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Action research: Closing the gap between theory and practice

Mohd Mat Noor, Postdoctoral Research Fellow in STEM Education, University of Dundee

In order to conduct action research, Elliott (1991) advocates that a tremendous desire to innovate and improve is a fundamental requirement. As a teacher-researcher, I came to my doctoral study with a great passion, full of curiosity, as well as with the spirit to improve my practice without any pressure from anyone. Action research may not be for everyone, and perhaps not everyone has an interest in action research.

Fullan (2016), in his fifth edition of The New Meaning of Educational Change, outlined challenges in educational change, including that teachers do not see the potential for an advocated change, they are not clear why they should act differently and they have no interest to put extra effort into implementation. However, as a teacher, it is part of my responsibility to improve my professional quality and I see the potential of action research that allows practitioners to enhance their practice to develop into ‘practical philosophy’ (Shosh & McAteer, 2016, p. 15).

‘The potential for unintended or unexpected outcomes as a result of action research needs to be understood by government bodies, and they should be prepared for possible uncomfortable challenges to their existing cultures.’

Therefore, as a ‘philosopher in the classroom’ (Bridges, 2003, p. 181), I brought an inside perspective to theorising about my own practice, without which knowledge of classrooms would be necessarily partial and incomplete. Action research integrates the processes of pedagogical transformation and theory generation. As pointed out by Elliott, action research focusses on closing the gap between the roles of theorist and practitioner; both involve theoretical and action activities, practitioners are theorists, and theorists are practitioners (Kemmis, McTaggart, & Nixon, 2014).

A criticism of teacher research, with which I would disagree, is that teacher research is more focussed on practical relevance and less on generating knowledge about teaching and learning (Admiraal, Buijs, Claessens, Honing, & Karkdijk, 2017). Instead, Thompson and Perry (2004) argue that the findings from one particular action research project can be generalised to several other similar situations. If what happens in the classroom is seen as part of the change process for both teacher and student, teachers are not only agents for change within the classroom but also for society as a whole.

Action research studies also have the potential to enact social change. They are driven by the concerns of practitioners, and conducted systematically and self-reflexively – the outcomes can be wider than just changes in classroom practice (Kemmis et al., 2014). The potential for unintended or unexpected outcomes as a result of action research needs to be understood by government bodies and they should be prepared for possible uncomfortable challenges to their existing cultures.

By participating in action research study, has my thinking evolved about who is being controlled and influenced? I would say that as a teacher I also need to ‘relinquish control to gain understanding’. This axiom may apply to anyone, not just to teachers, but for me this has been a professional awakening. As someone who enjoys creating a curriculum, designing lessons and structuring learning experiences, relinquishing control is on a continuum and is not an absolute. I must venture into the realm of trusting the processes of learning as well as the students’ desire to learn.

By ‘stepping back and letting go’ (Wright-Maley, 2015, p. 206), I can become more of who I am, and this is what will create an optimal learning environment for every one of the teachers and students in the classroom. As a teacher-researcher, I realised I must ‘let go’ of the need for certainty and recognise that life is by its nature unpredictable and that action research is, therefore, a journey of exploration and learning. And so it is inappropriate if some researcher seeks to use action research to show that ‘if x, then y’: they miss the point.


Admiraal, W., Buijs, M., Claessens, W., Honing, T., & Karkdijk, J. (2017). Linking theory and practice: Teacher research in history and geography classrooms. Educational Action Research, 25(2), 316–331.

Bridges, D. (2003). A philosopher in the classroom. Educational Action Research, 11(2), 181–196.

Elliott, J. (1991). Action research for educational change. United Kingdom: McGraw-Hill Education.

Fullan, M. (2016). The new meaning of educational change (5th ed.). New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Kemmis, S., McTaggart, R., & Nixon, R. (2014). The action research planner: Doing critical participatory action research. Singapore: Springer Science & Business Media.

Shosh, J. M., & McAteer, M. (2016). The CARN/ARNA inaugural study day inquiry: What happens to action research after the master’s degree? Educational Action Research, 24(1), 4–20.

Thompson, F., & Perry, C. (2004). Generalising results of an action research project in one work place to other situations: Principles and practice. European Journal of Marketing, 38(3/4), 401–417.

Wright-Maley, C. (2015). On ‘stepping back and letting go’: The role of control in the success or failure of social studies simulations. Theory & Research in Social Education, 43(2), 206–243.