Informed by the author's years of field research, teaching, and consulting, this readable, accessible book will assist novice researchers to understand qualitative, action research. Up-to-date coverage based on the work of earlier researchers clearly delineates the place of action research in the current research methodology scene; and speaks directly to the needs of those involved on a daily basis with classrooms and schools. Defines action research and clarifies its nature, providing a clear description of the relationship between qualitative and quantitative research. Offers step-by-step procedures for planning, implementing, and evaluating the kind of research projects that help people use their own understanding and expertise to work systematically through a data gathering process, and, ultimately, find a solution to the problem they are investigating. Includes an entire chapter addressing design, ethics, and validity—examines sampling, informed consent, permissions, credibility, the index of engagement (excitement, interest, apathy, resistance), and other factors. Featuers an entire chapter on Data Gathering—details the techniques of information gathering from a variety of sources—interviews, surveys, records, artifacts, and others. Includes a discussion of the relationship between action research and common educational practices. For novice researchers and educators.
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Research—A Personal History
Research has been part of my life since my childhood. At school I "researched" topics for class, carefully gathering material and sorting through it to select the most relevant information with which to formulate papers or presentations. In a high school physics class, I engaged in a small experiment with my teacher and classmates on a sports field. We used an empty can and a stopwatch to estimate the speed of sound. At that time, I also became fascinated by theories and experiments in cosmology and particle physics, which began a life-long fascination with explanations of the nature of the physical universe. As I write this book, I am struggling to read and understand Fire in the Mind (Johnson, 1995), which seeks to elucidate the ways scientists try to explain the puzzling phenomena coming to them from the infinitely regressive micro-world of particle physics, and to juxtapose these explanations with theories emerging from their investigations of deep space—the cosmos.
These first forays into the field of research expanded dramatically when I entered university and teacher training. In these contexts, I explored material derived from a wide range of experiments in the behavioral sciences, providing information about intelligence, personality, learning processes, child development, teaching strategies, and a host of related topics. This information helped me to grasp some of the fundamental features of human life—to know how and why people behaved as they did—and enabled me to understand more clearly how I could teach children effectively. This knowledge, sometimes laboriously acquired in education, psychology, and sociology classes, provided a wealth of information that still informs my educational practices. I've learned to understand the varying capabilities, capacities, and behaviors of young children as they grow into adulthood. I understand more clearly the conditions under which learning takes place and the different factors influencing educational achievement. As an experienced educator, I now draw from a considerable stock of knowledge as I organize the teaching/learning processes with the diverse groups of students who enter my classes.
When I entered graduate school, my first research methods classes showed how these experiments were constructed and enacted and showed me how survey research, sometimes called quasi-experimental research, could further extend my understanding of the very complex problems involved in educating diverse populations. I learned how to perform research investigating the effects of factors like social class, gender, culture, and language on educational achievement, and to structure investigations exploring their relationship to employment, income, health status, and so on. Not only were my research skills increasing dramatically, but I was able to link knowledge available from research studies to theories of education, human behavior, and the social world.
Research, therefore, has informed my educational practices and made them increasingly sophisticated and effective. I have become aware, however, of the limitations of the often abstract and highly generalized nature of much of the information I derive from the research literature. Much of it is compelling and makes a great deal of sense within the sophisticated and complex explanations contained with the theories of the academic disciplines—psychology, sociology, anthropology. But I have also learned that much of this theory is often irrelevant and lacks meaning or utility when applied to many of the deep-seated and long-term problems people experience in classrooms and schools.
Although I became aware of these limitations as a graduate student at the University of Illinois, the full force of this paradox became apparent in the early 1980s when I started to engage in work in Aboriginal communities in remote regions of Australia. In these contexts, the sophistication and breadth of my academic expertise proved illusory, and the concepts and theories of behavioral and social theory were lacking in substance or function. As I helped people in these places come to grips with the difficult and multifaceted problems they faced in their everyday community life, I learned a decisive lesson about the nature of knowledge and its application to everyday life. I learned that the sophisticated knowledge emanating from academic understandings often had little relevance in these contexts.
Even today, if you visit a remote Aboriginal community you will see the tattered remnants of community gardens developed with great skill using the best information and technology available from horticultural science. What is not evident is the place of gardening in the life of a desert people still heavily instilled with the cultural perspectives of the hunter-gatherer. You can see their counterparts in schools in urban and suburban America, where dusty boxes of unused materials remind us of yet another quick-fix program developed and funded, for a time, to deal superficially with some deep-seated educational issue.
At this time, I also learned how people's own knowledge and wisdom were often more useful in working toward solutions to the problems they faced. A clear instance emerged during a visit to a remote community where the people, becoming tired of the inadequate and damaging education provided for their children, set up a school themselves. Despite inadequate classroom accommodation and a dearth of books, materials, and equipment, the community school provided one of the most exciting educational experiences for children I have witnessed. Although they were assisted in this process by a non-Aboriginal teacher who lived with them and provided her expertise, the school was structured and operated on the basis of educational processes and a style of operation that "made sense" to the lifestyle and life-ways of local people—their culture. Though very different, in many respects, from traditional schools, it was very effective in providing an effective and relevant education for the children of this community.
At that time, I was unaware that I had witnessed what was, in effect, the outcome of an action research process. The people had started with a problem—providing adequate schooling for their children—and worked toward a solution. They also gained information and expertise as they acquired the understanding necessary to organize their school. Each of the many questions involved in developing a fully functioning school—how to build classrooms, how to hire and pay a teacher, how to develop a curriculum, how to organize a timetable of learning, and more—became subjects of investigation. As they developed their understanding of each of these issues, people were able to map out the actions required to bring this part of the puzzle into operation. They started with a little understanding of what they wished to achieve and worked systematically to acquire the knowledge leading to a solution to their problem—a classical action research process.
That experience has changed the way I now view research and the way I engage in research processes. For me, the process of research central to my professional and community life is participatory action research. It requires me to work with people to assist them in making use of their own understandings and expertise—to use their experience and local wisdom to work systematically through a process of investigation to acquire deeper, broader, and more effective understandings that enable them to develop workable solutions to the problems they investigate.
Although I still appreciate my extensive academic and professional knowledge, I engage it warily, sensitive to the need for people to conceptualize and understand issues in terms that make sense in their everyday lives. I, therefore, provide my professional expertise gently and with humility—always providing opportunities for people to reject or modify ideas I might inject into an investigation. In a recent community-based research project, I provided neighborhood parents with a list of questions to use in interviews. I presented them as examples of the type of questions they might ask and was pleased to see them accept the general approach to interviewing, but to tell me "You can't ask that question like that! You'd have to say. . . ," and then start to formulate questions of their own.
Research has become a much broader set of activities than those I initially learned in my experimental and survey research classes. According to the issue, the context, and the purpose of research I may now choose from a wide array of approaches and methods to satisfy the needs of the project in hand. Since I largely work as a consultant, however, helping people find solutions to particular problems, I rarely engage in experimental or survey research. In school settings, I assist educators and families in improving their educational practices or in evaluating, planning, or implementing educational programs and services. This is the work that informs my educational understandings and forms the basis for the examples and illustrations of action research processes in this book.
The effectiveness of this approach to research is demonstrated by the degree to which teachers in the United States have been able to apply successfully my models of research. Their work extends in range and variety across age groups, grade and school levels, and across regions. Educators from preschool to university graduate classes successfully apply research processes to enhance their educational practices or to find solutions to significant problems. Stories from their experience permeate the pages of this book and illustrate the ways action research has been used in schools.
The stories also include accounts, however, of the way action research has been used in the community to assist educators in making effective links with parents and other neighborhood groups. Stories demonstrate the continuing ways ...
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