Anne Burns on Action Research

I was recently given a scholarship by RESIG to attend an Action Research workshop by Anne Burns.

Upon meeting Anne I realised how limited my understanding of Action Research was, despite having grappled with it to some success for my Master’s 8 years ago. My interpretation of Action Research was ordinarily practical, within a rather problem-solving mode of reflective practice.

One of the first notions that Anne evoked was “reducing” the definition of Action Research to its process of Plan-Act-Observe-Reflect (Carr and Kemmis, 1986). Confining our understanding of it in this manner is reducing the complexity of the larger critical paradigm it stems from. This has been one of my most natural reflexes in my reflective journey; to reduce the infinite space that research questions raise. And the shift that happened in me from meeting Anne was understanding that it is sometimes the voice that asks the question and not the question that reveals the solution.

What I learnt from this workshop is that thinking about our voice as practitioner researchers, is one of the most useful enterprises we can undertake as teachers. It takes us beyond the trouble-shooting problem-solving mode of intense daily classroom life and affords a capacity for active reflection and a larger understanding of what’s going on, which ultimately reshapes our practice at its core and not just in terms of its methods.

Anne shared with us such rich stories of her research journey and those she guides as a doctoral supervisor and action research mentor. The recurring theme, for me, in these very thick descriptions of practitioner reflection were the unique analytical data that the act of writing creates. We understand all sorts of things when we put pen to paper, (to use a wholly outdated yet adequately charming image of the practitioner journal:)

The most powerful of these descriptions for me, was when Anne told the story of a teacher she worked with in a project conducted with English Australia, and funded by Cambridge ESOL.  The teacher conducted Action Research to better understand the motivational processes among her students (Koromalis. 2011). In her research she came to the realisation that in worrying about the overall dynamics of her classroom, she was allowing herself to be guided by the least motivated student.

Hearing this was the moment that shifted my reflective practice and my whole perception of classroom dynamics. I definitely have a ‘no-child-left-behind’ policy when it comes to motivation and outside my classroom my demotivated students get so much more of my time, energy and pedagogical space than my motivated ones. So for the past few weeks I’ve been asking myself, how is this shaping or distorting my choices of materials, for example… and this is perhaps the beginnings of an Action Research project. So one Australian teacher’s story has sparked off another one in France, through the wonderful conduit of voice, voice that is given value and an audience. Surely this is what it’s all about?

Anne described Action Research and the recognition of practitioner research voices in publication as having grown exponentially in the last decade. She also spoke about this shift in attitude being reflected in spaces like Cambridge ESOL’s Research Notes that institutionally validate this growing field.

I am fairly new to the world of doctoral research and the world of practitioner research is one that I stumbled into after some struggle with and intimidation towards the ‘ivory tower’ of academic rank and publication thresholds.

I realise that saying this makes practitioner research sound like it sits at the bottom of this vertical structure but it doesn’t. What I believe, is that practitioner research is a robust route towards breathing in the essence of why we ask these questions, why we research and why our industry perpetuates this shared quest for understanding the causes and the processes that shape our practice.


Carr, W. & Kemmis, S. (1986) Becoming Critical: education, knowledge and action research. Lewes, Falmer

Koromilas, K. (2011).  Obligation and motivation Research Notes, 44, 12-20

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