Number 56 • January 2016

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Action research in deafblindness series

Dr. Susan Bruce

This is the first in a series of articles about action research written by members of the Action Research Work Group of the Deafblind International (DbI) Research Network. The purpose of this series is to provide information to support practitioners to conduct research. Systematic research by practitioners holds the promise of expanding our knowledge of effective practices in deafblindness. This paper begins the series by defining action research and describing types of action research. Future articles will describe how to conduct action research studies and share descriptions of studies in deafblindness.

Article #1: Defining and Describing Action Research

What is action research?

Action research is a problem solving form of systematic inquiry. It starts with the identification of a problem of interest to a practitioner. This problem is then translated into a researchable question. Through reflection about the research question, the practitioner determines the potential actions that might be taken and how those actions could be measured. One of the hallmarks of action research is that it involves cycles of action and reflection (Pine, 2010). So, unlike most types of research, the intervention or action is not static. The practitioner reflects, develops an intervention (the action), measures its impact, and then reflects about what has occurred. The practitioner, informed by data, then determines to continue with the intervention or to make changes (e.g. implement a new action) that might be more effective. Thus, action research may involve one cycle of action and reflection, but it is far more likely to include multiple cycles of action and reflection. The recursive problem-solving nature of action research makes it particularly suitable to complex challenges that occur in complex settings that experience change.

What are the types of action research?

Hendricks (2009) described four types of action research: classroom, collaborative, critical and participatory. Classroom action research focuses on an issue of importance in the classroom that may involve a single student or multiple students. For example, classroom action research might focus on how to support all students to increase their interactions with each other or it might focus on the communication development of one student. Classroom research, sometimes called teacher or practitioner research, should build on the abilities of students, rather than focusing on deficits (Wansart, 1995). Thus, intervention builds on what the practitioner knows the child or youth can do. Although Hendrick’s schema discusses classroom research, the same ideas may be applied to research in non-school settings including those that serve adults who are deafblind.

Collaborative research occurs when the practitioner involves others outside the immediate classroom or community setting. This may include colleagues, university collaborators, or others who bring either knowledge of the issue (such as an expert on communication) or of the research process (Hobson, 2001). The success of such collaborative relationships is dependent on voluntary participation, delineation of roles and responsibilities, clear communication, and established timelines for the work (Stevens, Slaton, & Bunney, 1992).

Critical action research has a strong social justice component. It addresses issues of inequity rooted in prejudice and discrimination. Critical action research studies examine how social and political forces cause inequity (Bruce, 2010). Collaboration is also a characteristic of critical action research, but the collaborators are from outside the classroom or other setting. They are often members of the community who have personal experience with the issue being examined. In studies about issues faced by individuals who are deafblind, children or adults who are deafblind, their family members, close friends, and service providers could be included.

Participatory action research (PAR) in special education or disability studies includes individuals with disabilities as co-researchers. The distinguishing feature of participatory research is that the participants (in this case, individuals who are deafblind) identify a problem or issue of concern to them that is then shaped into the research question(s). In PAR, the individuals with disabilities assume co-researcher roles of their choosing, such as participation in data collection, data analysis, and dissemination in various forms (Balcazar, Keys, Kaplan, & Suarez-Balcazar, 1998). Self-determination and advocacy are central tenets of participatory action research studies (Porter & Lacey, 2005). Emancipatory action research is considered by some to be a form of participatory action research. In emancipatory research power is held by the individuals with disabilities and the goal is to make social change to improve the quality of life.
For more information, contact Dr. Susan Bruce, Professor, Boston College

Email: susan.bruce@bc-edu


Balcazar, F. E., Keys, C. B., Kaplan, D. L., & Suarez-Balcazar, Y. (1998). Participatory action research and people with disabilities: Principles and challenges. Canadian Journal of Rehabilitation, 12 (2), 105–112.

Bruce, S. M. (2010). Improving opportunities for children with disabilities through action research. In: S. M. Bruce & G. J. Pine (Eds). Action research in special education: An inquiry approach for effective teaching and learning (pp. 16–31). New York: Teachers College Press.
Hendricks, C. (2009). Improving schools through action research: A comprehensive guide for educators (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.
Hobson, D. (2001). Learning with each other: Collaboration in teacher research. In: G. Burnaford, J. Fischer, & D. Hobson (Eds.). Teachers doing research: The power of action through inquiry. (2nd ed.). (pp. 173–192). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Pine, G. J. (2010). Action research: Promise for Special Education. In: S. M. Bruce & G. J. Pine (Eds). Action research in special education: An inquiry approach for effective teaching and learning (pp. 3–15). New York: Teachers College Press.
Porter, J. & Lacey, P. (2005). Researching learning difficulties: A guide for practitioners. London: Paul Chapman.
Stevens, K. B., Slaton, D. B., Bunney, S. (1992). A collaborative research effort between public school and university faculty members. Teacher Education and Special Education, 15(1), 1–8.
Wansart, W. L. (1995). Teaching as a way of knowing: Observing and responding to students’ abilities. Remedial and Special Education, 16(3), 166–177.

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