Action Research v Professional Practise

The piece below was written for as part of my ‘class’ PhD in e-Research and Technology Enhanced Learning at Lancaster University.  It is reproduced below for comment and interest to others in the area of Action Research and Professional Practice.  Note, this is not written in a suitable academic style for Doctorate Study.

Action Research and Professional Reflective Practice


There is a tendency to consider any activity by an educational professional that somehow changes their working practice as ‘action research’, or ‘participatory action research’.  However, in the strict definitions of AR, there are some key features which differentiate everyday professional or Professional Reflective Practice, and Action Research.

Back to Basics

The first suggestions that there was this differentiation came in (Denscombe 2003), which states –

“A distinction needs to be made between the ‘reflective practitioner’ (Schön 1983) as one who strives for professional self-development through a critical consideration of his/her practices, and the action researcher who, while also being a reflective practitioner, adds to this by using research methods to enhance and systematize that reflection.”

(Schön 1983) focuses in the area of the social sciences and in particular healthcare.  Could the fact that most healthcare professionals are rarely encouraged to carry out their own research with patients have something to do with a need to state this distinction?

There is even a view that Action Research isn’t even a formal methodology in itself, as noted by (Lancaster 2005) “action research in fact, is more a strategy or approach to research rather than a specific methodology.”

So whilst one body of literature in the sphere of educational theory states that small-scale research as typified by action research will rarely have such a significant impact, there is a counter-argument supported by (Cohen et al. 2007) which supports the concept of Action Research as emancipatory, in particular situations, namely –

“…when it aims not only at technical and practical improvement […] but also at changing the system itself or those conditions which impede desired improvement in the system/organization.”

So the literature still seems confused on this issue.  At the most basic level, three differences have been identified.

Table 1 – Comparing Professional Practice and Action Research

Professional Reflective Practice Action Research
Focused on learning from experience Focused on learning from experience, plus the experience of others (through research)
Three cyclical Phases (adapted by McAlpine)

  • Reflection for Action
  • Reflection in Action
  • Reflection on Action
At least six cyclical phases (Wadsworth n.d.)

  • Stop and reflect
  • Raise a question
  • Plan to seek answers
  • Plan to seek answers
  • Fieldwork/Research
  • Reflection
  • Think of new actions
Focused on the individual – the individual as an agent for change in a specific situation. Action research should feed back into a knowledge ‘pool’, not just of the individual, but also of the institution, and through publication the wider world.


There is an understandable wish to promote any workplace-based experiences, and ‘Action Research’ is an impressive title to attach to any small-scale project.  By examining the criteria above however can help objectively consider whether this label can be objectively applied to the process being undertaken.  There is a tendency however to ‘devalue’ the term, which can only harm those researchers who are performing genuine Action Research.


Cohen, L., Manion, L. & Morrison, K., 2007. Research methods in education 6th ed., London ;New York: Routledge.

Denscombe, M., 2003. The good research guide for small-scale social research projects 2nd ed., Maidenhead ;Philadelphia: Open University Press.

Lancaster, G., 2005. Research methods in management : a concise introduction to research in management and business consultancy, Oxford: Elsevier/Butterworth Heinemann.

Schön, D., 1983. The reflective practitioner : how professionals think in action, Aldershot [England]: Arena.

Wadsworth, Y., What is Participatory Action Research. Action Research International. Available at: [Accessed February 15, 2010].

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: