Skip navigation

Site Map / Contacts

You are in:  Home » Volume 5 » editorial

This site uses cookies. If you continue it is assumed that you are happy to receive all cookies. Accept and close. View privacy policy

Practitioner research, context-based research, action research and case studies

Most of the papers published in JoTTER tends to have the ‘flavour’ of case studies or action-research, and sometimes they seem to straddle between these types of research. When I taught on the Secondary PGCE partnership programme the question of ‘action research or case study’ was one that students often brought to me in their supervisions.

A question of methodology

This is a question of methodology, which in simple terms refers to the overall strategy used in research (Taber, 2013b, p. 43).There are a range of methodologies used in education research, and among the most common are experiment, survey, case study, ethnography, grounded theory and action research (ibid., Chapter 4). There tends to be some overlaps between methodologies, but not all methodologies are suitable for all studies. Particular research questions are consistent with some, but not other, kinds of research question.

Different methodologies also present different challenges, and whether they are viable in a particular project may depend upon the skills set, context, and available resources of the researcher (Taber, 2013b, pp. 132-139). This is why trainee teachers undertaking a research project whilst teaching in a school during a professional placement may well be guided towards case study and/or action research as in some ways these strategies fit well with the classroom teacher looking to explore a particular issue in their own professional practice.

Action research

Action research (Elliott, 1991; McNiff, 1992; Taber, 2013b, pp. 107-112; Tripp, 2005) in particular often seems an attractive option as it has traditionally been associated with teacher research, and it is concerned with bringing about desired changes, and so suits a project set up to address a problem: the boys dominate classroom discourse; the students are not engaged in this topic; the scheme of work does not present anything challenging enough for the most gifted members of the class, etc, etc. Action research allows a pragmatic, iterative approach of trying things out, evaluating their effects, and then modifying the intervention informed by the analysis of data collected for evaluation (Taber, 2013a).

A genuine action research project should work through a cyclic approach that continues until a satisfactory solution is reached. That may present difficulties in a trainee teacher project as the time scale of the professional placement may not allow enough cycles of action research to reach a satisfactory solution (Taber, 2013b, pp. 148-151). That does not however undermine the value of the trainee trying out, and testing out, ideas - even if realistically what is learnt is very provisional, and improvement in the professional situation may be quite modest. Most importantly, the trainee is learning important skills of research-based practice that will be useful through a teaching career.

Case study

The attraction of case study is that it is an approach which focuses on the specific. A case study concerns a naturally occurring ‘case’ which is embedded within a more complex system (Taber, 2013b, pp. 95-100). The case could be as specific as one group discussion activity carried out by one group of learners in one class during one lesson (Duit, Roth, Komorek, & Wilbers, 1998), or it could be the scheme of work for one topic, or it could be the Y10 students in a school, etc. This approach often provides a sensible strategy for a trainee on placement in a school. Case study is an approach which collects detailed evidence about the instance, to build up what ethnographers sometimes call a ‘thick description’ (Geertz, 1973), usually based on different slices of data (for example observations plus interviews plus document analysis) allowing triangulation between data sources.

Both action research and case study can be accused of being rather limited in their scope for generalisability beyond the original research site. By contrast a survey can in principle collect information (although usually only modest information) about a representative sample of a wide population - all primary teachers working in maintained schools in England, perhaps. Yet action research and case study tend to be based on work in one (or sometimes a few) research contexts and focus in detail on the specifics of that context rather than seek knowledge that clearly applies more widely.

This is a fair criticism. However there is a sense in which the highly detailed description of a case could be considered to offer just as much transferrable knowledge as the kind of headline statistics that may derive form a survey. Just as detailed case study from the school down the road may not tell you much about the school here - so the results of a representative sample of the views of all school heads may not give much guidance about the views of the head of this school! Both can offer useful indicators. If the survey suggests that 87% of all school heads think that children’s books needs to be marked once a week, there is a good chance this head may think along those lines. However, that is only a likelihood. On the face of it, there is no clear indication of how likely the results of the case study in the neighbouring school might apply here - but if it has ben written with ‘thick description’ that gives the reader a detailed mental picture of the study context, we can make an informed judgement about the extent to which the teacher/class/year group/etc we are concerned with is likely to be like the one described in the case study (Kvale, 1996).

Context-based research

Moreover, practitioner research is often context-directed research, where what is of prime concern is finding out about the situation here, in this professional context, rather than theory-directed research primarily intended to generate or test general ideas that might apply more universally (Taber, 2013b, pp. 123-129). Effective action research may improve professional practice regardless of whether it adds anything new to public knowledge. A case study may provide valuable insights into the case we are interested in (this lesson, this class, this teaching resource) even if it is not intrinsically generalisable.

If action research is expected to be cyclical it may not be the ideal strategy for a trainee looking to explore the effectiveness of a specific teaching innovation during a professional placement, as it is unlikely there will be opportunities to learn from the initial implementation and then test out further refinements to the innovation. In this situation a case study approach may be more sensible. It is sometimes suggested that a case study methodology is not suitable for exploring an innovation as case study is a naturalistic approach (exploring things the way they are), not interventionist (seeking to experiment by testing out the effects of making changes). It is true that case study is naturalistic, but that does not exclude researchers undertaking case study of innovations. The distinction between these two situations is whether an innovation is being brought in for the sake of improving the situation, and then research is employed to evaluate it, or whether an intervention is a deliberate manipulation of conditions by the researcher for the sake of research, just to see what happens.

If a trainee teacher decides to deliberately introduce changes in the professional context simply to find out what happens, then they are thinking like an experimenter and putting the creation of new knowledge above the interests of the teaching situation. However, if a trainee decides to implement some innovation because they have good reasons to think it will improve professional practice, and then decide to carry out a case study of the innovation as a means to evaluate their professional work, this should be considered ‘natural’ - after all good teachers innovate all the time and find ways to evaluate their professional practice (Taber, 2013b, pp. 155-159). Sometimes it has been suggested to me that research into bringing about changes in our professional work IS (or should be) action research. That however is based on a logical fallacy. Action research is meant to be research undertaken by practitioners into innovations intended to being about positive changes in their work: but that does not imply that any research undertaken by professionals when they innovate to being about positive changes in their work has to be action research. After all, studies published in JoTTER have to report the school-based research of trainee teachers - but that does not imply that all studies reporting the school-based research of trainee teachers are published in JoTTER!

Keith S Taber

Cambridge, 2014


Duit, R., Roth, W.-M., Komorek, M., & Wilbers, J. (1998). Conceptual change cum discourse analysis to understand cognition in a unit on chaotic systems: towards an integrative perspective on learning in science. International Journal of Science Education, 20(9), 1059-1073.
Elliott, J. (1991). Action Research for Educational Change. Milton Keynes: Open University Press.
Geertz, C. (1973). Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture. The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays (pp. 3-30). New York: Basic Books.
Kvale, S. (1996). InterViews: An introduction to qualitative research interviewing. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications.
McNiff, J. (1992). Action Research: Principles and practice. London: Routledge.
Taber, K. S. (2013a). Action Research and the Academy: seeking to legitimise a ‘different’ form of research. Teacher Development, 17(2), 288-300.
Taber, K. S. (2013b). Classroom-based Research and Evidence-based Practice: An introduction (2nd ed.). London: Sage.
Tripp, D. (2005). Action research: a methodological introduction. Educação e Pesquisa, 31(3), 443-466.