In this conceptual article, we explore the idea that neo-liberalism has created a ‘directed profession’ with consequences for action research. There are dominant discourses of compliance and performativity which have diminished teachers’ capacity to ask research questions that are disruptive of existing orthodoxies and restricted curriculum and pedagogical models. The article explores the implications of this for teachers as they reflect on practice and wish to make meaningful change to learning and teaching. It has been written from the perspective of four teacher educators who have first-hand experience of developing inquiry-based projects with teachers. First, we consider how action research has been appropriated by policymakers and is in many cases a long way from emancipatory traditions. We explore the importance of dialogue in generating ‘cognitive conflict’ and ‘values–practice dissonance’ among action researchers. Finally, we discuss a ‘dialogic framework’ as a protocol that can help to generate critical perspectives among teachers. We highlight the ‘incubation phase’ of action research, and we suggest that such a protocol has a role in the early stages of thinking about a focus for action research projects. It may help to reclaim action research from bending to the pressures of accountability and performativity in what it sets out to change.