Pedretti, 1996

Pedretti, E. (1996). Facilitating Action Research in Science, Technology and Society (STS) Education: An experience in reflective practice. Educational Action Research, 4(3), 307–327.


Action research as a form of professional development encourages teachers to participate in cycles of planning, acting, observing and reflecting, thereby creating possibilities for change and transformation. Equally important are the transformations and professional growth experienced by the facilitator in an action research context. In recent literature, the epistemological and methodological foundations of action research have come under scrutiny. Part of this debate emerges from the experience of those who actually attempt to facilitate action research with groups of teachers. In this paper I critically examine my participation (as a university?based facilitator and researcher) in an action research group in science, technology and society (STS) education to illustrate: (a) how a second?order inquiry enhanced my understanding of the nature of action research, while (b) simultaneously allowing me to explore and develop strategies for facilitating the process.

The notion of the teacher as a 'reflective practitioner' (see Stenhouse, 1975 ; Schon, 1983 ; Russell & Munby, 1992; Whitehead, 1993; Gilbert, 1994) engaged in action research implies active participation in cycles of planning, acting, observing and reflecting on one's teaching practices. Action research creates possibilities for change, improvement of practice; a shift in consciousness. (p. 308)

However, there is a growing body of literature (Kosmidou & Usher, 1991; Schratz, 1993; Elliott, 1993b; Walker, 1993 ; Somekh, 1994; Wells, 1994) which purports to examine the epistemological and methodological foundations of action research (p. 308)

Academics who engage in the theory and not the practice of action research run the risk of distorting the complementary and dialectic relationship between theory and practice. More importantly, this separation perpetuates a theoretical hegemony between academics and teachers, as the academic assumes the role of the action research 'expert' (Kosmidou & Usher, 1991; Elliott. 1993b). (p. 309)

dogfooding (note on p.309)

Data were accumulated using multiple methods from the qualitative ethnographic tradition (Bogdan & Taylor, 1975; Wolcott, 1988; Hammersley & Atkinson, 1990). These methods included: journal writing by both the participants and myself, observations and audiotapes of group meetings, interviews, on-site school visits and audiotapes of meetings between me and another action research colleague (who was involved in, a similar action research group). (p. 310)

AR is not a method. Any method can be used in AR. (note on p.310)

Each meeting was audiotaped in its entirety and approximately 50 hours of tapes were collected and transcribed. During the meetings, I was both a researcher and participant. Field notes and copious observations were written to supplement the tapes. (p. 310)

Individual interviews with participating teachers were also conducted throughout the action research project. While some of the interviews were semi-structured in nature, most of them occurred spontaneously, immediately before or after an action research group meeting. (p. 310)

Insights and perceptions that were not necessarily articulated within the larger group enriched the perspectives and meanings I had begun to construct. (p. 310)

Attempting to fulfill several roles simultaneously can create confusion and can generate tensions. Sometimes, tensions are creative and encourage clarification and development of understanding of various roles. On other occasions, they can be destructive, becoming sources of anxiety and uncertainty about how best to proceed. Writing in journals is one way for people to 'converse with themselves' (i.e. to reflect on their practice), and creates an especially powerful means for exploring beliefs, attitudes and perceptions of events (Holly, 1989; Richert, 1992). (p. 310)

A key tenet then, is the notion that teachers are central to the action research process and work collaboratively with the researcher in an equal partnership. Teachers become an integral part of the inquiry, and assume a position of equal participants and authentic co-researchers (Kosmidou & Usher, 1991) (p. 311)

Any theoretical hegemony between academics and teachers should be dissolved. (p. 311)

Turns out I have misunderstood hegemony for a while now. (note on p.311)


My journal entry written the night before the first group meeting expressed not only my excitement, but my concern as well: The few days leading up to the fist action research meeting were filed with excitement trepidation and anxiety. How many teachers would participate? I had spoken to them individually over the summer, and now the time had come to meet as a group. How were we to begin? What issues would we tackle? How would the group Junction? What was my role to be? (15 September) (p. 311)

meirl (note on p.311)

My intention was to share with the group my reasons and hopes for the action research group. I brought to their attention questions and issues that we might address during the course of our time together. Yet, this too already presented a dilemma. In sharing my hopes and purposes for the establishment of such a group, I felt I was implicitly guiding them in a certain direction. At the same time, I felt the need to provide some structure, and a sense of purpose. (p. 312)

Openness, or sharing, is the primary issue in the 'encounter' phase of group work (Reddy & Lippert, 1980), and establishes future group cohesion and trust. (p. 312)

It became evident during our first meeting that I am the leader - or at least perceived to be the leader. I am looked to for direction. Yet this endeavour is to be a collaborative one. and that is what I tried to stress to the group. I am not teaching, or lecturing or providing answers. As I see it, I am a facilitator, a historian, a resource person, a coordinator. Yet, I must also guide the group. For example, I provided books for journal writing, relevant articles, and suggested at their request, how we might conduct our next meeting. In response to their questions about the journals, I proposed that they write about themselves, their reasons for coming, their classrooms, their understanding o/STS, their expectations and any issue they would like to tackle or research in the future. In the midst of all this I too am continually collecting data - about myself and the group. (Journal entry, 17 September) (p. 312)

Clearly, a number of discourses seem to be competing with one another. As a facilitator, on the 'inside', I strive to 'enable', 'assist', and 'guide' practitioners in establishing an action research project amenable to their individual educational situations. As a researcher on the 'outside'. I 'document', 'record', and 'analyse' the action research process. These seemingly competing perspectives emerged from the participants' voices and needs, and from my own writing, reflecting and voicing. I thus interpreted part of my task as transforming an inside/outside dichotomy to an inside/outside dialectic whereby each perspective would complement and inform the other. (p. 313)

Equipped with our materials, worksheets, laboratory activities, ideas, books, and strategies, we again met as a group to explore the simple machines unit. However, in the interim, an unsettling transformation began. I use the word 'unsettling' because as a group we felt, at that time, somewhat frustrated and discouraged. (p. 314)

Steven's observations suggest that the group's interest was initially 'technical' in nature (Grundy, 1987), in spite of our valiant recognition of the importance of context, reflection and personalisation of science. (p. 314)

The group's intense desire to 'produce' stood in the way of our ability to reflect on what we were doing and why. This episode confirms the tendency of teachers to move straight into activities of 'producing' (Reid & Tracey, 1985). Perhaps as teachers that is what we have been encultured into, and that is what we know and do best. (p. 314)

It is ironic that, having acknowledged teachers as reflective practitioners, theorists and researchers, we systematically (without any explicit consideration) bypassed theory generation, the very assumption that premised our work. (p. 315)

As the group moved slowly through this transformation I, too, experienced a shift in my own consciousness; a shift in my questions and perspectives (p. 315)

In time, my perspective began to shift from what Elliott (1993a) and Louden (1992) describe as a 'technical' interest - an interest in controlling the world by attending to rule-like regularities, to a combination of 'problematic' and 'critical' interests. (p. 316)

In responding to what was perceived to be a crisis on the group's journey, I arranged to meet with individual teachers. In many ways it felt as though the group was moving in reverse. (p. 316)

In particular, some of the participants (Malcolm and Julie), perceived a mismatch between what they had hoped for and wanted from the experience, and what they felt was actually happening. As a facilitator to the group, I found the work of Posner et al (1982) on conceptual change helpful. (p. 316)

New conceptions [or experience) must be viewed as intelligible, plausible and fruitful by all the participants in the group: "people resist making such changes, unless they are dissatisfied with their current concepts and find an intelligible and plausible alternative that appears fruitful for further inquiry" (Posner et al, 1982 , p. 233). This cognitive conflict or "cognitive dissonance" (Douglas, 1991) required the restoration of balance between their personal expectations and the group experience as a whole, and prompted the reanalysis of my roles: Am I the facilitator, or leader? I prefer to think of myself as a facilitator in a collaborative, exploratory process. Yet, why do I sometimes feel doubtful? Was the action research group fulfilling all those wonderful objectives I had set out in the early fall? How did the members now feel? Were they pleased, disillusioned, frustrated, excited, disappointed? These were the burning questions for me. (6 November) (p. 316)

Earlier , I described one of my facilitator roles as providing a focus for a group of researchers. In an attempt to cultivate group consensus and group initiative, had I been too unstructured, too unfocused? Had the group been led astray? I felt it was important that the teachers chose their paths and initiated their own inquiry. Yet, at the same time some guidance was necessary . (p. 316)

The problematic issue of how much structure (and of what kind) a facilitator provides is fraught with decisions and subtleties. (p. 317)

When the group reconvened, individual interviews had taken place, and much venting of uncertainty and frustration had occurred through journal writing. (p. 317)

This turning point was a significant event in the life of the action research group because it challenged our notion of curriculum development, knowledge generation and validation, and provided an opportunity for renewed focus and purpose. (p. 317)

Structure (p. 318)

It could be counter-productive if you're inundated with paper reading and doing things, and not having a chance to reflect on what you want to get out of it (p. 318)

Comments by participants reinforce arguments for an emancipatory action research model (Grundy & Kemmis, 1981; Carr & Kemmis, 1986) that recognises the teacher as the key to professional and curriculum development. (p. 319)

Clearly, one cannot 'teach' (in any formal sense) or 'do' action research to practitioners, only the practitioners themselves can do action research on their own practice. However one can facilitate and enhance the process, and in so doing, assist others in establishing inquiring communities while simultaneously engaging in a second-order exploration. (p. 319)

"simultansously engaging in second-order exploration" I think is key for my context here. I obviously have a need to do the work of a dissertation while engaging in research with Indigenous educators. (note on p.319)

Context (p. 319)

Similarly, the facilitator is bound, to some extent, by his/her own characteristics, personality or idiosyncratic nature. (p. 319)

Knowing when and how to act is also an issue of 'connoisseurship' (Polanyi, 1958; Eisner, 1991), cultivated through experience, reflection and time. (p. 319)

Group Composition (p. 320)

Trust and Motivation (p. 321)

The role of the researcher/facilitator is critical in establishing this trust among the group members. Trust appears to be founded on the basis of knowing what to expect from others in a given situation (Douglas, 1991) - that is, some sense of security, cohesion and support. (p. 322)

Closely linked to this issue of trust are the facilitator's openness and sensitivity to feedback - whether it be encouragement, disappointment or excitment - and consequently, the facilitator's response. (p. 322)

From our experience together, it is clear that an action research community requires not only trust among the members, but also personal dedication and motivation. Motivation is usually measured as the degree of commitment, based on a "balance of satisfactions" (Douglas, 1991, p. 38). (p. 322)

Facilitator Roles (p. 323)

Indeed, s/he initiates and sustains the group, but ultimately it is the participants who, in a genuine and equal partnership with the facilitator, create an engaging community of inquiry. (p. 323)

  1. A Catalyst or Change Agent,
  2. A Facilitator
  3. A Teacher of Action Research:
  4. A Critic in the Process:
  5. A Group Recorder,
  6. A Source of Personal Support
  7. A Resource Person:
  8. A Source for a Second-order Inquiry:

The strength and appeal of an action research model is that it explicitly recognises the teacher as the key to professional and curriculum development. (p. 325)

Effective teacher education and curriculum development require that groups of teachers who know the children, the locality and the school environment well, are brought together to work on theoretical and practical issues in a critical but supportive environment. (p. 325)

The aim of transforming the consciousness and, thereby, the actions of teachers (and facilitators) begins, logically, with reflection on current practices, proceeds through critical consideration of alternatives, and culminates in deciding on, implementing and evaluating curriculum actions. (p. 325)

Embedded in this process is the notion of empowerment. Essentially, action research is about empowering teachers as they become facilitators and researchers of their own professional practice. (p. 325)

By engaging in a second-order inquiry, the facilitator potentially:

  1. reduces any perceived hegemony or power differential construed by school and university participants;
  2. builds a partnership based on genuine co-collaboration;
  3. explores strategies for enhancing the action research experience; and
  4. transform one's own praxis as a university-based facilitator, teacher and researcher. (p. 326)