Action Research: a recipe for disaster?

Informing my trainee teachers that learning styles had been debunked was like telling my 2 year old that Santa isn’t real (I’m yet to do the latter). They were shocked, in disarray and couldn’t understand why they’d had it drilled into them the year prior. I had no answer to this, but in revealing this to them, I also revealed something else that made me question how useful action research is. Before I continue, I would like to briefly digress and bring your attention to just two of many psychological bias we have:


Confirmation bias – ‘connotes the seeking or interpreting of evidence in ways that are partial to existing beliefs, expectations, or a hypothesis in hand.’

(Nickerson, 1998)

Sunk cost fallacy – ‘the tendency to invest more future resources in a situation in which a prior investment has been made, as compared with a similar situation in which a prior investment has not been made.’

(Strough et al, 2006)

It transpires that one of the said learners had conducted an action research project on learning styles, specifically determining their students learning style and then going to extreme lengths to cater for these individual styles over several weeks. The teacher’s conclusion: catering for learning styles was in fact effective. Of course it isn’t inconceivable that this may have happened. When you want to see if something is going to happen, generally you look for it to (confirmation bias).


The thing is, this individual is not alone in conducting action research in their classroom. There are probably thousands of teachers across the country examining something at this very moment, probably concluding that another off the wall method of teaching is having a positive effect on learners, and perhaps they are right.


It’s just I take a bit of issue with this. These teachers don’t have a great deal of time to perform research in their classrooms and they probably don’t have a background in research either. So when they do action research, I question whether they experience a bit of the old sunk cost fallacy, coupled with a splash of confirmation bias – a recipe for disaster perhaps.


I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t  do research in our classrooms, but what I do suggest is that stronger links are forged with those that truly understand research and a collaborative approach adopted to ensure that we don’t create a cycle of bad practice.




7 thoughts on “Action Research: a recipe for disaster?

  1. I did the very same action research in the 1990s and my students’ grades lept up in all subjects – even ones I didn’t teach. I concluded that knowing yourself as a learner and seeing learning as your own responsibility increases your engagement and motivation therefore you can learn more effectively. We also had lots of discussion around what learning is for, what good learning looks like etc. So my conclusion was different. But a conclusion that action research isn’t worthwhile is just like the conclusion of your student that learning styles work.

    Perhaps where we are going wrong is trying to reach ‘scientific’ absolutes. There are so many variables in one classroom. It may be better to look at things differently.

    1. Hi Penny. I didn’t reach that conclusion. My conclusion was that we should seek the support of those that are experts in research. I’m not sure how valid your research was if the grades improved in all subjects (including those you didn’t teach). This would imply that catering for LS made no difference. Perhaps that’s what you were inferring? Not sure, but thanks for your comment, I appreciate all dialogue and am always looking to develop

      1. No my research showed that metacognition was an outcome of involving my students in thinking deeply about how they learned. I didn’t do my research to or on them I did it with them. Their learning significantly improved, not just their achievement in my lessons when I was in control. They learned about themselves as learners and took in onwards.
        I know this isn’t what you concluded and I agree with much of what you are saying. Sadly though many people will conclude that action research is bad and that only ‘true’ scientific research is valid. I think all practitioners should be reflective and should be scrutinising their own practice. But I agree that if we are to do meaningful research, we need to know what we are doing.

  2. Action research was a very 70s thing and has been derided in research communities, but is actually coming back into its own now due to more robust frameworks and reflexive approaches. I think the insider as participant (teachers as researchers) has a lot to offer: teachers know a lot more about their students that could enhance insights than observers, who may take ages (or never) accumulate the same, but AR needs some critical accountability. I’m not convinced teachers complaining of work load should take it on as an extra.

  3. What about attempting to question classroom assumptions? For example, girls are more likely to do the writing when in mixed gender groups? Should we not attempt to falsify this statement? With regards to confirmation bias etc. If teachers are aware of these, then is it simply down to ensuring the research approach is sound?

    1. Who assumes that nonsense? But yes, of course that is a start. However, action research is a term bandied about without thought and has the potential to reinforce bad practice. If there are individuals that have a sound understanding of research then fine, but how many do? Why not therefore establish links with those that do know in order to increase validity of any research.

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 )

Twitter picture

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

Facebook photo

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

Google+ photo

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

Connecting to %s