Qualitative and Action Research: A Practitioner Handbook
reviewed by Allan Feldman - 2001
Title: Qualitative and Action Research: A Practitioner Handbook
Author(s): Michael P. Grady
Publisher: Phi Delta Kappa Educational Foundation, Bloomington
ISBN: 0873678087, Pages: 55, Year: 1988
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If teachers are to do research in their classrooms, schools and communities, how will they know how to do it? One way is that they can consult a book that describes, step-by-step, how to engage in systematic inquiry. Michael Grady's book, Qualitative and Action Research: A Practitioner Handbook, is designed to serve as a tool that teachers can refer to as they learn how to do classroom research. Structurally it is quite straightforward: In the introductory chapter Grady defines qualitative research as a set of methods that are used to answer questions that ask "Why?" In this chapter he also compares qualitative research with quantitative research. In the following chapters he describes research design and data collection methods, data analysis, and ways to report research results. He concludes with a chapter on action research.
While this book can be of use to practitioners who seek a brief introduction to research, I have three issues with the book. The first is that in his comparison between qualitative and quantitative research, Grady constructs a "straw man" for quantitative research. Second, his straightforward approach has as its basis a technical orientation (Habermas, 1971) that makes non-problematic historical, political, and moral issues of classroom research. Third, he leaves unsaid much about action research that differentiates it from spectator research.
Grady constructs his quantitative research straw man in chapter one. It is summarized in Table 1: Research Characteristics (p. 6). I do not have ample space here to do a thorough analysis of Grady's characterization of quantitative research, but I will highlight several of the ways that he misrepresents it. First, he claims that the purpose of quantitative research is "prediction and control" rather than "understanding the 'whys' of a situation." While one may reach this conclusion about quantitative research by looking at the methods used in hypothesis testing and correlation studies, an examination of the overall research program in which these methods are used will often show that quantitative studies are in fact done to test possible explanations of why people act in particular ways.
Conversely, it is also possible for researchers to use qualitative methods to answer questions about prediction or control. An example of this can be seen in the questions that Grady uses to illustrate how to do qualitative research:
Clearly these questions are framed in terms of cause and effect, rather than in seeking understanding of why teachers' responses affect student behavior in different ways. The phrasing of these questions is also contrary to Grady's comparisons of the orientations of quantitative and qualitative research in which he states that the former focuses on hypothesis testing, while the latter is more open-ended to begin with and reframed later.
A third example is that he claims that quantitative research relies on data-collection techniques such as tests, surveys, and questionnaires, while in qualitative research, the researcher is the "major data-collection 'instrument' (p. 8)." This seems be contrary to the practice of using instruments such as interview and observation protocols and rubrics for document analysis as ways to make qualitative research systematic.
Finally, Grady argues that quantitative research lies totally within the positivist tradition while qualitative research is interpretist and post-positive. What he misses is that that most research, quantitative or qualitative, is positivist in nature, including the example he uses in chapters 2, 3 and 4. It is in the phrasing of the questions, the importance placed on social, political, economic and other contextual factors, and the way that data is interpreted that distinguishes post-positivist research from the positivist tradition (Lather, 1991).
Grady's approach to qualitative research is positivist and technical. He provides step-by-step instructions for carrying out qualitative research in schools using an example that seeks evidence for causal links between teacher actions and student behaviors. In doing so he has ignored, in general, the problematic nature of doing research in schools, and in particular, the complexities that surround a teacher doing research in the school in which he or she teaches.
For example, people don't just do research. They have purposes for doing research (Noffke, 1997). For teachers that may be because they are required to do so as part of a degree program or as a result of state regulations. It may also be because they want to improve their teaching or the educational situation in which they and their students are immersed (Feldman, 1996). In any case, they must get consent for their research from administrators, parents, students, and possibly colleagues if they are to use their school as a research site. This in itself can be problematic as teachers wrestle with the politics and ethics of doing research on people. Unfortunately, Grady does not deal with the issue of informed consent.
There are also possible political and moral ramifications in doing research in one's own school because of past history and current politics. For example, a teacher attempting to answer Grady's questions might find that his or her peers are racist, homophobic, or misogynist. The teacher researchers are then faced with the question of what to do with these findings.
It is in the final chapter that Grady turns to action research. He begins by defining action research as "reflective inquiry undertaken by educators in order to better understand the education environment and to improve practice (p. 43)." However, for the most part he focuses on how action research is qualitative research that is "'school-based research' in educational settings" and that it is "undertaken in active situations..." using the methods of qualitative research for the specific end of improving teaching and learning (p. 4)." There is an important difference between these two definitions that Grady overlooks. The former describes a methodology or orientation towards research, while the latter is basically a description of methods. It is the whole notion of action research as self-reflective inquiry that distinguishes it from other qualitative and quantitative "spectator" research. It is this difference that makes action research a powerful tool for teachers and other practitioners, as I and others have argued (e.g., Feldman & Atkin, 1995; Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 1993; Elliott; 1991), and can help move the action researcher's orientation from the technical towards the practical and critical (Rearick & Feldman, 1999).
Grady has produced a book that can be useful for the practitioner who is looking for a concise, straightforward handbook on qualitative research. In doing so, he has refrained from considering much of what makes research in schools problematic, whether qualitative or quantitative, action research or spectator. As a result of doing so he has limited the amount of "educational jargon" that he uses. This may make the book more practitioner friendly, since practitioners often bristle at the use of specialized educational language, but to not use jargon can prevent us from making explicit subtle points about research in schools. The omission of the problematic and of the descriptive language of educational research may also reinforce the notion that research is a technical, step-by-step process that has as its purpose the solving of problems. I would urge practitioners who consult Grady's book to also refer to books such at those by Altrichter, Posch, and Somekh (1993) and Hopkins (1993) that Grady has listed as resources for research.
Altrichter, H., Posch, P. and Somekh, B. (1993). Teachers investigate their own work: An introduction to the methods of action research. NY: Routledge.
Cochran-Smith, M. and Lytle, S. (1993). Inside/outside: teacher research and knowledge. New York: Teachers College Press.
Elliott, J. (1991). Action research for educational change. Philadelphia: Open University Press.
Feldman, A. (1996). Enhancing the practice of physics teachers: Mechanisms for the generation and sharing of knowledge and understanding in collaborative action research. Journal of research in science teaching 33, (5), 513-540.
Feldman, A. and Atkin, J. (1995). Embedding action research in professional practice. In S. Noffke and R. Stevenson (Eds.), Educational action research: Becoming practically critical (pp. 127-137). NY: Teachers College Press.
Habermas, J. (1971). Knowledge and human interests. Boston: Beacon Press.
Hopkins, D. (1993). A teacher's guide to classroom research. Buckingham, UK: Open University Press.
Lather, P. (1991). Getting smart: Feminist research and pedagogy with/in the postmodern. New York: Routledge.
Noffke, S. (1997). Professional, personal, and political dimensions of action research. Review of research in education, 22, 305-343.
Rearick, M. and Feldman, A. (1999). Orientations, Product, Reflections: A Framework for Understanding Action Research. Teaching and teacher education, 15, 333-349.