An Introduction/Review of Action Research and Its Ethical Practices

By Jim Parsons, 
University of Alberta




In the book Teacher Action Research (2009), Pine notes that action research is a process of concurrently inquiring about problems and taking action to solve them. Action research is sustained, intentional, and dynamic research where a teacher takes purposeful and ethical action in her classroom so as to improve teaching and learning. Action research is about positive change. Its focus is learning how to better the teaching and learning occurring in a specific place.


Action research has become a major mode of inquiry in education. Teachers are discovering the intellectual efficacy of combining teaching and research to study their own practice by formalizing that almost daily part of their pedagogical work that engages research. Teachers are also moving towards more formal collaboration on school-based action research teams.


Action research is insider research where teachers research their own practice or their students’ learning. Its goal is to improve teaching and learning. Action research (as insider research) differs from classic or traditional research, where educational researchers are outsiders who investigate other teachers’ practices or other students’ learning. Action research draws on the qualitative perspectives of educational ethnography – that of participant observer. But, teacher action researchers are not outsiders participating in others’ classrooms; instead, they are insiders responsible to their own students whose learning they care about deeply and with whom they are engaging personally to study and to better understand.


Action research is always research conducted by insiders. Insiders may be teachers, assistant principals, curriculum coordinators, or coaches – anyone who studies her own practice. Although action researchers believe research ethics is crucial to conducting research, the ethical protections of outsider research (e.g. such as random selection, control groups, limiting the personal influence of the researcher) are either irrelevant or problematic simply because action researchers research from the insider. Following the ethical principles of outsider research can seriously impede the action researcher’s desire and need for collaborative communication and conversations with their teacher colleagues, their students, and their students’ parents.


Although, when a teacher studies her own practice traditional research ethics guidelines collapse or simply do not make sense, because all research should be ethical it is wise to consider how traditional ethical principles might guide action research. This paper seeks to understand the concerns of traditional research ethics as they bump against the context of classroom-based action research.


 As noted, traditional educational research is usually conducted by outsiders who study instructional processes to increase their own knowledge or add knowledge to the profession. Although the goal of improving teaching is often present, rarely do teachers or students under investigation benefit directly from the findings. On the other hand, action research involves teachers studying their own professional practice and framing their own questions. Their research has an immediate goal to assess and improve their own practice. Because such research belongs to the daily process of good teaching, it has been called the “zone of accepted practice.”


As Zeni (2001) notes, the concept of a zone of accepted practice is used to determine if research is exempt from formal ethical review. Thus, most educational action research would seem to be exempt. If a researcher answers ‘yes’ to the following question, the project does not need a full review by a university or school district research board. The question is:


For this research, will you gather data on your normal educational practice and on changes in curriculum, instruction, pedagogy, and assessment that you could make in your role according to your own professional judgment?


This said, an action research project must conform to local school policy. Thus, teachers should discuss the action research project with their principals, supervisor, or district director of research. These discussions have an added benefit: because action research is best developed through collaboration, such reviews help the teacher-action researcher engage in conversations that can aid the project.


The Unique Context of Action Research


Action research assumes teachers are themselves educational reformers and not objects of reform. Action research empowers teachers towards professionalism as they discover, create, and come to own they knowledge they gain through systematic inquiry. Action research seeks to improve teaching practice by helping teachers gain more knowledge to improve specific practice engaged within specific location – usually that teacher’s classroom. Thus, action research is always contextual. But action research is more than a process: it is a way of living in one’s classroom and school. It is a commitment to engage in lifelong educational research. Similar to a teacher using her past years of experience to inform her current practice, action research is recursive. One’s learning circles back to inform one’s current pedagogical actions.


Teaching and learning is always unique: classrooms are idiosyncratic and learning varies with time, place, culture, home life, unforeseen circumstances, and perhaps even full moons. As Pine (2009, p. 31) notes, “Action research assumes caring knowledge is contextual knowledge, with the understanding that human actions always take place in context and must be understood in context.” Thus, because action research is always contextual, teachers must engage it within their own classrooms. Here is where formal considerations of research ethics shift under the onus of a teachers’ protective concern for her students in her specific classroom.


Playing off Pine’s Chapter Two on “Teacher Action Research,” action research is grounded in the particular reality of a specific school, classroom, teacher, and students. As noted, teachers engage in action research specifically to improve their own teaching and learning by bridging doing (practice), learning (study), and reflecting (inquiry). Teachers conduct research in line with Kurt Lewin’s (the founder of action research) basic belief, “No research without action—no action without research” (Marrow, 1977, p. 10). Teachers seek to better understand their own and their students’ lives by engaging in action research, by producing knowledge, and by consequently renewing their teaching. Thus teacher craft knowledge and action research join to change practice, with a growing recognition that one cannot become a better teacher without also becoming a better action researcher.


Research Ethics for Action Researchers


Now, as I return to the specific question of research ethics within action research, I offer three caveats. My first caveat is that I believe good teaching always involves research. My second caveat is that I believe in the principles of research ethics. Finally, my third caveat is that I believe the line between good teaching and good action research might be difficult to draw. That said, when a teacher becomes an action researcher, some activities change. Action research, I believe, calls for: (1) increased and systematic documentation and data gathering; (2) more self-reflection and writing about one’s experiences; 3. increased sharing (collaboration, presentation, and conversations about the completed work – e.g. publication, conferences, or conversations).


The following five principles of research ethics have a long and important tradition:

  • Principle one: Minimising the risk of harm
  • Principle two: Obtaining informed consent
  • Principle three: Protecting anonymity and confidentiality
  • Principle four: Avoiding deceptive practices
  • Principle five: Providing the right to withdraw


Principle One: Minimising the risk of harm

Simply stated, educational research should never cause harm to participants. As a teacher, you have an especially protective role – you are “in loco parentis” (Latin for “in the place of a parent”). You have a legal responsibility to assume the functions and responsibilities of a parent. You must protect them: on the other hand, you are also responsible for making good choices that improve their lives – which, in my mind, includes engaged action research.

Research can cause participants (your students) harm in the following ways:

  • Physical harm to participants.
  • Psychological distress and discomfort.
  • Social disadvantage.
  • Lack of privacy and anonymity.

Typically, researchers do not intentionally seek to cause harm. Rather, the risk of harm should be minimized. To minimize these risks, researchers should (when appropriate):

  • Obtain informed consent from participants.
  • Protect the anonymity and confidentiality of participants.
  • Avoid deceptive research practices.
  • If possible, give participants the right to withdraw from research at any time.


Principle Two: Obtaining informed consent

One foundation of research ethics is the idea of informed consent. Informed consent means that participants should understand (a) they are part of a research study and (b) what the research asks them to do. This information usually includes the purpose of the research; the research methods (what will be done to collect data); the potential outcomes of the research; and, any demands, inconveniences, or risks they might face. Although it impossible to know what information research participants want to know, researchers should try to explain the goals and specifics of their research clearly– without leading participants to change their behaviour to please you as a researcher. However, when teachers engage in classroom action research – especially in elementary classrooms, these issues of research ethics get really “interesting.”

Good teaching, I believe, transparently engages in the same ethical action as good research. In teaching, information should be shared with students about teaching goals and how a teacher’s pedagogical actions might impact your teaching and their learning. Yet, because most young children hope to please their teachers, many kinds of research become difficult within one’s own classroom.

Herein lies the power of action research. In considering the goals of an action research project, I believe teachers can and should explain their research with children and share its goals and methods – right down to data collection. My suggestion is that teachers simply ask children to do their best and to tell the truth  – because doing one’s best and telling the truth matters to one’s classroom goals. The action research project should also be shared with children’s parents, with the explanation that, as a teacher, this action research falls with your “zone of accepted practice” and you would be engaging in this teaching activity regardless. I might suggest, as noted above, the differences between teaching and researching: (1) systematic documentation and data gathering; (2) more self-reflection and writing about; 3. sharing more widely through collaboration, presentation, and sharing when the work is completed – e.g. publication, conferences, or conversations.

One final component of informed consent is the principle that participants should be volunteers and that taking part should involve neither coercion nor deception. When teachers are researching within their own classrooms, informed consent makes no sense – all students should be involved in the research. As well, in other research studies (e.g. naturalistic observations), often informed consent is not needed or must be relaxed.


Principle Three: Protecting anonymity and confidentiality


Protecting the anonymity and confidentiality of research participants is a crucial component of research ethics. In a practical way, participants might only volunteer if sensitive or private information is held in confidence. Harm might be caused when collected data is shared. If data is not treated confidentially during the action research processes – whether during data analysis or sharing findings at a study’s conclusion – the researcher’s behavior is unethical. That is, researchers – and here teachers are included – should not disclose the specific identities or specific participant data. All participants must remain anonymous. However, as action researchers in their own classrooms, anonymity and confidentiality do not mean action researchers should not share findings with students; indeed, I believe sharing findings with students becomes a part of the research. Additionally, you are modeling good form by sharing one’s inquiry. However, when sharing and discussing findings, participant’s specific ideas or actions remain confidential and individual students must remain anonymous.

Typically, in classroom-based action research, anonymity and confidentiality is not an issue. But, teachers should be sensitive about potential harm. And, if any harm might exist, teachers should take steps to avoid it.


Principle Four: Avoiding deceptive practices


The history of educational research –indeed, some classic studies – engaged in deceptive practices. In fact, powerful findings occurred only because the research was deceptive. However, deceptive practices are the antitheses of informed consent. If participants are deceived, they cannot know (a) they are taking part in a research study or (b) what the research asks of them. In fact, research deception cuts out the collaboration that makes action research so valuable. Although deception is sometimes used in covert research (for example, sometimes knowing one is being observed can alter behavior), and in some cases is justifiable, it should not be part of a teacher’s action research. In short, classroom action research should never involve deceptive practices. Action research is collaborative research, which means students are research collaborators and your work is better if they are informed and engaged.

Principle Five: Providing the right to withdraw


A typical educational research principle is that participants should have a right to withdraw from the research at any stage in the research process. Furthermore, when participants choose to withdraw from research, they should not be pressured to change their minds. However, in classroom-based action research, withdrawal is not an option. It would be like a student asking to withdraw from classroom learning – since both seem interchangeable in classroom action research. Thus, in research conducted by teachers in their own classrooms, the right to withdraw seems counterproductive to the foundational goals of teaching and learning.


Questions to Consider when Engaging in Action Research


The following questions have been adapted from Zeni’s (1998, 2001) work. I offer them as considerations for self-reflection about one’s action research project. Although most do not call for specific action, they are points to consider and to talk through with trusted colleagues.


1. What individuals, groups, or communities do you plan to engage at this point in your action research study? What are the ages of those involved?


2. What power relations exist in your group? Who (e.g. students, parents) do you have some power over? Who (e.g. principals, professors) have some power over you?


3. What understandings do you share with people in these communities? How might personal bonds and professional commitments impact your action research? Will your action research strengthen trust or limit it?


4. Will your action research engage the experiences of people who differ from you in culture, race, class, gender, or ethnicity? How can you better share the perspective of the ‘other’ in your research?


5. Who will help you review your questionnaires, data collection, or teaching materials for cultural bias? Have you consulted adult members of the community (e.g. parents)? How will you reduce any misreading by those with whom you differ? How will you protect the people from whom you collect data through surveys, interviews, or observations?


6. Because your action research will focus on those with less power than you, how will you protect vulnerable children in your classroom? What children might be especially vulnerable? How can your project demonstrate mutual respect and social justice?


7. Might any negative or embarrassing data emerging from your action research? Might anyone be harmed personally? What precautions can you take to protect your students?


8. What are the possible benefits of your action research – to students, teachers, other participants, or to the profession?


9. What risks might there be to those participating in your action research? For example, might current students be disadvantaged to benefit future students? If so, how might you minimize such risks?


10. How will you explain your action research project to your students, to their parents, and to other teachers and administration in your school? What do your students know of this project? What are the risks to them or their families of their knowing (or not knowing) what you write or collect? Can you explain your decisions?


11. How will you protect the anonymity of students, teachers, parents, and other participants? Will you use pseudonyms? When you share your findings, what might you do to ensure anonymity and confidentiality?  


12. Who at your school has read your proposal? Who has been informed of your research in detail? Who knows little or nothing about your action research project? Can you explain and justify the decisions you made in this area?


13. Who else will you talk with about your action research project? Will others read your field notes or converse with you to provide a different “perspective?”


14. Of all the data you gather, how will you choose to report some data widely or choose to “quiet” other data? In other words, how will you decide what data are more important and what data are less important?


15. Are there “political” implications in the way you share your action research story? If so, what might these be?


16. Where will you store and catalogue your data during and after the study? Who will have access to your data? Should you take precautions with your notes and data?


17. How will you share your beliefs are as part of your action research? Do you need to “protect yourself” from the temptation to see what you hope to see?


18. Why do you believe your action research study will assess what you want it to assess?  How can you be certain your findings make sense of might be confirmed by others who do not share your beliefs?


19. Who is sponsoring your action research through finances, released time, course credit, etc.? Might such sponsorship impact your findings? How can you protect yourself from any pressure to report favourably on those who sponsor your action research?


20. How does your school administrator see your work? Is action research accepted in your school? Might you have difficulty sharing your own thoughts, feelings, or interpretations? How safe do you feel your action research or reporting your findings to a wider audience?


21. What data should you credit to others? Might any of your data be considered the property of others? If so, how can you arrange with colleagues or participants for credit or recognition?


22. If your study is collaborative, how will you negotiate intellectual properties (authorship and ownership)? Will your work be shared with university researchers, colleagues, students, or parents who might interpret the action research differently?


23. Who is responsible for the final report? Will other teachers, your principal, or your school board review your draft report? If so, will this review improve your accuracy or compromise your reporting?


24. Have you decided how you will engage anonymity or acknowledgement when you share the findings of your study? If anonymity might be an issue, what can you do? How will/should you negotiate these issues?


25. How will you follow “The Golden Rule” of research? Smith (1990, p. 149) suggests that classroom action researchers ask: (1) What are the likely consequences of this research? How well do they fit your own values and priorities? (2) If you were a participant, would I want this research to be done? What changes might I want to make me feel comfortable?


The point of Smith’s questions and the 25 questions listed above is to allow you to consider the impact of your action research on the lives of your students and your school community. As an action researcher, you must examine these impacts. As noted earlier, your responsibility is doubled when your participants are your own students.


In Conclusion


As teacher action researchers, our primary responsibility is to our students. We must balance our research goals with the professional demands of our teaching. Although this caution might sound weighty, the bridge between action research and teaching becomes less troublesome when action research becomes part of how we teach and when students come to understand the goals of action research and take active roles.



Marrow, A. J. (1977). The practical theorist: The life and work of Kurt Lewin.New York: Teachers College Press.

Pine, G. (2009). Teacher Action Research.Thousand Oaks, California: Sage.

Smith, L. (1990) Ethics, field studies, and the paradigm crisis, in E. Guba (Ed.) The Paradigm Dialog. Newbury Park: Sage.

Zeni, J. (1998) A guide to ethical issues and action research, Educational Action Research, 6(1), 9-19, DOI: 10.1080/09650799800200053

Zeni, J. (2001) A Guide to Ethical Decision Making for Insider Research (Epilogue), Ethical Issues in Practitioner Research, assessed from http://www.nwp.org/cs/public/print/resource/309