Beyond Actions

Psychology of Action Research for Mindful Educational Improvement

by Norijuki Inoue (Author)
Textbook VIII, 207 Pages

Table Of Content

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Chapter 1. Introduction: The Nature of Action Research
  • Research and Practice
  • What Is Action Research, Really?
  • 1. Actions Matter
  • 2. Context-Specific Research
  • 3. Multiple Cycles and Phases
  • 4. Inclusion of You as Research Target
  • 5. Reflections Matter
  • Mindfulness
  • Chapter 2. Examining Assumptions: New Psychology of Research
  • Becoming an Educational Researcher
  • Paradigm Wars
  • Positivistic Paradigm
  • Objective Reality
  • Generalizability
  • Reductionism
  • Dichotomous Thinking
  • Knowledge and Assumptions
  • Taking a Balance Mindfully
  • Chapter 3· Crafting Research Questions: Journey from Within
  • Questioning the Familiar
  • Your Action Research Question
  • Avoiding Self-Fulfilling Research
  • Social Activism Research
  • Role of Personal Theories
  • Role of Academic Theories
  • Journey from Within
  • Emptiness of Self
  • Chapter 4· Validity of Inquiry: Mindful Action Research Design
  • Validity
  • Construct Validity
  • Construct Validity × Action Research
  • Internal Validity
  • Internal Validity × Action Research
  • External Validity
  • External Validity × Action Research
  • Action Research Validity
  • Process Validity
  • Ironic Validity
  • Educational Validity
  • Catalytic Validity
  • Layers of Action Research Planning
  • Chapter 5· Grasping Needs of Reality: Objectivity vs. Subjectivity
  • Reality Check
  • Subjective Biases
  • Needs Assessment
  • Observation
  • Choosing the Situation
  • Knowing What to Observe
  • What You Do during the Observation
  • Unit of Analysis
  • The Why Question
  • Inter-Rater Agreement
  • Interview
  • Interview Protocol
  • Interview Logistics
  • Structured vs. Unstructured Interviews
  • Questionnaire
  • Performance Tests
  • Reflection Journal
  • Your Data
  • Quantitative Data
  • Qualitative Data
  • Data Analysis
  • Quantitative Analysis
  • Qualitative Analysis
  • Mixed Methods
  • Reflection on Needs Assessment
  • Next Step: Action and Assessment Planning
  • Chapter 6· Letting Others Live within You: The Spirit of Working Together
  • Overcoming Dilemmas
  • The Social Origin of Human Development
  • Setting Up Intersubjective Collaborations
  • Brainstorming
  • Creating Ba
  • Community of Practice
  • Kizuna
  • Collaborative Professional Development
  • Cultural Dimension of Action Research
  • Chapter 7· Your Actions and Beyond: The Path to Self-Transformation
  • Layers of Action Planning
  • Systemic Thinking
  • Action Components
  • Action Sequence
  • Assessment Plan
  • Quantitative Assessment Plan
  • Qualitative Assessment Plan
  • Triangulation and Beyond
  • Explicit Knowledge and Tacit Knowledge
  • Tacit Knowledge Development
  • Takumi
  • Omoi
  • Chapter 8· Reflection, Ego, and Mindfulness: A Way of Letting Go
  • Beyond the Comfort Zone
  • Encountering Challenges
  • Goal Orientation
  • Engaging in Reflections
  • Two Types of Reflections
  • Reflection-on-Action
  • Reflection-in-Action
  • Moving on to the Next Phase
  • Saturation of Understanding
  • Subjectivity and Reflection
  • Dealing with Your Ego
  • Psychodynamics in Action Research
  • A Way of Letting Go
  • Path to Self-Transformation
  • Chapter 9· A Meta-Framework: Redefining Educational Research
  • The Big Picture
  • Action Research and Educational Research
  • An Upside-Down Framework
  • Who Is in Command?
  • The Issue of Power
  • Gridlocks in Our Minds
  • Japanese Lesson Study
  • Co-Creation of Goals
  • Planning a Study Lesson
  • Teaching the Study Lesson
  • Reflecting on the Observed Lesson
  • Embracing New Cultural Epistemologies
  • Emphasis on Educational Improvement
  • Intersubjective Space as Key Arena
  • Handling Subjectivity Mindfully
  • Sense of Responsibility
  • Yin and Yang
  • A New Meta-Framework of Educational Research
  • Chapter 10· What’s Next? Completing the Circle
  • Your Action Research Paper
  • Title
  • Introduction
  • Research Context
  • Statement of the Problem
  • Needs Assessment
  • Guiding Theories and Research
  • Input from Your Action Research Team
  • Phase I
  • Phase II
  • Phase III, IV, V …
  • Overall Reflections
  • Presenting Your Action Research
  • Beyond Actions
  • References
  • Index
  • Series index


This book became possible thanks to many people whom I met over the years. First, I would like to thank my students at the University of San Diego (USD) whose ideas and action research projects inspired me and motivated me to write this book. Without having numerous interactions with my students about their ideas, experiences, and aspirations, this book would have never been possible. Second, I would like to thank my fellow faculty members at USD—many of whom also advise action research projects. I would never have come up with many ideas that I discussed in this book without being a part of intriguing dialogues about educational research and advising action research projects with my colleagues.

I would also like to thank many people I met at conferences and symposia across the globe. I am especially indebted to people I worked with in the annual Action Research Conference in San Diego. Particularly, I feel lucky to have met many brilliant individuals whose ideas and personhood truly inspired me—Bill Torbert, Susan Noffke, Jack Whitehead, Jean McNiff, just to name a few. I would also like to express my gratitude to those at Japanese universities and schools who helped me deepen my understanding about Japanese lesson study and its underlying epistemology—Tadashi Asada at Waseda University, Takuya Matsuura and Norio Ikeno at Hiroshima University, Satoshi Takahashi ← vii | viii → at Shukutoku University, Keiko Hino at Utsunomia University, Nagomi Kawada and her colleagues at San Diego Minato School, Satoshi Suzuki as well as other Japanese educators and action researchers I met over the years. Without their guidance, this book would not have been possible. I would also like to express my special gratitude to my fellow educators who were at Osaka Fuse High School and educated me about what it means to be an educator during my early years of teaching.

I would like to thank Greg Goodman, the series editor, who kindly guided me through the process of this book project as well as Chris Myers, managing director of Peter Lang, who has patiently given me extensions for ensuring the quality of this book. I would also like to thank Karen Saleni, Miriam Voth, and Jamie Lenke, my graduate students at USD who proofread the lengthy book manuscript during their busy time of graduate study. I am also thankful to Jeerawan Ketsing at Kesetsart University, who came from Bangkok to USD as a visiting scholar, for giving me many hints about action research advising and patiently serving as a sounding board during my book writing in her yearlong stay in San Diego. I would also like to express my gratitude to Sara Nishi, who contributed beautiful drawings of plants for this book. And all of these encounters would not have been possible without generous support from Fulbright Japan, which awarded me the Graduate Study Grant to study in the United States about 20 years ago.

Finally, I would like to thank my family. My children, Mayuko and Ray, served as walking dictionaries when I was not sure about some of the English expressions used in this book. Mayuko willingly proofread the early version of this manuscript in great detail, and Ray was ready to check my English anytime he was asked. This book greatly owes to my wife Masami who supported me through the never-ending cycles of book writing. Now this book has become another thing we have accomplished together.

I would like to dedicate this book to my family and all the educators teaching in classrooms with nothing but good intentions to help students grow and develop.

Noriyuki Inoue

← viii | 1 → · 1 ·


The Nature of Action Research

Research and Practice

An important feature of this book is that it challenges the traditional notions of educational research and its relationship to educational practice. This book helps you develop a deep understanding of action research by discussing its process and the fundamental assumptions that differentiate it from other research methodologies. In doing so, the book introduces various East Asian concepts as conceptual tools for you to examine and overcome a variety of limitations of the traditional Western approach to educational research.

Because you picked up a book with education and research in its subtitle, I assume you are an educator looking for new ways to improve your teaching through research. You may have been teaching for a while with a certain set of beliefs, but may have unresolved questions. You might have explored available resources and opportunities to find the answers, but now you are looking for something drastically different from what the existing resources offer. If so, this book is a perfect match for you.

Or it could be the case that you are an educational researcher interested in action research as a new research methodology. You might be wondering how educational research can overcome limitations inherited from the traditional scientific paradigm. This book is primarily targeted to those who ← 1 | 2 → actually teach in schools, but it would be highly informative and valuable to any university faculty, educational researchers, and graduate students in education because many discussions in this book are relevant to key contemporary discussions that take place in the field of educational research.

Whether you are an educational researcher or a K–12 teacher, I will assume you are an educator and will call you as “you” in this book. My belief is that discussing action research from a personal viewpoint is the most fruitful way to understand the richness of this research methodology. Furthermore, I will regard you as an “educator” rather than a “teacher” because action research will lead you to not only think deeply about teaching academic subjects but also mindfully cultivate and promote students’ intellectual, social, and personal development. With that said, here is the most important assumption employed in this book:

You are the most important researcher to study and improve your practice.

As an educator, you are in an intellectual profession that requires constant inquiries into your practice. Teaching is a highly complex phenomenon that cannot be improved by simply following how-to lists or procedures handed down by someone outside of your practice context (Darling-Hammond, 2010; Zeichner, 2010). It requires you to carefully plan and carry out your actions to nurture students’ holistic development. This book introduces various aspects of action research, but it assumes that it is you who can make the difference in your own context. You are the one who understands your practice best and cares about your students most. Who else can be a better researcher to study and improve your practice?

In this book, you will be guided through various processes of planning and conducting action research. In doing so, this book assumes that the best way for you to learn is by actually going through the research process in your context. Action research is a particular type of methodology that is difficult to learn in depth without actually experiencing its process. Throughout these chapters, you will be asked to plan and conduct your own action research project. In this process, you will be asked to reflect not only on your actions in your practice but also you—your assumptions, beliefs, identity, values, developmental trajectory, etc., as an educator.

Throughout this book, you will encounter a series of reflective questions titled “FOR YOUR REFLECTION.” Here, you will be asked to think about fundamental issues that you would benefit from considering before moving on to the next section. Please remember that there is no single or right answer to each of these questions. These reflective questions are inserted throughout the ← 2 | 3 → book as opportunities for you to critically examine your assumptions, beliefs, and understanding of important issues related to action research. Some of these questions can be trick questions, that is, questions intended to uncover beliefs and assumptions that you might not be aware of. In a way, these questions could serve as mirrors of your mind: Through these mirrors, you can see new and different ways of viewing and approaching your educational practice. With this in mind, here is the first set of questions for you:

FOR YOUR REFLECTION: What kind of educational research do you think is most beneficial for your own practice? What do you think should be the ideal relationship between educational research and educational practice?

What Is Action Research, Really?

When you hear the term research, you might think that it is about doing some kind of experiment and typing lots of numbers into computers in a security-guarded lab. That is indeed a stereotypical image of research that people tend to have, but what we mean by research in action research is drastically different from that picture.

What is research, really? When we say research, it implies a systematic activity to answer a research question through collecting data and deriving answers from that data. Consequently, your action research starts with you asking questions about your practice and then moving on to designing and conducting research to answer your question. Its process is characterized by professional and personal inquiry as you critically examine and improve your teaching through the eyes of a researcher.

Action research is often viewed as a relative newcomer to educational research, but historically speaking, its origin dates back to the first half of the twentieth century. Kurt Lewin (1890–1947), a German-born psychologist who contributed to the advancement of social, organizational, and applied psychology, used the term action research for the first time in a paper published in 1946. He introduced the term to suggest a new kind of research on “the conditions and effects of various forms of social action, and research leading to social action” (Lewin, 1946, p. 35). Because of this, Lewin is viewed as the father of action research (see Coghlan & Jacobs, 2005). But since its early years, action research has been developed and theorized in ways much more diverse than Lewin’s initial conceptualization.

← 3 | 4 → Currently, action research is viewed as a family of research that involves attempts to improve professional practice through multiple cycles of actions and reflections (Herr & Anderson, 2005; Noffke, 1997, 2009; Somekh & Zeichner, 2009). There are many different versions of action research, but they all have a set of characteristics that are distinctively different from the traditional research or natural scientific research that people stereotypically view as “research.”

In the following section, I have summarized key features of action research that seem most relevant to you as an educator. Not every version of action research involves all of these features, but the following discussions will serve as a good starting point for you to grasp the action research methodology that we will be discussing throughout this book.

1. Actions Matter

Perhaps the most distinctive feature of action research is that it involves actions to improve a real-life practice in the form of a vital and empirical discovery process. In professional practice, actions speak louder than words. Without actions, words have questionable validity. Even if someone speaks about an innovative approach or theory to improve educational practice, you are not making any impact if you do not take necessary actions and successfully improve your practice in a real-life context. Our actions matter in our practices because as professionals, we are defined by what we do.

Consequently, one of the most important themes of this book concerns your actions. We will discuss this in depth in Chapter 7, but when we say action, it encompasses many different things that you do to improve your educational practice in the research process. For example, it could involve initiating a certain set of learning activities in your classroom, giving instructional explanation to your students and interacting with them in certain ways. But your actions are not limited to these in-classroom activities: Your actions could involve outside-classroom interactions and activities such as advising your students, creating online communities for your class, organizing parent workshops, planning lessons with your colleagues, and so on.

Sometimes the term intervention is used instead of action in action research literature, but when we say action, it typically includes something much broader than an intervention that is typically considered to be static, predetermined, and aimed at others. More specifically, action research encompasses dynamic and reflective explorations to improve your educational practice as well as inquiries into the social and psychological meaning-making involved in the process.

← 4 | 5 → Your praxis as an educator can have many different impacts on your students depending on the context and your methods of carrying out your actions in the research process. Therefore, what determines the impact is not only the choice of your new approach but also your intention and understanding of how you should be actually carrying out the actions to improve your educational practice. Consequently, practice improvement through action research requires you to critically examine your understanding, beliefs, assumptions, and worldview from a variety of angles. In other words, “actions” in action research reflect and involve a variety of personal and social constructions of meanings that you engage in to promote students’ learning and meet the complex needs of your practice.

One thing that I would like to add here is that the complexity of your educational practice could go beyond your classroom situations because your classroom is not isolated from the outside world. Rather, your educational practice is open to your society and the culture outside of your classroom, which makes it important for you to constantly examine the assumptions and beliefs that you might have internalized from your society. This makes it highly essential to consider how the sociocultural norms shared in society influence your role as an educator, your students’ views about themselves in school, the nature of social interactions in your classroom, and so on. Thus, your action research takes place in a very interesting and unique kind of “lab” that requires you to think inside-out about your practice. We will discuss this issue more in depth in the following chapters.

FOR YOUR REFLECTION: What new approach have you consciously employed to improve your teaching practice recently? Why did you employ the new approach, and what beliefs and understanding do you think underlie the choice of the new approach?

2. Context-Specific Research

Action research is a type of research that is conducted to improve a professional practice in a specific context. It aims at context-specific improvement of a real-life practice as it embraces the complexity of the practice and the needs of the situation in which the targeted practice is embedded. Its target is your professional practice that involves many complex factors and dynamics situated in the particular context. Perhaps this is the most salient characteristic of action research; it fundamentally differs from traditional research where one aims for a context-general understanding of the targeted phenomena.

← 5 | 6 → You may wonder, what’s the point of conducting research if the research is only about one context? If so, think about this: To make any kind of innovation or improvement efforts work, you cannot ignore situation-specific factors involved in your practice that significantly influence the effectiveness of your teaching. For instance, introducing new Internet-based technology to boost students’ learning in your teaching can easily become a futile effort if the classroom is full of behavioral problems, consists of students without basic technological literacy, or does not provide infrastructure such as Internet connections. Furthermore, in any given practice situation, the diverse needs of the students could dynamically surface and thwart your attempt to improve the practice in a way that you do not necessarily anticipate. Thus, action research that takes place in the form of context-specific research can be seen as the real battleground—or “where the rubber meets the road” for improving educational practice.

In action research, you are critically examining numerous real-life factors that dynamically interact with your teaching practice. If you do not carefully consider the contextual and situation-specific nature of your teaching practice, you could totally miss the point of practice improvement. Therefore, the key to successful professional improvement lies in studying ways to carry effective actions in your practice embedded in the specific context open to the outside world, as in Figure 1.1.

Figure 1.1. Action Research as Context-Specific Research

FOR YOUR REFLECTION: Have you had any experiences where real-life factors that you did not anticipate negatively affected your teaching? How did it happen? And what did you learn from these experiences?

← 6 | 7 → 3. Multiple Cycles and Phases

Action research typically involves multistep practice improvement efforts that progress from one phase to another. Each phase involves multiple cycles consisting of (1) planning a certain set of actions or changes that you are making in your practice; (2) carefully performing the planned actions; (3) assessing the effects of these actions; and (4) reflecting on the process and outcome. When you complete these steps, you then start a new cycle based on what you learned in the previous cycle.

A cycle could be differently defined depending on the goal of your action research. For instance, if you are interested in improving the quality of the lessons you teach, you could define your cycle to include one lesson that includes planning, teaching, assessing, and reflecting on one lesson. You could also define a cycle in terms of a lesson unit (i.e., a series of lessons to achieve an instructional goal) or a specific duration of time such as a week, month, semester, the completion of a course, etc., depending on your goal. You need to define your cycle in the way that allows you to plan, act, assess, and reflect on the issue that you are most concerned with.

As you go through multiple cycles in your action research, you would eventually develop a saturated understanding of the extent to which your actions or approach you are employing in your teaching can improve the quality of your teaching practice. Then, you are ready to progress into the next phase. For the new phase, you would plan and start a new set of actions that should be significantly different and more effective than your previous phase, as in Figure 1.2.

Figure 1.2. Multiple Cycles and Phases of Action Research

← 7 | 8 → Put differently, your action research would proceed in the following way as you go through multiple cycles of planning, acting, assessing, and reflecting on your actions in each phase.

Phase 1

Cycle 1, Cycle 2, Cycle 3 …

Phase 2

Cycle 1, Cycle 2, Cycle 3 …

Phase 3

Cycle 1, Cycle 2, Cycle 3 …

… and so on.

Here, the basic assumption is that practice improvement requires these multiple cycles and phases to incrementally improve the practice. This research framework embodies the assumption that it is too naive to consider that any one-shot implementation of a new approach can truly improve a real-life practice no matter how well planned it is.

In action research, the improvement of a professional practice needs to be conceptualized as a dynamic interaction with a complex system. That is why it is important that your action research goes through multiple cycles of actions and reflection, then moves on to another phase as you improve the effectiveness of your teaching practice in an incremental manner. This multiphase structure becomes necessary because the complexity of real-life practices could easily betray and challenge your expectations. Even when a certain improvement is successfully achieved, you can always find room for improvement, from which you go into a new cycle to further improve your practice.

For instance, suppose that you implemented a certain set of actions—implementing a new accountability system to eliminate your students’ behavioral problems for a certain period of time. Through the data you collected, you might find that your actions had a desirable effect, but you might also discover that the actions created a new problem in your classroom. For example, you might learn that your actions caused a particular group of students to feel unfairly treated or that the relationship between you and your students has been significantly undermined. Or your data might suggest that your actions did not cause the intended outcome due to the dynamics of the classroom or certain factors that you did not consider (e.g., low self-efficacy of the students), and you might find it necessary to come up with a significantly different approach (e.g., helping students identify their own goals and reflect on ← 8 | 9 → their behaviors). That is why you need to consider your practice improvement efforts in such a recursive fashion as indicated in Figure 1.2.

In action research, each phase should be carried out in a way that informs the next phase, and this process could continue virtually endlessly. In a sense, “completed action research” is an oxymoron. Because there is always room for improvement in any practice, you cannot really “complete” your action research. This aspect of action research is significantly different from traditional educational research where one aims for a one-shot improvement of practice. We will discuss this issue more in depth in the following chapters.

FOR YOUR REFLECTION: Have you ever gone through incremental improvements of your practice? If so, what did you learn in the process?

4. Inclusion of You as Research Target

Another important characteristic of action research is that the target of your study includes you. In traditional research, researchers typically study the targeted practice by placing themselves outside of the targeted practice, and they do not usually consider themselves to be a part of the research framework, as in Figure 1.3.

Figure 1.3. Traditional Research

← 9 | 10 → However, in action research, researchers are within the practice and become a part of the research target, as in Figure 1.4.

Figure 1.4. Action Research

Thinking about how education practice can be improved, this is no surprise: It is largely your actions such as your interactions with students, initiating certain activities, and explaining certain ideas as an educator that affect the effectiveness of your educational practice. This might sound a little strange, but in action research, without you studying you—or without you critically examining what you do and how you engage in your teaching practice as a part of your research—any attempts to improve your teaching would remain superficial. You are the most significant determinant of the quality of your teaching practice. Without critically examining your internal meaning-making system, assumptions, and beliefs, how can you really improve the quality of your educational practice?

This means that action research is indeed an inside-out research, that is, it involves you studying yourself (inside) for the improvement of your practice (outside), being mindful of the way you develop a variety of meanings in the process (Tobert, 2001, 2004). In other words, you are studying not only ways to improve your teaching practice but also your meaning-making system, beliefs, and assumptions that underlie your actions in the research process. This makes a stark contrast to traditional research that is typically set up as outside-in research where researchers rarely study themselves as a part of their research activities.

← 10 | 11 → FOR YOUR REFLECTION: How meaningful do you think it is to study yourself for the benefit of your practice? What do you think is the most effective way of studying “you” as a part of your action research?

5. Reflections Matter

In your action research, you will engage in reflection throughout its process. Reflection differs from data analysis: While data analysis aims at detecting and describing patterns of data, reflection aims at developing a new understanding of your practice and your meaning-making system for your practice improvement. Action research does involve collecting empirical data and analyzing patterns of the data, but it is more important that you deeply reflect on what the data mean for you and your practice as a part of the research process.

Through your reflection, you will examine your assumptions and beliefs that underlie your educational practice. When done in a meaningful manner, reflection allows you to realize what you had not realized before and obtain a deeper, metacognitive picture of your practice. In short, your reflections connect you and your practice, as in the following.

You ↔ Your Reflection ↔ Your Practice

In a way, reflection is a subjective activity heavily rooted in your personal understanding and sense-making of the world. Historically speaking, subjectivity has been a “black sheep” of traditional Western science and dismissed as the source of errors and biases that should be avoided as much as possible (see Inoue, 2012). However, in action research, it is assumed that subjectivity—your personal meaning-making, your assumptions as well as your beliefs that underlie your educational practice—serves as an important arena for defining the nature of your practice improvement efforts. In a way, you are going to go through “soul-searching” journeys by engaging in reflections in your action research. That is a unique feature of action research that distinguishes it from many other research methodologies. We will discuss this issue more in depth in later chapters.


So far, we have discussed several key characteristics of action research. We will discuss each of these key features further in the following chapters, ← 11 | 12 → but at least you gained a good overview of action research as a research methodology. As you can see, the action research will lead you to a variety of journeys that you might not have experienced before.

Most importantly, action research requires a fundamentally different kind of epistemology from the traditional research epistemology. Here, epistemology refers to the way we come to know what we know about the world. It is an area of philosophy that examines how we come to acquire the knowledge and make sense of our experiences. Throughout the book, you will encounter various epistemological discussions on a variety of aspects of action research.


Finally, I would like to point out that one important theme of this book is the concept of mindfulness. It is something that penetrates many discussions in this book. The concept of mindfulness has its origins in Buddhism and other thought traditions such as Taoism and Daoism that are commonly embraced in Eastern cultures. As a tradition of thought, mindfulness serves as the foundation of diverse practices in not only Eastern cultures but also Western cultures nowadays (e.g., W. Harris, 2013; Hart, Ivtzan, & Hart, 2013; Mikulas, 2011; Roeser et al., 2013).

There are many different ways of defining mindfulness, but for the purpose of this book, mindfulness is best captured as a state of mind that accepts and accommodates multiple and seemingly conflicting perspectives, beliefs, and assumptions. In Eastern epistemological traditions, it is considered to be a path to develop a deep awareness of the complexity of reality as well as what your mind is up to in the complexity. Mindfulness rejects a rigid persistence to only one perspective or belief system that narrowly confines your mind. It is characterized by a mental disposition that is open and detached from one particular value system. It allows you to see the world from diverse perspectives and critically examine your actions and assumptions. This is the theme that repeatedly comes up in the discussions in the following chapter.

Becoming mindful also means being aware of your mind and managing it wisely to cope with the challenges and demands you encounter in reality. By pursuing mindfulness, you can develop an adeptness at overcoming the complexity of real-life experiences that sometimes go against your anticipation. This is something that is often emphasized and practiced in traditional martial arts and craftsmanship trainings in East Asian cultures. Through these ← 12 | 13 → trainings, you learn to cultivate your mind and be present in the moment so that you can take necessary actions in real-life situations with an awareness of diverse aspects of the situation that cannot be captured in a linear or static fashion.

This book assumes that action research can be seen as such an arena to cultivate your mindfulness as an educator. Through action research, you will encounter many opportunities to embrace the complexity of your educational practice and mindfully engage in your practice improvement. Consequently, the subtitle of this book includes the words “mindful educational improvement.”

In the following chapters, you will encounter many discussions on various aspects of action research that will guide you through the process as you critically examine your assumptions, beliefs, and worldviews. Please be open-minded to embrace new ways of approaching your educational practice and pursue new wisdom and insights associated with this research methodology. This will make your action research journey a rich and personally fulfilling one. Welcome aboard!

FOR YOUR REFLECTION: What past experiences do you now wish you could have been more “mindful” about as an educator? What was the challenge, and what would you do if it happens to you now? ← 13 | 14 →

← 14 | 15 → · 2 ·


New Psychology of Research

Becoming an Educational Researcher

In this chapter, you will critically examine your own assumptions about educational research and explore the path you are taking in your action research. In doing so, we will discuss widely held assumptions that underlie traditional educational research by contrasting them with the key assumptions that underlie action research. Discussing different types of assumptions that underlie educational research will allow you to avoid a variety of traps that could be waiting for you when you actually plan and conduct your action research project.

First, let me introduce the concept of paradigm. Paradigm is a specific way of perceiving and approaching reality with a certain set of epistemological assumptions. This is an important concept because your ways of perceiving and approaching reality can greatly influence how you plan and conduct your action research project.

There are different types of paradigms in the world. In the history of scientific research, many new paradigms have emerged and replaced previous ones (see Wallerstein, 1991). For example, in the eighteenth century, Newtonian physics became a new paradigm for comprehending physical laws governing motions in the universe. This meant the death of the assumption that it is impossible for ← 15 | 16 → humans to fully comprehend physical laws created by God. At that time, the Newtonian paradigm replaced the old paradigm that had defined how people perceived and approached reality. In the history of science, this kind of change is called a paradigm shift. A paradigm shift occurs when people move from one way of perceiving the world to another way. When a new paradigm arrives, people begin to view and approach reality in a totally different way.

However, it has been argued that any paradigm is destined to be replaced by a new one, as evidenced in the history of science (see Kuhn, 1970). For example, in the past, Newtonian physics became a partial theory subordinated under a bigger umbrella of the general theory of relativity introduced by Albert Einstein in the twentieth century. Recently, quantum physics has been recognized as a new paradigm that helps us better understand the nature of the universe, and investigations based on this theory are considered to be one of the most advanced areas of research in natural science. But this paradigm could also be someday replaced by another one. Science has ample examples of such paradigm shifts.

However, in social sciences such as psychology, sociology, and education, things are much more complicated (Bernstein, 1992; Janos, 1986). Historically speaking, multiple paradigms emerged one after another, but these paradigm shifts are not as distinct as in the natural sciences because of the difficulty of conducting experiments and giving an irrefutable verdict to older paradigms. As a result, different paradigms coexist, and you can find many people who are still committed to older paradigms or who are advocating new paradigms without any conclusive evidence to invalidate the old ones. This means that even today, older paradigms are still alive and well and continue to influence the ways research is conducted and presented in the field (Donmonyer, 1996; Lather, 2006). Your action research will take place in such a landscape of educational research, and that is why it is important to critically examine your assumptions about educational research and consider what it means to conduct action research to improve your practice.

In educational research, the following are the major paradigms that largely characterize different types of research that are conducted and shared in the field. This is not an exhaustive or mutually exclusive list, but at least it gives you a rough idea of some of the major paradigms that coexist in educational research.

• Positivism/Postpositivism

• Constructivism

• Socioculturalism

• Emancipatory paradigm

← 16 | 17 → Though discussing each of these paradigms might be interesting, it is not the purpose of this book. We will touch on positivism and constructivism in the following pages, but if you are interested in learning about other paradigms, you can consult additional books or online resources (e.g., Mertens, 2009). An important point that should be captured here is that conducting educational research can mean totally different things for different people, and researchers can have totally different types of understanding about educational research and its relationship to educational practice.

Paradigm Wars

Because there have not been any definitive paradigm shifts in educational research, some people have been engaging in paradigm wars in which they criticize and tackle other paradigms, typically in academic journals and conferences. To make things worse, some academic programs that produce new educational researchers (i.e., M.A., M.Ed., M.A.T., Ph.D., and Ed.D. programs) demand that students commit themselves to a certain paradigm and become capable of contributing to that particular camp in the paradigm war. As a result, when new educational researchers are born, it is often the case that they have already committed themselves to a certain paradigm, sometimes with a confrontational attitude against other paradigms. As you immerse yourself in action research, you will hear people saying different things about action research depending on the paradigm that they commit themselves to. (Be aware that some of them can be confrontational!)

As a result of this state of educational research, if you read published articles in educational research, you will see many researchers write as if they are talking to their fellow researchers who belong to the same paradigm. This makes reading research articles extremely difficult for educators because each of these articles does not necessarily introduce the paradigm it subscribes to or the history of relevant academic debates. Many things written in these articles could look quite strange and be difficult to follow for those who are not familiar with the paradigm or do not share the same assumptions about educational research. Just read a couple of academic journals. You will easily see what I am taking about.

Some people lament this and point out that we are all separated into academic “silos” (e.g., Irish & O’Callaghan, 2013). Here, the term silos is used to indicate the state of researchers who are disconnected and isolated from each ← 17 | 18 → other or fighting against each other to expand their own territories. If you go to any school of education or similar organization, you might find such silos and some evidence of paradigm wars (or reminiscent of them) among the faculty members. In fact, if you are not careful enough, you could be hit by a bullet coming from a decades-long paradigm war.

What I said above might be a little exaggeration, but unfortunately, we cannot totally deny that this describes the status quo of educational research in Western societies. What is most problematic, in my view, is that many academic discourses about education have deviated from what educators actually do and how students learn in actual practice situations and are instead more focused on advocating certain principles and worldviews against the existing ones. In other words, there are many researchers who want to be the next Einstein claiming victory in the paradigm wars. Some may say that this way of approaching research is inherited from natural science, but my assumption is that it is originated in how societies—particularly some Western societies—define and approach education as a field. In certain Western societies, it is often taken for granted that a handful of privileged researchers conduct educational research and disseminate the knowledge they create to educators who are supposed to diligently apply the knowledge in their practice situations. This assumption has been criticized for the lack of educators’ voices in improving the quality of educational practice, and people have been looking for a new relationship between educational research and practice (e.g., Anderson & Herr, 1999; Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 2009; Elliot, 2009). Action research is one of the research methodologies often discussed as a solution to this issue.

Here, an important issue for you to consider is how you should conceptualize the relationship between educational research and your own practice. If you start your own research without deep reflections on this issue, you could be easily sucked into a certain research paradigm or paradigm war that is taking place around you. You can also think about the possibility that you could have already committed yourself to a certain research paradigm through your past experiences. In other words, you might have already committed to a certain paradigm of educational research, and you might have been already living in one of those academic silos or fighting a paradigm war without your awareness.

The goal of this chapter is not to encourage you to choose your own paradigm or fight a paradigm war in your action research journey. It aims to help you critically examine various assumptions about educational research and consider how you should conceptualize your attempts to improve your ← 18 | 19 → practice through action research. The questions are: What assumptions about educational research should you embrace as an educator? How can you engage in mindful educational improvement of your practice through action research? These are very important issues for you to consider at this point. The following section discusses these issues in relation to different types of assumptions that underlie positivism, one of the most dominant paradigms of educational research.

FOR YOUR REFLECTION: What does educational research mean to you? What are the assumptions or perceptions you have about educational research? What does it mean for you to conduct your own research in education?

Positivistic Paradigm

Positivism has been the most influential paradigm in educational research in many Western (and Westernized) cultures. Though there are different versions and roles of positivism, it is undeniable that it has largely shaped and is still shaping educational research (Mertens, 2009; Niaz, 2004). Living in a modern society, it is likely that we are all influenced by positivism to different degrees even though we may not think about it on a daily basis.

Positivism defines the meaning of research as an activity to uncover truth in reality. Positivism originated from a tradition of philosophy and natural science, and you can say almost all of modern research in natural science is positivistic in nature. And because natural science is regarded as a highly successful field, positivism consequently became highly influential to research in many other disciplines, such as psychology, sociology, and education. Just open any educational research textbook: A majority of the sections in the textbook are typically devoted to illustrating research concepts that originated from positivism or its modernized version called postpositivism (see Campbell & Stanley, 1963, 1966; Cook & Campbell, 1979). (In the following section, when the term positivism is used, it includes postpositivism.)

However, this stance has been widely questioned in many educational research communities (e.g., Faircloth, He, & Higgins, 2011; Whitehead & McNiff, 2006; Zeichner & Liston, 1996). Many argue that the scope of educational research should not be limited to the traditional scientific paradigm, and it should instead reflect much more diverse epistemologies. Some even argue that educational practices in public schools stagnate because of the ← 19 | 20 → dominance of the positivistic approach in educational research (see Zeichner & Tabachnick, 1981).

Therefore, it is important that you critically examine key assumptions of the traditional research paradigm in relation to various assumptions of action research. The following section critically discusses key assumptions of positivism—assumptions of objective reality, generalizability, dichotomous thinking, reductionism, and the nature of knowledge.

FOR YOUR REFLECTION: What do you think should be the role of “truth” reported in educational research articles for improving educational practice? What do you think about its relevance to your educational practice?

Objective Reality

Positivism assumes that there is only one objective reality, and any statement (or hypothesis) about reality can be judged as true or false if you conduct logically coherent research. In other words, the assumption is that if we live in the same, singular reality, then we must be able to give an answer to any question about reality.

For instance, think about a situation in which someone argues that the current temperature of a room is higher than 72 degrees. You can check whether this statement is true by looking at a thermometer. If the thermometer shows that the room temperature is 70 degrees, then you can reason that the statement is false. Here, this reality check took place by accepting that there is one knowable truth, and we can access it by being objective (i.e., consulting an impartial thermometer) and logical (i.e., mathematical comparison of the temperatures). Similarly, by assuming one objective reality, you can check whether a new type of car engine increases the gas mileage of a car, whether a new drug can decrease blood pressure, and whether an iPad app enhances children’s interest in mathematical problem-solving.

However, in reality, things are not so simple. For example, think about a situation in which you hear a flower shop vendor shouting, “We are selling the best flowers in the world!” You might wonder why the small shop can claim to sell the “best flowers” and on what basis they are judged to be the best flowers in the world. Similarly, your students who failed a test may tell you that they made their best efforts to study or your colleagues may say that a new textbook is the best on the market. You might encounter many examples like ← 20 | 21 → these in your daily life, but for our discussion, let’s use the first example—the flower shop vendor telling you about his flowers—as a representative case.

Positivists would say that it is possible to evaluate the statement in reference to the objective reality if we could find a good enough definition of the “best flowers.” If so, the statement could be objectively evaluated according to that definition. Here, the assumption is that there is one objective reality in which flowers can be compared, and therefore, we can logically evaluate the statement in reference to the objective reality. Positivists would argue that educational research should follow this path.

Many educational researchers would point out that this is a highly impoverished view of reality (e.g., Garrison, 2009; Hyslop-Margison & Dale, 2005). For instance, it could be said that if the vendor views the flowers to be the best flowers in the world, they are the best flowers for him, and without starting from his personally constructed view of reality, it is impossible to engage in meaningful interactions about the statement made in the context. Based on this perspective, objectively comparing the flowers he sells with other flowers totally misses the point: The flower shop vender is saying he is selling the best flowers in the world because for him, the flowers he is selling are the best in the world, and he wants others to know that. This epistemological assumption is called constructivism; that is, reality is constructed in each person’s mind and therefore truth could differ across individuals. Please consider the following statement:

If it is the best flower for the person, it is the best flower in the world.

This statement represents that there can be multiple perceptions of reality—or multiple realities across individuals—and clinging to the assumption of one objective reality is not a wise thing to do. What this further implies is that as human beings, we may not necessarily think and behave on an objective basis. Rather, we often think and behave according to what we personally feel is true or important.

Positivists would find it difficult to agree with this view. They would question why we have to reduce the definition of “best flowers” to what only one person considers the best, and they would point out that the subjectivity involved in the statement would cloud our understanding of reality and mislead our decision-making. They would strongly advocate avoiding any subjective thinking so that our thinking is not misguided by subjectivity.

The question is how we should approach this issue as educators. Our practice involves human agents (i.e., you and your students) who tend to ← 21 | 22 → personally interpret and construct meanings in reality. For instance, going to college after high school may rationally make sense as a goal for those who were born in middle-class families, but for your students whose parents did not go to college, studying hard to go to college may not necessarily make sense as a meaningful option. And simply explaining the benefits of going to college in front of the non-college-bound students may not change their worldviews no matter how many times or how logically you explain your point. This exemplifies a highly subjective dimension of educational practice that we should be aware of.

Consequently, if you are attempting to improve your educational practice through action research, it is important to embrace this subjective dimension of students’ thinking, reasoning, feelings, and beliefs as a part of the research framework. Without mindfully incorporating the subjective dimension, we could largely miss the point of educational practice as a human activity. And this includes you—your inner meaning-making as an educator. As discussed earlier, you are the biggest determinant of your teaching practice, and without you being convinced, inspired, and purposefully taking action, it would be impossible to truly improve your educational practice. This depends on how you identify yourself as an educator, interpret different meanings that emerge in your practice, and interact with students. In other words, it is important that you go beyond your objective reasoning about reality and mindfully reflect on your inner meaning-making system for truly improving your practice. For instance, if someone makes a statement about the “best flowers” you may want to imagine the personal basis of those words and mindfully interpret the statement. This does not mean that you need to throw away your objective reasoning, but you may not want to be so narrow-minded as to reject any subjective dimension of human perceptions and experiences. In fact, this is the very point Antoine de Saint-Exupéry made about “the flower” in The Little Prince (1943).

As I mentioned before, subjectivity has been dismissed as a “black sheep” of traditional educational research, but we need to recognize that without mindfully embracing the subjectivity involved in educational practice, its complexity cannot be fully understood or addressed. Traditional researchers have focused on the objective dimension of education to improve the field, but an increasing number of people are departing from this tradition and looking for new methodologies that work better for approaching real-life practice improvement. Consequently, there has been an increasing interest in action research as a more humanistic and holistic way of researching and improving educational practice.

← 22 | 23 → FOR YOUR REFLECTION: What do you think of the idea of grounding your educational practice in the assumption of a single objective reality? To what extent do you think educational research should embrace or exclude subjectivity?


For positivists, the role of research is to find truth about reality, and therefore, once the truth is found, it should be universally true everywhere. In other words, they consider that research findings should be generalizable to different situations and for different people. Just think about how the Newtonian laws of physical motion work. If they work in England, then they should work in Tokyo or on the moon. Or think about a drug that works for 1,000 healthy Germans. The assumption is that the drug must work for anyone whether the person is in California or New Delhi. And if you buy a car whose engine runs at 40 miles per gallon, then the car should run at the same gas mileage whether you drive in Paris or Bangkok. The similar assumption is used in traditional educational research.

This issue of generalizability has been one of the hottest topics debated in educational research communities (e.g., Hedges, 2013; Warnick, 2004). What is tempting about generalizability is that if we find something that works in one study, then the knowledge could be disseminated and applied to numerous other settings. In other words, if we find a way to improve an educational practice, we could consider reproducing the practice in other settings using the same method, as people in the pharmaceutical and automobile industries do. This is a sweet deal for those who aspire to make education look like those industries.

However, things are not that simple in reality. Educational practices are highly complex and do not follow simple sets of principles. Each practice is embedded in a particular context that involves uniquely personal, social, and cultural dimensions (Lave, 1991). In real-life contexts, many situation-specific factors often mediate or thwart the psychological or social processes reported in traditional research. Therefore, a large-scale reproduction of an educational practice or innovation has largely been an unfulfilled dream.

For instance, suppose that you encountered a research article that suggests that students remember information more efficiently when they are asked to review texts with questions in mind (Rothkopf, 1966). You might ← 23 | 24 → then decide to use this approach in your classroom (i.e., asking or requiring students to read texts with questions in mind), but when you actually used the approach in your teaching, you could find your students are not really retaining the information in the texts. This can happen if the content of the text was not relevant to the students’ interests, it was too long, or your students did not comprehend the texts due to various behavioral problems in your classroom. In classroom situations, numerous situational and human factors could nullify your attempts to implement approaches reported in academic research articles. This happens because traditional researchers typically design their studies so that they can exclude the possibility that numerous situational factors (e.g., behavioral problems) that are external to their hypothesized model influence the outcomes or research. Researchers carefully exclude the influence of extraneous factors in their research by controlling these factors in the research design—often by creating an experimental group and control group that only differ by the use of the new method. Therefore, what is reported in traditional research typically excludes numerous real-life situational factors that exist in real-life situations.

This means that if you attempt to implement a new approach described in a research article in your classroom, you cannot ignore the situational factors excluded in the research article that could significantly influence the effect of the approach in your practice. Furthermore, traditional research describes an average model, that is, the picture obtained by collecting a large number of data and studying what was observed in average. Therefore, if an educator applies the approach in his particular educational practice, the impact could deviate from the average model reported in the research article. We can find many such counter-examples against generalizability in real-life educational practices.

In essence, it can be seen that traditional research reports only macro models obtained by excluding various situational, micro-level factors. The macro model offered by traditional researchers may show us some useful pictures, but we should not forget that at the micro level, numerous situational and human factors could make each educational practice deviate from the macro model. Consequently, what is important for you as an educator is to carefully consider the context-specific needs of your teaching practice in your classroom rather than assuming that the macro model would automatically create desirable effects in your classroom.

Please note that this book is not denying the worthiness of positivist or postpositivist research. What this book is warning is that it would be too ← 24 | 25 → optimistic to expect that simply implementing a “big-picture” model you learned from macro-level research reports would work in real-life situations. Macro models may be informative to us, but what is truly needed is a type of micro-level research that examines context-specific ways of improving educational practice in each context. The findings from such micro-level research may not be generalizable to other contexts, but if each educator engages in this type of research in each educational setting, it would eventually create a macro-level effect. Action research falls into this kind of research.

FOR YOUR REFLECTION: What do you think is the meaningfulness of generalizable research? What should the relationship be between macro-level research and a micro-level teaching practice (i.e., your own practice)?


Another important assumption typically employed in traditional research is reductionism, that is, the assumption that reality can be reduced to a finite set of its components that can be later reassembled to regain the whole picture. Traditional researchers typically employ this assumption to reduce the complexity of reality into manageable entities and study these simplified components. In modern societies, we enjoy the benefits of reductionism in many areas, such as natural science and engineering. For example, pretend that you are a car engineer and consider the following question:

How can we improve the performance of a car on urban highways?

Needless to say, automobile performance on urban highways is a highly complex phenomenon, so the reductionist approach has been used to bring down the complexity to a manageably simple level. For instance, you could divide the car performance into subcomponents such as engine performance (e.g., torque, power), control (e.g., brakes, acceleration), shock absorption mechanisms (e.g., spring shock absorber, tires), and so on. Then you could study how to optimize the performance of each of these components, and after conducting enough research on each of the components, you will assemble a new car with these components. Generally speaking, this is considered to be a very effective approach to optimize the performance of products in many industries.

← 25 | 26 → Such a reductionist approach has had astonishing success in our society. It has made cars smoothly run on highways, sent Apollo 11 to the moon, and enabled your computer to quickly download music from the Internet. As a result, people often apply the same approach to improve people’s performance in other disciplines such as sports (e.g., improving a tennis player’s performance in terms of movements of the shoulder, elbow, footwork), culinary arts (e.g., improving a chef’s performance in terms of sets of ingredients and procedures), and medical practices (e.g., improving a patient’s health in terms of blood test results, heart rate measures), just to name a few.

Therefore, it is no surprise that the reductionist approach has been used to improve the quality of educational practice in schools. As an educator, you must have been asked to develop or use rubrics to assess students’ performance. Similarly, you are held “accountable” for your teaching in terms of a certain set of standards stipulated by an authority. For instance, the state of California stipulated 13 Teaching Performance Expectations (TPEs), items such as making the subject matter comprehensive to students (TPE 1), monitoring student learning during instruction (TPE 2), interpretation and use of assessments (TPE 3), and so on. If these 13 teaching performance standards are satisfied, the educators are considered to be competent. Similar reductionist approaches to assess educators, students, and schools can be easily found if you just conduct a simple Web search. The reductionist approach to improving professional practice is everywhere in our society (Beck, 2007; Wrigley, 2004).

Consequently, many educational researchers use the reductionist approach to understand the targeted phenomena that they study. Published research articles are full of examples of the use of this approach—studying a complex phenomenon (e.g., language learning) by dividing it to its components (e.g., vowel recognition, word retrieval cues) and studying each component. When you read those reports, you might wonder why researchers love to investigate very miniscule (and sometimes what seems boring) aspects of educational practice, but now you understand why. For traditional educational researchers, this approach is important because they regard each research finding as a piece of the puzzle that they aspire to later assemble into a big picture.

FOR YOUR REFLECTION: Do you think that your educational practice can be reduced to a finite set of components? If so, how many components do you think are necessary? If not, what cannot be reduced to its components?

← 26 | 27 → One critical argument against reductionism can be found in Gestalt Psychology (see Ash, 1998). In the early twentieth century, a group of psychologists in Germany emphasized the importance of embracing the totality (called Gestalt in German) of reality and personal experiences. This group included Kurt Koffka, Max Wertheimer, and Wolfgang Köhler, as well as Kurt Lewin, the very person who is now known as the father of action research. These psychologists strongly opposed reductionism and maintained that the whole is more than the sum of its parts (e.g., Koffka, 1922; Köhler, 1940). According to them, we experience many phenomena where the whole can be more than the sum of its parts, and the essence of our perception lies in its capability to grasp the totality.

For instance, try to drive a car by separately paying attention to the steering wheel, accelerator, and brake pedal. You know such maneuvers will result in pretty clumsy (and dangerous) driving no matter how carefully you focus on each of the components. Similarly, drink a cup of milk tea. Do you think the taste of the milk tea is the sum of the taste of tea and the taste of milk? Gestalt psychologists would say that your experience consists of the unique way these perceptions are synthesized as a whole experience.

Unfortunately, history tells us that Gestalt psychology did not become a mainstream paradigm in the field. Consequently, the argument for totality is somewhat forgotten in many areas of the social sciences including education. In fact, I have heard almost no educational researchers talking about Gestalt except for those patiently attempting to preserve the totality of the targeted phenomena in the research framework (e.g., Blosser, 1973; Hartmann, 2007). Consequently, there has been a tendency in society—particularly in Western cultures—to embrace reductionism without a critical look at its assumptions.

How can you overcome the limitation of the reductionist assumption that permeates the field of education? What should you do? In this book, we use action research as an example of a type of research that allows you to preserve the totality of your educational practice in the research framework. Though this makes the research process a little challenging, action research aims at improving the whole picture of your practice while valuing the unique chemistry and synthesis that takes place in your practice. In this sense, action research is an “organic” kind of research that allows you to embrace the totality and integrity of your practice.

Thus, in your action research, you may want to be very careful about the use of reductionism. For instance, when you employ a new approach in your classroom, you would definitely not want to be clumsy by having your ← 27 | 28 → attention captured by the components of your actions. And when you collect data, you might think of using rubrics, checklists, and other multi-item assessment tools, but you may also want to be careful not to lose sight of the totality and organic aspects of your practice. Those “reductionist” assessment tools can help you evaluate various aspects of your educational practice, but you may want to use them wisely so that you do not lose sight of the totality and integrity of your educational practice.

In action research, you could capture the totality of your educational practice when you collect data. One popular way of doing this is to videotape your teaching, your interactions with your students, and your students’ learning activities. These data sets would allow you to obtain a holistic picture of your teaching and students’ learning from which you can reflect on what needs to be improved in your teaching while preserving its totality in the data. Also, in interviews and questionnaires, you could ask students what they learned in their learning activities as a whole as well as in various components of the learning activities. These approaches, if used along with rubrics, checklists, and multi-item assessment tools, can help you include a holistic picture of your practice in your research framework.

Again, this does not necessarily mean that you cannot use multi-item assessment tools in your action research; these are merely tools that are useful in evaluating and reflecting on various aspects of your teaching practice. In other words, it is important that you should capture a holistic picture of your educational practice while critically examining the partial pictures of your practice in your action research. In fact, this is something that good automobile engineers and medical researchers know very well. If you aim at truly enhancing the quality of the targeted practice, you need to mindfully capture both the holistic picture as well as the partial pictures of your practice in your scope.

FOR YOUR REFLECTION: What do you think is a mindful way to balance your attention to various components of your practice and the totality of your practice?

Dichotomous Thinking

Another important assumption that is often held by traditional researchers is the assumption of dichotomous thinking. Dichotomous thinking leads you to think and capture reality in a black-and-white manner. This assumption ← 28 | 29 → serves as an important aspect of traditional research because for traditional researchers, any statement about objective reality is supposed to be judged as true or false. Typically, what traditional researchers examine takes the following form.

Either A is true or A is false.

For instance, if A = “Tests motivate students,” then the above statement is either tests motivate students or tests do not motivate students. Here, it is assumed that there is no middle ground and reality is molded into the either/or framework. Sometimes the dichotomous statement could take the following forms.

If A is true, then B is false.

If B is true, then A is false.

For instance, substitute A with the phrase “Traditional instruction is beneficial to students” and B with “Project-based learning is beneficial to students.” In this case, project-based learning becomes the negation of traditional learning, and traditional learning becomes the negation of project-based learning with no gray areas in-between. Choosing between the two choices is imposed by employing this framework.

We often encounter this kind of argument in our everyday lives. Just turn on the TV and watch political debates. You will find many dichotomous arguments—such as either capitalism is right because socialism is wrong, or socialism is right because capitalism is wrong—without exploring any middle ground or other options. We could call it dichotomous epistemology, or a way to view the world in an either/or fashion. Many educational researchers have subscribed to the epistemology and conducted research based on this assumption.

FOR YOUR REFLECTION: Have you encountered or been influenced by any educational research with a dichotomous framework? If so, what did you think about it, and how did it affect your teaching?

Now let’s think about a research situation. Consider that people are wondering about the Mozart effect, that is, the well-known but highly debated effect of listening to Mozart on students’ intellectual development (Campbell, 2002; Taylor & Rowe, 2012). Do you think that research should resolve this ← 29 | 30 → debate in an either/or fashion? If so, you are using the dichotomous epistemology, and you would design your research to answer whether listening to Mozart promotes or does not promote intellectual development, assuming that reality can offer only one answer to the question.

However, we know that things can be more complex than being captured in such a black-and-white manner. For instance, there could be varying degrees in the extent to which listening to Mozart affects various aspects of intellectual development depending on different individual and environmental factors, and we may not be able to ensure that the effect is always positive for each individual student. If we look at a large amount of data, we might indeed find that listening to Mozart has a certain effect on some aspect of intellectual development, but the model may not be applicable to every student or every context. Though studies may report a certain verdict to the dichotomous research question, there is no guarantee that your students or a particular student group would follow the reported model. In fact, if you look into the reported studies carefully, you may realize that the effect of listening to Mozart on intellectual development could depend on many factors that are outside the scope of the studies and is limited to a certain type of intellectual functioning (see Aheadi, Dixon, & Glover, 2010; Cassity, Henley, & Markley, 2007). For example, the effect could be totally dependent on the students’ experience in music performance, the Mozart songs selected, or the situations in which they are played. The effect could also be limited to a certain kind of spatial reasoning. For a certain group of students—particularly those who are outside Western cultures—listening to Mozart could be a bizarre experience. For others, the effect of the music could depend on their emotional state. In other words, if you are looking for the model that works best, then the best model is the one tailored to reflect each individual person in the context.

FOR YOUR REFLECTION: What is the point of understanding reality in terms of answering dichotomous research questions? As an educator, how useful are the findings from such research?

Now, let’s discuss a trap originated in the dichotomous epistemology that many people can fall into. In traditional educational research, a technique called the test of significance is typically used as a technical solution to mold reality into a dichotomous framework. The test of significance is commonly used in social science research to give a verdict to a dichotomous statement based on the quantitative data obtained in the research. To initiate the test, ← 30 | 31 → a researcher first creates two hypotheses that are opposites of each other (A is true or A is false). Then, after the data are collected, researchers analyze which of the hypotheses the data supports by making use of inferential statistics. The inferential statistics used for such an analysis includes a z-test, t-test, χ6 test, analysis of variance (ANOVA), etc., depending on the type of hypotheses researchers are testing. By using a statistical technique, researchers can claim a winner in a dichotomous manner (e.g., A is true) in terms of the p-value (the probability that you are wrong about your hypothesis) calculated from the data: If the p-value for the hypothesized statement is found to be less than 0.05 (called the alpha value), then you are allowed to make a claim that the data support the hypothesis. In other words, if a statistical analysis of the sampled data gives you a 95% confidence for a hypothesis to be true (i.e., 100% – 5% = 95% chance that the observed result can be trusted), you are allowed to make the claim that the statement you chose is true. Thus, the test of significance is a very sophisticated technique to mold the “truth” in reality into a dichotomous framework you create for the research.

Please be aware that people are often blinded by this technique, ignoring the fact that it is only making a probability statement about reality. People often forget that it was created as a practical way to resolve endless arguments by artificially creating the 5% threshold as a social agreement in the field. Indeed, because this is merely an agreement among social scientists, a different threshold value, 1% or less, is typically used in medical research.

My point here is that even if traditional educational researchers gave a verdict to a dichotomous statement using the test of significance, this means that there is as much as a 5% chance that the opposite side is true. And again, if you look into real-life situations outside of this framework, there is a great likelihood that the outcome (e.g., impact of listening to Mozart) may be totally dependent on extraneous factors (e.g., parents, media, peers) outside the scope of the study. In other words, it is highly problematic to believe that the outcome of a test of significance can accurately predict what would happen in real-life situations (Kline, 2013; Wells & Hintze, 2007). As an educator, you may want to be mindful that things are always much more complex and dynamic in practice situations than the dichotomous picture portrayed in traditional educational research.

An important question is what kind of relationship you should establish with the dichotomous epistemology in your action research. Again, when you engage in action research, there is a chance that you will not find a simple pattern like those reported in published traditional research because of ← 31 | 32 → numerous situational and human factors that are involved in your practice. A “tragedy” can happen if you mindlessly apply what you learned through a research article to your practice and did not obtain the same result reported in the article. There, students’ learning was sacrificed by the dichotomous research that you use in your teaching. A failure to consider numerous human and situational factors beyond the simplified, theoretical model offered by traditional researchers could lead to such “tragedy.”

When you plan and conduct action research, therefore, you need to be very careful about this issue. Do not confine yourself to the dichotomous epistemology or too simplistic views of reality. As an educator, your responsibility is to help students learn and develop in real-life classroom contexts. It is something that cannot be done by merely following the simplistic model that researchers created and disseminated. Making things work in practice situations requires a series of considerations to explore and cope with a variety of human and situational factors that dynamically emerge in the context and influence your teaching and your students’ learning.

But let me clarify: Developing a parsimonious model based on a well-defined research framework in the form of traditional research does not create a problem by itself. What is problematic is the optimistic and naïve view that a model created in traditional research must readily work in actual practice situations. We need to recognize that traditional research studies a certain limited aspect of reality as well-defined problem-solving by intentionally creating a certain set of constraints to derive a solution under a clearly stipulated set of constraints, while action research attempts to improve real-life practice in the form of an ill-defined problem-solving in a complex environment that is open to many real-life factors that makes it almost impossible to derive a clear-cut solution.

For many, this discussion could create an important tipping point: Are you interested more in conducting research to develop a parsimonious model under a well-defined research framework? Or are you more interested in making things actually work in a real-life context even though it is open to many real-life factors? Simply put, are you interested in pursuing traditional research (former) or action research (latter)?

This book was written with the assumption that your choice as an educator would be the latter, but it does not necessarily mean that you should ignore traditional research. There are certain ways that traditional research and action research can support each other (Elliot, 2009; Gustavsen, 2001), and we will be exploring this issue later in this book. This is an important issue ← 32 | 33 → for you to think about because it relates to the questions of how we should conceptualize the nature of knowledge for improving educational practice.

FOR YOUR REFLECTION: In your educational practice, have you ever followed any suggestions from published research? What happened and how do you now reflect on the experience?

Knowledge and Assumptions

Here, let’s examine the nature of knowledge that we should pursue as educators. This is an important issue because in action research, the nature of knowledge is conceptualized quite differently than in traditional research. It is important that you consider this issue before you actually start planning and conducting your action research.

First, how do traditional educational researchers conceptualize the nature of the knowledge that they pursue? They typically assume that their role is to uncover unknown facts and truth about certain aspects of educational practice. When traditional researchers conduct research, they start from previously published research articles on the topics of their concern. After reviewing a series of relevant articles published in peer-reviewed academic journals (that we call “the literature”), they start designing their research to uncover what is not yet known. There, research activity is considered an attempt to fill a hole of knowledge in the literature. And once they fill this hole through their research, they disseminate the knowledge to other researchers so that further investigations are conducted on the related issues.

This way of conceptualizing the nature of knowledge is widely seen in many academic fields, such as natural sciences and medical research. Educational research is no exception. In any educational research textbook, there is always a section that tells you how important it is to conduct a thorough literature review that warrants and supports your study. In traditional research, a literature review is indispensable because without it, you cannot justify your research activity. Many educational research textbooks follow this epistemological assumption.

Here, I would like to ask you to critically examine this assumption regarding the nature of knowledge. My questions are: How useful is this way of conceptualizing the nature of knowledge for actually improving educational practice? What role should the literature actually play in improving educational practice?

← 33 | 34 → In considering these questions, I would like to offer a little thought experiment. Please read the following statement and decide if it true or false.

1 + 1 = 2

I know that almost all of you would think that this is a true statement and that no one can question the cogency. However, think about a situation in which two gunmen get together. One gunman shoots another gunman and only one survives. Thus 1 + 1 = 1. You may think this is cheating, but I just used a different assumption: I assumed addition as counting the combined set, but did not use the assumption of conservation (meaning that things do not disappear, or the members of the set are conserved in the operation). People usually use conservation as the assumption and reason that 1 + 1 = 2. In other words, using a different assumption for problem-solving leads to a totally different kind of problem-solving (Greer, 1997; Hatano, 1997; Inoue, 2005, 2009).

An important point here is that our knowledge highly depends on the assumption that we use in the context. And in real-life situations, it is sometimes difficult to know what assumptions are valid or what assumptions we should use. In many cases, people often do not know what assumptions they are using or what others are using in the situation, which makes human interactions highly complex. Also, people can change their assumptions at any time, and for those people, 1 + 1 can be sometimes 2 (conservation of the set—no destruction was done) and 1 + 1 is sometimes 1 (no conservation—destruction was done). And this includes you—your reasoning and decision-making in your teaching. It might be the case that you are not aware of the assumptions you are using, and you may be changing your assumptions depending on various situational demands in classroom practice.

This means that even if you attempt to use the knowledge that you learned through a research article, a real-life practice situation could demand that you use a different set of assumptions, which could make the knowledge you learned invalid and useless in the situation. For instance, suppose that you learned from a research article that having students create a concept map in reading activates can boost their comprehension, and you asked your students to do so in your class. However, if the students do not have enough background knowledge about the texts or get confused about how to create a concept map, they may not benefit from the approach at all.

In other words, the way we make decisions and take action in our real-life practice does not necessarily match the epistemological assumptions ← 34 | 35 → employed in the traditional research framework (e.g., students possess enough background knowledge about the texts). And in a way, what happens in practice is destined to deviate from what is described in academic research reports due to the numerous situational and human factors unique to the context. This means that you need to engage in your educational practice by critically examining what assumptions you need to employ and make wise decisions depending on each situation. This makes the nature of knowledge pursued in action research significantly different from the nature of knowledge pursued in traditional research.

FOR YOUR REFLECTION: Have you experienced any situation in which a difference in assumptions between you and others (students, colleagues, supervisors, researchers, etc.) made your teaching go against what you had planned? What do you think is a wise way to prevent this from happening?

Here, I would like to point out that what traditional researchers pursue is scientific knowledge, a type of knowledge that is valid under a clearly defined set of assumptions employed to isolate the targeted phenomenon. On the other hand, what action researchers pursue includes experiential knowledge, a type of knowledge situated in specific, real-life practice contexts and open to a variety of human and situational factors. Thus, the direct use of scientific knowledge reported by traditional researchers in practice situations can become a futile effort because the complexity of real-life situations could totally override the dynamics and causal relationships described in the traditional research literature. To make your teaching successful, you need to also develop experiential knowledge that reflects a variety of situation-specific considerations to make the new approach actually work in the practice situation.

But again, this does not mean that the knowledge you gain through the literature is totally useless for your action research. The literature could help you gain new perspectives that you would never have thought about in your own practice situations. But be careful about the limitation of applying what researchers suggest there. Always read the literature by being mindful about the underlying assumptions as well as the nature of knowledge discussed there.

FOR YOUR REFLECTION: What kinds of experiential knowledge do you think you have as an educator? What do you think you should do to gain experiential knowledge?

← 35 | 36 → Taking a Balance Mindfully

So far, this chapter has examined key assumptions that underlie traditional research in relation to action research and the nature of real-life educational practice. Please be aware that this book was not written to lead you to claim a paradigm war against traditional research or positivism. In fact, positivistic research is one way of conducting research that has generated a wealth of knowledge and given numerous contributions to natural and social sciences. Positivism has also offered a highly objective and analytical lens to understand reality. However, if you confine yourself in this epistemology, it would create a number of problems in your educational practice.

In a way, positivism achieved its glorious days in the natural sciences because of its exclusion of subjectivity. It allowed us to distance ourselves from intuitionism, that is, using our personally constructed perceptions and instincts as the basis of our judgments and understanding of reality. This could be theorized in terms of the following diagram.

As you can see in the diagram, positivism can be conceptualized as an extreme case in the continuum with an emphasis on objectivity. Similarly, intuitionism can be seen as another end of the continuum with an emphasis on subjectivity. Traditional researchers avoid subjectivity as much as possible so that your thinking and decision-making are logical, objective, and unbiased. Again, this is not a problem by itself. However, as we discussed in this chapter, we cannot deny that your educational practice involves highly subjective, experiential, and intuitive dimensions. Therefore, in your action research, you need to mindfully balance objectivity and subjectivity involved in your practice improvement effort.

In the next chapter, you will be guided to actually plan your action research project. There, please keep the above issues in mind. Please do not be trapped in an extreme epistemological stance. Your action research takes place in actual practice situations where you need to have good and flexible “footwork” to assume diverse epistemological stances.

FOR YOUR REFLECTION: What experiences do you have in your teaching that exemplifies the tension between objectivity and subjectivity? How did you handle the tension? What would you do if the same thing happened to you now?

← 36 | 37 → · 3 ·


Journey from Within

Questioning the Familiar

In this chapter, we will discuss how you could craft a good action research question so that you can start an authentic and meaningful action research journey. Crafting an action research question may sound easy, but there are several key things to keep in mind.

To get the process started, think about your educational practice and reflect on what matters to you. Find a topic that you have been personally wondering about in your practice. For instance, you could have been puzzled by why your students are not motivated to learn in your math classes, why a certain group of students always falls behind in reading, what tools you should introduce to help students think scientifically, and so on. You could start listing what you would like to explore based on your experiences in your classroom and then choose what resonates with you most from the list.

The good news is that in action research, your action research question will evolve from one phase to another, and you will be refining it as you make progress in the research process. But you need to start from somewhere.

← 37 | 38 → The following are a few examples of initial action research questions:

• What is the most effective classroom management approach to promote the students to pay attention to your instruction?

• What alternative approaches should I use other than grades and points to motivate my students?

• What kinds of individual support should I give to English language learners?

• What should I do to truly inspire my students to engage in historic reasoning?

Because you are improving your educational practice through action research, your research questions should not be merely about finding facts or truths. Rather, it should be grounded in the specific needs of your practice in a way that promotes your development and growth as educator. Most importantly, your initial questions should be about an issue that you feel a strong urge to investigate as an educator.

FOR YOUR REFLECTION: What are the things that you feel are important but do not feel you have a good grasp of in your practice? List them using bullet points. Why are they important to you?

Your Action Research Question

Once you have identified the topic for your action research journey, stipulate your initial action research question in a sentence. Here, I would like to offer you a few tips that you could use as guidelines:

1. Avoid a yes-or-no question. A yes-or-no question will force the research activity into a dichotomous framework. As discussed in the previous chapter, what happens in an actual practice is typically complex and difficult to capture using a dichotomous framework. Yes-or-no questions will limit the extent to which you can embrace the complexity of your practice and engage in a genuine inquiry process. So avoid starting your research questions that start from “Does this … ?” “Is it right to … ?” “Should this be … ?” and so on. Instead, ask open-ended questions such as “How can I effectively … ?” “How is it possible to … ?” and “What can I do to … ?” that allow you to explore ways to improve your teaching practice in your action research.

2. ← 38 | 39 → Ask what is researchable. Ask a question that is researchable. Do not ask questions just for the sake of information-gathering or fact-finding. For example, “Do my students really care about mathematics?” is not really a research question but rather a fact-finding query. Or some people may find themselves caught up in a larger philosophical question such as “What is the meaning of free speech?” or “What should be the role of religion in education?” These questions are not necessarily bad, but your action research topic should involve something researchable. Ask researchable questions that could allow you to make data-driven decisions for improving your educational practice. For instance, if you are interested in issues related to free speech or religion as in the above examples, ask instead something like: “How can I effectively help my students work with each other and promote free and democratic discussions in my classes?” or “How could discussions on faith boost students’ motivation in learning history?”

3. Ask things that entail your deep-seated feelings. Your action research project will go on a journey that is not always a smooth ride. You could encounter many things you did not expect, which is not necessarily an easy experience. Therefore, it is better to ask questions that involve your deep-seated feelings. Without doing so, your action research could stay at a technical level and may not really lead to your growth and development as an educator. More importantly, developing questions based on what you really care for and feel passionate about will make your action research an authentic and meaningful journey. Think about what kinds of things are constantly in your mind—when you wake up in the morning, take a shower, drive to work, etc. These are often what you really care about at a deep level.

4. Ask a question relevant to improving your teaching. Because the goal of your action research is improving your educational practice, ask a question related to actually improving your teaching—what you can envision in terms of real-life classroom situation. For example, if you are wondering about the use of technology in education, ask something like “How could I effectively help students use iPads and engage in complex mathematical problem-solving using its visualization capability?”

5. Ask a specific, but not too detailed, question. It is a good idea to make your action research question specific in terms of your practice situation, but at the same time, do not make it too specific. In action research,← 39 | 40 → you need to engage in an open inquiry into the complexity associated with the issue of your concern. Therefore, make your action research question open-ended. But at the same time, do not make your research question too broad. This could result in you getting consumed by too many issues involved in the question without a meaningful focus. For example, “How can I be a good algebra teacher?” is too broad, and “How can my students accurately draw a line graph in my algebra class?” is too narrow. You may want to pose a question that involves a good balance and is likely to promote your growth and development as an educator, such as “How can I help my students become motivated to learn algebraic concepts using effective graphical representations?”

6. Do not ask questions that are too challenging or too easy. It is not a good idea to choose a topic that seems too challenging because you could easily get stuck in your action research process and be unable to move ahead. At the same time, avoid choosing a topic that seems too easy. If you choose too easy a topic, you will not be challenged or encounter opportunities to grow and develop as an educator. Choose a topic that is likely to create a moderate level of challenge or cognitive dissonance—the gap between your familiar view of a practice and the things that go against your expectations.

7. Encompass “I.” As discussed before, an important assumption of action research is that you play a key role in improving your own practice. In the process, you will grow, develop, and genuinely master new ways of doing things in your practice. Therefore, think of including “I” in your research question by asking such questions as “How can I effectively … ?” and “What can I do to … ?”


VIII, 207
ISBN (Book)
Publication date
2014 (January)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 207 pp., num. fig.

Biographical notes

Norijuki Inoue (Author)

Noriyuki Inoue is an associate professor of educational psychology and research methods at the University of San Diego, School of Leadership and Education Sciences. He received a MEd from Harvard University and a PhD from Columbia University.


Title: Beyond Actions