Tag Archives: action research

Doing Classroom-Based Research

Last Saturday, Anita Lämmerer and I had the privilege to facilitate a workshop in the ELT Connect 2015 conference that was  jointly organised by the Sprachausbildung and the Fachdidaktik sections of the Institut für Anglistik, University of Graz.

In our workshop, which was entitled Exploring Practice through Classroom-Based Research, we made the case for practitioner-led research, as a way for improving learning outcomes and driving professional development. During the workshop, the participants and we discussed the benefits of classroom-based research, and critically examined some assumptions that might inhibit or intimidate teachers who are considering such projects. We also engaged in a number of activities intended to exemplify how a classroom-based research project  might be planned.

We have uploaded (a modified version of) the slides and a copy of the worksheet we used during the workshop. We hope you might find them useful.

We have also uploaded a copy of a handout on Classroom-Based Research that we gave out to workshop participants. It is, by necessity, a very brief introduction to a vast topic, but we hope that it might provide some helpful orientation, if you are planning a research project, or if you are supervising or mentoring teachers who have to do such work.

We are very keen on reading any feedback you might want to share about the materials. We would also especially love to hear from you if they have inspired any classroom-based research projects.


If you’d like to get in touch, you can do so through the contact page in this website, or by sending us an email at Achillefs.Kostoulas@uni-graz.at (Yes, there’s an f in my university email – don’t ask!)

Featured Image: Pencils “All in a Row”, by JLS Photography – Alaska (CC BY-NC-ND-2.0

Mandated action research

I have written often that I am a great believer in the power of action research, i.e., small-scale, practically-oriented studies that is carried out by professionals in their settings in response to specific challenges. I strongly believe in its potential to positively affect change, and to supplement top-down production of knowledge.

An action research cycle
An action research cycle (click to enlarge)

What I have perhaps not stated as emphatically, is that I am very doubtful about policies that mandate action research. Whether out of genuine belief in its potential, or out of a perceived need to align to current narratives of best practice, school policies increasingly endorse action research, and sometimes do so even in the face of scepticism by the people who are supposed to implement such projects.

An article that recently appeared online in Action Research provides some interesting empirical insights into what effects mandated action research policies might have, with particular reference to intra-group politics. You can access it by clicking the link below:

Politics and action research: An examination of one school’s mandated action research program

The article reports on a case study of a project that took place in an elementary school in the US. The school, which was perceived to be failing, received funding to empower teachers through action research. The authors note that, because the action research projects were somewhat inflexibly imposed, and there was not always a clear sense of ownership from all participants, they ran into a number of problems, including disconnect between team members and the role of ‘resistors’ to change. They also point out that:

Simply having time [to implement a programme] does not ensure the success of an action research program. While the data from this study confirm that time is, indeed, a key factor in managing the work of action research, how time was allocated and utilized was highly controversial.

This article stands out in the literature, which often reports on the success of action research programmes, while masking potential challenges. It also highlights the real danger that what was meant to be an empowering development experience, can –if implemented without democratic sensitivity– devolve into an exercise in power.

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The full reference for the article is: Flessner, R., & Stuckey, S. (2013). Politics and action research: An examination of one school’s mandated action research program. Action Research. doi: 10.1177/1476750313515281

On theories, practice, and opportunism in Foreign Language Education

“If it doesn’t work in practice, then it’s not good theory”

Or at least that’s what one of my doctoral supervisors used to say. The tension between theory and practice is, I think, one of the most common complaints I come across in teacher discourse (pay being by far the commonest). I have repeatedly made the point that such a conceptualization is unhelpful: i.e., that it may be more productive to view theory and practice as complementary to each other and that theory is best seen as a refined abstraction of what happens in the classroom.

In this article, I argued for inverting the perceived relation between theory and practice: rather than apply whatever (capital T) Theory is passed on top-down from the Ivory Tower to the classrooms, it may be more fruitful – I suggested – for teachers to be empowered to generate their own, locally relevant, (small-t) theories. It is not exactly a paradigm-shattering suggestion: similar points have been made, more compellingly and with more eloquence, by Adrian Holliday, Braj Kumaravadivelu and Julian Edge. However, it is something I feel strongly about, especially with regard to (foreign language) education in Greece.

What I want to do in this post, however, is approach this topic from a different tack, and argue against what I think might be some serious misconceptions about the ‘practice first’ argument.

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In a recent discussion, a teacher asked for advice on a problem he was having: Apparently, his Director of Studies or Department Head insisted that students not be assigned vocabulary homework in preparation for the next class session. The teacher disagreed with this recommendation, and claimed that:

But, I say it is better to look at [vocabulary] before coming to the class to have something in their mind.. If they don`t find the meaning of [the words], How can they say their meanings and know??? Then, they don`t enjoy the class and they are puzzled and bored. I know that they can know and find the meaning from context or other things. I can not accept [the supervisor’s] way.

In my response, I suggested that the teacher should take a closer look at the knowledge statements he made (e.g., “[the students] are puzzled and bored”) and examine what evidence he had in support of these statements. I felt that the best way to approach such a problem would be a small-scale investigation in the teacher’s class, which would endeavour to find out if prior vocabulary knowledge did indeed make a difference in his students’ learning experience.  I expected that such an enquiry might corroborate the teacher’s conviction, or perhaps it might reveal a difference between what he and his students considered effective. Either way, it would lead to increased awareness of his students’ needs and preferences, which I felt to be a requisite to informed practice.

The teacher replied that:

They [presumably the people he reported to?] think they are doing right but I don`t believe that. […] I think my way is better… [The students] are ready in class by having a pre-study.

This seemed to conclude the discussion to his satisfaction, and I was left with the impression that his original ‘request for advice’ only served as a ploy for validating his pre-conceptions with ‘expert’ opinion.

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I think it should be clear that when arguing for the primacy of teacher knowledge over theory, this is not what I mean at all. “It works for me” may be a useful starting point, as is any knowledge that teachers embody. However, in order to challenge whatever received knowledge is passed on by research and the powers-that-be, such locally-relevant knowledge needs to satisfy three more conditions.

  1. First, such methodological preference should be empirically grounded: that is, it must stem from rigorous observation of practice, and the links between the emerging teacher theory and the evidence that supports it must be transparent. What I have in mind is small-scale action research projects, which involve identifying a problem, trying out a solution, collecting whatever data in whatever form is appropriate (be that classroom observation, journal entries, tests or informal discussions with anyone involved), and evaluating the effectiveness of the solution.
  2. The second condition is that, just like capital-T Theory, small-t theories must be provisional: they are only in place until a more useful theory can be generated. It follows that there is a need for teachers to actively challenge their own knowledge: one needs to be on the lookout for evidence that disrupts, rather than confirms, whatever one happens to believe. When such evidence cannot be found, the theory is robust; when it is found, the theory can be refined. In the discussion quoted above, “I think my way is better” should be the prompt of theory generation, not a conclusion.
  3. Last, such a theory must be centred on the students: what seems very odd to me about the exchange quoted above is that the problem was framed as a difference in opinion between the teacher and the people he reported to, but no reference was made to the people who were to be affected the most. In fact, my suggestion that the teacher turn to the learners for an answer did not seem to register. Such an attitude is regrettably common, but I don’t think it is necessary to spell out why it is both practically short-sighted and ethically unacceptable.

To sum up, it is my strong belief that the teaching profession is best served by conceptualisations of theory that are closely connected to practice, derive from it and loop back into it. Such locally-relevant theory needs to be informed by evidence, committed to change and serve the students’ needs. When these conditions are not met, claims about the primacy of teacher knowledge seem little more than a thinly veiled excuse for opportunistic methodology.


Image Credit: The Leaf Project @ Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0