Paul Fean gave a beautiful presentation to the seminar series last week in which he again confirmed how ingenious and simple Action Research can be.
Action Research, if you are unaware, is practitioner focused research that encourages practitioners to identify problems, introduce innovations and then track the progress of those innovation over time. The whole process is seen as a cycle, innovations continually change the system and new learning comes out of each new round. Importantly, practitioners must choose a problem that they have the power to change.
In Paul Fean’s case, he works with teachers and headmasters. They identify problems in schools and try to develop new innovative ways of dealing with these problems. There is also a collaborative aspect, the teachers come together and share their experiences- maybe an innovation that works well in one school can be replicated in another. He did his doctoral research with teachers in adult education centres in Omdurman and then more recently, he worked with the Sudanese Ministry of Education working with 50 headmasters from across Sudan.
The really great thing about Action Research is that it forces stakeholders to take responsibility over their field. Sudanese will often complain that there is no “system” to things in Sudan. There is no support from above, no recognition by the state and little funding available for change. While this environment is not wholly conducive to change, there are exceptions. I have interviewed some pretty inspiring people who have made change through heart battering personal perseverance.
One of the things I want to address in my PhD is the idea of change comes to pass in Sudan. My examples come from professional associations. When there is no “system” (in the sense of an explicit structure), how do individuals cope and create space for change? How can their personal efforts become models for others to use? And ideally, how can the state learn from these models to implement large scale change?
Action Research has this potential.
In the discussion session after his presentation we got into the discussion of whether Action Research is more about “treating symptoms, than treating the root causes”. We heard about how some primary school classes have more than 100 students. Can you imagine teaching 100 seven year olds?! If the methods of teaching and the materials originate in countries where class sizes are in their twenties and thirties, you begin to understand the uphill battle to teach in Sudan. If you
add on to this the fact that 9 out of 10 teachers are not properly trained, then the problem gets even more serious.
Quite a few of my interviewees said they started their careers as teachers- this was back in the 70s- when teachers got good salaries and a certain amount of prestige and respect. These early teachers went on to become captains of industry. Now, teaching salaries are meager and most teachers have to work as private tutors to make ends meet. It is no surprise that teachers struggle and have little time to think about innovations in their classrooms. They believe they do not have the power and control over the problems that they face. 100 students in one class? What do you want me to do?!
And quite right too!
Some of these problems do require action at the top- more funding, better teaching training, smaller class sizes, more appropriate teaching materials and methods. But still, there is room for change. Some of the Action Research teachers involved in Paul’s project chose the topic “How to develop better teaching methods for huge class sizes.” This is the kind of research we need in this context!
Action research begs the question: in the absence of change from above, what can be changed on the ground? And who knows- maybe one individual can prove through success that things can work. Their hard work can get scaled up. I think there are examples of this in the world of professional associations (but give me time to write this part of my PhD up!).
The other big insight that I got from Paul’s presentation is the importance of legitimacy. Participants in these projects were part of a bigger endeavor, especially in the case of the head-teachers, they had the backing of the Ministry of Education. They had a “foreign expert” training them in a new research methodology called “Action Research”. It gave them the support and encouragement to believe that change was possible.
When you listen to Paul Fean speak about Action Research, it is difficult to resist imagining other Action Research applications:
How can businesses use Action Research to deal with wasta?
How can students use Action Research to deal with unemployment in their area?
How can universities use Action Research to encourage wider collaboration among academics?
Action Research gets people to take responsibility for change. Yes, there is something I can do about this and this is how I am going to do it! Maybe it is just a fancy name for things that people should already be doing, but this sense of legitimacy and framework is important- here is a “system” of change that we can use.
There is one weakness to Action Research. If the innovations originate from the minds of practitioners working in the school environments in question, then the innovations might not always be the most radical. At the same time, their innovations will be more appropriate and contextually relevant, but not radical. It is preferable in this case, to mix practitioners from around the country and to share insights from abroad. Paul seemed to think that this might have been the case with some of his projects, that the change was not radical enough but he didn’t want to interfere too much in the process. He was there to study the process itself. He talked about how he might try to play with this balance in the future: the balance between appropriateness of change and radicalness of innovation.
A friend recently posted a nice article on change management. It spoke of the need to look out for the drivers of change:
“An important insight from complexity science is that any effort to intentionally bring about development and change should be built on and link into supporting, self-reinforcing processes of endogenous change” (De Lange, 2010).
I feel like when it comes to Sudan, Action Research can play a big role in this innovating for change, bringing in these processes of endogenous change into a wider frame of action… so Shukran Paul Fean for your insights!