Developing critical understanding by teaching action research to undergraduate psychology students

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  • This article was downloaded by: [Ume University Library]On: 12 November 2014, At: 06:05Publisher: RoutledgeInforma Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954 Registeredoffice: Mortimer House, 37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH, UK

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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

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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.jacobs@fontys.nl

    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

    Introduction

    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: g.jacobs@fontys.nl

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    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

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    problem-posing approach to education, which aims at both personal and social trans-formation. Conscientizao is key in this process, and refers to: the process by whichstudents, as empowered subjects, achieve a deepening awareness of the social reali-ties that shape their lives and discover their own capacities to re-create them (Darder,Baltodano, and Torres 2003, 15). In order to achieve this, he advocated a dialogicalapproach that involves students active engagement with each other and with theworld. Learning is then a collaborative and problem-posing process of inquiry, whichstarts from the experiences and knowledge already present within the learners; gener-ates vital themes and questions taken-for-granted assumptions; and raises awarenessof new perspectives and actions that contribute to the transformation of oppressingsocial, professional or political practices. The teacher is a facilitator, and the studentsare critical co-investigators in dialogue with the teacher (Freire 1971, 68; Shor1992).

    In the dialogical approach many characteristics of a contemporary constructivistapproach to learning and teaching are reflected. For example, Biggs (1999),Brookfield (1987) and Brookfield and Preskill (2006) draw attention to activity inlearning, to interconnections between existing and new knowledge, and to interactionbetween learners and teachers, as important contributors to the construction of knowl-edge. Like Freire, these constructivist educators reject teaching that is expository,one-way communication that involves minimal interaction between teacher andstudents. For example, Biggs proposes a model of teaching as an improvised conver-sation (1999, 81) in which the teacher has an important facilitating role: asking ques-tions, inviting comments, encouraging ideas, giving feedback, and thinking aloud.

    However, a critical pedagogical approach explicitly aims at critical thinkingthat will challenge the system itself. In the latter, the process of learning involvesempowerment:

    the process through which students learn to critically appropriate knowledge existingoutside their immediate experience in order to broaden their understanding of them-selves, the world, and the possibilities for transforming the taken-for-granted assump-tions about the way we live. (McLaren 2003, 89)

    Reflection and action in a cyclical process are seen as essential processes to achievecritical understanding. In the literature we find many different models of reflectionand learning that incorporate different levels, and focus on reflection as a way toachieve critical understanding. For example, van Maanen (1991), based on Habermastheory of communicative action, proposes three levels of reflection: technical, practi-cal and critical. The first is concerned with the means to achieve ends with a focus oneffectiveness and efficiency and without questioning the goals themselves, which isthe case in practical reflection. Critical reflection incorporates a socio-historical andmoral analysis of a situation or action. In Mezirows (1991) Theory of TransformativeLearning that we discussed earlier, a distinction is made between content and processreflection, with only the highest level, critical reflection, leading to transformativelearning.

    Hatton and Smiths (1994) five-level model of reflection, based on DonaldSchns work on the reflective practitioner, seemed the most useful as it enabled usto incorporate the central elements of the other models. The first and second levels,technical and descriptive reflection, incorporate a questioning of the skills and meth-ods used (which is comparable with van Maanens technical reflection), and givingreasons for ones actions taken based on personal judgement or reading of literature.

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    This is content reflection according to Mezirows theory. On the third level, dialogicreflection is a form of discourse with ones self, an exploration of possible reasonsand alternative ways of action. We could call this a form of process reflection inMezirows model or of practical reflection in van Maanens model. The fourth levelis critical reflection; that is, considering the effects of ones actions and analysing thesocial, political and cultural forces impacting upon ones actions. On this level, thegoals and practices of ones profession are questioned and it includes ethical criteriaof how to relate to others, which is in line with critical reflection in Mezirows andvan Maanens models. The fifth level is the ability to draw upon any form of reflectionwhile acting, called reflection-in-action by Hatton and Smith (1994). We prefer theterm meta-reflection, as it requires the ability to question ones reflection and learn-ing processes while acting. Besides these five levels of reflection, in accordance withMezirows theory we distinguished a zero level of non-reflective action (see Table 1for a summary of our model).

    Our assumption was that in order for critical understanding to develop, reflectionprocesses should exceed level three towards critical and meta-forms of reflection (seealso Jacobs 2008). These higher-order forms of reflection are characteristic for eman-cipatory inquiry (Zuber-Skerritt 2001; following Carr and Kemmis 1985) and level IIand III learning (Anderson and Thorpe 2004;...

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