Phil Quirke


This short paper is based upon my experience with Action Learning and Research over a period of nearly a decade with some two hundred teachers in the institutions where I have worked as well as those who have attended my presentations and remained in contact about their projects.

Central to the concept of Action Research are two key factors.
Firstly, the research is undertaken by the practitioners themselves rather than a third party. This was one of the bases of criticism of Action Research in the 1960s when it was suggested that any conclusions which emerged from such research would be invalid because of the subjectivity involved and the necessarily small scale. This was, however, to miss the point: the idea is not to emerge from the research with some scientifically valid generalization, but to benefit the participants directly. For these participants, Action Research provides both a way of knowing and a means of empowerment.
Secondly, Action Research is essentially a problem solving strategy. It encourages practitioners to question what they are doing, to identify their concerns, to do some research and then to take action. This is not research for the sake of research but research in search of improvements.

The above is supported by Edge (2001,5), who draws on Altrichter et al.(1993,4) and points out that the purpose of Action Research

" is not simply to describe, interpret, analyze and theorize - the stuff of traditional research - but to act in and on a situation to make things better than they were."

The procedure usually associated with Action Research is a cyclical process of stages as follows:


and back to
action and observation
(Kennis and McTaggart 1988)
or the Plan Intervention Model of Cohen and Manion (1985).

At the end of this paper is a full bibliography of publications related to Action Research which were instrumental in the formation of this project.

In my work on action research, I have often discovered that many of the teachers' interests and ideas did not fall into the traditional definition and procedure of Action Research. Hence, I moved a lot of projects onto an Action Learning paradigm.

Action Learning is the coordinated focus on professional development by the participants themselves. The participants will form groups to research a similar problem, concern or interest. The problems, around which these collaborative learning groups are formed, are taken directly from the participants' daily working lives; in our case that is the classroom. These action learning groups then look at a variety of ways in which that problem can be solved and try out, actively, each approach. Finally, the conclusions reached or solutions found are presented to a wider audience. The difference to Action Research is noticeable in that there are no rigid criteria for the cycle; and the phases, such as problem identification and investigation, are not necessarily required to follow strict research principles.
Most teachers I have worked with on learning, development and reflection throughout the years preferred this term as it seemed to be a larger umbrella under which their projects could be described following models from Australian literature (The National Staff Development Committee 1996). Therefore, all descriptions from here on use the term Action Learning.

Action Learning Goals:
to encourage best practice in the classroom and enhance the quality of learning for the students.
to develop effective PD (Professional and Personal Development) programs within the institution by encouraging all instructors to get involved in Action Learning projects.
to develop a self-managing PD program which operates under the control of the instructors themselves.
to encourage instructors across the institution to work together more closely in sharing and applying their knowledge and experience.
to encourage instructors to define the various issues and problems that they encounter in the workplace and to address them through a process of Action Research. to encourage and support instructors in future proposals, publications and conference papers.
to initiate a cycle of Quality Improvement.

Project Activities and Processes:
All instructors are encouraged to:
engage in critical reflection on their classroom practices,
get together with colleagues who share similar interests,
formulate and carry out an Action Learning project on the basis of those interests.
Management act as initiators, matchmakers, co-ordinators, advisors and motivators: providing both a framework and support for the individual projects.

Teachers are first given an overview of Action Learning and a wide range of different areas are brainstormed.
Subsequently, over the following couple of weeks instructors canvas ideas and co-ordinate the formation of teams and the formulation of Action Learning objectives.
Action Learning objectives are detailed on each group's timeline that sets out the action, intervention, observation and publishing key points of the project.
Other teachers across the institution are encouraged to be involved.
Each group is led by a team leader who liaises with management on the team's progress and ensures the team receive the necessary support and training required.
Each group's results are published - in-house workshop, website, presentation etc

Barriers to success
The greatest barrier to teacher participation is lack of time and one of the greatest challenges to managers introducing action learning groups is finding a way to create some form of time release from teaching duties for further pursuit of research interests.
Greater technical support is the second most frequently stated barrier by teachers, and managers need to ensure that they can organise the training that groups require.
Another obstacle identified by some teachers is a lack of group direction or group leadership which means managers setting up action learning in their institution must give groups sufficient guidance in setting their objectives and choose their team leaders carefully.

Advantages from the teachers' point of view
The main ways that teachers stated their projects were relevant to their teaching were as follows (in order of frequency):

1. created and improved relevant teaching materials
2. gained insights into new approaches to an area/topic
3. increased student motivation
4. improved skills and confidence.

The major benefits as individuals were (in order of frequency):

1. improved interactions with colleagues/sharing with colleagues
2. improved technological skills
3. improved classroom practice
4. greater understanding/awareness of an area/topic

In summary, the Action Learning professional development programs that I have been involved in have resulted in three main outcomes for the enhancement of student learning. They are:
improved teaching materials
more effective use of educational technology in the class
new approaches or strategies being adopted by the teachers.

Allwright, D. & Bailey, K. (1991) Focus on the language classroom: an introduction to classroom research for language teachers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Altrichter, H., Posch, P. & Somekh, B. (1993) Teachers investigate their work: an introduction to the methods of action research. London: Routledge.
Bailey, K. & Nunan, D. (eds.) (1996) Voices from the language classroom: Qualitative research in second language education. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Burns, A. (1999) Collaborative action research for English language teachers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Cohen, L. & Manion, L. (1985) Research methods in education. London: Croom Helm.
Crookes, G. (1999) Action research for second language teachers - going beyond teacher research.
Edge, J. (ed.) (2001) Action research: case studies in TESOL practice. Alexandria, VA: TESOL Inc.
Edge, J. & Richards, K. (eds.) (1993) Teachers develop teachers research. Oxford: Heinemann.
Elliott, J. (1991) Action research for educational change. Milton Keynes, UK: Open University Press.
Freeman, D. (1998) Doing teacher research: from inquiry to understanding. Boston: Heinle & Heinle.
Johnson, K. (1999) Understanding language teaching: reason in action. Boston: Heinle & Heinle.
Kemmis, S & McTaggart, R. (eds.) (1988) The action research planner (3rd ed.). Geelong, Victoria: Deakin University Press.
Nottingham Trent University. (1999) The development of teaching & learning.
Nunan, D. (1989) Understanding language classrooms: a guide for teacher-initiated action. London: Prentice Hall International.
The National Staff Development Committee. (1996) Action Learning in Vocational Education & Training. Chadstone, Victoria: NSDC Press.
Richards, J. & Lockhart, C. (1994) Reflective teaching in second language classrooms. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Wallace, M. (1998) Action research for language teachers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.