we spent an interesting couple of hours developing the front end of the reimagined first module. In a two hour meeting we managed to get as far as a consideration of the interaction between curriculum-teaching-learning. The first 50 minutes were an underpinning discussion of what our aims and objectives are for the module. Usually, we might focus discussion on the learning outcomes, but these are in a sense performative and mechanistic – we wanted to think about what the deeper rationale of the experience should include, and decided that underpinning the module were a desire to help students:

1)     Understanding common/different educational issues which are important around the world

2)     Debate aims/definitions of education

3)     Define innovation as opposed to invention

4)     Understand models and perspectives on change – linked to processes & scales

5)     Further develop notions of criticality – notions of questioning and reflecting about experiences and research evidence

Having considered these, we also went on to discuss what our own values and philosophies are as teachers in our own discipline and what we feel are important approaches to curriculum, teaching and learning. We see this as discussion as crucial, as it stresses and emphasises the authenticity of our practice (see Kreber, 2013 and later posts). Here, after some discussion we decided we want to emphasise:

1)     The importance of disciplinary knowledge and understanding as a basis for developing applied insights

2)     Social learning

3)     Independent study 

4)     The development of a ‘narrative curriculum’ 

5)     Students as emergent researchers 

Having started to develop a foundation for our consideration of curriculum etc, we also wanted to think about the ‘personas’ we might be working with – a simple way of thinking about the variety of experience, expertise etc that students might bring with them as well as the things they might be hoping to gain from engaging with the module. This led to a list, possibly quite simple, but potentially useful for consideration of experiences:

1) Group A – no teaching experience, non-education degrees, experience of education predominantly as students.

2) Group B – previous teaching experience shaped within a particular context, but with little educational theory underpinning experience.

3) Group C – Passionate about a topic they want the programme to address and help them develop as an expertise  – particularly focused on SEND – some have practical experience or even familial/personal experience of their chosen passion.

It was only once we had discussed and captured these starting points that we started to think about the structure, focus and intertwining processes of the curriculum, teaching, learning and assessment (formal and informal). At the end of two hours, we had started to sketch out some of these elements of the process also deciding on some of the environments we would like to use in the module. At the moment we have only sketched out some of these ideas quite loosely as is shown below.

planning-1

At the end of a two hour meeting, we had started to think about teaching and learning experiences, but assessment had not even been mentioned. We thought about narrative – how do we develop something that emerges, the idea of coherence, i.e. a bounded curricular space with structure whilst allowing enough freedom for individuals to pursue personal and professional interests (based on ideas from Davis and Sumara, 2006).

We still need to go away and work on the detail, we only have a shell of ideas and a loose structure. We are each taking elements of the emerging module to ‘play with’, before bringing them back together next week to begin to ‘stitch’ into a coherent whole. Two further elements we are taking away with us to reflect on and consider – what new elements of practice are we bringing to the discussion and what research evidence will we need to engage with to help develop those new practices, and during the teaching of the module what research insights do we need to help in the process of sensemaking as the module experiences of both teachers and students emerge?

References

Davis, B. & Sumara, D. (2006) Complexity and Education: Inquiries into Learning, Teaching, and Research. New York: Routledge.

Kreber, C. (2013) Authenticity in and through teaching in higher education : the transformative potential of the scholarship of teaching. London: Routledge.

 

 

WHAT DO WE MEAN BY PEDAGOGY? THE PARADOX OF TEACHING

Having previously outlined some thoughts concerning both assessment and curriculum, the nature of teaching within an expanded view of a masters ‘pedagogy’ needs to be sketched out. Teaching can be seen as a process drawing together curriculum and assessment, and bringing to practical fruition the philosophies and intents which reside there. Teaching is also the interface of these elements with the process of learning. Biesta (2014) reflects on the juxtaposition of teaching and leanring, emphasising the weakness of seeing learning as being the only important process in the educative sphere, and yet in this is a trend which is becoming ever more explicit within HE. Biesta identifies a broad move in education towards ‘learnification’ in society, where the process of learning is seen as the only important medium which needs to be considered. This leads to a misconceived idea of teaching as being merely a ‘facilitation’ of learning; the teacher increasingly becomes seen as having little to offer, whilst learning as a process becomes increasingly an individualised pursuit. But to see ‘learning’ as a process alone forgets the fact that it is always positioned as learning ‘about something’ (Biesta, 2014: 126), the focus not only being on the process but also the content and purpose.

In this context, I see teaching as becoming a process of considering and interpreting the interplay of purpose, content, process and need, both in initial framing and planning of a curriculum and possible approaches, but also in the subsequent emergence of pedagogic practice and experience. This distinction between starting points and emergence is important as any initial plan will require change and reflection to suit the needs and agency of the students involved; each time a particular module is encountered the day to day, minute to minute experience and process will be different as the contexts, individuals and needs will to some extent be unique and will certainly shift between groups. To say that teaching is of equal importance to pedagogy as learning is not to suggest that it should be sterile, unchanging, ‘set’, quite the reverse.

Biesta (2104) also highlights the ‘weak power’ of teaching as it is a process which cannot be impressed on individuals, but can only be offered, an offer the student must accept,

‘To receive the gift of teaching, to welcome the unwelcome, to give place to inconvenient truths and difficult knowledge, is precisely the moment where we give authority to the teaching we receive.’ (Biesta, 2014: 55 emphasis in original).

The role of the teacher is to understand and present the spectrum of content, process and experiences which allow students to grapple with the ‘learning of something’. However, there is an apparent paradox here, as whilst teaching is central to the process of learning, it should not be identified as a narrow activity, such as an advocation for ‘direct instruction’, which might be seen as putting the teacher at the very centre of the pedagogic process. This is to see teaching not as a gift offered, but a stance dictated. Teaching instead becomes the complex set of approaches which are most appropriate to meet the purpose, content, process and experience set out by the teacher(s) in planning the curriculum and associated assessments; at masters level (and perhaps well before), this is a process which will also increasingly be a joint activity with students as they become the experts in aspects of the curriculum and not only learn more independently but also act as teachers in their own right. And again, the process from start to finish will be emergent rather than set in stone.

The teaching element of pedagogy therefore needs to reflect the complexity of the process and context involved. At some points an approach which requires direct instruction, be it as a lecture etc may well be the most appropriate and useful pedagogic tool. If students need to engage with a body of knowledge this pedagogic tool may well be a useful first step. However, to begin to use, extend and utilise this knowledge may require other, flexible, research-based approaches, particularly where the new knowledge is being developed to help understand different contexts, or is merely the starting point for personal ‘lines of flight’. At the level of masters study it is untenable to believe that personal research and discovery can be dispensed with, it is the hallmark of study at this level. This does leave an interesting question as to when this form of pedagogy should enter the educative process if it is to be utilised here – undergraduate? A-level? Before?

Understanding the complexity surrounding the interplay of curriculum, assessment, learning and teaching is at the core of the role of the teacher. Knowing when to lead, when to challenge, when to stand away from the process of learning. Therefore, teaching is central but any notion that is can be simplistically defined as operating via one or two ‘archetypal’ teaching approaches is not sustainable. As the context and focus of teaching shifts it does so in relation to the curriculum, assessment and learning of the students involved. Hence, once again, the idea that this act of teaching needs to be seen as an extended series of links between these different elements of an extended view of pedagogy.

References

Biesta, G.J.J. (2014) The Beautiful Risk of Education. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers

The Folly of Avoiding Complexity

HE has gone through large-scale and rapid change over the past decade. From shifts in financing, through larger student cohorts, to cuts in research funding, and most fundamental of all, the move towards marketisation. One of the results of these changes has been the emergence of fluidity within the system; the certainties of past ‘generations’ have been lost with universities now focusing as much on branding, market share, and the constant process of seeking out new markets as they do on research and teaching. As these changes have taken hold, the way universities run have also been transformed. But here, I believe, we see how universities have fallen into the siren arms of ‘efficiency’ and ‘quantification’, a view of the world they have been nudged towards by government policy. Universities have, at the same time, utterly bypassed any notion of complexity in understanding and pursuing organisational change.

Reflecting on the nature of the average university, we see a large, often diverse, culture. Most universities have a large student body numbering in the thousands or tens of thousands spread across a wide number of disciplines, each of which may well have its own particular culture, view of the academic process, and which views both research and pedagogy in distinct ways. Indeed, from my experience within any single discipline there can often be a number of differently held views regarding these issues leading to intense discussion and disagreement. Some students are full time, some are part-time, some come to the campus to learn, others learn at distance. This diversity exists at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels. Beyond the immediate work of the disciplines exists a seemingly ever expanding bureaucracy. Marketing departments, IT services, international offices, estates, etc. In fact, as a recent THE article stated, more than two thirds of universities employ more administrators than academics. What this description suggests are organisations which are highly complex in nature. And yet complexity as a lens for understanding anything in HE is almost wholly absent. This is folly.

I suggested at the start of this post that the social, cultural and economic contexts in which universities now operate are increasingly unstable and complex. Just one, simple example of this is the surge of Kazaks coming to the UK to study about three or four years ago. On the basis of a rapidly rising oil price the Kazakhstani government wanted to raise the quality and quantity of educators in their country and believed that one way of achieving this was to send an increasing number of educators abroad for some form of educational experience. As oil prices have dropped through the floor over the past 12 months the number of academics and teachers involved in this activity appears to be dwindling. This is just one example of the multitude of shifting contexts which universities face at any point in time and which make strategic planning extremely difficult.

So how to respond given this constant shift in contexts and the complexity of universities as organisations? What can be done to help the organisations thrive? I’m reminded here of the counterintuitive instruction that if you skid your car on ice, you should steer into the skid. To turn away will actually make the situation much worse. It seems to me that as universities find themselves in ever more complex contexts many are trying to steer away from complexity in a vain attempt to feel like they have full control of the situation. I would argue that they need to steer into the complexity instead.

In an attempt to control complexity some universities have reacted by working on the principle that what is required is greater control and monitoring from ‘the centre’. Over the past decade we have seen more and more standardisation even down to the level of dictating the style of the learning aims of modules to suit a ‘corporate view’. University websites are increasingly set out in predetermined ways to ensure ‘corporate identity’, regardless of whether or not this hampers legitimate alternatives. In some cases even core administrative and curriculum resource activities are being moved out of academic departments and into ‘call-centre style’ systems where standard approaches exist, legitimised in the name of ‘efficiency’. In such a system, it is little wonder that academics are increasingly working as casual labour in a sector with a very high relative proportion of zero hour contracts. In this administration-driven approach, academics increasingly fulfil the role of shop floor workers endlessly following predetermined protocols and systems.

As centralised systems are set up there is sometimes use of an atrophied version of systems analysis used to create the efficiencies. Each time a problem occurs it is analysed and a slight adjustment is made to the system, the idea being that all problems can be ironed out with the emergence of a very efficient ‘experience’ for users. But this is a poor ‘algorithmic ghost’ approach to the complexity of real-life. I was recently in a fast-food outlet which was great to watch. As we entered it was obvious that the efficient system was working well. However, one small incident led to the need to react outside of the system’s predetermined parameters. This meant the staff were now in a benighted netherworld which according to their efficient system algorithm shouldn’t exist. There was utter chaos for about 10 minutes until the customers themselves found a positive solution. This is the problem with efficient systems. They cut out and dispense with any flexibility, intuition or idiosyncrasy as they are thought of as being inefficient. But in complex systems the constant drive towards simplicity, standardisation and consistency can only lead towards an attempt to forge a closed system – and the main characteristic of closed systems is that they ultimately fade and die!

So what might steering into the skid look like? Firstly, complexity is not an excuse for just doing whatever you want – it is not chaotic. The work of Davis and Samarra (2006) gives a good starting point. They argue that to gain a sustainable process of emergence, we need to do away with siloed, hierarchical structures where decisions are decided by one, or a small number of, individuals who then dictate to everyone else. Instead, there needs to be the possibility and encouraging of local neighbourhood interactions where ideas are shared, discussed and developed, sometimes differently in different contexts/disciplines. Linked to this is the need for duplication and diversity. For new ideas to emerge in the future there needs to be a richness in what happens now. If all approaches are standardised and made ‘efficient’ all that happens is that new, innovative practice is choked off unless a small group of assigned individuals allow it to happen. This is why the drawing of many administrative activities to central locations will never work – the diversity and complexity of needs can be met well locally (within departments) as the complexity can be handled well at this scale as the contexts within which activities are understood are often well known. Trying to get all needs to fit one organisation-wide system will always cause more problems than it solves.

Finally, any complex system needs to have clear boundaries, limits within which individuals work, but within these agreed boundaries there needs to be a great deal of freedom. This freedom allows the opportunity to innovate, to act professionally and feel a sense of agency and worth. Therefore, the ‘centre’ of universities should focus on working across the organisation to discuss and agree on these boundaries, and to enforce and review them periodically. But at the same time, they should support academics in making sure the freedoms they have can be used positively and productively in ways the academics see as appropriate for furthering their work.

HE in the UK will no doubt see further turbulence and complexity in the coming years. I would argue that those who meet this changing context most ably will be those who steer into the skid. To avoid complexity is folly.

References

Davis, B. & Sumara, D. (2006) Complexity and Education: Inquiries into Learning, Teaching, and Research. New York: Routledge.

What do we mean by pedagogy? (Part 4) Thinking about Curriculum 2

In my last post I suggested that the masters framework developed by the QAA for HE in Scotland (2013) offered a very useful basis for developing pedagogy. I also argued that curriculum needs to be more than a list of content, instead seeing the roles of emergence and process as crucial to the work of masters students and therefore in designing curricula. In developing this perspective on curriculum, how might a practical framework look?

priciples of curriculum design

This model is an attempt to capture the complexity and process orientation towards curriculum which is informed by the work of Knight (2001). This model starts from a position of seeing knowledge as a central element of any curriculum. Knowledge is the building blocks on which debate and argumentation are based. Therefore, it is a crucial element in constructing any curriculum. However, by itself it is not enough. Of equal importance is the structure which supports these building blocks – the explicit discussion of concepts. Threshold concepts (Meyer, Land and Baillie, 2010) have become a useful basis for developing the overarching framework for a course, and indeed modules (whilst accepting that in any given module threshold concepts for many may remain liminal). At masters level there is every chance that students will move from a core area of knowledge to pursue and specialise in particular spheres within a module. The explicit use of threshold concepts allows this process to occur within a coherent, wider ‘field’ of study; whilst individuals may begin to investigate different subject areas and contexts the concepts ensure a level of coherence and allow a common point of contact for discussion and engagement with the work of others. The use of an explicit conceptual framework also gives a general scheme for the process of learning to operate within. In this sense, the interplay of a conceptual schema (boundary settings) with individual investigation and growth (freedom) is in keeping with Davis and Sumara’s (2006) identification of factors necessary for emergence in their work on complexity theory.

If knowledge and concepts are engaged with alone however, then there is a deficit in the applied/practical use of the emerging learning. Hence, application is also important as this is where schema, a developing knowledge base and understanding are utilised and ‘tested’.

It is at the intersection of the three dimensions of knowledge, concepts and application where curriculum as process (Knight, 2001; Stenhouse, 1975) can be made real. Together, they give the possibility for emerging understanding (here used in the way I’ve interpreted Van Camp (2014) to emphasise the connection of ideas and knowledge in networks) and application based on engagement with knowledge, concepts and their application. It is in this emerging interpenetration (Byrne and Callaghan, 2014) of these systems that both new insights and new knowledge can emerge. But at this level, this is a personal journey for each student with different contexts, interests and applications driving learning. Hence, curriculum as product (Stenhouse, 1975) makes little sense as the possible outcomes are hugely diverse whilst still operating within a loose framework and from common starting points (For an example of how this model for curriculum has been used in our work so far see an earlier post & our research methods pedagogy website)

As suggested in earlier posts, to understand and develop curricula where diversity and process are key, we need to have a clear understanding of the role of assessment in aiding the emergent process model, but as I’ll also reflect upon in future posts, interpenetration has major ramifications for the way we understand learning and teaching; to reiterate, to suggest that pedagogy can be the study of teaching alone makes little sense.

References

Byrne, D. & Callaghan, G. (2014) Complexity Theory and the Social Sciences: The state of the art. Abingdon: Routledge.

Davis, B. & Sumara, D. (2006) Complexity and Education: Inquiries into Learning, Teaching, and Research. New York: Routledge.

Knight, P.T. (2001) ‘Complexity and Curriculum: A process approach to curriculum-making.’ Teaching in Higher Education, 6(3), 369-381.

Meyer, J.H.F., Land, R. and Baillie, C. (2010) Threshold Concepts and Transformational Learning, (eds), Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (2013) What is mastersness? Discussion Paper. Retrieved from: http://www.enhancementthemes.ac.uk/docs/report/what-is-mastersness.pdf [Last accessed 5/7/15]

Stenhouse, L. (1975) An Introduction to Curriculum Research and Development. London: Heinemann.

Van Camp, W. (2014) ‘Explaining understanding (or understanding explanation).’ European Journal of Philosophy of Science, 4(1): 95-114.

What do we mean by pedagogy? (Part 3) Thinking about curriculum

Curriculum is a large and complex area for study and reflection. It is the vision of education made concrete, but as such, Schiro (2013) argues that this leads to conflicting visions about what curriculum should contain or focus upon. I would argue that if curriculum is merely characterised as a list of knowledge (and possibly skills), then it has become a poor representation of a very complex set of ideas and processes. Definitions and classifications of ‘curriculum’ are numerous, but as Stenhouse (1975:1) comments,

‘Definitions of the word curriculum do not solve curricular problems; but they do suggest perspectives from which to view them.’

Curriculum can be seen as a prescribed list of knowledge and indeed there has been a resurgence in characterising curriculum in this way in some jurisdictions and in some phases of education. However, a list of content can atrophy the notion of curriculum to being that of an ‘epistemic shopping list’. This then endangers the distilling out of any notion of curriculum as action or as vehicle for agency. This may still be possible – in the right hands – but may just as easily become a prescriptive list of ‘stuff to get through’, especially if linked to narrow conceptualisations of assessment. It also makes the links between curriculum, teaching, assessment and learning potentially far weaker.

In constructing a curriculum at masters level, a consideration of the wider educational context is crucial. A report by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAAHE, 2013), What is mastersness? gives a strong indication of some of the core features of masters level study. They characterise the main ‘facets of mastersness’ as (for an explanation of how I understand the link between knowledge, understanding, concepts and skills see here):

  • Complexity: emergent understanding by the students of the provisionality of knowledge, and the interplay and integration of knowledge, skills and application with an allied mastering of conceptual complexity. Due to the nature of masters level study there should also be an emerging ability to deal with the complexity of the learning process involved in study at this level.
  • Abstraction: the emerging ability to extract knowledge and meaning from study to use in synthesising new meanings in new and applied contexts.
  • Depth: emerging use of knowledge in new contexts and in new ways, based on development of more in-depth and interdisciplinary knowledge and understanding. This also relates to an increasing capacity to reflect on knowledge and understanding in new contexts.
  • Research: the development and emergence of greater skills and capacity in research and enquiry. This includes a wider knowledge and understanding of research perspectives and methodologies beyond the narrow confines of disciplinary or undergraduate approaches, greater autonomy in initiating research foci/agendas and maturing of the resultant methodological approaches, and carrying out more critical and in-depth analyses and interpretations.
  • Autonomy: the core of this feature of masters level study is the need for learner responsibility in their own learning. This includes ability to self-organise, to identify and conceptualise problems and to locate and acquire/abstract knowledge to consider and engage with those problems.
  • Unpredictability: the understanding that knowledge is often provisional and linked to real world problems which are often complex and ‘messy’. Therefore, students need to learn to use knowledge creativity and critically to deal with real-world unpredictability.
  • Professionalism: reflection on and emergence of ethical attitudes, values and behaviour as part of professional development. Also, this is crucial in relation to the process of research itself.

These facets are important in considering the shape and approach of a curriculum at masters level, and are also central to the link between curriculum and teaching, learning and assessment. What the report makes clear is that the emphasis across the facets will contrast between different disciplines, courses, and indeed between individual students as the diversity of prior learning and experiences as students enter masters level means that they will all be on personal and often very different trajectories, even if following the same course.

As I’ve suggested in a previous post, many of the features outlined above are in keeping with the notion of an emergent curriculum (Osberg and Biesta, 2008). By providing some structure and knowledge input as the basis for individual exploration and discovery, students can begin to shape their learning and studies in ways which suit them and which also begins to aid the emergence of autonomy, research, unpredictability etc. This also moves the notion of curriculum far beyond a list of things to be learned (which often, ultimately reduce to knowledge transfer), and one which encompasses much wider educational goals.

In this characterisation curriculum becomes indivisible with teaching, learning and assessment as it includes not only consideration of what is to be taught, but also how and why. Therefore, any conceptualisation of teaching which lacks reference to curriculum is risking an impoverished understanding and discussion of how they relate as emergent and interpenetrating concepts. As suggested in an earlier post, consideration of assessment is likewise tied to these discussions. To separate out is to unravel a complex framework of ideas which have little meaning apart.

References

Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (2013) What is mastersness? Discussion Paper. Retrieved from: http://www.enhancementthemes.ac.uk/docs/report/what-is-mastersness.pdf [Last accessed 5/7/15]

Osberg, D. &Biesta, G. (2008) ‘the emergent curriculum: navigating complex course between unguided learning and planned enculturation.’ Journal of Curriculum Studies, 40(3): 313-328.

Schiro, M.S. (2013) Curriculum Theory: Conflicting Visions and Enduring Concerns. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Stenhouse, L. (1975) An Introduction to Curriculum Research and Development. London: Heinemann.

Thinking About Action Research and Time

In researching pedagogy, one of the methodological approaches I favour is action research. In some quarters action research is out of favour. It is seen as being too ‘local’, too ‘small scale’, and has little to say in the rush towards finding pedagogic ‘solutions’, the bread and butter of the ‘what works’ movement. But perhaps one of the main perceived problems with action research is its potential for bias, and a lack of structured evidence. These criticisms may be correct – in some instances, but why? I wonder to what degree time and the perception of time in education might be responsible for this.

Action research was initially popularised on the back of the work of Kurt Lewin. As a result of his work, the often summarised ‘process’ of action research became identified by the diagram below:

AR1

This diagram can give those wanting a quick fix of research an oversimplified notion of what is involved in action research. It has the potential for a very powerful methodology, but if taken at face value can lead to a seriously atrophied version of the process. Here, the cycle can be read as one focusing on a teacher, or teachers, reflecting on their practice, deciding what deficit might exist, planning for change and then enacting that change before reflecting on how successful they thought it was. But there is no explicit consideration here of the data capture which might be used, the degree of claim to be made at the far end of a cycle of research, or whether the focus chosen was based on personal bias or wider evidence. If it is taken as a personal or group-based reflective process, it becomes a ‘quick’ process. Reflection, planning, acting and observing can become a quick process and can give the impression of moving forward at a rapid rate. This is the illusion of action research as ‘rapid innovation’. However, it also panders to the current vogue in education for making rapid shifts, showing accelerated change with equally certain proclamations of success. But I would argue that true transformation and change is paradoxically a slow, measured process, but one which is also to a great extent contextualised.

I think action research has a huge potential utility in bringing positive change and for acting as a basis for informed discussion of pedagogic practice and change. However, to act as a useful and nuanced tool it is important that action research is approached in the same way as any other research methodology – with care and time. All too often it is seen as a ‘soft’ and ‘easy’ option, something that can be utilised as long as Lewin’s cycle above is followed at face value. I think one useful step we could take in moving action research forward is to abandon Lewin’s cycle within popular accounts and discussion, and replace it with the cycle developed by Andy Townsend (2010). The diagram below is a summary graphic of my interpretation of his framework:

AR2

This cycle begins with a consideration of an area for work, with further discussion to refine that idea to one that can become the focus of a piece of research. Importantly, a reconnaissance stage is included. This stage is intended to explore the chosen issue further, do others see the same problem as the person/people who are conducting the research? Does some form of baseline data help characterise the issue in the context in which it is being explored? In discussion with some Chinese ELT tutors, we even discussed the idea of looking at larger-scale quantitative data from within and beyond the organisation involved. This stage helps us to begin to gain a more in-depth and critical understanding of the context we wish to explore and intervene in – but it takes time. Having reflected on the initial focus in relation to this reconnaissance data, we can develop a more focused and meaningful action, or if we find that our initial ideas were misplaced, we might go back to redefining an initial focus, starting the process over. The cycle then involves an intervention, and from this to a reflection and evaluation of the change involved. The evaluation is important as it emphasises the need to include in the planning for action phase a coherent and meaningful framework for data collection. If a coherent data collection framework is developed, this also leads to the need for a coherent data analysis/interpretation framework from which reflection and evaluation has more critical meaning and offers more well-founded insights for future work.

This alternative way of understanding action research makes the need for a deeper and more critical approach much more explicit. But the essential feature for me is the need for a greater amount of time. It is reflective throughout, critical and considered. It makes explicit the need for a data collection framework which extends well beyond ‘reflecting on practice’, and a proper consideration of data interrogation. This model of action research is a slower process; in recently submitted projects as part of a PGCert in action research, students only completed one or two cycles of action research over the course of an academic year. However, the insights they gained were based explicitly in the data they had collected, and also recognised the contextual and nuanced messages their research could offer. By making the complexity of action research more explicit, and by repositioning it as a slower, data-based process the insights we gain may actually lead to more rapid and meaningful change and innovation.

References

Townsend, A., 2010. Action Research. In: Hartas, D, ed., Educational Research and Inquiry: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches. Continuum. 131-145.

Also, read the following as a great introduction to action research:

Townsend, A, 2013. Action research: the challenges of understanding and changing practice Maidenhead : Open University Press.