Updated: Jan 23
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What do you do when you’ve identified a continuous improvement problem but can’t seem to find any tested solutions to implement in your school? You do action research! Action research is a practitioner focused method of problem solving that allows educators to apply the scientific method to real world problems as they seek real world solutions. In this post, I want to share the basic framework of action research to help you jump-start your continuous improvement efforts.
Action research is a quintessential continuous improvement tool. Through action research, practitioners delve deeply into a problem of practice and methodically test and analyze their proposed solution. In his book, Guiding School Improvement with Action Research, Richard Sagor describes it as a process for and by practitioners that helps the actor in improving and or refining their actions. It is about deep understanding through rigorous evaluation.
Action research projects usually follow the scientific method of inquiry which begins with an observation that leads to a question. As an education decision maker, your observation is akin to your problem of practice. It is a persistent issue that you have noticed in your school. One great way of making these observations is through the exploratory data analysis procedure.
The next phase in the process is to take your observation and gain a deeper understanding of it through the existing literature. This is often called the literature review phase. The goal here is to allow the existing body of knowledge on your topic to help you narrow your observation down into concrete and answerable questions. As a continuous improvement specialist, this process helps you gain a well-rounded understanding of both the current and historical thinking on your topic.
As your understanding grows, the literature will eventually guide you towards a hypothesis. In a continuous improvement context, your hypothesis dictates what you think will happen with your problem of practice after you insert various strategies or interventions. For example, if reading scores are low among your third graders, you may hypothesize that deploying the Read180 curriculum with fidelity will lead to higher reading achievement down the line.
After you have formed a clear hypothesis that is supported by research, you must design and implement an experiment. There are many experimental designs to choose from and any of them can be deployed under the umbrella of action research. I always suggest that schools start with single-case designs for behavioral interventions and correlational or pre-test/post-test designs for academic ones. These study designs are a less rigorous than the randomized controlled trials you often see published in academic journals, but they can be more realistically applied within the capacity limitations of a school practitioner.
As you design your experiment, you want to make sure that you have built a reliable data collection mechanism. This is important, because the data analysis process is where the real benefit of action research comes into play. Following your experiment, you want to analyze your data to understand the impact that your intervention had on your students and consider whether or not your hypothesis was correct. Consider examining both the statistical and practical significance of your data. If you need help with this step, check out the tools and resources housed in The Repository. They are free and will give you quick outputs and analysis.
Finally, you need to have a thoughtful discussion about your experiment and data analysis and what the outcomes mean for your continuous improvement efforts. Sit with your continuous improvement team and review the data. Ask yourself what the data is trying to tell you. Did your experiment work? Was your hypothesis validated? Why or why not?
Many times, the traditional research approach ends here. At this point, a full time researcher would likely author a journal article or conference paper and move on to the next big research question. This is appropriate in their context, as their jobs are to rigorously pursue knowledge in their given area. However; in a continuous improvement context, it is important that your team allows the results of action research to inform their improvement cycles.
Your team could, for example, design a plan-do-study-act (PDSA) cycle to build off of promising results from your action research. This PDSA cycle would allow you to continue to refine your implementation of a given intervention over time. If your data shows that your intervention did not work as expected, you may choose to return to the literature, pose a new hypothesis, and run the action research cycle another time.
Remember that the purpose of action research is to help the actor improve their actions. Action research projects should not be one-and-done projects. They are starting points that allow you to design deep and on-going review of your interventions.
My final piece of advice: let your action research projects be fun! Don’t think about this the same way you viewed homework assignments in grad school. Remember, nobody is going to grade your action research project. You are a problem solver seeking to better understand what’s going on in your school. Allow the action research framework to be a road map on your adventure but make the adventure your own along the way.
Good luck on your journey friends, and let me know if I can help.