A Primer for Doing Teacher Action Research: Teachers as Bricoleurs

by Jim Parsons

Professor Emeritus, Faculty of Education, University of Alberta


I am fortunate, after retiring from 40 years as a professor in the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Education, to now live on Vancouver Island in Comox, British Columbia. For my family, Comox is an idyllic little town nestled in a bay on the Pacific Ocean. Because of its ocean location, one Saturday morning a year during an event called Nautical Days, teams of people gather at the town’s Marina boat ramp to engage in the Build, Bail, and Sail Race. Here boats are constructed from $50 (or less) worth of eclectic materials donated by local builders. Teams start at 9:00 AM to build these “boats” [the term boats is used loosely] and at 1:00 PM the races begin. The results are hilarious – and many of these so-called boats sink not far off shore. Some make it to the goal: most don’t.

These boat builders are bricoleurs, although few of them probably have heard of the word or know its meaning. The word bricoleur comes from the French, most notably borrowed from French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss’ The Savage Mind (1962). A bricoleur is a person who constructs bricolages – new constructions created by using whatever old materials are available.

To offer a little background, in The Savage Mind, Levi-Strauss used the idea of a bricolage to describe characteristic patterns of mythological thought. For him, a bricoleur skilfully recombined whatever was around to create something new. And, that makes sense to teachers, because I believe teachers are natural bricoleurs. Levi-Strauss contrasts the work of a bricoleur to the work of an engineer. The bricoleur (the “savage mind” of the book’s title) recombines pre-existing ideas to build new constructs, and uses what she has to build these constructions. For Levi-Strauss, the work of a bricoleur is to construct mythology and narrative.

As opposed to the bricoleur, Levi-Strauss believes engineers are “scientific minds” – craftsmen who deal with projects in their entirety, specifically focusing upon the rules and using the “right” materials to create new tools. Levi-Strauss argues that building mythology needs bricoleurs, while the needs of Western science grow engineers.

Derrida’s Structure Sign and Play critiques Levi-Strauss’ idea that engineers (or anyone) could build a totalizing narrative or originate one’s own discourse to construct a language or lexicon. Derrida adds that the idea of a bricoleur plays off well against the concept of an engineer because bricoleur is more exciting and inventive than dreary and unimaginative engineers. If this contrast is pushed into research, which is highly unfair of me, the bricoleur engages the ever-complex network of qualitative research while the engineer tries to simplify human complexity by binding it by the rule engagement used in quantitative research.

But, that is another article. In this article, I first want to make a case that teachers should focus on qualitative action research. Second, I hope to offer some ways teachers might engage action research, as only teachers can engage it. The article is too simple, I know – but, I hope it’s a bit helpful.


What is research?

All research engages thoughtful, meticulous ways to answer questions and test ideas. Obviously, because the focus of my article is teachers, I believe teachers can be both thoughtful and meticulous. In the bridge of their work with children (humans of any age really), they must consider their daily work thoughtfully if they are to teach well. They act, work, and think like bricoleurs. And, in this way of working, they value the differences between quantitative and qualitative research.


Quantitative objectivity and qualitative complexity

Often research is divided into two big chunks titled quantitative and qualitative. Obviously, breaking the whole of research into two chunks conflates it simplistically; however, the chunks do make some sense. Specifically, there are fundamental differences between these two research tasks.

The foundational goal of quantitative research is objectivity, while the foundational goal of qualitative research is subjectivity. These words and the difference between object and subject carry meaning about how humans should be considered within each of the two research enterprises. Objectivity means that researchers stand outside what they study, rendering it an object that sits still. To engage something as an object, one must eliminate its nuance or complexity – basically holding it still. Thus, in the methods of engaging its work, quantitative research stills human complexity so a researcher can collect data about that object as it exists in a moment of time that can be seen by all observers as similar. In other words, so that bias does not creep in.

The quantitative research process is best ensured by rules engineered to create tight structures (for example, representative sampling and randomizing). If these rules are applied consistently and followed assiduously, research findings are considered to be reliable and valid. The more closely the rules are followed, the more accurate (objective) the research findings. Thus, it follows that quantitative research seeks relationships between variables in particular times and places (Is there a relationship between a teachers’ years of experience and student achievement on Canadian standardized exams? or Does one way of teaching grade five math promote more learning success against a measure than another?)

Answers to questions such as these are important to answer if you are a teacher or school leader. However, there are limitations to quantitative research; and, these limitations prompt teacher actioan researchers to see value in the work of bricoleurs. Limitations constantly bubble up to make it difficult (qualitative researchers would say impossible) to still a phenomenon or a human – such as children in school. In other words, a main critique of quantitative research is that things (especially humans) cannot be objectified – made objects. They simply won’t stay still.

And the impossibility to still (objectify) a human is a chief critique of quantitative research. Quantitative research is limited because humans and phenomena are complex. Each is richer and more nuanced than can be made observable or objective. The moment of study where a human becomes an object (where a child takes a standardized exam, for example) only partly reveals the story. Included in this complexity is the fact that many non-objective influences affect people's behaviors or responses.


Qualitative Research

The notes above suggest why qualitative research has grown as the chief research genre for teacher action researchers. And, as Albert Einstein wisely noted, “Not everything that can be counted counts and not everything that counts can be counted.” Qualitative research shares the goals of teachers: it seeks to understand and explore human experience, perceptions, desires, intentions, and behavior. It wants to find out what people think and feel. For teachers, these goals fit. The information teachers typically engage in their work is subjective: that is, it involves feelings and impressions – because children deserve to be disaggregated from numbers.

For teachers, qualitative action research focuses on four areas: (1) how people and groups understand their world and construct meaning from experiences; (2) how phenomena act within regularly-occurring contexts; (3) how people within a teacher’s world (participants) discover and create meaning; and, (4) the processes and outcomes of understanding (e.g. why, how, and what is the impact of decisions). In short, the purpose of data collection in qualitative research is to describe the routine and unique moments and meanings in the life of teaching and learning. Collecting qualitative data emphasizes interpretation rather than objective empirical findings. It focuses on culture, consciousness, and language.

All this said, it might seem as if qualitative research, loosed from the engineered rules that govern quantitative research, might be wildly eclectic in its methods; however, that would be false. There are basically four ways a teacher action researcher can collect qualitative data. These “Big Four” are observations, interviews, surveys, and discourse (text) analysis.

Specifically, these basic data gathering methods involve:

1)      Observation: similar to ethnographic fieldwork, a teacher action researcher can watch behaviors that occur. For example, if a teacher uses a new way to group students for project-based learning, it would be useful to watch students to see if the new way worked.

2)     Interviews: there are basically two ways to ask people questions – individually or in groups. Group interviews, called focus groups, interview a number of people at the same time by asking questions that generate a conversation. In these conversations, data is revealed and people share each other’s ideas and insights. Obviously, there are advantages to either choice. Individual interview can dig deeper into idea by repeating similar questions to several people and noting each person’s answers. Focus groups can engage questions more broadly – and often go places a teacher researcher did not consider. Participants can learn new things from colleagues. As well, focus group interviews can be done at a single time so they can be more efficient.

3)     Surveys: surveys are simply asynchronous interviews, where a teacher action researcher asks a larger number of people the same questions and looks for patterns in the results. Although surveys make it more difficult to engage the qualitative aspects of researched topics, it is possible to ask questions that allow participants to reveal feelings, ideas, and thoughts. Specifically, open-ended survey questions can be used to generate topics for further research. For example, an open-ended survey question that asks: “What are your biggest concerns about teaching the new mathematics curriculum?” could reveal a number of topics a researcher might focus on during follow-up interviews.

4)     Content or discourse analysis: schools and classrooms are filled with social artefacts that might be analysed. For example, studying different school’s mottos could be revealing. Diaries, documents, or photographs might also be studied. In an action research study I worked with, a teacher asked students to photograph “under-utilized” spaces within their school and create plans for how these spaces might be made more serviceable. An analysis of school discourse might help teacher action researchers better understand how people communicate with others in verbal, non-verbal, and written ways. What we say, how we say it, and our choices of words, tone, and timing are filled with values, meanings, and intent. Discourse analysis increases our understanding of human behavior through revealing the language of interaction.


Qualitative Researcher or Bricoleur

As noted, in French, a bricolage is a pieced together group of old ideas and practices to create something new. What makes it so powerful is that it offers solutions to problems. A bricoleur's method is emergent: constructions take new shapes as different tools, methods, and techniques are used to answer questions. In French, the concept sort of means a “Jack of All Trades.”

Teachers naturally understand the concept, because they are bricoleurs. Teachers engage dynamic groups of children and solve myriad human, curricular, and pedagogical problems every day; and, they use a variety of methodological tools of the “trade” to do so. We often call the knowledge teachers gain throughout their careers as “craft knowledge.” Teachers are crafts-people.

Working as a qualitative action researcher is similar. Choosing a research method depends upon the needs of the unique question asked. And, questions depend upon context, what is available in that context, and what can be done within that context – each context being unique. As great as the idea of best practice is, best practices cannot be applied universally. Thus, to answer her research question, a qualitative teacher action researcher might perform a variety of diverse tasks ranging from interviewing to observing, to interpreting personal and historical documents, to self-reflection and introspection using journals. Teacher action researchers turn flying by the seat of one’s pants into an art form.


What are the Principles of Qualitative Teacher Action Research?

Qualitative teacher action research is founded upon a number of principles. As qualitative researchers:

1)      We cannot assume we understand those we study.

2)     We can only attribute to others the ideas about the world they show or tell.

3)     Our work is to understand motives, reasons, and actions.

4)     We hope to discover the uniquely subjective qualities of the worlds in which people live.

5)     We desire to use what we learn to improve the worlds we live in with others – particularly our teaching and learning relationships with children and parents.


Why should teachers do qualitative action research?

Teachers should do qualitative research so they can explore needs and interests – new and old. To improve their practice, teachers should also be interested in the processes, sequences of events, or the explanations others offer. Teachers can use qualitative action research to explore relationships between people and their actions and to explore the meanings their students use to make sense of their lives.


What is the Process for Doing Qualitative Research?

The basic process for engaging qualitative research is quite simple.

Task One: Decide on your question [What do you want to know or understand?]

Task Two: Choose your method [What steps will you use to do your research? In teacher terms, what is your research lesson plan?]

Task Three: Analyze your data [What steps will you use to consider what the data you gathered means.]

Task Four: Share your findings [Decide who should know about what you have found, and share what you have found with that audience. Remember, qualitative teacher action research is applied research: it is done to improve teaching and learning practice.

All four tasks noted above are interconnected (often in non-linear ways) to define the qualitative research process. They are constantly interactive.


More About What Qualitative Research Data Analysis Looks Like?

Once teacher action researchers collect data, the task is to analyse that data in ways that shape the research’s conclusions into action plans. Teacher action researchers study data to see themes, patterns, and relationships that emerged. Once data is categorised into themes, patterns, and relationships, a qualitative teacher action researcher can shape future action.


Choosing Quantitative or Qualitative Research?

When choosing to engage in either quantitative or qualitative research, a teacher researcher must first understand the needs of the study. The questions a teacher researcher asks determine the study’s data-gathering method. Some studies need quantification and comparison. Other studies call for contextual or personal insight. Making this choice shapes the relationships between the research and the researcher.

Specifically, quantitative research demands an expert researcher with expert tools. As a result, most teachers feel they cannot do it. On the other hand, qualitative research works best when those with insight become researchers. Thus, most teachers make perfect qualitative researchers because their action research will share the knowledge and grow the insight they find useful for teaching and learning.


How Teacher Action Researchers Can Build their Research Methods

The following six steps can help teacher action researchers better outline their research. As a teacher of action research, I engage teachers in this activity the first time we meet to work together. I ask these questions, and have teachers take time to fill out their answers. It is surprising how many teachers already know quite well the questions they want to research.

If you can answer these questions, you are on your way to centering your research. Obviously, Steps Five and Six will be answered during the later parts of any research.

Step One: What do I (we) want to know? (Write the question you want to answer.)

Step Two: Whom shall I (we) ask? (Who knows the answer to your question? Eventually, who will be your participants?)

Step Three: How shall we ask them? (What is the best method to ask and answer your question?)

Step Four: What did the participants tell us? (Imagine what the data you collect will look like (shape or form) and how you should best analyze it.)

Step Five: Based upon what we were told, what positive changes should teachers make? (What action should you take, based upon what you found?)

Step Six: How can we know if the changes we tried have had positive results? (How will you know if what you did worked? Here, the action research cycle begins again.)


Four Qualitative Action Research Truths

Truth One: The best qualitative data to seek is the data that answers your question.

Truth Two: Trust the insights of the team. [The process of doing collaborative action research professionalizes teachers.]

Truth Three: Make qualitative action research part of your teaching culture and routine.

  • Teachers can and should do research.
  • Teachers become better researchers as they do research regularly.

Truth Four: Share what you found. Research findings encourage change when they are shared. Part of this change is the creation of communities of teaching practice.