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Review of ‘Action Research for Professional Development’ Jean McNiff, September Books 2010

Dr Peter Critten, Middlesex University

For some time, myself and colleagues at the Institute for Work Based Learning, Middlesex University, have been searching for a text on research methodology that

·      Would be appropriate to and understood by the diverse audience who undertake our programmes ranging from, for example , a sales clerk seeking a University Certificate to a senior director working on a Professional Doctorate

·      Would be in tune with the methods of inquiry each of us use to make sense of our work place every day

In the past the field has been dominated by texts that cover research from a more ‘traditionally’ academic tradition and in particular the tradition of the social sciences. In my experience, working with work based learning over almost 20 years, these texts have seemed like a foreign language which students feel they are obliged to learn by rote repeating back to you terms that have no meaning for them and which, by definition, aim to  separate them further from rather than engage them with their practice which is the focus of and for their inquiry.

I was fortunate, some years ago, to be introduced by a colleague to action research and in particular the work of Jean McNiff and Jack Whitehead. I have also had the privilege to work with Jean and her students and learned much from her being an external examiner for our Doctoral students. And, like Jean and Jack, I have also experienced the scepticism of academic colleagues faced by a methodology which far from advocating methods to distance yourself from the outside world positively promotes ‘an enquiry by the self into the self‘: ‘In action research people observe and do research on themselves. They ask, “What am I doing? How can my actions be described and explained?”’ (McNiff 2010: 5)

And these questions, I suggest, are also at the heart of the inquiry of the ‘worker-researchers’ who enrol on our programmes to demonstrate how learning from the work they do can be matched and accredited against academic criteria – which can then lead to an academic award. This is why I will be recommending this book to my colleagues as one that meets the two criteria outlined above.  As Jean writes,  ‘Action research has always been associated with work based learning’ (McNiff 2010: 41).

The book is divided into five parts and brings together in a very simple, readable way the vast amount of experience accumulated by both Jean McNiff and Jack Whitehead over the years:

·      Part One is entitled :‘All about action research?’ and in addition to explaining the essential principles as to ‘What’ is action research also responds to the questions as to ‘Why’ anyone should undertake it and exactly ‘Who?’ might benefit from it. In response to this last question Jean writes ‘Potentially we all can’, which is good news for the range of students we deal with. 

·      Part Two is entitled: ‘Why should I do action research?’ It demonstrates why action research is very appropriate to work based learning and practitioners’ professional development.  But it also illustrates its value for those not in work. For example ‘Doing action research means that you begin by taking stock of the present situation, identifying any aspects that need attention (in your case, that you haven’t got a job), finding ways of improving it, and developing new ways of working’ (McNiff 2010:60).

 Part Three is entitled: ‘How do I do action research?’ This is the core of the book and takes the reader through seven stages for creating and following through a plan based around action research. Appropriately enough each stage is around responding to a specific question. The first two, in my experience, set the tone for an action research approach which is as much about engaging with one’s own values and beliefs as it is about collecting the necessary evidence to validate your claim to new knowledge. The starting point is to ask the question ‘What is my concern?’ followed by ‘Why am I concerned?’ Looking back over 20 years working with a range of students in HE on their final ‘dissertations’ how much better their research would have been had they asked and reflected long and hard on these two questions before rushing out to send questionnaires to as many people as they could find!

 

·      Part Four is entitled: ‘What is the significance of my action research? What are the possible applications?’  For me, this was the key section as it resonated with my ‘concern’ which is about how the work based learning of one person can impact on others and lead to an entire organisation reflecting on its practice and changing the way it does things. Change is at the heart of action research.  But perhaps Jean more than any other writer about action research has for many years advocated its ‘educational’ application not just within organisations but within society as a whole. This section explores just how far reaching the implications of action research can be. I’d like to quote from the last paragraph of the book in ‘End Word’ where Jean summarises ‘the philosophy that guides my personal and professional life’: ‘If everyone of us could resist the temptation of believing everything we are told; learn to think for ourselves and exercise our educational influences in other people’s thinking; and show ourselves accountable for what we are doing – we may find tomorrow that the world is already a better place’ (McNiff 2010: 180)

 

·      Part Five is entitled:  ‘Writing and disseminating your action research’ After opening up the reader’s vision for where action research can have an impact, the final part concludes with practical advice as to how action research can be written up to meet a range of circumstances:  proposal for research funding, or a conference paper;  to meet academic criteria up to doctoral level; as basis for a professional portfolio. By its very nature ‘ … action research is a generative transformational methodology, so it is possible to show how one aspect transforms into another, and how the end of one phase becomes the beginning of another’ (McNiff 2010: 173). Worker-researchers often find it difficult to capture the changing nature of their research. It is often difficult to represent the dynamics of ‘iterative cycles’ of emerging evidence within the linear discipline that is required of the final stage, whether we call it ‘project’ or ‘dissertation’ that is the culmination of an ‘academic’ journey. This section provides helpful advice which ensures that the outcome of action research can be written up in such a way as to meet both academic standards as well as inspire the kind of change described in Part 4.

In endorsing this book, it occurs to me that research is too important and precious to be left to the academics. The philosophy of work based learning is that academic thinking can be applied in the workplace and this book helps work based learners above all change their mind-set in re-positioning themselves in relation to their subject, their practice in the context of others. Finally, there is a branch of psychotherapy called ‘Human Givens’ (Griffin and Tyrell 2003) which, following on from Maslow, argues that humans have evolved physical and emotional needs which need to be met if they are to remain ‘healthy’. One of these Human Givens is ‘Meaning and purpose – which come from being stretched in what we do and think’. Given the time we spend at work the lessons from work based learning and action research as described in this book can, I suggest,  go a long way to meeting this particular human need.

Griffin J and Tyrell I (2003) Human Givens: A New Approach to Emotional Health and Clear Thinking.  H G Publishing

 

Dr Peter Critten

Project Manager Work Based Organisational Learning

Institute for Work Based Learning

Middlesex University

London NW4 4BT

Tel 020 8411 5858

Email: p.critten@mdx.ac.uk