Facilitated by Teri Marcos

The art of reflection in research, being backwards by design, is both an arrival point at which intersection the researcher's learning is consolidated, as much as it is a starting point for new understanding. Effective reflection considers what happened, and what will; what was learned, and what new learning yet awaits. As instructors of action research we might ask our students, "What emotional and/or task skill sets do action researchers best engage through reflective practice and what is the impact within their organizations?" Within our Action Research Community we seek to explore here ways professors of action research can both assist their students to reflect at multiple stages of their projects as well as to encourage their journey forward with new understanding.

Teri Marcos, Ed.D

How do we help new action researchers understand the value of reflection? I invite you to share how you approach it with those you support below. I start with a story and end with a set of strategies.

Reeves, Torres, & Hassan (2017), compare two types of thinking: fast thinking and slow thinking. They note, “In reflective thought, a person examines underlying assumptions, core beliefs, and knowledge, while drawing connections between apparently disparate pieces of information” (1). One of the most profound life-learnings I gained was during a trip to Cupertino, CA. While visiting Apple, Inc. in 2008, our leadership team was awed in the executive Board Room while listening to a presentation, enamored while touring the beautiful facility, and amazed by our Steve Jobs sighting while eating in the cafeteria. It was a day filled with wonder, excitement, possibility thinking, and reflection. I was transformed by that day. It wasn’t about the facility, or the brilliant people who worked there. It wasn’t about the innovative products designed by young minds hired recently out of university graduate degree programs comprised of this, and that. My key learning that day took me back to my own childhood as I thought about a practice Steve Jobs encouraged across his designers… all of them. It was the practice of reflection coupled with kinesthetic movement. They didn’t find themselves in a typical breakroom heating noodles in the microwave. No, Steve Jobs encouraged frequent breaks...outdoors. To encourage reflection, problem solving, and the creation of new horizons with new frontiers to solve them, at the core of Apple’s very process of innovation was the encouragement for every designer to move away from fast thinking, to slow thinking. And move they did.

Our team watched young 20 somethings skateboard, play volleyball in a sand pit, and draw on smartboards they shared with self, and others, sometimes alone, sometimes together, while their disparate pieces of information came together into new innovations only new frontiers and new horizons could manage to forge. Leaders were teamed with A players, everyone moving, alone, or together, and as a thought was born, it was communicated first to self, then to others. Slow thinking to fast at its very best. While moving my leadership paradigm from my own static horizon to one that is ever moving, changing, striving, and thriving, my transformation that day was my simple question to me, “What are they thinking while they are moving?”

Vozza (2017), describes Apple Inc., as being 40% more productive than most other companies. And, while Reeves, Torres, & Hassan (2017) note that the famous photo of Albert Einstein riding a bike is the point at which he solved relativity, they, too, state, “Warren Buffet read for 6 hours per day allowing others to take on the menial tasks that robbed his creativity (Harvard Business Review, 2017, p.1).

Kinesthetic movement is credited to increase the depth of neural grooves forged by new learning. While brain learning theory brings multi-faceted approaches to best-practice, particularly within educational enterprises, and has become a topic of major repository for literature and research, I suggest the art of reflection is that place of academic movement critical to the process of deepening the innovation pathway. Slowing our thinking as researchers, while seemingly anti-progressive, anti-flow, and even counter-productive, may be the most productive exercise action researchers can engage as they move through their investigative journey.

Investigation then, being reflective, is progressive, incremental, and occurs best through a careful process and design that welcomes inquiry at every juncture. Instructors of action research may take the whole-part-whole approach to assisting their action research candidates to best engage the art of reflection at critical intersections of their studies. Even more, in that action research is reflective by nature, the entire process may be thought of as reflective, with very few critical intersections, from start to finish. While this may be true for some, I find as both an instructor of action research design, as well as an action researcher myself, it is far more common that graduate students engaged in an action research project need careful assistance at particular points of arrival within their investigations. As do Apple’s innovative designers exercise effective reflection, or slow thinking, as a natural consequence of fast thinking, action researchers must ask reflective questions as they arrive at particular intersections within their topics of study. Learning is consolidated through this process.

Consolidation of learning is a starting point for new understanding. As action researchers consider a need they have assessed, asking, “What happened?”, they also ask, “What will happen?” Too, they ask, “What was learned, and what new learning yet awaits?” Reflection is flexible, moving upward and downward, as a project takes on a life of its own.

One view of the flexible nature of the art of reflection is revealed within the Model of Reflective Practice: Critical Intersections for Action Researchers. As instructors of action research, we might consider a model like this, or one we create, to assist our students to move through a reflective process as they grapple with their topic, aligned literature, methodology, instrumentation, and data findings and analyses. Conclusions should always merit some change of practice within an organization.

As we encourage our action researchers to adopt the practice of engaging careful reflection throughout their investigations we may wish to consider having them broadly and deeply ask reflective questions at the more critical intersections of their studies. Examples of reflective questions might consider:

1. What emotional and/or task skill sets did I, as an action researcher, best engage through my assessment of a need within my organization of study? How did I feel as I identified a problem, or innovative design of practice (topic) (i.e. passion, anger regarding an injustice)?

2. What do I anticipate learning (i.e. as I reflect on my purpose for this study)?

3. What can I articulate from the literature?

4. How can I best get at the data, where do the data live (i.e. within humans (qualitative), within systems (quantitative))?

5. What additional conclusions might I draw from my data findings?

6. What innovative impact, or implications, from my findings might be addressed within my organization of study?

7. Based on my consolidation of learning through this investigation what further need might be assessed (investigated)?


Fast Company.

Harvard Business Review.


Reflection that Leads to New Learning and Transformation

Shared by Linda Purrington

In our graduate leadership program, we begin our action research learning by introducing Dweck’s research findings related to mindset. Concurrently, we introduce Marilee Adam’s (2009) work related to discovering the power of question thinking and Kevin Cashman’s (2012) concept of stepping back to lead forward, the pause principle, to grow self, others, and cultures of innovation. Our intent is for students as action researchers to adopt a growth mindset and to intentionally pause and regularly engage in continuous and purposeful question thinking throughout their action research journey. Students interact in Learning Circles and utilize blogs and journals as a means for ongoing recording and sharing of their reflective sense-making.

Fixed versus Growth Mindset

Carol Dweck (2008) has engaged in decades of research on achievement and success and the power of mindset. Dweck writes about two types of mindsets, fixed and growth, and how mindset guides our lives. “Believing that your qualities are carved in stone—the fixed mindset—creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over” (p. 6). “Growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts” (p. 7). Based on twenty years of her research, Dweck claims “the views you adopt for yourself profoundly affect the way you lead your life. It can determine whether you become the person you want to be and whether you accomplish the things you value” (p. 6).

The Power of Question Thinking

Marilee Adams (2009), is known for her work related to the power of question thinking and core message “that real change always begins with a change in thinking—and most specifically in the questions we ask ourselves” (p. 5). Adams contrasts two mindsets, judger and learner. “Learners make thoughtful choices, are solution focused, and win-win oriented. Judgers react automatically, are blame focused, and win-lose oriented” (p. 39). Adams suggests that we are all recovering judgers, but that we can counter by practicing a Learner mindset and engaging in questioning thinking. The ten tools of question thinking (p. 159) include:

Tool 1: Empower Your Observer

Tool 2: Use the Choice Map as a Guide

Tool 3: Put the Power of Questions to Work

Tool 4: Distinguish Learner and Judger Mindsets

Tool 5: Make Friends with Judger

Tool 6: Question Assumptions

Tool 7: Take Advantage of Switching Questions

Tool 8: Create Learner Teams

Tool 9: Create Breakthroughs with Q-Storming

Tool 10: Ask the Top Twelve Questions for Success

Step Back to Lead Forward: The Pause Principle

Ken Cashman (2012) states, “Managers assert drive and control to get things done; leaders pause to discover new ways of being and achieving” (p. 4). Cashman describes “growth as an inside out and outside in process of transformation beginning with inner self-growth and moving to growing others and growing cultures of innovation” (p. 20). Cashman identifies seven pause practices that support the meta-pause principle: Step back to lead forward:

Pause Practice 1: Be on Purpose

Pause Practice 2: Question and Listen

Pause Practice 3: Risk Experimentation

Pause Practice 4: Reflect and Synthesize

Pause Practice 5: Consider Inside-Out and Outside-In Dynamics

Pause Practice 6: Foster Generativity

Pause Practice 7: Be Authentic (pp. 32-35).


Dweck, C.S. (2008). Mindset: How we can learn to fulfill our potential. New York, NY: Ballentine Books.

Adams, M. (2009). Change your questions change your life: 10 powerful tools for life and work. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Cashman, K. (2012). The pause principle: Step back to lead forward. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Teacher as Reflective Practitioner and Action Researcher

Jennifer Robins

Since my students were graduate students with education degrees, they seem to have a good understanding of reflective practice. I used this as a starting point to lead them to action research. My favorite book to use is Teacher as Reflective Practitioner and Action Researcher by Richard Parson and Kimberlee Brown. Though it was published in 2002, there is little that has changed when it comes to being a reflective practitioner or an action researcher. The book is easy for teachers to read and understand. It provides a good jumping off place from a concept they are familiar with (reflective practice) to a new concept (action research). My primary goal is to show how collecting and analyzing data can advance their reflective practice by providing evidence of their effectiveness and professionalism.

The Difference between Descriptive and Reflective Writing

Shared by Margaret Riel

Both descriptive and reflective writing are important in documenting action research for oneself and others. Memory is reconstructive. It uses bits of evidence to reconstruct scenes and events. Rich description can preserve one's time-sensitive way of seeing a set of actions and reactions. Without careful note-taking throughout the process of action research, it is very difficult to remember the conditions as the memories tends to reconstruct with the benefit of evolving knowledge. In any process of change, it is important to keep a research log—notes that describe what is seen and heard and your thoughts about it. A good researcher is always aware that their point-of-view is not the only one that defines reality. The more evidence of the perceptions of others that are collected, the deeper the researcher's understanding will be of the multiple perspectives on the same actions.

Descriptive writing aims to be low inference. For example, writing "the students were excited and did an excellent job on their projects" is drawing an inference from an observation. A lower inference description of the same event by an action researcher might read, "The students spent most of the period focused on their projects with relatively few distractions. They did not want to leave at the end of the period. The teacher assessed each of the projects as meeting all of the objectives set for the activity."

Reflective writing can and often does contain descriptions of events—but the goal of the writing is very different. The focus is not on what happened, but why the researcher thinks it happened the way it did. In reflective writing the researcher examines how what happened connects to past events and ideas, and possible futures that such events might herald. The reflection mirrors the mind—providing in inside view of one's thinking about these connections. So while a reflection may begin by describing an action or a consequences of a action, it quickly leaves the details of what happened and uses some aspect of the situation as a springboard for exploring the researcher's analysis and synthesis of actions or consequences, and why and how they are connected. For example, the researcher might have noticed something about the way people work, some problem might serve as a metaphor for something that occurs frequently, or an event might trigger relationships to situations that were similar or different in the work of others or in the researcher's own past experiences. Another possibility is that the connections might trigger some change in the way the researcher comes to see the events, some shift in perspective, or the development of a new individual or group skill might alter the way people interact with one another. The reflection might dwell on those relationships. Something learned about the people involved in the action research might lead the researcher to question the way they think about an issue. For reflective writing, the mirror shows what cannot be seen with the eyes—the thinking that the researcher is doing about the action and consequences of the actions for now and for the future.

For ideas (Riel and others) on how to support Reflective Writing see the resources and activities for Action Research Tutorial 9: Reflecting on Action and Outcome.

Add your Title and ideas here