My first experience of action research was my dissertation in the final year of an Early Childhood Degree programme in Maynooth University. When I reflect on it now, I can see many parallels to the daily work of Early Years Educators .
Firstly, the qualitative methodology. Despite sounding all alien, it simply means dealing with data that cannot be measured in numbers. The focus is on quality rather than quantity, which gives educators a green light to work with a relatively small sample (group of children/parents/co-educators). The research tools are also familiar:
- A field journal, which contains any thoughts or observations, relevant to the topic or requiring further prodding
- Focus groups, often taking place informally among a staff team or in a more formal way - like brainstorming during a staff meeting or consultations about policies and procedures
- Case studies, which consider one individual child’s learning and development journey, for instance ‘My Inclusion Plan’ or an individual child’s journal
- Interviews, which could be as simple as an acquaintance process with a new parent-we ask detailed questions to find out about the family’s routines, habits, comfort items and favourite toys
- And finally, observations, which are an integral part of pedagogical documentation and are carried out regularly, in various forms, whether it’s a narrative or a learning story or using an Aistear template
This brings me to my second point; action research can be subjective. This is so different to the traditional research, where the expert-scientists in white coats remain objective and entirely removed. At the very core of action research is the participatory expert-educator, who is woven into the setting’s social fabric, with its values, beliefs, and philosophies. Moreover, these are crucial and often the reason for the questions arising. For example, why do we decide to ask, ‘Are there too many transitions in my room’? Because we studied or read about or discussed children’s rights and developmental stages and therefore, we get an inkling that there is something amiss in the current way we do things. Plus, we observe a very long line of children, who wriggle and jump and hit and cannot sit still each day and this adds to our concerns. So, what do we do next?
We discuss it with our co-educator. Perhaps exchange opinions and perspectives. Then we might write down some notes about it. When does the unsettling behaviour happen? What happens exactly? For how long? What happens beforehand? We come together again and devise a plan; maybe if we change this, the children might respond differently? Why don’t we ask the children for their opinions? How do we do that? Let’s implement it for a week and see what happens…
This corresponds with my third point: the cycle of action research. It follows exactly the same pattern. REFLECT-PLAN-ACT-OBSERVE. If it doesn’t work, we try again.
The last similarity is the strong ethical stand; a compulsory requirement of every research project and, in my opinion, of being a professional Early Years educator. Regular dealing with children and families calls for a strong moral compass and by the same token-develops one. Quality care and education guidelines combined with practical experience, where we continually come across ethical dilemmas, assist us in developing a robust sense of moral code and ethical conduct.