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Cycles within cycles


This is a resource file which supports the regular public program "areol" (action research and evaluation on line) offered twice a year beginning in mid-February and mid-July.  For details email Bob Dick

...  in which I provide some practical examples of short-term and long-term action research cycles in a training program

Valeria Aleksandrova has provided a Czech translation of this document






The general nature of the action research cycle is widely known.  Most action researchers are familiar with the form in which Stephen Kemmis and Robin McTaggart have popularised it:

plan --> act --> observe --> reflect --> plan ...

For me the essential features are an alternation between action and critical reflection.

action --> critical reflection --> action --> critical reflection ...

The reflection consists in turn of a review of what has happened so far, and deliberate planning for what I will do next.

I think most practitioners make use of these cycles over a variety of time spans.  They know that the cycles range from entire programs and beyond, down to moment by moment action.  There are cycles within cycles within cycles.

I think that many practitioners recognise that this is an important strength of an action research approach.  It is less well acknowledged in the literature.

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To illustrate this feature of action research, I use a specific example, a public training program I am conducting with a colleague, Tim.

My colleague and I are both mindful that it is very difficult to achieve real transfer of skills and understanding from classroom training to life and work.  To overcome this, we adopt several strategies.

Among our adopted strategies is a deliberate action research approach.  In particular, we do what we can to capitalise on the explicit cyclic nature of action research.  This is the emphasis of this paper.

To pursue this theme I focus on three time-spans in particular: the overall program; the daily and half-daily monitoring; and the moment by moment conduct.

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The overall cycle

Before the program begins, we meet to plan what we are going to do.  Drawing on our prior experience we define the likely participants.  We try to define outcomes we think they will value and which we are interested in providing.

As a means of drawing on our past experience we identify several ways of proceeding.  We consider such matters as the key skills and concepts that we will try to address, the length of the program, the resources we bring to it, and the like.

We have differing experience and therefore differing perceptions.  To draw value from these differences, we illustrate our differing points of view with specific examples of what we have done in the past, and with what results.

Eventually we have a tentative workshop design and tentative marketing plans.  We try out these ideas on a few friends, invite their reactions, and adjust our plans in response to their comments.

The marketing is carried out, and attracts participants.  We send to each of them a broad description of the program, and some questions about their wishes and their existing knowledge and skills.

The program is conducted.  (I’ll say more about that in the following sections.)

At the end of the program we ask the participants to help us evaluate it.  Part of this evaluation is more tacit than explicit: we ask participants to tell us what use they intend to make of what they have learned.  More explicitly, we ask them for their answers to four questions:

  • What did we do that helped you to learn, and/or to enjoy the program?
  • What did we do that hindered your learning and/or enjoyment?
  • If we conduct the program again, what specific suggestions do you have for us?
  • What else would you like to say?

As I drive my colleague home after the workshop we share our own impressions.  We discuss first what we think worked well; then what didn’t work well; then what we’ll do if we run a similar workshop again.

At leisure, we compare our impressions with the responses on the evaluation forms.  We adjust our evaluation, and our plans for future workshops, in the light of this.

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Daily and half-daily monitoring

The first morning of this three-day workshop, between the start and morning tea, is given over to preparatory activities.  Among other matters, we introduce ourselves and invite others to introduce themselves.  Each person tells us the most important outcomes she wants from the workshop.  We provide a rough outline of the workshop and invite reactions.  We decide collectively on the balance of input and activity, and on some other issues of workshop content and process.

We make a point of saying that this is all tentative, to be adjusted as we develop more experience together.  We say that we would like the workshop to be a collective responsibility.  "If you don’t like what’s happening, or you would prefer something different, please say so.  We can then decide collectively what we wish to do about it."

Just before lunch (and again on days two and three) we revisit the decisions already made.  We encourage comments and suggestions.  As they are offered we discuss what might be done.

The first day proceeds.  It is the last ten minutes before people leave.  We ask them to discuss with another workshop participant:

  • What they would like to know more about, or to ask questions about.
  • What they would like changed about the way the workshop is going.

We tell them that their task is to remember what they talked about, and to remind each other of it the next morning.  This is done partly to build a bridge across the overnight gap.  But the more important reason is to further develop collective responsibility for the work, and to try to ensure that the content and process for the second day are better than for the first day.

(We do this again at the end of the second day.)

At the start of the morning of the second day they again meet in their pairs.  The remind each other what they discussed during the final ten minutes of day 1.  We then spend the next half hour collecting their reactions to the first day, answering their questions about the content, and collectively agreeing what changes in the process we will make.

(We do this again at the start of the third day.)

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Moment-by-moment conduct

I have an agreement with Tim that each of us is free to intervene in each other’s session to offer a different point of view.  If we can disagree publicly in constructive ways, we assume that this will make it easier for participants to offer different views.

I’m running one of the activities.  Each time I offer some input or some instructions I try to be clear what outcomes I am trying to achieve.  I observe the results closely.  If it seems that the outcomes are not achieved, I try again.

Consider an example ...

At one stage of the activity the participants are in small discussion groups.  It is nearing afternoon tea and I wish to have time to collect their ideas and sum up before we break.  I decide that I would prefer it if they rejoined the whole group within 5 minutes or so.  I also don’t wish to cut off discussion prematurely.  I say "Who would like some more time?" We agree collectively to reconvene in five minutes.

The five minutes have passed and some of the groups are still in discussion.  I say "Who needs another thirty seconds?".  One group raise their hands.  The other groups rejoin the large group, joined shortly by the group which asked for more time.

There are many ways in which I might have intervened to reconvene the large group.  Here are a few examples:

"How much more time do you need?"

"Who needs more time?"

"Please rejoin the large group at the end of the next sentence."

"Who needs another thirty seconds?"

Each of these has slightly different outcomes.  I can be clear about the outcomes I want, and choose my instructions accordingly.  I can then observe to check what actual outcomes I achieve.  If these are not the desired outcomes, I can try something different.  In addition I will have learned a little more about how to manage the transition from small groups to large groups.

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In summary

I have said elsewhere that facilitation is a performing art.  It is performed in the moment in a way that takes account of the situation.  Using an action research framework I can plan and act and learn more intentionally.

There are cycles within cycles within cycles, within yet other cycles.  I can be aware of desired outcomes over many different time spans.  I can plan and act accordingly.  Through regular critical reflection I can enhance my ability and understanding of this performing art.


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Copyright © Bob Dick, 2000.  This document may be copied if it is not included in material sold at a profit, and this and the following notice are shown.

The document may be cited as follows: Dick, Bob (2000) Cycles within cycles.  Available on line:




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  Maintained by Bob Dick; this version 1.02w last revised 20140528