Contemporary Educational Psychology/Chapter 13: The Reflective Practitioner/Cautions and Challenges of Action Research

Well and good, you may say. Action research offers teachers a way to hear each other, to learn from their own and other's experience. But there are also a few cautions to keep in mind, both ethical and practical. Look briefly at each of these areas.

Ethical Cautions about Action ResearchEdit

One caution is the possibility of conflict of interest between the roles of teaching and conducting action research (Hammack, 1997)[1]. A teacher’s first priorities should be the welfare of his or her students: first and foremost, you want students to learn, to be motivated, to feel accepted by their peers, and the like. A researcher’s first priorities, however, are to the field or topic being studied. The two kinds of priorities may often overlap and support each other. Vivian Paley’s observations of children in her classes, described earlier, not only supported her children’s learning, but also her studies of the children.

But situations can also occur in which action research and teaching are less compatible, and can create which ethical dilemmas. The problems usually relate to one of three issues: privacy, informed consent, or freedom to participate. Each of these becomes an issue only if the results of a research project are made public, either in a journal or book, as with the examples we have given in this chapter, or simply by being described or shared outside the classroom. (Sharing, you may recall, is one of the defining features of action research.) Look briefly at each of the issues.

Insuring Privacy of the StudentEdit

Teachers often learn information about students that the students or their families may not want publicized. Suppose, for example, you have a student with an intellectual disability in your class, and you wish to study how the student learns. Observing the student work on (and possibly struggle with) academic activities may be quite consistent with a teacher’s responsibilities; after all, teachers normally should pay attention to their students’ academic efforts. But the student or his family may not want such observations publicized or even shared informally with other parents or teachers. They may feel that doing so would risk stigmatizing the student publicly.

To respect the student’s privacy and still study his learning behavior, the teacher (alias the “action researcher”) therefore needs to disguise the student’s identity whenever the research results are made public. In any written or oral report, or even in any hallway conversation about the project, the teacher/researcher would use a pseudonym for the student, and change other identifying information such as the physical description of the student or even the student’s gender. There are limits, however, to how much can be disguised without changing essential information. The teacher could not, for example, hide the fact of the intellectual disability without compromising the point of the study; yet the intellectual disability might be unusual enough that it would effectively identify the student being studied.

Gaining Informed ConsentEdit

Students may not understand what is being studied about them, or even realize that they are being studied at all, unless the teacher/researcher makes an explicit effort to inform them about the action research and how she will use the results from it. The same is true for the students’ parents; unless the teacher-researcher makes an effort to contact parents, they simply will not know that their child’s activities are being observed or may eventually be made public. Students’ ignorance is especially likely if the students are very young (kindergarten) or have intellectual or reading difficulties, as in the example we described above. As an action researcher, therefore, a teacher is obliged to explain the nature of a research project clearly, either in a letter written in simple language or in a face-to-face conversation, or both. Parents and students need to give clear indications that they actually understand what class activities or materials will constitute data that could be made public. In most cases, indicating informed consent boils down to students’ parents signing a letter giving permission for the study. Sometimes, in addition, it is a good idea to recheck with students or parents periodically as the project unfolds, to make sure that they still support participation.

Insuring Freedom to ParticipateEdit

When a student fails to participate in an ordinary class activity, most teachers consider it legitimate to insist on the student’s participation—either by persuading, demanding, or (perhaps) tricking the student to join in. Doing so is ethical for teachers in their roles as teachers, because teachers are primarily responsible for insuring that students learn, and students’ participation presumably facilitates learning. If a teacher designates an activity as part of an action research project, however, and later shares the results with them, the teacher then also becomes partly responsible for how other teachers use knowledge of the research study. (Remember: sharing results is intrinsically part of the research process.) The resulting dual commitment means that “forcing” a student to participate in an action research activity can no longer be justified solely as being for the student’s own educational good.

Much of the time, a simultaneous commitment to both teachers and students presents no real dilemma: what is good for the action research project may also be good for the students. But not always. Suppose, for example, that a teacher wants to do research about students’ beliefs about war and global conflict, and doing so requires that students participate in numerous extended group discussions on this topic. Even though the group discussions might resemble a social studies lesson and in this sense be generally acceptable as a class activity, some parents (or students) may object because they take too much class time away from the normal curriculum topics. Yet the research project necessitates giving it lots of discussion time in class. To respond ethically to this dilemma, therefore, the teacher may need to allow students to opt out of the discussions if they or their parents choose. She may therefore need to find ways for them to cover an alternate set of activities from the curriculum. (One way to do this, for example, is to hold the special group discussions outside regular class times—though this obviously also increases the amount of work for both the teacher and students.)

Practical Challenges about Action ResearchEdit

Is action research practical? From one perspective the answer has to be "Of course not!” Action research is not practical because it may take teachers’ time and effort which they could sometimes use in other ways. Keep in mind, though, that a major part of the effort needed for action research involves the same sort of work—observing, recording information, reflecting—that is needed for any teaching that is done well. A better way to assess practicality may therefore be to recognize that teaching students always takes a lot of work, and to ask whether the additional thoughtfulness brought on by action research will make the teaching more successful.

Looked at in this way, action research is indeed practical, though probably not equally so on every occasion. If you choose to learn about the quality of conversational exchanges between yourself and students, for example, you will need some way to record these dialogues, or at least to keep accurate, detailed notes on them. Recording the dialogues may be practical and beneficial—or not, depending on your circumstances. On the other hand, if you choose to study how and why certain students remain on the margins of your class socially, this problem too may be practical as action research. Or it may not, depending on whether you can find a way to observe and reflect on students' social interactions, or lack thereof. Much depends on your circumstances—on the attention you can afford to give to your research problem while teaching, in relation to the benefits that solutions to the problems will bring students later. In general any action research project may require certain choices about how to teach, though it should not interfere with basic instructional goals or prevent coverage of an important curriculum. The main point to remember is that action research is more than passive observation of students and classrooms; it also includes educational interventions, efforts to stimulate students to new thinking and new responses. Those are features of regular teaching; the difference is primarily in how systematically and reflectively you do them.

(back to Chapter 13...)


  1. Hammack, F. (1997). Ethical issues in teacher research. Teachers College Record, 99(2), 247-265.
Last modified on 16 June 2009, at 03:45