Practices and Skills of the Action Researcher

Up till now we have portrayed the situation of the professional action researchers in fairly abstract terms. From here forward, we become more concrete.


Academia generally trades on a narrow notion of competence and exper­tise that limits intellectual capacities and training. AR challenges this position, building on a long tradition of philosophical discourse about skills, compe­tence, and knowing. Gilbert Ryle ( 1949) argues for an important distinction between knowing what and knowing how. Knowing what is the main activity of conventional intellectual life in academia, and stresses the ability to know why a certain issue exists and what its definition is. A competent expert in knowing what is one who verbally can argue in favor of what he or she thinks, not one who knows how to do anything in particular.

Ryle (1949) rejects this framework by arguing that intelligence is more manifest in the way we act than in the way we think. Knowing how is manifest in intelligent actions that apply whatever capacities and knowledge a person has; it emerges through the application of knowledge in a given context. The definition of competence and expertise is knowing how to do something appropriately.

Framing the issue this way, Ryle ( 1949) anticipated and laid the ground­work for later efforts on the subject of competence. For example, the philoso­pher Michael Polanyi (1964, 1966) argues that competence is gained through the tacit dimensions of human behavior. Human beings know a great deal more than we can put into words, and unspoken (tacit) knowledge is a key component in competent human action.

Polanyi’s ( 1964, 1966) most powerful illustration focuses on how children are able to learn to speak. If we limit ourselves to a view of knowledge as only expressible in language, then, by definition, children would be unable to learn to speak. Polanyi resolves this problem by arguing that language conveys only part of what we perceive and know and that another, major part of our knowl­edge is expressed in our actions. Thus, children learn initially from tacit knowledge, which eventually permits them to join the community of language speakers, though they always retain the tacit dimension as well.

Building on this framework, we conceptualize the complex activities under­lying intelligent actions as human skills, complex combinations of knowing how, tacit knowledge, and other kinds of knowledge (knowing what, language, and so on). We believe that conventional academic knowledge (knowing what) about AR is important for future practitioners, but we assert that such knowl­edge is never sufficient to train an AR practitioner.

Given this framework, we argue that skills are a fundamentally necessary component of AR and that they emerge only through intelligent actions, not merely from abstract and passive intellectualization. At the same time, we emphasize that skills can and must be developed. We do not believe that such skills are inherited human traits. Throughout life, all humans develop new and enhanced skills. A central aim of this book is to support the development of skills for AR practitioners. Skills in AR are certainly based on intellectual mas­tery of concepts (called by some “theory”), but skills express themselves in actions taken to facllitate AR processes, and the process and skills focus is an essential part of learning about AR.

In this regard, we strongly support the perspectives on reflective practice developed by Donald SchOn (1983, 1987, 1991). In his work, SchOn introduces the concept of reflective practice to analyze the way in which professional com­petence is developed through training. Focusing on the analysis of a number of teacher-student interactions, he develops a conceptual apparatus that high­lights the role of linked reflection and praxis in the development of professional skills. Knowledge is not imparted simply through the passage of concepts from a teacher to a student, but rather through the interactions between them and their collaborative efforts to solve certain problems together through their actions.

SchOn’s (1983, 1987, 1991) argument is directly in line with Ryle’s (1949) knowing how and Polanyi’s (1964, 1966) notions about tacit knowledge, but he takes the issue farther because he is concerned with how to educate these reflective practitioners. These concerns are stimulated both by his readings of John Dewey and psychoanalytic theory and by his long experience in organi­zational consulting. SchOn’s response is to identify two reflective processes. The first is “reflection-in-action,” the ability to mirror a reflective process in the action itself that is a way of assessing actions in the process of acting. The second is “reflection-on-action,” consisting of working through experiences gained from actions after the fact. Both of these processes are greatly enhanced when the professional is engaged with other people in interactions in which mutual reflections are used to enhance understanding. SchOn develops his arguments about reflection-in-action much more thoroughly than his views on reflection-on-action.

As a result, in developing and presenting his framework, SchOn priv i – leges the master-apprentice relationship as a key means of improving the professional’s skills. Working with an experienced master, following him or her through daily work processes, and engaging together in reflective processes, the apprentice accesses the master’s skills as they are embodied and explicated in actions. This is accompanied by the dialogical processes of reflection between master and apprentice.

One consequence is that skillful actions are not developed in isolation. We agree that a logical first step in acquiring skills can be the gathering of intellec­tual knowledge by reading texts and taking classes, the road usually open to uni­versity students. But this is only a beginning phase in a much longer process. The development of expert AR skills is a process involving many stages.

Over the years, Levin has run several Ph.D. programs training graduate students to do AR. The main idea in all this training has been to combine the­oretical knowing with practical skills in knowing how. The way to achieve this has been to have students work with experienced researchers. Projects are run with students working with senior faculty. They share the responsibility for the project and engage the research issues together. These professor-student dyads are further combined in a group structure that creates a community of action researchers colearning and developing skills together.

These relationships are more complex than a master-apprentice dyad might suggest. Dreyfus and Dreyfus (1986) list five stages in the development of expert skills: novice, advanced beginner, competent, proficient, and expert. Skillful human activity gradually reaches different levels, and practitioners operate differently on each of these levels. The novice follows analytical rules applied without much recognition of context and, like the conventional researcher, feels detached from the process. Gradually, the ability to read a con­text and to understand possible implications for actions moves the novice practitioner to the level of advanced beginner. Building on one’s own experi­ence is key to this development; a history of actions taken is much more important as a source of learning than the forms of explicit and analytical communication so prized in academia.

A competent practitioner has the ability to shift between context-free (for example, analytical) and contextual components in a particular intervention situation, but her or his involvement in the activity is limited to trying to influ­ence the outcome. Finally, an expert bases professional activity on full involve­ment in the local situation and makes many suggestions on the basis of experientially informed intuitions about reasonable options drawn from pre­vious work: “Intuition or know-how, as we understand it, is neither wild guess­ing nor supernatural inspiration, but the sort of ability we all use all the time as we go about our everyday task” (Dreyfus & Dreyfus, 1986, p. 29). Dreyfus and Dreyfus’s (1986) developmental schema is summarized in Table 8.1.

Whether or not we accept the particular models of skill development in Schon (1983, 1987, 1991) or Dreyfus and Dreyfus (1986), we want to be clear that such skills are a major component in the competence necessary to become a good AR practitioner. Professional practice involves more than explicit rules imparted abstractly in academic settings. Knowledge is context bound, intuition and tacit knowledge play important roles, and the acquisition of skill is mainly achieved through reflection in and on action. Learning from one’s own experience is a core element in the development of AR practitioner skills, and there is no substitute for it.

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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