Frameworks of Educational Action Research

Though not all AR-relevant educational work deals with adult education, one of the peculiarities of this field is that it seems that the major intellectual syn­theses and setting of the frameworks in use come from adult education rather than from conventional primary and secondary education and higher educa­tion. These larger syntheses serve our purposes in two ways. They provide a larger framing for the subject than do the more monographic and institution­ally specific forms of work, and some of the most recent and challenging syn­theses seem to us to lead inexorably to the conclusion that, as in industrial democracy work, AR is the only sensible way to emerge from the dilemmas in this field.

In constructing this mapping of the field, we have availed ourselves of frameworks provided by Mattias Finger and Jose Manuel Asun in their Adult Education at the Crossroads: Learning Our Way Out (2001) and Robin Usher, Ian Bryant, and Rennie Johnston’s Adult Education and the Postmodern

Challenge: Learning Beyond the Limits (1997). These ambitious and thoughtful works map the field of education and social change work from the perspective of a broad view of adult education and point to some central dilemmas facing the field that will be familiar from some of the other chapters of this book.


Finger and Astin build their portrait of the field around a three-part classifi­cation of approaches: pragmatist, humanist, and Marxist perspectives. Under the pragmatist heading, they deal with the work of John Dewey, Kurt Lewin, David Kolb, Jack Mezirow, Chris Argyris, and Donald SchOn.2 They point out that, despite pragmatism’s prosocial ideology, a theory of society or political economy is lacking in this work and the conditions affecting the possibilities for pragmatic discovery, ongoing learning, and social transformation are not explored.

What Finger and Asun call the “humanist” school includes Malcolm Knowles, Carl Rogers, and Stephen Brookfield. The centerpiece of these approaches is optimism about the potential for human growth, freedom, and self-development and owes a great deal to humanistic psychology. It is conse­quently also a highly therapeutic and individualistic approach to development that lacks any theorization of political economy and institutional environments.

The Marxist approach includes conventional Marxism and critical theory (Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Jurgen Habermas, and so on). This field is also developed by Paolo Freire (see Chapter 10) into what Finger and Astin call “critical pedagogy.” They criticize all these approaches for conflating an epistemology that advocates the possibility of open learning processes and the politics of oppression. They do not see how the theory in critical theory leads to a meaningful liberatory practice, and they link this criticism specifically to what we have called “Southern PAR” in this book (Chapter 10).

Whatever one thinks ofFinger & Asun’s specific arguments, their assertion that, despite the differences among this wealth of approaches, they all have the same goal—“to humanize this development process by involving the people in shaping its tracks” (Finger & Astin, 2001, p. 96)—is intriguing and persuasive. Put more bluntly, despite their apparently critical stances, they see these as only limited critiques of advanced capitalism because they accept the validity of the development process and the modernization paradigm from the Enlightenment.

Finger and Astin then look to “learn our way out,” and they do this by rec­ommending a set of frameworks and practices that look to us like the very bases of AR: institutional change engaged in by all the stakeholders, sustain­ability, fairness. This is not a new face on the old “development” scheme, but a new cogenerated, codetermined way of living in the world in solidarity. So, though it is not quite so baldly stated, their “way out” is through AR.


At this point, we move to the arguments in Usher, Bryant, and Johnston ( 1997) because their framing of the postmodern challenge to adult education, though differently anchored from Finger and Asun’s, takes us to a similar loca­tion. In their view, postmodernism, the end of modernity, links to education in a variety of ways. The hyper-individualization and the dynamism and instabil­ity of groups and systems under current conditions of globalization break the back of the modernist paradigm. But, they assert that education itself, as a con­cept and as a practice, is premised on certain elements of the modernist frame­work: development, progress, “empowerment” are all modernist notions. They believe that there is no alternative to modernism in education, that it cannot simply be abandoned. However, they also believe that postmodernism creates some very useful conditions for a new practice of modernism, and they rec­ommend “recognizing that these are claims [modernist claims] not truths, claims which are socially formed, historically located cultural constructs, thus partial and specific to particular discourses and purposes” (Usher, Bryant, & Johnston, 1997, p. 7).

When they speak to what this means in practice, they lay out a research framework, techniques, and notions about writing that approximate those of AR. Openness, collaboration, group processes, integrated thought and action cycles, and other features provide the bases for “learning beyond the limits” of both modernism and postmodernism.

These two quite sophisticated and thoughtful syntheses deserve to be read in their own right, but, for now, they provide a kind of background around which to build our brief review of varieties of educational AR practice.

Source: Greenwood Davydd J., Levin Morten (2006), Introduction to Action Research: Social Research for Social Change, SAGE Publications, Inc; 2nd edition.

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