Action Research

Action research: research that will help the practitioner.

-Kurt Lewin

When I first heard the term ‘Action Research’ I think I focused more on the ‘research’ and less on the ‘action’ and in doing so, was a little turned off at the thought of engaging in hours of reading through studies and adhering to protocols, testing hypothesis and analysing data.  Upon further investigation, it became super clear that I was focusing on the wrong part of the term.

ACTION is where it is at.

Action Research is initiated by you. You reflectively look at what you are doing, ask questions, check what others already have figured out, and identify the problem you wish to tackle.

You think gather data through observations and other methods, and analyze and interpret the findings you collect so that you can act on evidence. Once your action plan is in place, you take another look, see what has worked or what still needs changing, make an iteration of your original plan and continue through the cycle.

Here’s my summary of all that in one handy graphic:


So, why should we care about Action Research?

Well, primarily because as teachers we want what is best for our students and what is best for them, also happens to be good for us too! John Dewey said, “We only think when we are confronted by a problem.” We need to put problems in front of our students to build their thinking skills and we need to continually be seeking ways of solving the problems we see in our classroom that are based on evidence and have solutions grounded in an actionable change process.

Often people are terrified/mad/scared/frustrated by change. “We’ve tried that! It didn’t work three years ago! That is how we used to do it!  Why do we need to do it differently?” Action Research provides individuals with the opportunity to analyze their own practice and look for solutions to problems they identify. While it can (and maybe should?) start with you and result in the development of skills, changes in habits, knowledge or methodologies of teaching, it doesn’t stop there.  Action Research can be done by groups of teachers and result in institutional, class, group, or institutional change. The results can be summarized and generalized findings can be shared globally to guide further research of other individuals or groups.

While I believe students could also participate in Action Research, I think a more scaffolded approach such as the Design Thinking process is more appropriate.

In both Action Research and Design Thinking, one could argue that starting at a point of Empathy will yield the most positive gains. Why? Because to be empathic means you have the ability to think beyond yourself with a view to solving a problem that exists for another person, place, or process. And going back to John Dewey, we only think when we are confronted by a problem. 

Iteration, or the repeated following of a sequence of steps in order to become successively closer to a desired result, is at the heart of both Action Research and Design Thinking. The idea that one is never fully ‘finished’ or that problems are never permanently ‘solved’ gives room to the creation of new possibilities.

What does this mean for your classroom?

Well, think about it for a minute. What do you love about your teaching? Perhaps more importantly, what frustrates you or what are you dying to try?  Flipped learning? No homework? Project Based Learning? Mixed ability reading groups? What’s that thing that bugs you? That’s where you start:

  1. Identify the problem
  2. Examine other research and your own data
  3. Act on the basis of the evidence you collect
  4. Reflect on what worked and what you still need to do


The great part?  You don’t need permission to do this. You don’t need to wait to be told to do it. You can start right now by jotting down the ideas that are already floating around. Is it more ‘work’? That depends on what you consider work to be.  I would argue that it is more work (and in this case, I mean both physical and mental effort) to keep pushing against a problem that exists rather than trying to find a solution to solve it.

What will your Action Research look like?

Start with WHY you are doing it in the first place.  Ask yourself, “How can I  help my students improve the quality of their learning?”  And then break it down from there:

  • What is my concern with my current practice?
  • What am I going to do about it?
  • What evidence will I need to guide the action I will take?
  • How will I validate what I have done?
  • Am I finished with this for now?

Be sure that you are starting with yourself in mind too:

  • I am initiating the research
  • I am asking a real question about a real issue and looking for a real possible solution
  • I am starting from where I am
  • I am striving for improvement (and any improvement, no matter how small, is improvement).


Further information:

Action Research by Eileen Ferrance, Brown University

3 thoughts on “Action Research”

  1. Thank you for writing this post!
    I am a student of business graduating this May, and I am scared of losing the anticipation and excitement of learning that I am immersed in currently. My professors continue to iterate the importance of being a “knowledge worker” and continuing to pursue learning into professionalism, and because of your creative examples and clear illustrations, I fell like I can do it!
    I love the idea of first identifying what needs change (recognizing the shift and then responding accordingly), and the process by which you Examine, Act, and then Reflect after this realization.
    Thank you for your insight!

  2. Thank you for this. It makes clear the purpose and reasoning behind action research.

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