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Abstract and Figures

The aim of this article is to suggest a solution to the problem that there are now many forms and variations of a common improvement cycle that includes the following procedures in sequence: plan an improvement to practice — implement the plan in practice — monitor and evaluate the results of the change to practice. Action research, reflective practice, action learning, double loop learning, participatory action research, evidence based practice, data-driven decision-making, appreciative inquiry, diagnostic practice, action evaluation and so on, even some kinds of problem solving and curriculum development, all involve the cycle in one way or another. Each of those methods are clearly distinguished in the literature, but the problem now is that the names of three of them (action research, reflective practice, action learning) have become catchall terms that are loosely applied to any process using any or all or parts of the cycle. The result is considerable confusion. An answer to this problem outlined in this paper is to suggest that we should agree on a superordinate term to capture all the different variations of the cycle without distinguishing between them, in much the same way that we've been using the terms quantitative and qualitative research to make a significant distinction for over half a century. The term suggested here is Action Inquiry. 2010 Update At the time of writing this paper in the early '90s, I had not come across Bill Torbert's development and use of the term 'action inquiry', but that has become so specifically associated with his work that action inquiry cannot function as the superordinate as I had then envisaged. So, having arrived here, what's the value of this paper? It's a bit of a time capsule now, but readers still find the account of the action cycle and of differences between thoughtful and researched action helpful, and also some of the distinguishing characteristics of the different action methods discussed, useful; but perhaps more important, it introduces and keeps alive the crucial question: what term can we use to refer to any and all the variations and uses of a plan-implement-evaluate process? We still need a term that captures the nature and purpose of all action methods because we need to be able to refer to all forms and uses of any plan-implement-evaluate process with a word or phrase that will distinguish them from quantitative, qualitative, and other forms of experimental research methods. An inclusive collective term would also help us to maintain the necessary distinctions between different forms and uses of the method. I have some ideas for an inclusive name, but don't know how to proceed further with this, because the last time I canvassed a URL name on the www, it was picked up by a professional reseller who registered the .com version then offered it back to me at a very silly price. But I'd love to hear from someone who could register and host an appropriate .edu URL where we could then host links to the sites of those working in action research, action inquiry, reflective practice, etc, etc..
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David Tripp
Murdoch University
Western Australia, 6150
Three incidents —
1 I was being interviewed for a research project for which I had tendered
with an action research approach. The interviewers said that they liked my
proposal, but were concerned that I thought action research an appropriate
method as it was quite clear that an outcome they required was 'properly
researched conclusions'; they said it wasn't 'a personal development project';
they were unpersuaded by my assurances that action research would deliver
research outcomes; they said they had seen a number of action research projects
and all were purely concerned with professional development end of story
for any action research in that project.
2 When working with some professional facilitators on what had been
funded as an action research professional development project. When I began to
raise research methodological questions and moved to introduce some research
methods which I thought appropriate, they objected because they saw their job
as being to help the teachers they were working with to improve their own
practice, and formal research methods were not necessary for this; indeed, it
was said that this was antithetical to the process because formal research
methods belonged to the academic tradition which had an altogether different
set of concerns.
3 I was listening to a group of social workers being introduced to action
research. The facilitator made no mention of the idea of strategic action, or any
kind of an information getting phase, let alone of any research processes. At the
end of the presentation someone in the audience commented, "We do that all
the time." The facilitator replied, "Yes, everyone who's working to improve their
practice is using action research although they may no know it." The participant
came back with, "So why are we all here, then?" And the response was, "Well, if
we can see what we're doing we might be able to do it better." The questioner
was unimpressed, knowing that he already had a good reflective process.
To me these incidents are symptomatic of an increasingly prevalent and acute
problem with the method — the term ‘action research’ is being applied to any
practice in which thought and action are related whether or not any kind of research
is involved. Not only does this lead to many misunderstandings amongst action
researchers themselves, but it makes the field appear chaotic, ill conceived,
undisciplined and very suspect to many outsiders, particularly academics and
project sponsors. Those researchers in Incident 1 dismissed the method as not being
research; the facilitators in Incident 2 wanted to exclude research from the method;
and the facilitator (and so also the participant) in Incident 3 couldn't see that there
was any difference between action research and business-as-usual professional
practice. At a time when many action researchers are seeking to establish the process
as practically sound and academically legitimate, these common misunderstandings
are highly counter-productive.
Tripp Action Inquiry
I know that I am not alone in encountering all these attitudes, but there is little
discussion of them in the literature. Elliott (1991) for instance, believes it helpful to
collapse action research into the broader category of reflective practice, albeit
specifically in the context of professional change. And whenever I've suggested that
in order to deal with such problems we really had to define what was and what was
not action research, I've got into some rather hot water. On an internet list recently, I
was told that it was more important to decide between good and bad research than
what kind of research was being performed. And at a recent conference it was
suggested that, amongst other things my concern with definitions was a male
preoccupation, the respondent saying that, being a woman and therefore less
prescriptive, she would not say to anyone that what they were doing was not action
research; rather ironically, she said she would just be interested in what the person
was doing and would engage with that. I'm not going to argue the content of these
positions as I think they miss the point; but they do suggest that I need to explain
two issues relevant to defining action research.
First, we agree that there are issues of power in all defining; as Bell (1978: ) pointed
out nearly 20 years ago, '… the people who do the defining in our society are the
powerful - with a little help from their friends, the social scientists'. And, as I've
written elsewhere (Tripp, 1990a), that is precisely the process utilised by academics
to exclude teachers from participation in the generation of knowledge about their
own profession. That's an old injustice which I, for one, believe can be redressed
through teacher action research. So the point that definitions are used by the
powerful in their own interests is an important one, and we should therefore all be
very wary; we should always ask who is defining what, how, why and in whose
interests. But because definitions are dangerous that does not mean that we should
never use them; rather that we should be cautious in their construction and use.
I believe I am being cautious about these definitions, and I do not see how defining
action research would prevent certain people from doing it or exclude their work
from the field. I believe definitions can be visionary, expansionary and inclusive, and
the ideas in this paper must be judged by those criteria. In any case, I see this as part
of a continuing scholarly discussion, and in the likely event that we cannot agree
exactly what it is we are talking about, then at least we will have more ideas on the
table than we did before, and we may be able see more clearly where, how and why
we disagree. That seems to me to be a legitimate and productive reason for engaging
in discussing some definitions. So although I agree that one cannot escape the power
of a definition, this paper is not merely an attempt to exercise power, and it should
not be dismissed out of hand simply because definitions are risky.
Second, there is another general problem of definitions; it is one in which Jackson
(1992) seems to be caught up with regard to that other perennial problem, the
meaning of the term 'curriculum'. It's an instance of what could pass for Tripp's law:
the more you need something, the harder it is to get. Both curriculum and action
research need clarification because they are so diverse, diffuse and confused; yet
their very diversity, diffuseness and confusion render clarity extremely difficult. So
Jackson, after a thorough historical description and contemporary analysis, decides
not to attempt a single definition; but he seems to do so more from a sense of futility
in the face of all the confusion and conflict surrounding the term, than from a sense
that more agreement would not be useful. Furthermore, whilst he tries to clarify
what curriculum means to different people without any attempt at control, he also
recognises that we do invest words with meaning, and that although definitions are
merely certain people's agreements about their meanings for a particular word,
clarity is an essential aspect of scholarship.
Tripp Action Inquiry
So none of those problems with definitions lessen my conviction that we need to
agree some definitions about action research, and to do so fast. As my recent
experience shows, uncertainty about the nature, content and scope of the field leaves
it open to erosion, not just because it is difficult to obtain positions and research
funds for a diverse and amorphous idea, but also because lack of clear boundaries
and the desire to increase the status of what one does encourages those working in
related fields to claim that they also are 'doing' action research when in fact they are
doing something else, such as reflective teaching or professional development.
Other researchers are not shy to establish clear definitions for their methods, which
is probably why I've never yet met anyone trying to present a set of numerical
survey results as an ethnography. But whilst we encourage anyone who uses any
version of a plan, act, review cycle to term their work 'action research', the term will
become increasingly meaningless and in the process impede the progress of many of
our hopes and aspirations for the method. In the remainder of this brief paper I will
therefore suggest some definitions that will enable people to distinguish action
research from other methods in the same family.
It is interesting that the difficulties mentioned above do not seem to prevent
everyone else from inventing their own, or supporting particular definitions of
others. It is outside the scope of this paper to survey them all here, but wherever I
look in the literature I find a plethora of definitions quite as complex and varied as
those for 'curriculum'. This is partly because most people concentrate on defining
action research by itself, rather than first contextualising it in an overview of other
terms in the field. So I think that one of our main difficulties in defining the various
kinds of action research, action learning and reflective practice found in, for instance,
Argyris and Schon (1989), Carr and Kemmis (1993), Dadds (1995), Elliott (1990),
Forward (1989), Heron (1997), Hustler, et al. (1986), Marquardt (1999), Noffke and
Stevenson (1995), Pollard and Tann (1993), Revons (1971), Selener (1992), Winter
(1989), Zuber-Skerritt (1991), is that we do not have a generally agreed superordinate
term in which they can be subsumed. In fact, Deshler and Ewert (1995), in a very
comprehensive, thorough and open review of the field, see action research itself as
the inclusive term in exactly the same way that we in Australia did a decade and a
half ago —
Educational action research is a term used to describe a family of activities in
curriculum development, professional development, school improvement
programs, and systems planning and policy development. These activities have
in common the identification of strategies of planned action which are
implemented, and then systematically submitted to observation, reflection and
change. (National Invitational Conference on Action Research, 1981)
It was useful at the time, but I now think that this definition of the term is a mistake
as it turns action research from a process into a category of processes — or we have
the nonsense that there is a kind of action research called action research. It is also
difficult to see what one does with a process like action learning if action research is
the category: how can action learning be a form of action research when 'learning' is
broader than 'research'? Or if it's not a form of action research, then why does it
employ exactly the same cycle? Furthermore, if any kind of reflection on action is
Tripp Action Inquiry
called action research, we risk rejection by the very people on whom most of us rely
for funding our work because they already have a very clear idea about what
constitutes research, and they simply assume that we don't know what research is.
It therefore seems necessary to use a superordinate term that would serve as a
category to include any kind of inquiry into action in a field of practice, and I want to
suggest the term 'action inquiry' for that.
Action Inquiry
Action Inquiry is an umbrella term for the deliberate use of any kind of a plan,
act, describe, review cycle for inquiry into action in a field of practice with a view
to improvment. Reflective practice, diagnostic practice, action learning, action
research and researched action are all kinds of action inquiry.
The many forms of action inquiry
Clearly there are many forms of action inquiry, and some of them, like action
research and action learning, have their own special names. Excluding thoughtful
action, the following table shows 7 common varieties of action inquiry (read by line
from left to right; their commonest starting points are in bold) —
Tripp Action Inquiry
Do and Monitor
Do & Monitor
Strategic Plan
Re-plan strategy
Create changes
Figure 1 Thoughtful action and 7 kinds of action inquiry
The most important characteristic of all forms of action inquiry is that they follow a
cycle of the same phases in the same order. But because the phases can be collapsed
or expanded to suit the purpose of the inquiry, and the sequence can begin at any
phase, the cycle comes in so many different guises that it is not always very obvious
that it is the same cycle. For instance, some manufacturers describe their
development work as design, build, assess; but the cycle they use has a prior cycle of
developing the idea, an initiating phase of market research to establish its
commercial viability and various design parameters, and the assess phase actually
consists of producing and evaluating data on some trialing of the product, and that
amounts to the describe and review phases of the action inquiry cycle. Similarly,
Tyler's (1949) 'rationale' is a form of action inquiry; it's not usually seen as such
because he omitted the implementation phase (that was deemed 'instruction' and
dealt with separately from 'curriculum' then) and he wrote about planning, producing
Tripp Action Inquiry
and evaluating (with much emphasis on describable outcomes for review). Thus one
can see that there are many kinds of action inquiry, of which action research is just
one group.
Note that I've not specifically mentioned common features of action research such as
participation and the improvement of practice. Action research may or may not be
participatory or collaborative, and it seems to me that once one has learned
something about practice through inquiry into action in the field of practice, it is
highly likely that one will use that knowledge to improve future practice. The point
is that I would not wish to exclude from action inquiry a process which was not
participatory or in which improvement of practice were not main aims or outcomes.
The purpose of this term is to include any form of deliberate inquiry in which action
and inquiry proceed together with and through each other. By definition it involves
the participants in taking action in their field of practice with a view to learning from
it, and so one can include specific forms such as 'participatory action research' under
the action inquiry umbrella.
Strategic action
On the other hand, strategic action is a crucial defining characteristic of all action
inquiry. Strategic action is action which is based upon an understanding achieved
through the rational analysis of deliberately sought information, in contrast to action
which is a result of habit, instinct, opinion, or mere whim on the one hand, or
irrelevant or partial knowledge on the other. The idea of deliberately seeking and
analysing information is essential, though just how we do that varies in different
forms of action inquiry. In reflective practice it may simply be ensuring that we are
consciously looking for it (seeing how well students respond), and in action research
it may be using a formal research method of data collection. In both cases, the
planning of subsequent action based upon the information is deliberative:
possibilities are created, analysed, discussed, and chosen.
I do not think, however, that strategic action is necessarily quite the same in all forms
of action inquiry. In action research, for instance, my main criterion for strategic
action is whether one has made an attempt at understanding the circumstances in
which the action is to be taken. In all action inquiry one considers what is to be acted
upon and how, but not necessarily the relationships that hold amongst
circumstances, context, intent and action. Strategic action in socially critical action
research, for instance, involves strategies aimed at increasing social justice. In short,
strategic action is a form of deliberation which produces 'a kind of personal
knowledge which manifests itself in wise judgement' (Grundy and Kemmis 1982).
Having suggested an overall category, it is not necessary but it may be helpful to
arrange some of the subsumed terms within it so as to highlight their differences. So
in the diagram below (Figure 2) I’ve laid out four common ways of relating thought
and action which produce different practices. They are essentially different in terms
of several continua. Thoughtful action is seen as the most continuous, private,
natural, unarticulated and experiential practice; researched action as the most
occasional, public, experimental discursive and technological.
Tripp Action Inquiry
Action Inquiry
<< >>
<< >>
<< >>
<< >>
<< >>
Figure 2 Four kinds of action inquiry
The five continua
I have used continua rather than discrete categories because the different kinds of
action inquiry merge and overlap. For instance, in the example of action research I
suggested that I might interview some students; were I engaging in reflective
practice I might also do that, but I would not code their responses, try to explain
them in theoretical terms and verify my explanation; rather I would simply listen
carefully to their ideas and opinions and take them into account in deciding what to
do next time. But it's seldom so clear: one of the differences between reflective
practice and action research has to do with the nature of the description and analysis.
Just thinking about what happened involves some kind of a description, even if it's
simply a privately recalled memory, which renders it reflective practice rather than
thoughtful action; but writing that recollection down moves the practice more
towards research as it increases both the formality and the opportunity for public
scrutiny of the recollection; and there comes a point at which the systematic
recording of recollections in writing is recognised as a valid research procedure,
which would clearly shift the practice from reflection to research.
1 continual – occasional
It should be clear that thoughtful action is continual in that it is the process of
thought whenever we are not engaged in some 'mindless' routine; researched action,
however, is something we'd only engage in when there's a major issue that is best
dealt with in that way.
2 private — public
Thoughtful action is private in the sense that what goes on in our heads is private …
until we make it public, in which case we are describing it in some way, and that
turns the practice into a kind of action inquiry. One of the purposes of research is to
be meaningful to others, to provide more general understandings, and to contribute
to public knowledge, and publication is a major reward for the amount of work
necessary to action research an issue.
3 naturalistic — experimental
This continuum is not to be taken in the sense that to experiment is unnatural, but
naturalistic as in naturalistic research, namely that which investigates things as they
are with as little intervention as possible; in contrast, experimental research requires
designed interventions that change some aspects of the situation being investigated.
Tripp Action Inquiry
Action research is experimental in the sense that the action is deliberately designed
and has not been taken (in quite the same way) before. This is often a distinguishing
difference between reflective practice and action research: we can reflect on any
description of anything that has happened, whether or not it has been specifically
planned for description, reflection and analysis. In fact, we usually only reflect on
and analyse things when they've not gone according to plan. Reflective practice is
thus more towards the naturalistic end of the continuum than is action research.
4 unarticulated — discursive
It's very difficult to articulate what we're doing when we're having to think about
what we're doing, so thoughtful action tends to be unarticulated; but as soon as we
begin to articulate what we are doing, we are engaged in some kind of a discursive
practice about what it is we are doing. The more we shift from just doing something
to working on a description of what we're doing, the more discursive the practice
becomes. Of course, being social animals, our natural tendency is to communicate
our ideas to others (and thus to engage others with our accounts of what we're
doing); so, in contrast to thought, reflection and action research are not just
discursive in the sense that to do they we must move from experiencing things to
describing them, but also because they are often socially communicative and
collaborative in some way or other.
5 experiential — technological
This continuum has to do with monitoring; it is partially explained by (and partially
an explanation of) the previous two dimensions. When we are thinking about what
we are doing we are not deliberately setting out to monitor it — we are simply
taking note of what it is we are experiencing and feeding those impressions back into
what we're doing. In reflective practice we are still working on our experiences, but
we are doing so after the event, which means that we are working on some kind of a
description of them, rather than on the experiences themselves as they happen. And
as we move along this continuum into the other forms of action inquiry, we are
adding less personal and private information to our descriptions (because we are
using specifically chosen research techniques), and we are increasingly setting this
information against our own personal experiences.
The meanings of these polarities will become clearer as I look at the three commonest
action inquiry practices: thoughtful action, reflective practice, and action research.
Tripp Action Inquiry
Thoughtful Action
Thoughtful Action is any kind of action which is not automatic or reflex, and so
requires thought.
do I do
Doing it
How's it
Figure 3: Thoughtful action
Example — John talking 1
I'll take the same example throughout this paper: the situation is a teacher overseeing
a class of students engaged in individual, silent work.
Doing it Watching students at their silent work Observation
John talks to Susan.
What's happening? John's talking to Susan. Observation
How's it going? That's not OK. Evaluation
What'll I do? If I say anything, it’ll interrupt all the others. Deliberation
What'll I do? It may be about his work. Deliberation
Doing it Watching. Continued action
What'll I do? I've got to do something. Deliberation
John looks up.
What's happening? John's looked up. Observation
Doing it Meet eyes, stare hard and frown. Unplanned Enactment
Doing it Watching. Continued action
John falls silent and resumes his work.
What's happening? John's shut up and resumed his work. Observation
How's it going? That seems to have done the trick. Evaluation
Thoughtful action is like action inquiry in that it has plan, act, and review moments,
but it is not a form of action inquiry because it lacks the describe moment: description
is unnecessary if one is acting immediately on one's perceptions. And although
planning and evaluation are involved, they are only occasionally brought into play
through conscious monitoring and immediate evaluation of one's instant (and
therefore thoughtless) reactions to one's perceptions.
Tripp Action Inquiry
1 Reflective Practice
Reflective Practice is any systematic and deliberate on-going use of a plan, act,
describe, reflect sequence in which the reflection is a conscious attempt to
evaluate the process and outcomes of the action as experienced by the actor.
Reflective practice incorporates Thoughtful Action, but because reflection takes
time and concentration on reflection (rather than on anything else such as
continuing action, or instance), it tends to occur after action, some kind of
description of the action is necessary, and it is principally that fourth moment
that marks the difference between kinds of thoughtful action and reflective
practice. However, in reflective practice the description is of the action
inquirer's experience and it tends to be informal, usually just a recalling and
perhaps a journaling of aspects of events, often whilst as they are being
reflected on.
to practice
on results
action taken and
Figure 4 The reflective practice cycle
Example — John talking 2
Teacher has just frowned at John to stop him talking to Susan when he was supposed to be
working silently on his own.
John seems to find it hard to concentrate. He sits next to Susan, and he often
distracts her. That’s not OK. I've let it go a bit, hoping John will settle down, but
I think I'll have to do something about it now.
I wonder how I can find out what his problem really is. Does he have ADD? Is
he too gregarious? Is he just disobedient?
I don’t want to make him sit on his own at this stage, and I don’t want to keep
telling him off, but I should do something.
Tripp Action Inquiry
I think perhaps the best thing is to have a talk to him in recess to-day. I’ll tell
him why I find his behaviour a problem and ask him what he thinks about it. I
won’t tell him off, I’ll give him some choices instead —
he can decide to stay where he is but stop talking when he’s meant to
be working silently;
he can decide to move himself out of temptation’s way.
Talk with John at recess.
Well, that went well. John knew exactly what the problem was, and we talked
about the difference between 'work talk' and 'chit chat'. He said I sometimes tell
him off for work talk when it's not. I said I tend to go on how much he's been
talking, and stop him when it's too much. He said he'd like to stay where he is,
but he wants a warning if he's talking too much. I said that, for a warning, I'd
ask him if it was work talk, but he's to be honest, and if it's chit chat he's to say
so and be quiet. He agreed, so we'll just have to see how it goes.
It was nice to talk to John in this way, and it all felt really positive I seem
only to talk to him to tell him off usually.
I've never really looked at this whole thing about talk properly before. I've
always assumed that students can't work and chat, but I do it lots. I suppose it
depends on what you're working on and how much chat. Perhaps this absolute
'no chat' rule stops them from learning to regulate their chatter. Maybe I need to
relax it a bit to see what happens. I'll talk to them about it and see what they
think. Perhaps if I discuss it with them they'll take a bit of responsibility for it
Comparison of thoughtful action and reflective practice
Looking at the thoughtful action example, one can see that it's not a clear cycle of
separate moments. The reason for this is that it all takes place within the single
moment of action; so any plan, act, describe, reflect sequence is disrupted. The
teacher has to continue acting (ie watching the students, or intervening in what they
are doing) whilst trying to produce data, reflect or plan, so these moments are
continually disrupted by the requirement for on-going action. For the same reason
there is no describe moment; one cannot take time out to describe what's happening
when one is performing — the best one can do is to notice and remember as much as
one can.
Another characteristic worth mentioning here is the kind of planning that could be
done whilst acting. For me, a key characteristic of action research is the idea that
what is planned is innovative in some respect; to plan to do what one usually does
generally results in a very limited form of inquiry; so I think that some element of
originality is essential in the plan, which is why design might be a better term for the
planning moment. Terminology aside, the point is that it is simply not possible to
engage in a design process whilst acting, so that is another major difference between
thoughtful action and reflective practice.
Tripp Action Inquiry
On the other hand, I would not like to imply that it is not possible to engage in an
action inquiry cycle within a moment of an action inquiry cycle; the point is only that
it is not possible whilst acting (in contrast to within an action moment). For instance,
if the implementation of planned action takes place intermittently over a period,
there are breaks which can be used for a cycle (ie using the lunch break of a 1-day
workshop to get feed-back on the morning, reflect on it, and replan the afternoon
session). Similarly, on occasion it will be perfectly sensible and feasible to use the
cycle in one of the moments other than action; for example, when training a group in
reflective practice, we planned, acted, described and reflected on the reflection
moment of their first cycle. I have also used the cycle in the planning and data
production and analysis moments of action research projects, and I refer to these
'smaller' cycles within 'larger' cycles as action inquiry epicycles.
An important proviso about the kinds of distinctions I am making here is that I am
not allocating a point on any one continuum to any one kind of action inquiry; they
should not be seen as dichotomous, but rather as overlapping areas in a multi-
dimensional space. In deciding what kind of action inquiry a particular instance is, I
would 'characterise' it as 'more like this than that', recognising that it will have
aspects of perhaps several kinds of action inquiry.
However, the aim is not inquiry, the cycle is not consciously employed, strategic
action does not result, its different moments are merged because they are
simultaneous rather than sequential, and there is no separate design phase. This last
is very important because in action inquiry, action and inquiry are framed by design
One can summarise some of the main differences as follows —
Thoughtful Action
Action Inquiry
is instantaneous — one decides
what to do next, thinking about it
only for a split second;
it requires one to take time out of
practice, because
there is no cycle of clearly defined
separate phases; it's an unpredictable
sequence because one's responding to
events in the situation itself;
it is a clear cycle of separate moments
in each of which one engages in
completely different activities;
there's no Describe moment because
one is engaged in acting;
In order for investigation into the
effects of the action, one creates a
formal record that describes the
results of the action;
one's not aiming at an improvement
to practice — one's thinking about
how best to do something one always
the major aim is to produce an
improvement to what one always
there's no element of inquiry and
one is not deliberately setting out to
learn something from the experience.
one designs and uses inquiry
strategies to find out more about one's
In short, whilst Thoughtful Action is not automatic, thinking about what one's doing
doesn't change it into Reflective Practice.
Tripp Action Inquiry
Improving reflective practice
Before moving on to look at action research, perhaps it is important to note that
every reflective practitioner needs to develop their process. One can develop
reflective practice through being more deliberate and conscious in planning and
monitoring action, of course, though this moves it towards action research. But
reflective practice is itself a practice, and as one can improve any kind of practice
through action inquiry, one can use reflective practice to improve reflective practice
as such, without moving it towards action research.
I find that the easiest way to do this it through considering the quality of the action
inquiry process during the "reflection on action" moment, adding reflection on the
action inquiry process to the reflection on the action taken. In my work, I introduce a
review of the reflective practice cycle right from the start, though initially only in
terms of, "What have we learned about action inquiry from this experience?" and
"What could we do to improve it next time?".
To distinguish between these two activities I use the terms reflection to refer to one's
consideration and evaluation of the effects and effectiveness of the change in
practice; and review to refer to one's consideration and evaluation of the effects and
effectiveness of the action inquiry cycle. I would therefore represent a "self-
improving" reflective practice cycle with two separate activities in both the action
and reflection moments —
(on Action)
(Reflective Practice)
Figure 5 The Self-improving Reflective Practice cycle
Tripp Action Inquiry
2 Action Research
Action Research is an action inquiry sequence that tends towards more radically
innovative action based on and monitored by recognised research procedures; action
research usually begins with a formal reconnaissance, and there are specific data
production and analysis phases, which produce a more general and less wholly
actor-centred view of action in field of practice. The action research cycle can be
represented as follows —
(First Cycle)
Then Plan
and together)
(on Action)
Figure 5 The full action research cycle
Because I think it important to emphasise the continuities between the various forms
of action inquiry, I represent the action research cycle as a further development of
reflective practice, basically merely changing the describe moment to research to
emphasise the research element of the process.
Example — John talking 3
In reflecting on why she often has to stop John talking to other students when
he is supposed to be working silently on his own, the teacher realises that she's
never examined the role of student to student talk in her classes; she recognises
the contradiction that whilst she's always assumed that students can't work and
chat, she often does it herself. This is a new perspective which problematises
her standard practice, and so offers a point of departure for an innovative
change. She decides to find out what her students think about her absolute 'no
talk' rule.
In wondering how best to see what they think, she considers various research
techniques including more observation, interviews, a survey, or some focus
groups; she chooses a focus group triangulation. She selects two groups of 6
students, one of comprised of those who tend to chat, one who seldom do; she
Tripp Action Inquiry
asks them to discuss the open question, "Would it be a good idea to allow
people to talk to each other when you're working on your own?". She appoints
a note-taker/reporter in each group, and also asks them to use de Bono's (1973)
PMI process to find the plus, minus and interesting points about the idea before
arriving at a recommendation. When they've done that, the note-takers report
to the other group and she listens in, making her own notes as each group
discusses the other group's points. She then reflects on and evaluates their
ideas, reviews the validity and value of the investigation, and uses this
information to design a new practice which she decides to monitor by asking all
the students to complete an observation schedule which includes how often
talking was a help or a hindrance to them in their work …
Building to action research
Figure 6 (above) shows that, just as reflective practice incorporates thoughtful action,
so action research incorporates reflective practice, and this is one reason why I
suggest that an action inquiry project will usually incorporate more than one kind of
action inquiry. This feature is also obvious in the way one builds towards action
research: in reflective practice one is often just systematising and developing what
began as thoughtful action, so action research is often simply a more formal and
deliberate form of reflective practice in which one employs research methods to
produce a more detailed and systematic description of the situation.
The SCOPE Program (Tripp, 1996) is structured on this movement from everyday
practice to research. If one is to produce better information about the situation, then
one has to plan to do it prior to action. One cannot produce many kinds of 'before'
data after having implemented the changes to practice that one has designed. One
cannot get a outside observer to monitor changes during the implementation phase
after the implementation phase; and so on. So usually the move from reflective
practice to action research begins with a two phase planning process: first to design
the changes one is going to make, second to design how one is going to monitor the
effect of the changes. This can constitute another intermediate stage, which I would
call either developed reflective practice or light action research, and represent as follows
Tripp Action Inquiry
on action
Then Plan
(Reflective Practice)
(on Action)
Figure 6: The developed reflective practice/light action research cycle
Planning in advance what information one will produce does not of itself transform
reflective practice into action research, of course: it will only do that if one uses
research procedures to monitor the results of the change, and there are many way to
improve monitoring of a situation other than through research procedures.
As with reflective practice, one can go into an action research spiral, a repetition of
cycles each building on in the last in terms of increased understanding and
improved practice. Action research usually runs into a spiral because it is seldom
used for single-cycle problem solving; it is such a demanding and powerful process
that one tends to use it on larger, more intractable issues, and these one seldom gets
sufficiently right at first attempt that no further improvement is obvious or possible.
So people who use action research appropriately usually find themselves working on
the same topic in a spiral of repeated cycles of improvement. That is why action
research is generally done as a special project, whereas reflective practice is an
everyday strategy for maintaining excellence.
Mixing the methods
The main reason that action research tends to be done as a project is that one has to
take time out of work in one's field of practice to perform the necessary data
production and analysis, report writing, and so on. This makes a well-designed and
performed action research project something different to the on-going reflective
practice spirals which underlie all excellent everyday professional practice, though
the two will, of course, be fully integrated.
However, although action research tends to require a special project, one often finds
it necessary to use some kind of a research technique to improve the information-
base in reflective practice. One therefore finds people who are habitually engaged in
reflective practice, occasionally using formal research techniques even though they
Tripp Action Inquiry
aren't engaged in a formal research project. this is another reason why I prefer the
term action inquiry to action research for a project: it allows one to move between
reflective practice and action research as appropriate.
Incorporating a reflective journal in action research
Most people keep a reflective journal when engaging in any kind of action inquiry;
in reflective practice is it often the only kind of record kept; and in actin research it is
merely an adjunct to the research procedures. The critical incident file is one kind of
journal that is particularly suited to being more formally incorporated into an action
research project, however, as it is not so much a blow by blow account of the project,
but a technique for problematising practice in a way that open up the kind of radical
innovations that characterise action research projects. I find the best way to represent
this is in a matrix (overleaf).
Some people find this '3-moment/3-field' conceptualisation a more accurate
representation of the action research cycle than the single field 4-moment circular
process of Lewin's (popularised by Kemmis and McTaggart (1993) that I've been
using hitherto. In particular, one can see that having action in the fields of practice
and research avoids the problem the action and description moments are represented
as being discrete and sequential in the single field 4-moment model, whereas they
often overlap (as when, for instance, someone is using an observation schedule to
monitor action). In fact, when one represents action inquiry as a single field 4-
moment process, it is difficult to allocate monitoring and producing an observational
record to any one moment, especially as aspects are also included in the planning
and reflective moments.
3 Researched Action
Researched Action is an action inquiry sequence in which the main purpose is a
contribution to public disciplinary knowledge (hence the order of the terms in its
name). As in action research, the experimental action is based on and monitored by
information produced through recognised research procedures, though these are
likely to be performed in a more formal and rigorous fashion. It is also characterised
by the simultaneous use of two different plan, act, describe, review cycles, one in the
field of practice, the other in the field of research. Researched action is usually
planned as research, ie. to increase our knowledge about a problem or issue, and the
action may be primarily an intervention designed to illuminate the research problem
(Tripp, 1990b). There is also a reflective practice cycle within the research cycle.
Researched action
Researched Action is an action inquiry sequence in which the main purpose is a
contribution to public disciplinary knowledge (hence the order of the terms in
its name). As in action research, the experimental action is based on and
monitored by information produced through recognised research procedures,
though these are likely to be performed in a more formal and rigorous fashion.
Researched action is usually planned as research rather than as an
improvement to practice; its aim is to increase our knowledge about a problem
or issue, so the action may be primarily an intervention designed to illuminate a
research question such as, What makes people become more critically reflective of
their practice (Tripp, 1990b).
Tripp Action Inquiry
There are also, of course, a number of different kinds of action inquiry which don't
sit so neatly on the above continua but are nevertheless clearly action inquiry rather
than other kinds of research or practice. One of the most important of these in all the
professions is diagnostic practice which can be defined as follows —
Diagnostic Practice
Diagnostic Practice employs the action inquiry cycle, but it begins with a
description produced by a more deliberately technical approach, the purpose of
which is the diagnosis of problems or clients' needs as the basis of planning. On
the one hand, diagnostic practice differs from reflective practice in that the
inquirer creates a description that is very different from their experience and
bases their assessment of needs and outcomes on that. And on the other hand,
diagnostic practice is much more narrowly focussed on needs and problem
solving than is action research. In short, whereas in reflective practice we often
(and quite properly) rely on whether 'it feels right' to us or not, in diagnostic
practice (like action research) we use other, less personal ways of finding out
what's happening prior to planning action. Diagnosis is more positivistic than
reflective practice, aiming at a more ‘objective’ assessment, but unlike much
research, it is concerned only with applying the information to a single local
Make diagnosis
Assess situation
(to alleviate
problems and needs)
(observe symptoms
of problems and
(identify and
explain symptoms)
Figure 8 The diagnostic practice cycle
Diagnostic practice doesn't sit well on the continua because it can be done in a
number of different ways, sometimes it is more formal than much action research
(the administration of a diagnostic test, for instance), but in other ways it does not
meet the criteria for research, its aim being solely appropriate action. One would
therefore want to place it to both the left and right of action research in the continua.
Action learning
Another kind of action inquiry is action learning. Here again there is increasing
confusion about the meaning of this term and how it relates to action research.
Tripp Action Inquiry
Many people in business are referring to any kind of action inquiry as action
learning, which in the sense that one can learn from any inquiry, of course, it is. It is
not surprising, therefore that Dick (1995) wonders whether the distinction between
action research and action learning is worth preserving:
As they were previously practised, I think a useful distinction could be made.
More recently, the advent of in-company action learning programs has begun to
change this. The use of a team with a common project or problem leads to an
action learning program which looks remarkably like action research.
In terms of current usage, he has a good point — action learning looks like action
research because they share the same cycle, they both involve action, they both
involve gaining an understanding of and from action, and they often share the same
fields of action.
The distinction is important for me because in education action learning refers to a
process of doing something one wouldn’t otherwise do in order to learn from doing it,
which is different from learning from what one has to do in order to do it better.
For example, an action learning process might involve making a map of an area in
order to learn mapping skills and conventions. One might also go and make a map
of an area in an action inquiry process, but it would be for a different purpose — it
would be for a 'real' mapping purpose, in order to try out a new system of
representation, for instance, in order to see if it helped the end-users.
Action learning is often a part of the action inquiry process, of course. Suppose one
were engaged in a critical action inquiry process which involved helping a minority
community group who were missing benefits because of some administrative
systems. That inquiry might involve outsiders' experiencing the existing systems to
answer the question, “How do the real users feel when trying to gain a benefit?" and
that is a form of action learning.
Once produced, that knowledge could well be used to formulate some
improvements and implement them in an action research program, which might be
turned into a critical action inquiry process by setting out to change the human and
other resources, structures and interests that created the problem in the first place.
Action research and action learning are also superficially similar in that one always
wishes to learn something from an inquiry, even if it’s only the time of day. But there
are also many kinds of learning which do not involve any kind of inquiry (learning
multiplication tables by rote, for instance, or learning a set syllabus by transmission
from a book or teacher).
Furthermore, inquiry is always an active process on the part of the learner; inquiries
may be collaborative, assisted by others, or made on behalf of others, but no one can
make it a passive process — it can only be prevented or obviated.
For me, a defining characteristic of action learning is that it produces the kind of
understanding that can only be gained from experience. That is not just intellectual
knowing ("knowing that" and "knowing how" in the head), it's a combination of
procedural knowing (“know-how”, “skill”), tacit (“gut”) knowing, and having
feelings about the knowing. It is a whole experience of the thing known. Action
Tripp Action Inquiry
learning is about being there, in the sense of knowing how it feels as much as
knowing what it is.
Many teachers think most research and academic learning are a waste of time in
comparison with learning from experience; but when they set out deliberately to
learn from experience they are using a form action inquiry which can incorporate
both academic learning and research.
Learning from acting and acting on what's been learned is obviously how things
should be, and it seems that in the real world of practice one will often involve the
other at some stage. But I think this distinction is important because it allows us to
clarify our purposes and to distinguish a special kind of learning.
To summarise, the difference is more in the purposes of the participants — one does
action research primarily to change some aspect of how one practises in a field
(teaching, learning, relating, healing, living, making money); one does action
learning primarily to know about something (teaching, learning, relating, healing,
living, making money).
But one approach is aimed at changing the way one performs an existing practice,
the other is aimed at creating some kind of a practice in order to learn from it. They
get confused because they both involve learning about a practice through practising
it, and people do not always distinguish what they are doing it for.
Just a few points about the purpose of the continua by way of conclusion. First, it
should be clear that as one moves from left to right along the continuum of action
inquiry approaches, each method incorporates the methods to its left. It is important
to remember that one will be acting thoughtfully as one implements the action or
analyses the data in an action research cycle. This is important because I would not
wish anyone to imagine that when they are action researching they cease to also
reflect. It is also important because the reverse is not true — that because one is
reflecting on one's practice, one is engaged in action research.
Second, it is important to remember that these different approaches are not seen as
being fixed in the sense that the outcomes of reflective practice, for instance, are only
and necessarily reflective practice. What the outcomes of one's reflection are depends
upon what one does with the outcomes of one's reflection; it is not that one's
reflections are simply 'not research', but that one has to treat (record and analyse)
them in certain ways that are recognised as producing research in order to research
them. Whether one does that or not is a matter of whether one believes it to be useful
and appropriate to do so. Most projects therefore move between these different
approaches according to the changing demands and constraints of the immediate
Third, the way in which each approach incorporates those to its left means that the
continuum could be seen as a hierarchy, and that I am trying to establish researched
action as a form of action inquiry superior to any other. Read as intended, the
continuum simply shows how various aspects of each process change in response to
the outcomes sought. Again, it is a matter of what is appropriate at that point.
Fourth, these continua and the main continuum, then, are an indication of the way in
which changes in some of the different characteristics produce recognisably different
Tripp Action Inquiry
kinds of practice which I think are worth fostering and selecting from. But at exactly
what point reflective practice becomes action research is neither the point of, nor
determinable from, this account: such things must always be a matter of judgement
— are the accounts well written? reliable? comprehensive? properly coded? fully
explained? … and so on. The point of distinguishing a number of different
approaches to action inquiry is to enable us to choose an appropriate and 'do-able'
approach; and being clear about what we're doing should enable us to be more clear
about how well we are doing it.
Finally, to return to the main point — the purpose of making these distinctions is not
to prescribe in such a way as to prevent others from using action research, nor is it to
do the opposite and to insist that they do action research rather than any other form
of action inquiry. Nor am I attempting to establish and maintain hegemony over
others through the imposition of unilateral and exclusive definitions — I am trying
to facilitate a collaborative process for the production of some definitions essential to
my work. The extent to which this paper meets the criteria of vision, expansion and
inclusion must be for the reader to judge.
To summarise —
1 There are many kinds of action inquiry; but they all have the plan, act, describe,
review cycle in common.
2 All kinds of action inquiry are equally important, useful and valuable; but
sometimes one kind of action inquiry is more appropriate than another.
3 To warrant the designation 'action research' there should be a recognisable
research component in the inquiry.
4 To action research something means shifting from our normal mode of being
into a special mode of inquiry.
The purpose of this paper is to draw attention to the kind of problems that many
people are experiencing in their encounter with action research, and to describe
some of the differences between it and closely related methods in order to clarify
them all. And the purpose of that clarification is to enable all kinds of action inquiry
better to continue to be developed in ways that will increase their various strengths,
enable us to choose the most appropriate from amongst an increasing range of
possible approaches, and to open the fields of practice and learning to a variety of
different approaches to action inquiry.
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Carr, W. and S. Kemmis (1986). Becoming critical: Knowing through action research.
London, Falmer Press.
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Note: An earlier version of this paper was presented at the European Conference on
Research on Education, University of Bath, UK, September, 1995. From 1995–2000
a copy was located inThe Participatory Action Research Toolbox
It is now located on <>.
In this chapter, we will discuss some of the difficulties, limitations and cautions of doing PAtR. All research approaches have strengths and limitations. Some limitations can be taken into account, and when this is done, it can strengthen the research. Other dangers and limitations are complex, extremely fast moving and unpredictable, which is related to the humanness of working with human participants! Given the emphasis on power, process and relationships, PAtR requires careful planning and constant negotiation. At the intersection of CT (critical theory, Chap. 3) and practice, PAtR tends to make any inherent tensions or contradictions in relationships and practices quite explicit and apparent. This means that before, during and after the research, caution always needs to be observed. Although the researcher and participants are engaged in the same process, it is often experienced differently. In their book Danger in the Field, Lee-Treweek and Linkogle (2000) discuss how feminist research contributed to a broad discussion about ‘the need for consideration of the risk to all participants and those affected by research’ (p. 15). This includes preventing the research from placing participants (or allowing participants to push others) in uncomfortable or dangerous situations, particularly when ‘the field’ (itself a masculinist concept – for example, see Rose 1996; Sparke 1996) is overlaid with personal meanings and power relations.
In this paper I have suggested that teachers are not well served by the products of educational research. It has an ideology which tends to denigrate teachers in a number of different ways, deprofessionalises them, and legitimates control of them by others. Teachers are not able to resist these processes, partly because they cannot do their own research, and partly because they are so severely communicatively disadvantaged by the dominant positivist research paradigm that they cannot critique the research of others. In the current legitimation crisis in education, educational research plays an instrumental role in an allocation process whereby teachers are seen by the community as those most to blame for public dissatisfaction caused by dissonance between the community's expectations of the educational system and what it actually delivers. The way to overcome these difficulties is by insisting of forms of research in which teachers can co‐operate with researchers on equal terms.
I don't know how to correct this, but certainly I've never published with Lisa A Cook. The title of this publication is that of my (sole authored) book — Tripp, D.H. (1993) Critical incidents in teaching: developing professional judgement. London and New York: Routledge (The 2011 edition has a new preface on reflection and action research and is now published in the Routledge Classics of Education series). It might be the the author of a review of my book in the British Journal of Educational Studies 1994 #42(4). I haven't found a way to remove this reference from this site (help welcome!) and I cannot find an active contact address for Lisa A Cook. David Tripp 16/09/2016 About the book (from the publishers' blurb): Good teachers use good techniques and routines, but techniques and routines alone do not produce good teaching. The real art of teaching lies in teachers' professional judgement because in teaching there is seldom one "right answer". This combination of experience, flexibility, informed opinion and constant self-monitoring is not easy to acquire, but in this re-released classic edition of Critical Incidents in Teaching - which includes a new introduction from the author - David Tripp shows how teachers can draw on their own classroom experience to develop it. In this practical and unique guide, the author offers a range of strategies for approaching critical incidents and gives advice on how to develop a critical incident file. Illustrated with numerous classroom examples for discussion and reflection, Critical Incidents in Teaching is for everyone concerned with the development of professionalism in teaching. Although aimed at teachers who want to improve their own practice and pass on their expertise to others, as a teacher educator David’s long term agenda is to improve the public status of teaching and to encourage more inductive research in education; he sees classrooms as situations to be explained rather than as places in which to apply theories developed in other disciplines. By way of encouragement while I'm at it, all 30-odd reviews have been very positive! For instance, the Teacher Training Journal (27(3) had this to say about the 2011 edition: This exceptionally useful classic for teachers and teacher trainers/educators/mentors remains unrevised save for a new preface in which Tripp considers the impact his book has had since 1993 and outlines his thinking on action enquiry, reflection, and inductive research methods with regard to critical incidents. The unchanged body of the book still details the creation and analysis of critical incidents, the development of a critical incident file, the development of professional judgement, and the practical and social implications stemming from work on critical incidents. Highly recommended. Unfortunately, I cannot put the book up for download, so your library is the best solution.
Comments on the article by W. F. Whyte, D. J. Greenwood, and P. Lazes (see record 1989-38467-001) by using the action science perspective to point out certain practical limitations and conceptual gaps in their description of the Xerox participatory action research intervention. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2012 APA, all rights reserved)