Wednesday, June 19, 2013

You learn from going through the process: The perceptions of South African school leaders about action research

What is the value of action research for motivating change in school principals who work under difficult circumstances?  This was my question.  I was surprised to read the following comment from one of the reviewers of this paper:

The main contribution of the paper is its account of how action research can assist school leaders who work in difficult circumstances. This is useful as there could be a tendency internationally to consider action research only possible under ideal conditions of professionalism (my emphasis).

This surprised me! I think that action research that has an emancipatory intent is ideally suited to affect personal and systemic change in disadvantaged contexts.  School leaders working in these circumstances tend to either burn out and be immobilised by feelings of helplessness and hopelessnes, or take a very autocratic approach focusing on pass rates, rather than developing relationship and a climate conducive to mutual learning.  In my experience, the only way to help school leaders imagine and enact a different form of leadership is to engage them in a process which restores their feelings of dignity, worth, and self-efficacy: Action Research. 

Often, the main challenge is enticing school leaders to engage in the action research process in the first place. In this study, only 3 principals were really involved.  The findings show that participation in the Action Research process was beneficial in helping school leaders live out transformational values that, in turn, helped in the attainment of educational goals. But,  given their busy schedules and often negative attitude towards research, how do we get them on board?  Luckily, one of the founding members of a network of principals working in disadvantaged contexts was involved in this action research project.  He was so convinced of the transformative potential of Action Research that he shared it with this network. As a result, all the principals in the network are exploring ways they could incorporate the principles and processes of Action Research into their leadership.  This highlights the lesson reflected in the title of the paper – you learn from going through the process.  

Free access to this new article in Action Research Journal is available free for 30 days here. I'd love to engage in conversation with you about your response to this article.

We would like to hear how other researchers have encouraged participation of busy school principals in action research.

Lesley Wood and Bernadette Govender

More information on the project can be found here

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Balancing Acts: Interactive researcher as a virtual participant

In many professional roles we struggle with how to balance our involvement in different relations and work tasks. For instance, for a manager it is sometimes difficult to know when to delegate and when to instruct the employees exactly what to do. For a school teacher, it is important to be aware of the responsibility that comes with the power to impact the minds of our youths. A teacher, thus, needs the ability to know when to empower the students to make their own judgement calls and when to provide the correct answers.

Similar balancing acts are also significant for researchers involved in different forms of action and interactive research. Should we as researchers tell practitioners exactly what to do to solve a problem, or should we perhaps assume a more objective and distant role? Naturally, both of these positions come with pros and cons and that is why we in our paper in Action Research try to find some middle ground by discussing the concept of the researcher as a virtual participant.

We argue that it is neither possible nor desirable for social scientific researchers to refrain entirely from participating in practice, but that such involvement must come with some restrictions. An action or interactive researcher should be able to participate in practice by supporting learning processes, voice critical issues, and encouraging practitioners to construct questions relevant for their development. However, researchers should not “go native” and end up taking responsibility for solving the problems that the practitioners are facing. This balancing act, between engaging in practice while still remaining an outsider, is what we in our paper refer to as acting as a virtual participant.

We hope this paper can stimulate a discussion in the field of action research, as well as in other related contexts that deal with similar issues. Are there for instance any virtual teachers or managers out there? Would virtual parenting be a suitable concept of use? Perhaps not, but we look forward to any comments on the topic of our paper!

You can access our paper FREE for the next 30 days by clicking THIS LINK.

Fredrik Sandberg and Andreas Wallo

Monday, June 3, 2013


Some researchers could be offended by the following questions: Is all research justifiable in resource poor countries?  Is it ethical to do research that is not linked to action?

“Why should I be responsible for action, I am a researcher”, said a colleague. “Is it ethical to curtail my freedom as a researcher?”, she continued.

The relationship between knowledge, which research produces, and action which activists love, is not easy to establish. All researchers do not often explore this relationship. Is this because they are driven by the desire ‘to know’?  Thus, knowledge acquisition and knowledge production is their priority; ensuring validity of knowledge and considering the rights and interests of the human subjects may be secondary.

Let’s reframe this concern for the relationship between knowledge and action. Let’s concede that some research can be absolved of the challenge to link it to action – example, research in mathematics, chemistry and physics, to name some disciplines. (Oops, even this could be problematic, as use of pure research of physics and mathematics led to the discovery of the atom bomb, and it got used to destroy cities and kills thousands of people. Were those mathematicians and physicists carried a moral responsibility on how their research was used?) BUT, call all research be so absolved of relating knowledge to action? For example, can empirical research around issues of women’s empowerment and subordinate status, be absolved from linking knowledge and action?

Concerns cited above arose as research on women’s empowerment  began to be planned by the research team of Community Health Sciences Department of Aga Khan University, Karachi, Pakistan. 

The research team decided to ensure that the processes of generating knowledge about factors that impede and facilitate women’s empowerment MUST be linked with action. This was taken as an imperative because the concern was phrased as an ethical concern.  It would be unethical, said the team, to gather data for constructing knowledge from women whose rights to shape their lives were constrained because of the social norms, if the women respondents do not get the opportunity to reflect on their own lives and examine the options they have. What choices they made would have to be theirs, and the research team was not to tell them what they should do. The research team was not to be didactic, instead would be facilitative in initiating a thinking and analysis process with the women. What they women would say would be the data of the research. Research thus became the pedagogy for generating action.

Participatory Action Research establishes the link between knowledge and action. It shows how the processes of knowledge production are as important as knowledge as the end-product of the process. It shows that the ‘tools’ used in the process of knowledge making play a critical role. The tools of  PRA (participatory reflection and analysis), shaped by the ideology of Paulo Freire  make a great difference in the research processes, as they  invite the research respondents to reflect and analyze.
The study on women’s empowerment used various PRA tools for facilitating women to be analysts of their lives. This was done in groups, so that the process of such analysis could give women the opportunities for collective actions. Social change, it was assumed, would come from collective action rather than individuals striving for personal gains only (emphasis on ‘only’).

This study on women’s empowerment has raised some issues:
1.    The ethics of linking knowledge and action.
2.     The moral responsibilities of researchers in developing countries which are also resource poor countries.
3.     What research methods are more likely to empower research subjects?

     We are interested in your thoughts on these issues and our article! You can access it for the next 30 days by clicking HERE.