Powerful Partnerships Research Programme

So what is action research?

In January 2022, B&G Partners were asked by A New Direction to design an action research programme for cultural education partnerships in London. The project’s aim was to support four partnerships: in Ealing, Enfield,Lambeth and Greenwich to take the next steps in their development.

What is action research?

Action research is a way of addressing a problem or making improvements in a practical setting - in our case, the work of these four different cultural education partnerships working with young people in different parts of London. Simply put, action research involves a process of thinking and planning; then of taking action, then of learning from what happens when that action is taken, and finally making changes based on what has been learned from the activity. Each of the partnerships made an initial proposal focused on what they wanted to find out using action research. The aim, in each case, was that this work would enable their partnership to take a significant step forward in its development.

What are the stages of action research?

Action research has a series of clear steps that help to more clearly define what you want to do, what you want to find out and how to learn from it.

Step 1: Define your research question

Each of the partnerships had an initial idea of what they wanted to explore. They worked with us and in collaboration with an external researcher to help them dig deeper into this and define a clear research question. Doing this helps to focus the research and the activity you’re going to carry out to answer your question. You can see the action research questions that each of the partnerships defined on A New Direction's website.

Step 2: Develop your research activity

To start this, it could be useful to think in terms of what problem your activity might help you to address. However, we found talking about creative activities and a specific group of participants - in our case, young people - in terms of “problems” can be problematic itself. Instead, you can focus on the positives: for example, what you might want to improve for young people in your local area and what skills and experience you and they already have that could help do this. You can see this kind of approach in our action research projects - for example in the one developed by Ealing Arts and Heath Alliance. This is called an asset-based approach. We used asset-based techniques to help the partnerships design and develop their action research work. One example of this is appreciative inquiry. This is a framework that uses the existing assets, skills and experiences of people to help design projects. See the resources section at the end for more information about this and other techniques to help develop your action research project.

Step 3: Do your action research

Once they had their research question and their plan, the partnerships worked with the researcher on their research activity. There are a couple of things to consider with this. First of all, remember that action research is not like doing a standard creative project because its main purpose is as a learning tool. So you may learn as much, if not more, from action research that fails. It can be difficult to “unlearn” the impulse to plan out everything in advance in detail because you feel it must have a successful outcome; or to just do something that feels familiar and safe to you, but that won’t actually teach you anything new. Action research is an approach where it’s ok and important to take risks and perhaps not get everything right. One useful way into action research can be to build a prototype: a small, cheap and simple way of testing out your idea first, before moving on to something more developed, time-consuming and expensive. This can be based on seeing what works (and what doesn’t) with this step. There is even an earlier stage with this which is sometimes called “a pre-totype” - something even smaller and simpler than a prototype. We encouraged the partnerships to devise pre-totypes as the simplest way of testing out their participants’ or partners’ initial response to what they proposed to explore through action research. You can find more information of pre-totypes in the resources section at the end of this information.

Step 4: Document it

Throughout the process of doing your action research, it is important to document what you’re doing and what you’re learning. This can take many different forms and we’ve given some examples of how the partnerships we worked with documented what they did. One particularly creative approach suggested by one of our researchers is the use of Milanote boards which is an online way of gathering information and documentation in one place. It is important to both build in time for gathering this material and also moments to consider what you’re learning from the action research as you are doing it. If you have time, it’s ok to change the research activity as you go in response to what you’re learning before the project is finished too. Rethinking what you’re doing as you go is part of the process.

Step 5: Reflect on it

An essential final step in the project is to reflect on what you did, what you learned and, as importantly, how you learned it. Go back to your initial research question and assess what you now know. What gave you the main insights? Where are the remaining gaps in your knowledge? What would you do differently if you were to do the work again and why? Based on what you’ve learned, what are your next steps? One year later, we’ve given each partnership in this project the opportunity to reflect on what their action research projects taught them and how it has helped them shape what came next with their work.

Further resources and links

B&G LLP frequently uses the following methodologies to develop projects. These all have applications in action research.

1. Appreciative Inquiry

Appreciative inquiry is an asset-based approach to developing new projects that can be particularly useful when thinking about creatively-based action research or projects that involve working with young people. This is because traditional action research can often emphasise starting with a “problem” that requires a “solution” which may not feel appropriate in those contexts. Instead, appreciative inquiry builds projects from the skills, experiences, insights and talents of those involved. You can use this framework to design your action research project from this starting point. More on Appreciative Inquiry

2. COSTAR innovation framework

Many organisations, even those in the arts and cultural sectors, don’t use the methodological approach to innovation that COSTAR provides. It’s a simple, creative and collaborative way of developing new ideas, projects or services that might have an element of risk in them or for which you don’t have all the answers at the start. Use the terminology in the framework flexibly if you wish, but use the discipline that it sets out to help develop and test an idea quickly and efficiently. Search for Directory of Social Change: CO-STAR Value Proposition.

3. “Pre-totyping”

A prototype is a way of initially testing out an idea before developing the next steps with it. Albert Savoia in his book “The Right It” recommends designing an even smaller, quicker and simpler initial step called a “pre-totype” which helps a researcher or designer gather evidence that what they’re developing will engage customers. Although this technique is primarily focused on the commercial sector, we feel it has applications in the cultural field with audiences, participants and other stakeholders too. Learn more on Pretotyping.

B&G Partners
Spring 2024