Developed by
Dr. Judith M. Newman

Action Research Course


Brenda MacIsaac


"What is action research?" I asked myself as I perused the list of summer session courses, trying to decide which course to take. I had never heard of it before. The course times fit with my schedule and my curiosity had been aroused by the title: Education as Inquiry: An Action Research Experience. Of particular interest to me was the word inquiry. Since beginning full-time graduate studies in adult education last fall, the notion of questioning and inquiry had come up frequently. I wanted to do more "investigation" into myself and my teaching. "This course could be my opportunity" I thought, and decided to take the course.

The first class quickly changed my thinking about action research. Until graduate school my education had been firmly entrenched in the fields of health and science. I had always associated the word research with the "big R" research that Garth Boomer (1987 1) writes about in "Addressing the Problem of Elsewhereness." I wrote in my journal about the word research:

In "Action Research: Exploring the Tensions of Teaching" Judith talks about our "traditional research culture" where you begin with a question, collect data depending on the question and write up results. This is exactly how I have viewed research in the past. It might take me awhile to get used to this new way of thinking about research. I hope my scientific view of research doesn't interfere or impact negatively on my own action research, whatever that will be. I find the word 'research' a little daunting. I like 'investigation' better. (Journal 4/20/98)

By the end of that first class I had realized how action research was different from research I was used to in the past. Action research was learning by listening and investigating. It was writing down the surprises or confusions in the everyday. Judith called these "critical incidents." I had read in an article that these incidents would cause me to examine my assumptions. Sounds simple enough, I thought.

I went away from that first weekend of classes thinking that this was going to be an easy course. Little did I know how challenging it would become! I wrote down critical incidents, and read all the course readings over the next two weeks. I found the material interesting, but looking back I can see that I was not engaged, as Frank Smith (1983 2) describes. I had not taken ownership of my learning. The critical incidents I had written about were moments I was already aware of, and the issues raised by them were already obvious to me. "The most difficult thing about being an observer is recognizing the unexpected; it's much easier to record the expected." (Newman, 1998 3) I was writing about assumptions I had already examined. I was so busy looking for the expected that I failed see the surprises.

The next class I was beginning to feel like I was missing the boat. Everyone seemed so interested and engaged, and here I was, left on shore in a fog. This fog however started to clear by the end of our second weekend of classes. I had collected several critical incidents, and after sorting them in class I realized that there were two in particular that stayed with me long after the incident had occurred. What stood out was that they created tension for me. As Wendy Peters (1998 4) writes,

"Spying something of interest, possibly that sign of discomfort that hints at something more, the action researcher resolves to enter into a more highly focused interaction with whatever seems to be at issue."

I thought these incidents were fairly insignificant and unrelated at first, but when I looked back at them, they seem to be connected to each other.(One reason it is important to write these incidents down!) Two things happened that helped me to become more "highly focused." First, I discussed with the class the two critical incidents that had created the most discomfort for me; and second, after hearing the incidents, Judith referred me to the book "Women's Ways of Knowing" by Belenky et al. (1986 5) . I was now on board and eager to begin my journey.

Judith helped me to see how both of these critical incidents were connected to questioning authority, and my compliance with people in positions of power. Here is the first critical incident that caused some tension for me:

"I was in another graduate class at Mount Saint Vincent University and after class Ruth, a fellow classmate, came up to me and said, "May I ask a question!?!" I was completely puzzled and asked her to explain. Ruth and I had been in a course together earlier in the year called "Gender and Education." She reminded me that in this course we had discussed how women often qualify their words, and ask for permission before speaking. I was still wondering why she had pointed this out to me for a while after she left. Then it hit me. I had asked the male professor for permission to ask a question at the end of class and was totally unaware that I had done so. I had been completely unaware of my own words." (C.I. 4/30/98)

I think this incident was particularly surprising to me because I had thought I "knew better." I had assumed that because I had learned about the ways in which hegemonic masculinity suppresses and silences women in our culture, that I was now somehow above or beyond it. This made me realize that awareness does not always lead to changes in behavior, and that old habits can be hard to change. I now have a better understand of what Frank Conroy (1991 6) meant when he wrote, "understanding does not always mean resolution." This reminds me of another quote from Conroy's article that grabbed my attention, "The light bulb may appear over your head but it may be awhile before it actually goes on" (p: 69). I think my light bulb is finally turning on, and I hope it will get brighter with further understanding and inquiry.

The second incident occurred a week later:

"I arrived early for my graduate class and when I got outside the classroom door I noticed that the benches we sat on, to wait for our door to be opened, had been replaced. The new benches had several "Wet Paint" signs above them, so I walked past them to a chair and sat down. A few minutes later a classmate arrives. I notice her as she approaches and touches the bench. I point out the signs and she sits down saying "It's okay, they're dry."

It didn't occur to me just then, but later that night I wondered to myself, "Why didn't I touch the bench to see if it was still wet? Why did I not question the signs? Where have my questions gone?" (C.I. 5/7/98)

This seemingly insignificant incident haunted me. By telling the class of my discomfort and getting some guidance from Judith I was able to enter into a heightened form of engagement (Peters, 1998). My tension around these critical incidents indicated that there was possibly a larger issue connected to them. I began to focus the issue of authority and to look at how I react and respond to people in positions of authority. I had been a curious and questioning child, as I think most children are, but as an adult I had lost my questions. What had happened? How does this effect my teaching? My investigation continued.

That night I began to read the book that Judith had recommended. It was an engaging read, that spoke to me on many levels. I thought I had "got it" many times as I read through the book, but it wasn't until I was entirely finished the book that issues became more clear to me. The book discussed research with women and how they come to know their world. As I read I tried to "think-with" the authors and I found myself making connections throughout the book.

The book allowed me to see how most of my life I had received knowledge from others rather than constructing my own knowledge. I was often silenced growing up, by an alcoholic father who was controlling and authoritarian. I was taught that teachers, parents and people in power were to be respected and "knew best." I always did well in school. I played the game to get high marks, and to please my parents. For me, this meant giving the teachers what they wanted. I learned to please my teachers and parents, not myself. Judith Newman writes about her surprise at the number of graduate students who "by and large have no idea how to look for connections; their predominant learning strategy is to read and memorize"(Newman, 1998). I relied on this learning strategy for most of my formal education. I was not creating knowledge, I was receiving it from the "experts." Belenky et al (1986) describe a woman who is a "receiver of knowledge":

"She "learns" the material; that is, she stores a copy of it, first in her notes and then in her head. She does not transform the material; she files it "as is".... Unlike the silent women, who do not see themselves as learners at all, these women feel confident about their ability to absorb and to store the truths received from others." (p.42)

My learning strategies only started to change in graduate school at the age of thirty. I began to learn about new ways of seeing the world. I began to see shades of gray and understand that there are "multiple truths." I learned about post-modern theory and "to see the taken-for-granted with new eyes" (Newman, 1998 7) . I wrote about this in my journal after reading the article by Garth Boomer:

Boomer talks about how one group believes they can possess and bank on knowledge. He states that "a kind of knowledge capitalism is reinforced from generation to generation." I was definitely in this 'banking' group, but I see that my world view is evolving and that my view of education has changed a lot over the last year. (Journal 4/26/98)

Reflecting on my limited experience as a teacher of adults, I could see how this "received knowledge" translated into my role as educator. I taught the way I had been shown or "demonstrated" how to teach. I was the authority in the classroom, but I also wanted the students to like me. I wanted to make learning easy for them, and would often "give" them my answers rather than letting them discover their answers for themselves. I had taken ownership of the students learning. It was not until graduate school that I saw different "demonstrations" of how to teach. I saw professors "leading from behind" and teachers that encouraged the students to take ownership of our own learning.

It was the idea of "thinking-with" writers that really struck me when I read a chapter in the "Women's Ways of Knowing" called Constructed Knowledge: Integrating the Voices. The authors describe this integration as "a place for reason and intuition and the expertise of others." (p.133). "Thinking-with" allows the reader to integrate theory, make connections, and construct their own knowledge. By doing this I am not adopting someone's views as my own, nor am I ignoring the work of others in the field. I make connections and "weave together the strands of rational and emotive thought and of integrating objective and subjective knowing"(p.134) to create my own way of knowing the world. I have always been a bit intimidated by theory, but I now see how a theoretical perspective can help me to construct my own thoughts, and draw my own conclusions. "Theories become not truth but models for approximating experience." (p.138)

As I read more about women's ways of knowing and authority, I started to pay attention to my everyday interactions with people. I became more aware of how I communicated with people in authority. Soon after I wrote about another related critical incident that bothered me:

I received my final grades today from the registrar. I was pleased with all my marks except one. I had been anticipating an "A" in my elective course, but only got an "A-." Has there been a mistake? I have never questioned my grades before. I do think that my learning is far more important than my marks. Does my mark really matter? Am I being petty? (C.I. 5/20/98)

After reading more of my book ["Women's Ways of Knowing"] I began to think about my grade again. I wrote the professor an e-mail asking him to check my mark. It took me awhile to compose it, then I had second thoughts about sending it. I started thinking that this professor has a lot of power in the university and in field of education, and I might make him upset if I question his marking. I decided to wait and think about it . I deleted the message. (Journal 5/22/98)

I just finished reading my book and am feeling empowered. I think I will e-mail my professor again, and sent it this time! I have the right to know how I was graded. If it is bothering me this much I have to ask him, for my own peace of mind. (Journal 5/25/98)

Here is the message I sent:

Hi Michael,

I received my final grade late last week and was a little surprised by my mark. Now, before I go on, I want you to know that this really is no big deal. However, I had anticipated an A and got an A- and am curious as to where I lost marks.

I've never questioned a professor/teacher about a grade before and feel quite uneasy doing so. I really enjoyed this course and your teaching style. Perhaps because I felt I had learned so much, I "assumed" my mark would be higher.

I know you are busy, but I would appreciate it if you would check my marks and let me know.

As I said this is not a big deal, but I am curious.


Brenda MacIsaac

I felt relieved that I had finally written my concerns, and a little anxious as to the reply. The next morning I received this e-mail:

Thanks for bringing it to my attention. Miss represented somewhere in the paper trail. Will change it in the registrar's office. Hope all is going well. M

After receiving this I immediately wrote in my journal:

I just read my e-mail and am so excited. I called Liam to tell him that my mark had been incorrect and that I did have an "A" as I had thought. I told him that it is amazing what can happen if you speak up. I am happy that I got my grade changed, but I am much happier that I did not allow my intimidation to stop me from sending him the e-mail. (Journal 5/26/98)

Reflecting on this critical incident creates many questions for me. Re-reading the e-mail I sent to my professor, I was surprised by how apologetic I sounded! I made it sound like he was doing me a BIG favor by checking my grade. This makes me wonder about the way I communicate. Am I too polite or trying to hard to please? The e-mail the professor sent me was quick and to the point, but I did note that he did not apologize for the mistake. How would I have reacted or felt if my mark had not changed, or if the professor had responded in a negative way? I hope that regardless of the professors response I would have been glad that I sent the e-mail. I hesitated and waited awhile before sending my e-mail to this professor. I was intimidated by the power I perceived he had as a professor. I want to try to always keep power issues in mind when I teach. Although I may not perceive myself as powerful, my students may see me as powerful, and this can interfere with communication. I plan to do more inquiry into power distortions in the classroom.

Another issue that has come up in my action research is my sense of self. I have come to realize that my sense of self, for most of my life, has been dependent on external factors and how others see me. In "Women's Ways of Knowing", the author's write, "At the positions of received knowledge and procedural knowledge, other voices and external truths prevail. Sense of self is embedded either in external definitions and roles or in identifications with institutions, disciplines, and methods. These women seek gratification in pleasing others or in measuring up to external standards-in being "the good woman" or "the good student." (p.134) As a student I tried to get good grades to please my parents. As a teacher I wanted to please my students. I did a lot in my life to please others.

So where do I go from here? I have lots of action research ahead of me. As I learn to construct my own knowledge by thinking-with others, I hope I can help students do the same. What I want to investigate further is how I can help students, especially female students to build their self esteem and realize (like I have) that they can create their own knowledge. My investigations allow me to uncover my assumptions and understand why I see the world the way I do. I believe that I can only make changes in myself and in my teaching if I am first aware. In order to change I need to write down my surprises and never stop questioning the things I so often take for granted. I now see myself as a creator of knowledge, "All knowledge is constructed, and the knower is an intimate part of the known." (Belenky, p.137). I will never stop creating, or questioning.

Belenky, M.,. Clinchy, B., Goldberger, N., & Tarule, J. 1986. Women's Ways of Knowing. USA: Basic Books Inc. Return

Boomer, Garth. 1987. Addressing the Problem of Elsewhereness. In: Dixie Goswami & Peter Stillman (Eds) Reclaiming the Classroom: Teacher Research as an Agent for Change. Portsmith, N.H.: Boynton/Cook Publishers, Heinemann: 4-13. Return

Conroy, Frank 1991. Think About It: Ways we know and don't. Harper's Magazine: November 68-70. Return

Newman, Judith M. 1998. Action Research: A Brief Overview. Return

Newman, Judith M. 1998. Action Research: Exploring the Tensions of Teaching. In: Judith Newman (Ed.) Tensions of Teaching: Beyond Tips to Critical Reflection. Toronto: Canadian Scholars Press, Inc. New York: Teachers College Press. Return

Peters, Wendy 1998. Pinball Anyone? Pinball as a Metaphor for Action Research. Return

Smith, Frank 1983. Demonstrations, Engagement and Sensitivity. In: Essays into Literacy. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann Educational Books: 95-106. Return