The Areol Program – On Action Research, and becoming a better person

This summer, I took part in an online course on Action Research: Areol (short for Action Research and Evaluation On Line). I thought I’d write about it, especially considering I haven’t found that many other blog posts presenting this course.

Who runs this course?

This course is offered by Bob Dick, based in Brisbane, Australia, who runs the Aral website (“Action Research and Action Learning”). The following is the refreshingly candid self-introduction he sent us:

In the distant past I was an electrical apprentice for five years. Since then, at different times I’ve worked in electrical design and personnel management. I’ve been an industrial psychologist.

For more than a quarter of a century I was an academic. Most of that time I used experiential methods to help people learn social consultancy — that is, theories, skills and processes for facilitating change. Most of this was done using the principles and processes of action research and action learning.

I think my colleagues would describe me as non-traditional, and therefore sometimes a little marginal.

At the same time, I’ve run a small consultancy business in community and organisational change, and a small desktop publishing house. These days I mostly think of myself as an independent scholar. I’m still active in consulting, facilitation, and research.

This characteristically modest text doesn’t mention that Bob is the author of a number of monographs and over a hundred scholarly articles on the topics of learning, project evaluation, communication, and of course, action research.

Besides Areol, Bob also facilitates the Interchange workshop program.

What is it about?

As the name indicates, Areol is essentially a course on Action Research and Evaluation. This is the preliminary definition that Bob offered us of the concept of Action Research (AR), in a preliminary session — naturally, we went into much more detail over the following weeks:

… action research is a way of achieving change and research at the same time.

To put it simply, action research is action and research.

To be able to be used in fluid applied settings, with change as a desired outcome, it must therefore be flexible.  That requires both certain attitudes, and processes that allow the attitudes to be expressed in action.

It is cyclic (some would prefer to say, a spiral). That is partly how it achieves its flexibility.  Critical reflection occurs as part of each cycle. Action research is usually (some would say always) participative. It is usually qualitative, partly or wholly, but need not be.

Besides, our facilitator made a point to stress repeatedly that while he uses “one particular variety of action research” in this program, this is by no means the only one. This is how he describes his preferred approach:

a cyclic process that alternates action and critical reflection… [involving] anyone affected by any decisions taken, as far as possible.

I think of action research as a process that builds upon what good practitioners already do.  They involve others.  Together, they plan.  They try out their plans.  They improve them in the light of their experience.

There are also some things that even good practitioners often don’t do.  Many of them can be used to further improve the natural processes that lead to effective learning.

… a set of processes that are natural and flexible, [enhanced] to make them more effective for learning, and more rigorous.

So Areol is about learning, action, and research processes that enable one to create both change and understanding of anything, but especially of human organizations; and in case of the latter, these processes should actively take into account all people affected by subsequent decisions, in a spirit of respect and fairness.

In his course, Bob contrasts the AR paradigm with experimental and quasi-experimental methods. He stresses that these other ways of doing research are just as valid as AR, but more suited to “identify[ing] causal relationships between relatively limited numbers of variables.” AR, on the other hand, is more useful when analysing complex systems (such as human organisations) in which there are too many variables to count. Contrary to experimental/quantitative methods, it has an emergent nature: the research process is “modified as it proceeds,” and “gradually informed by a growing understanding of the research situation.”

See this very clear introduction to read more about B. Dick’s vision of AR.

Format

Areol has been running twice a year since 1995. Quite an impressive longevity! Perhaps as a legacy of its origins, which go back to the dawn of the Internet age, the program is mainly a combination of plain-text mailing-lists and basic HTML pages. No fancy videos or real-time online interactions, contrary to most modern MOOCs for example. But sometimes you just don’t need fancy tech.

While there is a permanent web version, Areol is structured around 14 weekly sessions, and is provided twice a year (summer, winter). As pointed out on the homepage, “The web version below is less often revised, and lacks some of the resource materials of the email version.  Also, it doesn’t offer the email interaction you can have with other participants in the email version.”

Each week, the participants in the email version of Areol generally receive three emails:

  • One presentation text on a certain aspect of AR;
  • One case study or other practical considerations on the content of the session;
  • And one “conversation trigger,” meant to encourage conversation between the cohort participants.

Every session is also supplemented by archived files on the program website, and recommendations for further reading; and any participant may also launch a new email conversation with the other members of the discussion list at any time.

My experience of the course

The main reason I wanted to learn more about AR in the first place is that I have just started working on a PhD — and my objective in doing so is not simply to produce a thesis and become an academic. In fact, I am doing this research because I think it might be a good way for me to learn about certain things that would help me to bring about a meaningful change in the world. Therefore, from the beginning, I view research and action as intimately connected. When one of my tutors raised the idea of using Action Research, I was naturally very curious about this methodology.

The Areol program was undoubtedly an excellent place to begin for an AR novice like me. From practical advice on how to plan one’s research, approach people and interview them, down to the nitty-gritty of collecting data and developing an understanding of the researched situation in the most rigorous way possible, Areol provides tremendous food for thought.

Fortunately, the sessions never felt overwhelming: depending on how much time I had in a given week, and how much interest in a given topic, I would decide on how many of the recommended online articles to read, and whether or not to participate in the discussion list conversations. Besides, the facilitator has visibly put a great deal of effort into presenting all the content in a very clear and straightforward way, eschewing jargon and clarifying any academic term that might prove useful.

The weekly emails are also carefully trimmed to avoid being too long, and the case studies provide useful examples complementing every session. I generally needed about 45 minutes to read a session’s two to three emails, and then I might spend another 45 minutes reading supplementary material online if I felt like it.

The email discussions were also of the highest quality — although I regretted there weren’t more of us participating. Bob was always extremely responsive, taking great pains to push the conversation forward in a most respectful and cordial way, and answering every message usefully. The weekly trigger questions were also occasions for some of us to share insights as regards past or present AR projects, or even about everyday life situations in which AR practice may provide useful guidelines on how to approach certain problems.

Action Research as a life philosophy

What I found most interesting during this course was to notice how immediately applicable AR principles seem to be, perhaps especially following Bob’s approach, to daily life situations. Indeed, as he points out in his definition of AR (see above), it does not just include processes, but also a set of attitudes.

In Session 7 (“Collecting Information”), for instance, we studied three different “styles of process” for decision-making: adversarial, consensual, and dialectic. The first refers to “processes in which it is assumed that one person’s gain is another person’s loss (win/lose)” (e.g. a debate). The second, to “processes that first identify areas of agreement, and then try to build on that agreement (win/win)” (e.g. an ideal-seeking exercise).

While agreements are discarded in adversarial processes (so as not to support the opponent’s position), disagreements are censored in consensual processes. The third kind of processes, however, are dialectical — i.e. they “craft agreement out of disagrement”: one focuses on the disagreements by identifying them and resolving them. Therefore, they too are “win/win” processes; but contrary to consensual processes, they do not attempt to censor any information, on the contrary.

Dialectic processes have two main goals: information exchange, and understanding.  People improve their understanding when they engage vigorously with the issues.  People educate each other.  It seems to me that this happens best within a process of cooperation and enquiry.

To say the same thing differently, dialectic processes are processes that encourage mutual education.  Everybody learns from everybody else.  Such processes are more easily described than achieved.  A climate of mutual education is achieved only when people are willing to respect each other, and when they try to understand each other.

In other words, dialectic processes work when participants adopt a particular attitude — a particular mindset.  Encouraging participants to be genuinely curious about other points of view will sometimes activate the required mindset.  It helps, too, if participants have a genuine respect for one another.

If a researcher’s aim is to win, as in an adversarial process, then there will be an incentive to tell selective truths, or even lie. And all action undertaken will likely be based on this biased information — not to mention that any “losers” in such a process will probably not be so keen on following the decisions taken.

Consensual processes can be very effective when people involved already have tacit agreement about the most important issues facing them; but any consensus pursued without first solving major underlying disagreements will remain superficial and ineffective.

Dialectical decision-making processes attempt to draw on the strengths of both approaches above: they acknowledge disagreements and even seek to clarify them; but they aim at crafting a mutually agreeable outcome, by inviting all participants to provide information that may not have been available to the other parties. I find this focus on mutual education most interesting.

This source file provides much more detailed info on dialectic processes.

How is any of this relevant to people not actively engaged in AR?

Here’s an example. As a Westerner, I tend to find myself in “adversarial” situations relatively frequently — especially when debating political or philosophical issues with friends or family. In such situations, I can very clearly feel in myself the urge to “win” the debate. However, I have come to realise over the years that beyond bringing some amount of personal satisfaction, winning a debate rarely changes the other party’s mindset or vision of the world.

I’ve lived some time in Japan. It seems to me that contrary to Westerners, Japanese tend to seek consensus much more actively. Or rather, breaking the consensus is generally frowned upon. To take the example of debating a certain issue, a Japanese will much more rarely choose to openly defend an opinion that most of his colleagues disagree with; instead, she might prefer to nod along with the rest of the group when hearing some statement, while keeping her judgment to herself. Of course, that person might later voice her disagreement in a safer space, with her closest relatives for example. But as far as her workplace is concerned, it will seem as if everyone is of a mind, while perhaps many are not; and of course, this can fester into anxiety, interpersonal tensions, or worse.

Dialectical processes seem like an interesting way to transcend both zero-sum games in which some people are bound to be losers, and superficial consensus which may only preserved as long as the most salient disagreements can be safely ignored or circumvented… Which is rarely the case forever. And this can be useful anywhere: at work, at home, or in any context in which we associate with other people to do anything.

(Although I don’t understand it very well yet, it seems to me that Sociocracy integrates such dialectical processes, especially inasmuch as it aims to integrate everyone’s objections into decision-making)

Dialectical processes are just one example among many of the insights one main gain from the approach to AR that is being proposed by Bob Dick in his online course. While his advice will be precious to any researcher, it also embodies an ethics applicable to anything in life — an ethics of truth-seeking, meaning-making, and fruitful social interaction, with a special emphasis on recognising one’s personal biases and the limitations of one’s understanding. In Bob’s words, it’s about “holding one’s ideas more lightly.”

The following passage on disagreements, extracted from one of the course’s weekly messages, is to me the perfect illustration of this philosophy:

It’s the disagreements that offer us the best opportunity to learn more. It’s disagreements that, used skilfully, lead to new discoveries and creativity.

This is what I have found most difficult, however.  For example someone may say something that challenges an idea I hold strongly.  My arousal goes up.  I feel under threat.  If I’m not careful my first reaction is likely to be argument.

I’ve learned that here too, the remedy is to nourish and encourage my curiosity.  It’s as if there’s a choice between curiosity and defensiveness.

I’m gradually learning to slow down my first argumentative reaction.  I try instead to kick-start my curiosity.  When I become genuinely curious I am much more likely to respond in useful ways.  I ask constructive questions.  I give responses that open up useful discussion.

* * *

 

In sum, I would highly recommend the Areol program to anyone — particularly people new to the AR field, but even more experienced practitioners might glean new ideas from it (as some of my fellow participants confessed they did). Thanks to this course, I’ve realised that one can be rigorous without relying only on statistics; that there are simple, workable ways of making people work together for the greater good; and that I should remain curious in the face of disagreements. None of this is trivial.

I’ll leave the last word to Bob:

The practice of action research can help us to “be a better person” — and then do be able to do even better research.  In action research we can’t really observe the situation from “outside”, as it were.  We immerse ourselves in the situation. Who we *are* becomes an important part of the situation.

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