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Developing critical understandingby teaching action research toundergraduate psychology studentsGaby Jacobs a & Michael Murray ba Teacher Training College in Special Needs and InclusiveEducation , Fontys University for Applied Sciences , Tilburg, TheNetherlandsb School of Psychology , Keele University , Keele, UKPublished online: 04 Sep 2010.
To cite this article: Gaby Jacobs & Michael Murray (2010) Developing critical understanding byteaching action research to undergraduate psychology students, Educational Action Research, 18:3,319-335, DOI: 10.1080/09650792.2010.499789
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09650792.2010.499789
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Educational Action ResearchVol. 18, No. 3, September 2010, 319335
ISSN 0965-0792 print/ISSN 1747-5074 online 2010 Educational Action ResearchDOI: 10.1080/09650792.2010.499789http://www.informaworld.com
Developing critical understanding by teaching action research to undergraduate psychology students
Gaby Jacobsa* and Michael Murrayb
aTeacher Training College in Special Needs and Inclusive Education, Fontys University for Applied Sciences, Tilburg, The Netherlands; bSchool of Psychology, Keele University, Keele, UKTaylor and FrancisREAC_A_499789.sgm(Received 27 May 2009; final version received 31 May 2010)10.1080/09650792.2010.499789Educational Action Research0965-0792 (print)/1747-5074 (online)Original Article2010Taylor & Francis183000000September 2010GabyJacobsg.firstname.lastname@example.org
Action research assumes the active engagement of the stakeholders, such as thecommunity, in the research, and a multiple-level process of reflection in order toevaluate and monitor the actions taken. This makes action research a suitablemethodology to increase the critical understanding of the participants. In thispaper we describe the challenge of teaching action research within the context ofan undergraduate community health psychology module. The module wasdesigned using principles from transformative learning, critical pedagogy andaction learning. The module took place over one semester; and 15 students (13females, two males) took part in it. We discuss the background to the moduledevelopment and the alignment of the learning objectives with the teaching andassessment methods, and reflect upon the students experiences in the module andthe learning outcomes. We conclude by addressing the major challenges involvedin teaching action research to increase critical understanding: the ability to engagein deep learning of undergraduate psychology students; our role and expectationsas tutors on the course; and the current higher education system in which actionscience yet has to find a place.
Keywords: action research; teaching; higher education; reflection; criticalunderstanding
Action research is concerned with working cooperatively with individuals, groups orcommunities to develop and to promote change; for example, school improvement orthe establishment of community health services. There is increasing interest in thisform of research, as evidenced by: the launch of several new journals in the pastdecades, such as Educational Action Research and Action Research, the publicationof a new handbook by Reason and Bradbury (2007), which is now in its secondedition, the Sage Handbook of Educational Action Research (Noffke and Somekh2010), and the publication of a plethora of other guidebooks (for example, Greenwoodand Levin 2007; Whitehead and McNiff 2006). Although the origins of this approachare often traced to the innovative work by Kurt Lewin in the 1940s and have gatheredincreasing interest in other social sciences such as anthropology, education and inter-national development, the approach is still relatively under-used in psychology.
*Corresponding author. Email: email@example.com
320 G. Jacobs and M. Murray
Perhaps not surprisingly it is more popular within community psychology, which hasits roots in critical traditions and has a practical focus, compared with most othersubdisciplines within psychology (for example, Nelson and Prilleltensky 2004).However, changes in the relationship between society and science call for psychologygraduates that are critical reflexive professionals and for the accompanying innova-tions in curricula. Our assumption is that teaching action research within the psychol-ogy curriculum is a way to enhance the critical understanding of psychology students.
In this paper we will report on the findings of a pilot with teaching action researchin the BSc Psychology course at Keele University. The module, entitled Psychology,Health and Social Action, was designed to introduce students to the principles andpractices of community health psychology (Campbell and Murray 2004; Murray et al.2004), including empowerment and participatory approaches to health (Jacobs 2006).The module used the methodology of action learning, because of its congruence withthe principles of action research. Action learning was originally developed by RegRevans in the late 1930s. It has since then been adopted in management sciences,learning and organisational development and, more recently, in nursing and healthdisciplines (for example, Boaden 2004; Jacobs 2008; Mead et al. 2006). In recentyears, some research has been done in learning and teaching action research in univer-sity professional masters programmes, especially in the area of health, education andorganisational development (for example, Taylor and Pettit 2007; Sankaran et al.2007; Kur, DePorres, and Westrup 2008); however, within undergraduate psychologycourses it is a neglected area and not much is known about its feasibility and impacton students.
In the next sections we will sketch the theoretical foundations underlying ourmodule concept; describe the module and its evaluation; and then highlight thestudents perspectives on the module and its contribution to critical understanding.Although the module was very well received by the students, their critical understand-ing did not increase substantially. We will discuss possible explanations and recom-mend changes for the teaching of action research.
Theoretical background to the module
The critical action learning approach in our module was informed by critical pedagogyand notions of transformative learning. In Mezirows (1991, 2000) Theory ofTransformative Learning, meaning is central as a process of interpreting, makingsense of or giving coherence to our experiences. However, much learning takes placenon-reflectively: outside awareness or without intentionality. Mezirow draws adistinction between reflective and non-reflective action. Non-reflective action consistsof habitual action, thoughtful action and introspection. The lower type of reflectiveaction is subdivided into content and process. The higher level of critical reflectionin Mezirows theory means becoming aware of the schemes and perspectives that weemploy to give meaning to new experiences. If meaning perspectives change (i.e.become more inclusive, discriminating and open), then transformative learning takesplace. Ultimately, by learning to negotiate meanings, purposes, and values critically,reflectively, and rationally instead of passively accepting the social realities definedby others (Mezirow 2000, 3), transformative learning can lead to emancipation,defined as achieving greater autonomy in thinking.
Here we see an important connection with critical pedagogy, in which liberationand empowerment are the goals of education. Paulo Freire (1971) developed a