Validity in Action Research
Eikeland (2006) talks about several challenges related to demonstrating the validity of action research and research based on human activity in general. He points out that validity is dependent on all participants documenting exactly what has been done in the project and not what they wish they should have done. Participants may also deliberately omit things from the descriptions that were not quite as they anticipated. Eikeland also says it is more common than the opposite that we claim we have acted in such a way that we cover over things to make them look better, more innovative and politically correct etc. than they actually are. Challenges of this kind in my PhD project, related to the generation and analysis of data, is the background of the issue of validity in this abstract. The discussion of validity will focus on documenting change processes in action research. The discussion will be related to the interaction process, observations and analysis of texts, logs and reports. It will also be related to questions on triangulation of methods and ethical challenges as well. Validity is about how the documentation demonstrates the credibility of action research. The main objective of this presentation is to show how the validity of action research can be safeguarded.
Previous research has shown a vast demand for more research within the field of vocational education studies (Dahlback et al., 2011; Hiim, 2010; SSB, 2014). This is an important field of research since a number of recent vocational studies show that the education is not perceived as relevant for the vocations they are intended for (Hiim, 2013, 2015; Sylte, 2015). One of the objectives of my Ph.D-project was to study the relationship between curriculum in vocational education and the needs for qualifications in the actual vocations.
The theoretical basis for the Ph.D-project is highlighted by a pragmatic pedagogical and didactic perspective on learning and curriculum. This pragmatic learning perspective emphasizes that vocational learning and knowledge are contextual and practice based, and is particularly suited to illuminate what characterizes vocational and professional education. The main difference between this pragmatic educational thinking and conventional educational thinking is that the curriculum is seen as contextual and based on the actual vocational task and on vocational practice instead of abstract theory (Dewey, 1910; Dreyfus & Dreyfus, 1986; Hiim, 2013, 2015a; Kolb, 2012; Schön, 1983).
The project was running as an action research project involving 37 teachers at different vocational schools and 4 university researchers over a period of 4 years. The aim of the project was to develop knowledge on vocationally relevant curriculum in VET thorough a collaborative action research project where the researchers and teachers together developed and tried out new forms of curriculum.
Some of the challenges in action research is how to document people's opinions and experiences without bias. The results should be developed and documented in a credible way, so others can learn from it. The purpose of action research is that researchers and teachers have the opportunity to learn in and from research. It is crucial to document the educational and professional development in such a way that new theory, practice and knowledge is generated (Hiim, 2010). How to demonstrate validity in action research is provided by Whitehead’s & McNiff’s (2006, p. 80) advice about interpreting the data and generating evidence, and establishing standards for assessment:
- “Generating evidence and establishing standards of judgement.
- Deciding which kinds of standards are appropriate for judging the quality of practitioners` action research accounts”.
Education has a fundamental subjective values-based aspect, and a normative, democratic aspect which means that a technological “implementation" of predetermined theoretical principles or governing curricula is not possible without understanding these fundamental aspects (Carr & Kemmis, 1986; Elliott, 1998; Hiim, 2007, 2010, 2013; Kemmis, 2007; McNiff , 2002; McNiff & Whitehead, 2006; Reason & Bradbury, 2002; Stenhouse, 1975). In action research teachers and students can take active and independent responsibility for how education can be carried out and developed. We were 4 researchers in partnership with 37 teachers in a curriculum project in Upper Secondary Vocational Schools (age 16 – 19). The teachers came from 13 different participating schools and 6 vocational programs. (Programs for electricians, hairdressers, and florists carpenters etc.). The aim was to develop vocationally relevant education and student participation, from the first day at school. All through the project period, there were regular workshops run by the researchers, focused on exchanging experiences on vocationally relevant education, related to the research question. The teachers developed vocationally relevant training through various projects in their own practices. The empirical data consisted of documented analyses of the curriculum, data from the researchers' and teachers' logs, teachers' lesson plans, assignment texts, student papers and work logs etc. We also collected 37 reports from the teachers’ development projects containing documentation of processes of change underway. Qualitative interviews with some of the teachers were also conducted.
The process was dependent on the researchers’ critical questions that helped the teachers increase their reflection in and on their own practice. Generating data in line with Whitehead & McNiff (2006) involved different processes, which included:
• Sorting and categorizing data
• Analyze the meaning of the data
• Identify standards for assessment
• Generating evidence
Hiim (2010) writes about the two main principles for validity in action research that was also emphasized in the project:
1. That the data shows the teachers' practices – what they specifically do to develop relevant education / curriculum, what opportunities they see and what obstacles they face.
2. That data shows specifically how they have worked to ensure involvement and participation of everyone involved in the process, not least the students, and that everyone's voice is heard.
To ensure the validity of our action research we asked some questions about the process of analysis inspired from Whitehead & McNiff (2006): What experiences should be described to show what has happened? Which type of data will show the situation as it happened? How can we describe and evaluate the findings and the learning process? How can we modify researchers’ participation, influence, ideas and practices, in other words the researchers’ role, in light of the findings? To increase the validity and thus assure the credibility of the work, a tool for analysis was developed - a model of didactic relational thinking. The main categories of the model are: students’ learning resources, educational objectives, frame conditions, content, learning process and assessment (Hiim & Hippe, 1998; Bjørndal & Lieberg, 1978). The model provides a tool to analyze the relevance of the curriculum and the quality of democratic influence in the development processes. The model was used by the researchers to analyze the interaction processes as well as the teachers’ documented development work. The model helped us to sort and categorize data, and provided standards for assessment. However, a challenge was the normative aspects of the model. It’s based on a pragmatic, critical understanding of didactics that also implies some basic values concerning education (Hiim, 2015b). Results after using the analytical model systematically showed many facets we did not see when reading teachers' reports. However, in retrospect we saw that the model could work to both lead and control. We saw that we should have had more open questions in the analysis model, such as: What does vocational relevance mean, how can it be assessed and how can it be developed? Expected validity in action research will be explored more when I will write about the results of this part of my Ph.D-dissertation.
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This proposal is part of a master or doctoral thesis.