An introduction to practitioner-led action research - a 'how to' guide for practitioners and managers
This short guide is designed to support ALN practitioners interested in conducting action research projects. In this guide we have tried to answer what we think are the most common questions practitioners want to ask about running their own research project, but more detailed answers are provided in the extra resources listed at the end, so please make sure to have a look at these.
What is practitioner-led action research?
Practitioner-led action research ( PLAR) is a way for practitioners to conduct small-scale research projects and to change their practices based on the findings. It is called 'practitioner-led' to emphasise that the questions, the methods and the meaning of the results will be determined by practitioners. There may be academic or professional researchers involved in order to support the practitioners, but the practice in Scotland is that they do not lead the project. Instead, they may act as consultants to address any specific questions about research that the practitioners come up with in the course of their project, or may assist with editing any report.
The 'action research' term underlines the expectation that the findings of the research will influence the teaching and learning practices in the literacies classroom. They will be put into action! The research is not abstract or theoretical, but designed to look at real-life questions coming up in adult literacies work. Sometimes you will be surprised by your findings and at other times they will confirm what you have intuitively understood, but in a more rigorous way.
Perhaps this raises questions about what research means. It's easy to imagine people in white coats in laboratory settings. What we mean, however, is any systematic attempt to understand a question about practice, where the question is carefully identified, a plan to collect information or data about it is devised, and the information is pulled together to create a new perspective on the issue.
A group of practitioners in West Dunbartonshire were interested in finding out if the CD- ROM version of the curriculum wheel could be used to create Individual Learning Plans with learners. This would involve learners interacting with a computer, and there were many concerns about the confidence level of low literacies individuals with ICT. The practitioner-researchers conducted focus groups with different adult learning classes and found - to their surprise - that the learners really enjoyed the computerised process. Many of them had computers at home, and were quite happy looking at the wheel and filling in their own information and goals. The outcome was a strong incentive for this partnership, and others across Scotland, to consider using computerised learning plans as part of the learning planning process.
From the PLAR project The Individual Learning Planning Process (2008)
Why would we be interested in PLAR?
There are a number of good reasons for adult literacy practitioners to be interested in PLAR, but two of these are especially important. The first is that it creates new information about practice, and supports changes for the better. The information is local and relevant to specific programmes, rather than being based on research conducted somewhere else by other people. For example, if practitioners try out a new way to engage learners when they first come to the programme and find that it is effective, they can be confident that it works for their programme with their particular group of learners. This is high quality information, which can be hard to find otherwise.
As practitioners know very well, each programme and each group of learners is different, with unique influences and circumstances. PLAR allows these factors to be taken into account. It is also true that different questions will matter more in different programmes at different times. PLAR is a way to ensure that the questions being researched are those that matter to practitioners at that time.
The second reason for getting involved in PLAR is for practitioner professional development. PLAR is a way to go beyond the education offered by partnerships and spend time looking in depth at an issue of interest to you. Not only does this make is a highly-focused form of professional development, you pick up additional skills in research and analysis that can be useful for a long time. So PLAR offers the immediate benefit of deeper knowledge of ALN instruction as well as the long-term benefit of improved skills.
And it's fun!
How have other ALN practitioners found the PLAR process?
There have been two PLAR projects in Scottish ALN over the last three years, and the practitioners who took part have found it to be a useful and interesting process. One commented:
"I think the project went well. We encountered problems along the way, and it was always going to be difficult to give it the time we wanted to, but I think we have come through it having developed and piloted something that will benefit learners and the service they receive. This was what we wanted from the project, and so that's good!"
Most practitioners felt that they got out of the project what they expected to. One commented:
"The process that involved us reflecting on what we had been doing and where the gaps were in our practice was really helpful and enabled me to improve my practice. The other positive outcome was that I had been feeling a bit isolated as the only literacy worker in the community education team and sitting down with [a colleague] to talk through and work on our project meant that I was much more in the mainstream."
For that person, the expectations of building a working network were being fulfilled. Another practitioner was more interested in the outcomes themselves:
"Yes, I've got the evidence and the results we were looking for in relation to adapting the ILP process, so rather than me going to the line manager and saying "let's try" we've now got a body of evidence to help us adapt. It can be used by others because it's stronger than anecdotal."
Many practitioners ended their comments on PLAR by expressing their satisfaction with the process and the hope that these PLAR projects will continue. Participants stated that they learned a lot, and would be interested in being involved in more PLAR themselves.
What do we need to think about before deciding to get involved in PLAR?
If the idea of PLAR appeals to you, then there are a number of things to think about before doing the planning work.
- Do I have a group of colleagues who are interested in getting involved? It is very much easier to run a PLAR project if there is a group of people from the same organisation, or at least the same partnership, able to work together. Based on our recent experience, a good size for a group seems to be about four people, though membership will change over time.
- Do I have support from my line manager? If your line manager is supportive and interested, it will make a real difference to the project. In the best case, line managers provide time and resources as well as committing to using the findings of the PLAR process. Some line managers arrange special team meetings for the PLAR group to present to colleagues. At the very least, your line manager will need to give permission for the project.
- Do I have time to commit to the project? While PLAR projects take place in your workplace and therefore require less dedicated time than other types of research, it is still important to block off time for the project. You will have to allow for group meetings, data collection, analysis, and producing some sort of written report. It's hard to estimate how much time is generally needed as it depends on the specific project, but experience suggests that you should probably try to commit to completing the project within a three-month period.
- Do I have access to any other resources I need? If you are going to interview learners, it might be helpful to have a tape or digital recorder, and you will at least need a quiet room. A computer at home will be helpful as well. Sometimes books on research, and there are many excellent readable ones, will help you plan the project.
- Can I get support from an experienced researcher? Many of the questions that come up during PLAR projects can be dealt with quickly by a researcher who is familiar with PLAR. Even if you are not involved formally with the academics at your local university who work in literacies, think about approaching them. Even a quick email can make things a lot easier!
What are the stages of PLAR?
Like most types of research projects, PLAR projects go through a number of stages. It is helpful to know about these before starting. This diagram lays out a typical research process.
1 Planning and preparation
- Create research groups
- Identify the expected outcome
- Get permission (line manager and organisation)
- Identify and secure resources
- Identify a research question
- Identify a method
2 Data collection
- Organise the practicalities of data collection
- Collect information following chosen method
- Organise the information (including typing up notes, transcribing recordings etc.)
- Review the information collected in light of the research question
- Develop statements of what you have learned (findings)
4 Reporting, disseminating and embedding into practice
- Write up a brief report for the PLAR group and your organisation
- Present findings to your colleagues
- Disseminate your results
- Put the findings into action!
What are the ethics of the research process?
The crucial point of ensuring that the research you do is ethical is to make sure that the people who participate in research are protected from any negative consequences. Universities have somewhat complicated procedures for this, but if you work for a local authority, voluntary sector organisation or college the situation is usually quite different. The formal side of the ethical process may simply be getting written permission from your line manager to do the research. In terms of the research itself, there are four important things to ensure.
1. People have to understand the research. The best way to do this is to make up a half-page, everyday language statement to tell people what the research is for, and why it matters.
2. People have to have a choice about whether to take part, and they should understand that there are no consequences if they opt out. Academic researchers usually ask people to sign a consent form to show that they agree to take part voluntarily. While this usually isn't necessary in action research, it can be a good idea just to make sure everybody knows where they stand.
3. People should not be identified. While it can be hard to ensure complete anonymity, such as when you are talking to ESL learners in a partnership with only one ESL class, it is important that people have 'deniability'. That means the report should leave room for people to deny that they made a particular statement.
4. People should have a chance at least to read the report, and preferably comment upon it. You may want to give them a chance to review any quotes you have taken from them and make sure they are comfortable with them.
Will our organisation support our involvement?
Many partnerships are happy to support their staff to get involved in PLAR projects, as they know they will lead to useful and relevant findings that will improve practice. Academic research can seem very abstract compared to the pressures of practice, and centralised training may not reflect the local conditions very well. PLAR provides many of the benefits of training by increasing the skills repertoire of those involved while also providing the benefit of new knowledge to address pressing issues of practice.
Organisational support can take the form of dedicated time, administrative support, purchase of books and other materials, publication of findings or guaranteed access to learners and documents necessary to the project.
Can we publish our results?
There are a number of options available for publication. Some form of publication can be a good way to round off a project and to celebrate the work the group has done. At the most local level, partnerships may have newsletters to contribute to, and Learning Connections may also be interested in publishing your work in their email newsletter. It may also be possible to produce a booklet for colleagues in your partnership and beyond, setting out what you did and what the findings were.
There are several journals interested in PLAR, including the RaPAL journal published by Research and Practice in Adult Literacies ( www.RaPAL.org.uk). For those who have an academic turn of mind, there are literacy journals throughout the world.
PLAR projects generally produce results of interest to other practitioners, apart from anything else because they show what practitioners can achieve. If you have carried out the work of a practitioner-led action research project, why not let others know about it so that they can learn from your experience?
How else can we let people know about our results?
There are many other ways to get the message out about what you have learned from your research work, ranging from the traditional to more innovative approaches. You could consider putting on training for your colleagues, or for another partnership. If you work in the voluntary sector or community learning and development, consider organising an event at the local college, or vice versa. There are conferences run by Learning Connections or voluntary bodies like RaPAL which are very interested in PLAR and its results.
The internet offers all sorts of new options for disseminating results, such as Adult Literacies Online (managed by Learning Connections) or other literacies websites. For example, there is no reason why you can't put a report on the Canadian National Adult Literacy Database ( www.nald.ca). There is a healthy interest in PLAR in Canada, and who knows where it might lead!
The recent increase in affordable options makes it possible to use video and DVD to spread the news of your work. You could have a series of podcasts of audio reports available, or put together a brief film with learners, perhaps as part of a project.
However you choose to get the word out, there are many groups of people and individuals who are interested in literacies research. Even starting locally via your tutor group or network, your research will be of interest to literacies providers and practitioners, literacies learners, people working in Further Education, the organisers of TQAL training, private and voluntary training organisations, as well as local media. There is no reason why your important insights have to be limited in their significance and reach!
How can we get started on a PLAR project?
If you are interested in developing a PLAR project please contact Fiona Macdonald who will be able to offer assistance and advice Fiona.Macdonald4@scotland.gsi.gov.uk
Where can we find out more about it?
These are some of the most useful resources available to support practitioner research, and each is available free of charge on the internet as well as from Learning Connections.
Horsman, J. & Norton, M. (1999) A Framework to Encourage and Support Practitioner Involvement in Adult Literacy Research in Practice in Canada. Ottawa: National Literacy Secretariat. Available at: http://www.nald.ca/library/research/Framwrk/Framwrk.pdf
Maclachlan, K., Hall, S., Tett, L. and Crowther, J. (2006) Practitioner-Led Action Research in Adult Literacies Project: 'New Ways to Engage New Learners'. Glasgow, Communities Scotland. Available at: http://www.lc.communitiesscotland.gov.uk/stellent/groups/public/documents/webpages/ALO_NEWWAYSTOENGA_IA47015480-1.hcsp?src=11&alo_comment=Yes
McNiff, J. Jean McNiff's Action Research Website. Available at: http://www.jeanmcniff.com
National Research and Development Centre (2008) Practitioner-led Research Initiative. Available at: http://www.nrdc.org.uk/content.asp?CategoryID=512&ArticleID=437
Quigley, B.A. & Norton, M. (2002) "It simply makes us better": Learning from Literacy Research in Practice Networks in the UK, Australia and the United States. A Resource for Literacy Research in Practice in Canada. Edmonton: The Learning Centre. Available at: http://www.nald.ca/ripal/Resourcs/simply/english/simply.pdf
Smith, C., Bingman, M.B. & Beall, K. (2006) Effective Research, Dissemination: Lessons from NCSALL. Focus on Basics 8 (C). Available at: http://www.ncsall.net/?id=1157
Smith, C., Bingman, M.B., Hofer, J., Medina, P. & Practitioner Leaders (2002) Connecting Practitioners and Researchers: An Evaluation of NCSALL's Practitioner Dissemination and Research Network. Cambridge, MA: NCSALL. Available at: http://www.ncsall.net/fileadmin/resources/research/report22.pdf
Virginia Adult Learning Resource Center (2003) Practitioner Research as Staff Development: A Practitioners' Guide. Available at: http://www.aelweb.vcu.edu/publications/research/
National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy ( NCSALL) Practitioner Research Training Guide (2005) http://www.ncsall.net/?id=1144