Using Action Research to Improve Education

Action research is a way of making implicit knowledge explicit, uncovering and sharing knowledge that may have been known in relatively isolated pockets of the organisation and translating its lessons into strategies for organisational change.

Three of the leading exponents of action research, Stephen Kemmis, Robin McTaggart and Mervyn Wilkinson, explain this approach to development and change:

Improving education … means improving our educational discourses, improving educational practices and improving forms of educational organization. In concrete terms, this means changing people—their beliefs, ideas, their activities and their social relationships. But ‘changing people’ is extremely difficult to achieve, especially when the ‘people’ are treated as ‘others’—the objects of someone’s plan for change—rather than as knowing subjects, willing and able to determine their own live in the improvement process. Collaborative action research in education aims to establish groups of knowing subjects committed to changing themselves and, by doing so, changing their educational work. It is about helping people become more conscious and critical of their agency in process of historical change—acting collaboratively as knowing subjects directing their efforts towards educational improvement. Action research is not only about ‘doing’, however; it is about learning by doing. It is about making changes, observing their consequences, evaluating in the light of what has been learned through observation …

In education action research has been employed in schools-based curriculum development, professional development, school improvement programs and systems planning and policy development. [F]or example, [it has been used] in relation to policy about classroom rules, school practices about non-competitive assessment … and … school improvement programs.

Though the process of action research is inadequately described in terms of a mechanical sequence of steps, it is generally thought to involve a spiral of self-reflective cycles of:

  • planning a change
  • acting and observing the consequence and process of the change
  • reflecting on these processes and consequences, and then
  • re-planning and so forth …

In reality the process may not be as neat as this spiral of self-contained cycles of planning, acting and observing, and reflecting suggests. The stages overlap, and initial plans quickly become obsolete in the light of learning from experience. In reality the process is likely to be more fluid, open and responsive. The criterion of success is not whether participants have followed the steps faithfully, but whether they have a strong and authentic sense of development and evolution in their practices, their understandings of their practices, and the situations in which they practice.

  • Observe: The issue is monitored and described. Useful data is recorded and kept.
  • Reflect: Observations are interpreted and shared so that the issue or problem can be better understood.
  • Plan: Actions are proposed to address the issue or problem.
  • Act: The plan is implemented and the cycle starts again as outcomes are observed, recorded and shared.


Kemmis, Stephen and Robin McTaggart. 1988. The Action Research Planner. Melbourne: Deakin University Press. pp. 44, 5–6.

Kemmis, Stephen and Mervyn Wilkinson. 1988. ‘Participatory Action Research and the Study of Practice’ in Action Research in Practice: Partnership for Social Justice in Education, edited by Bill Atweh, Stephen Kemmis and Patricia Weeks. London: Routledge. p.21. || Amazon || WorldCat

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