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How can action research in teacher training help you become a reflective practitioner?

Jamie Heywood, Academic Developer at Anglia Ruskin University

As a teacher education lecturer in post compulsory education (PCE), I regularly look back on my own Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) experience as a student and think about how much it shaped my practice, influenced my career, and developed me as a reflective practitioner. One of the primary contributors to build the capacity to reflect effectively is the action research (AR) component. Most initial teacher training (ITT) courses include students completing a project on an area of their choice, with the aim of potentially making a change and improving their own teaching practice. As Kurt Lewin (sometimes referred to as the founder of AR) proclaimed  in 1946, practitioners are more likely to make changes on their own practice if they study it themselves; it should be an investigative, empowering and reflective process. Teachers can generate knowledge from the inside, rather than ‘finding themselves as objects whose role is to implement existing theory in practice’ (Leitch & Day, 2000, p. 183).

When deciding on a topic for AR, one of my colleagues always gives the following advice: ‘choose something which frustrates you’, that way you can potentially intervene, measure the impact and create change. This was something which steered my own thoughts when completing my AR project during my own ITT. I used to teach a research methods unit in the evening and I distinctly remember a student commenting that ‘this lesson should really be in the morning, my brain doesn’t work at this time!’ I began thinking about how the time of the day lessons are held could affect concentration and performance and came across the terms ‘circadian rhythms’ (biological processes which follow a 24-hour cycle; in other words, your ‘body clock’, Antoniou & Cooper, 2011) and ‘circadian types’ (are you a morning or an evening person?, see Horne and Ostberg, 1976). I was curious to explore this further and tested this by asking 34 of my foundation degree students to complete two similar cognitive tests at different times of the day, alongside a circadian type questionnaire. My results found that while circadian types were evenly spread (morning types: 18 per cent; intermediate types: 62 per cent; evening types: 20 per cent), the later-in-the-day test scores were slightly higher for most participants (with an improvement in scores for 67 per cent of participants).

Although my findings made me aware of how circadian rhythms can affect learning, my main discovery was in how empowering the process felt and how much reflection was intertwined throughout. Reflection through AR can enable practitioners to become cognizant of the values that drives their work and gives a sense of purpose (Leitch & Day, 2000). I was able to reflect on the findings, my practice, the research process and ideas for the future, which culminated in the development of a strong self-efficacy that I was capable of conducting teacher-led research. I shared my findings through my college’s annual poster conference and at a national conference, and this gave me the confidence to complete an MA in education.

‘Although my findings made me aware of how circadian rhythms can affect learning, my main discovery was in how empowering the process felt and how much reflection was intertwined throughout.’

In the present day, it is incredibly rewarding to now deliver an AR unit and support my students in conducting their own research, hoping that they will be going through the same transformative process that I did. I always place emphasis that the focus is not on the findings themselves, but what you learn from the project holistically. Being able to think deeply about a unique area in your practice instigates and fosters a reflective mindset.

There is a classic debate in teacher education: Product versus Process learning. The Product model focusses on the end result (for instance, the summative assessment and certification) and is typically defined by teacher-led learning and information delivery equalling limited agency for students (think Freire’s (1968) famous ‘banking model of education’); the focus of the Process model, on the other hand, is on the learning process and how students develop and grow, and firmly places a significance on student-led learning and choice. Looking at my own AR experience provides a similar comparison. While AR can instigate change (the product), I would argue that the most important benefit is the process made on the memorable journey and how powerful it can be in developing reflective practice.


Antoniou, A., & Cooper, C. (2011). New directions in organizational psychology and behavioral medicine. Farnham, Surrey: Gower.

Freire, P. (1968). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Seabury Press.Bottom of Form

Horne, J. A., & Ostberg, O. (1976). A self-assessment questionnaire to determine morningness-eveningness in human circadian rhythms. International Journal of Chronobiology, 4(2), 97–110.

Leitch, R., & Day, C. (2000) Action research and reflective practice: Towards a holistic view. Educational Action Research, 8, 179–193.

Lewin, K. (1946) Action research and minority problems. Journal of Social Issues, 2, 34–46.Top of Form