Stenhouse’s original concept of action research –  small scale action research studies – scaled up across contexts

Contribution from: Professor Marilyn Leask*,  who was trained as a teacher-researcher in the 1980s and has been working in this area since then. She has had knowledge management roles in two national agencies – one the now closed Training and Development Agency for Schools and one for the improvement agency for the Local Government Association. 

Why the education sector needs research synthesis not necessarily more research: an example of what 1000 years (approx.) of  researchers’ time yielded.

Would you recommend a colleague to do research into pedagogies for modern foreign language teaching in the primary school?

Educators whom I commissioned to undertake a systematic literature review on this topic when I was working for the Training and Development Agency for schools found 5,000 possibly relevant articles. At a conservative estimate, the cost in staff time alone of undertaking and writing up these studies might have been equivalent to 1000 years for one full time member of staff, or 5 years for 200 full time staff. You might have expected such industry to yield substantial findings. However, the lack of comparability between the studies made synthesis and a summary of strongly evidence based advice virtually impossible.

Can we, as a sector, do better?

One consequence was the commissioning the REPOSE Guidelines, which give advice for the reporting of studies to ensure sufficient information is included so that studies can be compared.

A second consequence is that I went back to read Lawrence Stenhouse’s 1975 seminal work on educational action research.

Action Research: case study plus synthesis – as recommended by Lawrence Stenhouse

UK educational research practice has been strongly influenced by Professor Lawrence Stenhouse’s 1975 text An introduction to curriculum research and development. Heinemann (see particularly p. 142 para 1 and 2, p.157 para 5,6,7). He developed action research ideas from teacher-researchers being involved in the evaluation of a major national curriculum initiative. Along with other teachers, I had been trained as a teacher-researcher in Enfield in the 1980’s by Professor Helen Simons from Southampton University and colleague of Stenhouse’s. We each gathered data in our own schools using an agreed methodology and our studies were then synthesized to provide a regional view of practice in the area under study. These provided a powerful and relevant tool for school improvement then. What had gone wrong?

Much action research practice in the UK meets only half of Stenhouse’s vision for this form of research which he saw as a powerful way to inform policy and practice. His vision was that teachers’ case studies of individual classrooms would be synthesised. This rarely happens and so we have ended up with many thousands of small scale studies which may have been interesting for the teachers involved but which don’t contribute substantially to the overall knowledge base. My research while at the TDA indicated that there was little funding available for research into what matters for teachers so the teacher-researcher networks, along with the masters, PhD and EdD theses are the major resource available to generate knowledge for improving the quality of teaching leading to improving in learning outcomes for students. Other countries of course may be different.

Stenhouse’s vision 1975 p.142

“[Action research has] major implications for the betterment of schools…curriculum research and development ought to belong to the teacher…it will require a generation of work…the teacher’s professional self-image and conditions of work will have to change…each classroom is a laboratory…each teacher a member of a scientific community…[leading to] critical testing rather than acceptance…

The idea is that the curricular [research] should feed a teacher’s personal research and development programme through which he is progressively increasing his understanding of his own work and hence bettering his teaching”p.143

“Each classroom should not be an island…teachers working to such a tradition should communicate with one another…they should report their work…a common vocabulary of concepts and a syntax of theory need to be developed…If teachers report their own work in such a tradition, case studies will accumulate, just as they do in medicine.

Professional research workers will have to master this material and scrutinize it for general trends. It is out of this synthetic task that general propositional theory can be developed. “ Stenhouse 1975 p. 157

Where are we with Stenhouse’s synthesis challenge?

While educators appear to have missed this opportunity to synthesise, the medical profession grasped it more than 20 years ago with the Cochrane Collaboration which is

…a global independent network of health practitioners, researchers, patient advocates and others, responding to the challenge of making the vast amounts of evidence generated through research useful for informing decisions about health. We are a not-for-profit organisation with collaborators from over 120 countries working together to produce credible, accessible health information that is free from commercial sponsorship and other conflicts of interest (About Us,

In education in the UK there has not been the same initiative harnessing the energies and commitment of educators as volunteers. The international Campbell Collaboration provides a similar structure for education but does not yet appear to have widespread engagement. Early experiments in education in which I was engaged indicated that we needed methods for synthesis which could be undertaken within the small amounts of time available.

See the Toolkits tab for ideas from educators in the MESH network about how the education sector might move forward in these areas.

*Professor Leask’s experience includes as a teacher, assistant headteacher in London, trained teacher researcher by Professor Helen Simons who worked with Stenhouse;  co-chair MESH, visiting Professor of Education, University of Winchester and De Montfort, UK, elected board member of the UK Council for Subject Associationsand the Association for IT in Teacher Education and co-editor of the major textbook series used for secondary teacher training in the UK (1990-ongoing)

She was previously Dean of Education, University of Bedfordshire, UK and Head of Effective Practice and Research Dissemination at the UK Government Training and Development Agency for Schools and Head of Knowledge and Learning at the Improvement and Development Agency for local government, member of the education panel for the UK 2008 Research Assessment Exercise, elected board and council member of the Universities Council for the Education of Teachers and the British Educational Research Association Council.