From policy to practice – action research as school development

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An ever-changing and increasingly complex world challenges education. The expanding curriculum and changes in modus towards the digitisation of knowledge are exerting pressure throughout today’s educational system. Researchers and policymakers respond by seeking new strategies to make education more efficient. Political initiated changes in schools and other social institutions are often needed to be supplemented by social processes, which are creating ownership and incorporate these new initiatives in existing logics. In practice new policies like legislation and regulations is often met by scepticism and to some extent resistance. The transformation from policy to practice often need some mediation and facilitation. One strategy is, based on existing knowledge and research, to develop implementation models on which practice are expected to act. However, this approach echoes a top-down strategy that does not take account of cultural, pedagogical and human differences and values. As a response action research offers a bottom-up approach. Action research is expedient in order to initiate processes of change in respect for individual habits and contextualized culture and traditions. However, in the case of developing pedagogical practices based on new educational policies action research is facing a dilemma. Even action research is born as a critical and democratic method (Levin, 1948) it is often launched as a reaction to public interventions. Action research projects are often initiated by researchers and funds and not by practitioners. Thus, the researchers frames the research but it is the practitioners who are expected to change practice. The approach contradicts the spirit of action research (Tinning, 1992). The purpose of this presentation is to face the dilemma and present ideas and experiences of how action research as a bottom-up strategy constructively can be applied to develop pedagogical practice based on a top-down policy. The dilemma is examined based on experiences from a two-year long action research project, starting 2017. In Denmark, a new reform for public schools was launched in 2014, which states that students in primary schools must be physically active for 45 minutes every day. The action research project aims to answer the following research question: “Which didactics of movement integration may promote and qualify teachers’ use of physical activities and movement in the subjects of primary schools?” The implementation of physical activity in Danish public schools has proved difficult (Jensen, Skov, & Thranholm, 2018). A Danish review (Jørgensen & Troelsen, 2017) underscore that the main reasons why teachers do not implement physical activity are that they perceive it as irrelevant for the academic content and that it is not a part of their profession. Since they are not physical education teachers, integrating movement in the classroom challenges the individual teacher's knowledge of activities, didactics, and instruction skills. The situation outlined demonstrates the point of departure for the action research project. During the action research the teachers and researchers in a collaborative effort developed pedagogical practices. At the heart of the process was the teachers’ actions when planning and conducting their teaching and the actions led to reflections and development. The process was informed by enactivism, which is an approach within the field of cognitive science that has developed over the last decades. The approach emphasizes how the body and its actions contribute to cognitive process and shape the mind (Di Paolo, Rohde, & Jaegher, 2010; Gallagher, 2017; Noë, 2004). According to Gallagher (2017), sensory-motor, affective, and intersubjective experiences all affect cognitive processes. The teachers’ embodied educative experiments and try-outs in the action research entailed sensory-motoric, affective and intersubjective experiences, which contributed to developing new pedagogical insights and practices. Method The action research project was rooted in the Nordic tradition of pedagogical action research in which, according to Rönnerman and Salo (2012), a reciprocal exchange of knowledge springing from teaching-related experiences takes place between researchers and teachers. For the researchers, this entailed actively partaking in the developmental processes to creating a space for curiosity and development and to contribute knowledge and perspectives that would allow the participating teachers to continuously and critically reflect on their own teaching practices. Taking Kemmis’ aphorism about action research treating theorists as practitioners and practitioners as theorists as a point of departure (2009), a dynamic relationship between teachers and researchers was pursued. The approached encountered the dilemma outlined, and as a result the general direction of the research was affected by the teachers involved, due to the fact that the methodological point of departure of action research is the participants’ experiences, values, and visions (Kemmis, 2009; Tinning, 1992). Thus, the nature of the collaborative relationship between teacher and researcher was rooted in a paradigm that emphasizes participation and action (Reason & Bradbury, 2008). The element of participation affected both the research design and the data analysis. The research design, was inspired by Kemmis and McTaggart’s action research model (2005). The research process consisted of a cycle with the following phases: planning changes, action and observation, reflection on the process and its consequences, new planning, and further actions and observations (2005). The action research project took place between August 2017 and June 2019. Some sixty teachers and vocational pedagogues at eleven different schools participated. The research consisted of workshops providing theoretical input and didactic reflections, which in turn led to the development of movement activities and teaching sessions in which teachers tried out the movement activities with the researcher observing. Experiences from the teaching sessions were discussed in the ensuing workshop, and didactic reflection provided the basis for making adjustments and developing new movement activities. The data analysis process was structured by the continuous action research cycle, a process alternating between data generation and data analysis. Summaries and observations were continuously analysed to contribute knowledge to the action research process. A thematic analysis (Braun, Clark, & Hayfield, 2015) was applied in combination with an inductive coding strategy (Saldãna, 2013). Production of analytical memos were read by teachers and subsequently became objects for reflection. Thus, the teachers contributed to the analytical process. Expected outcome The transformation of educational policy and research knowledge into real-world education is a significant challenge. However, the teachers embodied and enactive involvement in the action research played a significant role transposing the policy into the pedagogical realm and develop an educative practice that is rooted in teachers’ experiences, values and visions. The following actions yielded sensory-motor, affective, and intersubjective experiences that paved in various ways for insights and new practices for the teachers. • The workshops was embodied settings where teachers developed and tried-out educative practices together. The teachers explored the possibilities and boundaries of MI through embodied and interactive process. • Teaching in the classrooms and reflections with other teachers in the ensuing workshop. • Peer-to-peer exchange of experiences across schools. The exchange involved trying out activities together. The enactive approach were essential for the action research process, if it were to contribute constructively to the transformation of educational policy into a pedagogical practice rooted in the teachers every day work. Following is an example of a movement activity that the teachers develop in the action research project. The activity illustrates how the teachers transformed the policy into an educative practice where MI becomes a part of the teaching methodology and are inherently related to didactic considerations of the academic content, the pupils and their interactions. Physics, seventh grade: The pupils are to learn about the conductivity of various materials and are sent out to touch handlebars, lampposts, and the like. They note how the temperatures of different materials are sensed. With this movement activity, the teacher has attempted to link an abstract academic concept to specific experiences to which pupils can relate. Sensing the various materials and noticing the differences spurred curiosity and led the pupils to inquire into those differences. References Braun, V., Clark, V., & Hayfield, N. (2015). Thematic analysis. In J. A. Smith (Ed.), Qualitative Research in Psychology (pp. 222–248). Thousand Oaks, Calif. Di Paolo, E. A., Rohde, M., & Jaegher, H. De. (2010). Horizons for the Enactive Mind: Values, Social Interaction, and Play. In J. Stewart, O. Gapenne, & E. A. Di Paolo (Eds.), Enaction: Toward a New Paradigm for Cognitive Science (pp. 33–88). Cambridge: The MIT Press. Gallagher, S. (2017). Enactivist interventions - Rethinking the mind. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Jensen, V. M., Skov, P. R., & Thranholm, E. (2018). Lærere og pædagogers oplevelse af den længere og mere varierede skoledag i folkeskolereformens fjerde år (VIVE – Vid). København. Jørgensen, H. T., & Troelsen, J. (2017). Implementeringen af motion og bevægelse i skolen – et review af hæmmende og fremmende faktorer set i et lærerperspektiv. Studier i Læreruddannelse Og -Profession, 2(2), 84. Kemmis, S. (2009). Action research as a practice ‐ based practice Action research as a practice-based practice. Educational Action Research, 17:3, 463–474. Kemmis, S., & McTaggart, R. (2005). Participatory Action Research. In N. K. Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.), The SAGE handbook of qualitative research (3rd ed., pp. 559–603). Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications. Levin, K. (1948). Resolving social confilcts. Selected papers on group dynamics. New York: Harper & Row. Noë, A. (2004). Action in Perception. London: MIT Press. Reason, Peter, & Bradbury, H. (2008). The Sage handbook of action research : participative inquiry and practice. In P Reason & H. Bradbury (Eds.) (2nd ed., pp. 1–13). London: SAGE Publications. Rönnerman, K., & Salo, P. (2012). “Collaborative and action research” within education. Nordic Studies in Education, 32(1), 1–16. Saldãna, J. (2013). The coding manual for qualitative researchers (2nd ed., pp. 1–57). London: Sage. Tinning, R. (1992). Reading Action Research : Notes on Knowledge and Human Interests. Quest, 44, 1–14.
Original languageEnglish
Publication date2020
Publication statusPublished - 2020
EventEuropean Conference on Educational Research - Glasgow
Duration: 26 Aug 2020 → …


ConferenceEuropean Conference on Educational Research
Period26/08/20 → …


  • public school
  • action learning

Cite this

Madsen, K. L., & Jensen, J-O. (2020). From policy to practice – action research as school development. Abstract from European Conference on Educational Research, Glasgow, .