You might have realised by now that I don’t like doing paperwork [and not only because it’s an absolute waste of time and mind-numbingly boring but because it’s completely soul destroying too] but I do like my research. And typically, action research is a way to bring about change to your setting. It’s very reflective and is a wonderful and practical way of learning and it never really seems like work to me. Apart from putting in a bit of time, it costs absolutely nothing so, for me, it’s the most fun and cost effective method of continuing personal and professional development. And the only paperwork involved in this example was a sheet of paper with ticks on it and a simple inventory. I kid you not.
So what exactly is action research?
Well, it’s actually rather exciting. It’s very personal research, personal to us and our children. It’s not for publishing per se and we don’t expect anybody else anywhere else to get the same results as we do. It helps us educators to be more effective at what we care most about – the holistic development of our little learners. Seeing our little seeds grow into happy, healthy little seedlings is probably the greatest joy we can ever experience. When we have convincing evidence that our work has made a real difference in our children’s lives, the countless hours and endless efforts seem completely worthwhile (adapted from Sagor [online] on 16.02.16). Ultimately, for early years practitioners, the purpose of the process is for the benefit of our children and families that we work with. What better reason is there than that for doing a bit of work?
Now, action research is a seven step process and I’m going to give you the stages in easy to swallow, snack-bite sizes. Are you with me?
Firstly, what is it that you want to investigate? I’ll give you an example from my own personal experience. I had an outdoor space that I didn’t think got enough action. For me, that was a complete waste of a valuable space. I wanted to find out who used it, what they did there, how long they stayed and how I could make the space more useful for the children. So that was me selecting a focus – step 1.
Next, I had to think about why it mattered so much. For me, this was simple. It’s because I’m a great proponent of free flow play, engaging with the natural environment to the max and using open ended natural resources a la Friedrich Froebel and Susan Isaacs. I wanted to see whether I was actually achieving this. This is step 2 – clarifying the theories that underpin my own values, beliefs and ethos of my setting. Don’t worry if you’re not sure about theoretical perspectives though because now is a good time to think about what you do every day and then do a bit of research. You could start by reading some fairly simple online material as a starting point. Which approach is most similar to your own values and beliefs? There may be more than one and that is absolutely fine.
Step 3 then is identifying the research question(s). This is absolutely crucial to get right and is actually a lot harder than you might think. The first time you try action research I suggest starting with just the one question. Now, we do yoga every day with the babies and children but we tend to do it indoors. It was a lovely and sunny and warm day and I wondered… is this outdoor space suitable for our daily yoga… and there it was – my research question right there. What better way to develop our physical strength and mental and emotional sense of wellbeing than being outdoors in the fresh air surrounded by mature trees and our very own home-grown flowers and vegetables?
And now it’s time to collect the data to help me answer that question. Step 4. I decided that observation was going to be the best way to gather data. First I made an inventory of the equipment, furniture and resources that was available in the space. I then closely monitored the outdoor space for 10 minutes at a time at one hour intervals ie 9-9.10am; 10-10.10am and so on until 4-4.10pm. I kept a tally chart of how many times children went into the space within those 10 minute periods. I admit, they were just snapshots but I figured they would be fairly representative of the whole day. I also repositioned one of the CCTV cameras to cover the entire area for the duration of the day so that if necessary I could double check that my data was accurate (reliability test) and that each tick on my tally chart did indeed represent every time a child entered the space (validity test). The CCTV footage meant that I would not have to rely on one single source of data, which ensures reasonable reliability and validity. In hindsight, I could have asked a co-worker to also keep a tally.
At the end of that day, I completely removed everything from the space ready for the next day and repeated the tally process in exactly the same way. I made a few scribbled observation notes in the margins and made a note of a question the children kept asking me on that second day: “where have all of our plants and flowers gone?” They weren’t happy and I felt bad. I won’t be doing that again in a hurry.
Step 5 is analysing the data. So now I had my sets of tally charts telling me how many visits had been made to the space before and after removing the equipment. Checking this data against the CCTV footage blew the whole thing wide open. There were 3 fairly generic questions I had to ask myself: the first was ‘what was the data telling me?’ Well, the answer to the first question was, I quickly realised, that when the space was fully equipped it was largely used by everyone, pretty much equally (but at different times it seems) to gather resources to take to different areas of the garden rather than to play within the space. What was interesting was that often, when girls were in the space, boys were absent and vice versa. When the space was emptied however, the space was dominated by the boys and they were using it for a totally different and exclusive purpose – superhero play – and they were engaged in that imaginative play for the whole time they spent there. Interestingly, the only things missed by both boys and girls were the home-grown flowers and vegetables. Not one person asked me where the blocks were, or the dry wipe boards. Nothing else was missed. At all.
The data told me primarily that the space previously was not being used to its full potential for sure but did I get the answer I wanted? Was it suitable to use for our daily yoga? The second question was ‘why did it turn out this way?’ I reached a few conclusions of my own initially but discussions with my co-workers presented a plethora of possible answers: The large, empty, all-weather space is ideal for being noisy and boisterous. It has 3 wide steps leading up to it giving opportunities for jumping from different levels and getting different perspectives. The decking is springy and fairly soft to land on. It is directly adjacent to huge mature trees that rustle in the wind. There is a large picture window into the music room which is ideal for looking at reflections as the children pose as their favourite superhero. There is a large gravel area adjacent to the space which makes a lovely crunchy sound when you jump into it. Frogs, snails, birds and hedgehogs hide in the shrubs and are an endless source of fascination. All in all, it’s a pretty fantastic space for imaginative play. The answers to these two questions would hopefully help me to answer the third question: ‘what should I do next?’
Step 6 is reporting the findings. We could put it all down as a formal piece of research and share it with our peers if we wanted to but for me, this is about our children and how we can improve things for that particular group. I have done this before naturally as part of my higher education but I’ve also kept records of other pieces of action research I’ve done over the years which – I have to tell you – impressed the pants off Mrs O. No, generally speaking, the only people I tend to share this information with is my families and I do this for several reasons: 1. They are constantly reminded of precisely why they chose me to help them to raise their child – because I care and I want the best for them. 2. It demonstrates that I’m reflective, that I don’t think I’m perfect, that I’ve nothing new to learn and that there’s no room for improvement. There’s ALWAYS room for improvement and we should NEVER stop learning. 3. It shows that I am always striving to meet the needs of the children that I am working with now, not children I worked with last year or even last month.
Happy parents = positive testimonials = personal recommendations = free marketing = full setting with a waiting list.
And now the final part of the process, Step 7, action planning. This what the whole process has been about. Now that we know what we know, what are we going to do about it? If we do nothing then it’s all be for nothing. Is it really good enough to keep on doing the same old thing, week in week out because “it’s the way we’ve always done it and we’ve never had any complaints from anybody”. Well, frankly that’s just not good enough. Not if you ever hope to move from requires improvement to good, from good to outstanding, or even to remain outstanding. The process liberates us from continuously repeating our past mistakes.
I have to admit, our findings left us scratching our heads. I came back to my research question: Is this outdoor space suitable for our daily yoga? Do we change the use of the space from what was previously little more than a rather large, expensive and under-used storage area to a space for yoga and mindfulness? Well, it was a bit trickier than that as it turned out – it was far from clear cut and we needed to dig a bit deeper so I put it to the kids. Bearing in mind they were all 2 and 3 years old I printed out 6 images of a bunch of superheroes and 6 pictures of kids doing yoga and put them into baskets. They had to pick either a superhero picture or a yoga picture and then we’d add them up together to see who won the vote. (And Fundamental British Values were but a twinkle in Cameron’s eye back then). I’ll put you out of your misery: surprise, surprise superheroes won the majority vote. But I didn’t abandon the yoga entirely – I was still keen to take that outdoors. (Was that selfish of me? What the heck). I kept the cabinet in the area and in there stored our rugs, mats, lanterns and battery powered candles so we could do our yoga outdoors whatever the weather and pack it all away again. I’m happy, they’re happy, happy days. Now, are you ready to give it a go?
Sagor, R. (2000). Guiding School Improvement with Action Research. Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development available online from http://www.ascd.org/publications/books/100047/chapters/What-Is-Action-Research%C2%A2.aspx