Yesterday I was part of a panel discussion in the British Council Teaching for Success Online Conference with Chris Farrell, Pete Clements and Sarah Smith, where we talked about Action Research: what it is and what it can do for you and your school.
I promised to share the slides from my bit of the presentation – so here they are, along with a little bit of clarification for each slide so you have an idea of what they mean!
So I’ve been more deeply involved in action research from a teacher development perspective, since writing the IH World Action Research Course which will be having it’s first run through at the start of November.
It struck me as I was writing the course that action research is the ideal vehicle for a more personalised approach to teacher development. In many contexts, there is very little in the way of teacher development and I have heard some colleagues from around the world even say that in their contexts, to talk about CPD is seen as a criticism of teacher ability, not as an opportunity to develop, and that there is therefore very little appetite for institutional led CPD programmes. Even when there is a good teacher training and development programme, the problem is that the approach often takes a “one size fits all approach”, or caters to the majority need rather than focusing on individual needs. Equally, it is simply not possible for senior staff to be aware of all of the issues that teachers face or to provide input on every little thing that a teacher wants to find out more about. Action research can therefore function as a replacement for institutional CPD (where there is little to no training) or as a strong complement to a good in-service teacher training scheme.
But where to begin? There are a number of frameworks that exist for helping teachers think more deeply about their professional development: the British Council, Cambridge English, BALEAP and EAQUALS (the European Profiling Grid) all offer their own takes on what it means to be a teacher and what skills and competencies teachers should consider developing. Some of them may be more relevant than others and obviously your context may dictate which aspects apply and which do not. It is possible though, to look at one of these grids to identify a general area to improve on, and to use the sub-descriptors to further identify a more focused aspect to look at.
There is the question of whether you want to engage in a mini-project or a long term investigation. This in part depends on how focused you want your investigation to be. Any kind of investigation tends to throw up more questions than it answers and so a mini-project can easily evolve into a long term investigation whether you want it to or not. Hence the whirling typhoon diagram, with tangential investigations spinning off randomly. Just as easily though, you can keep things short, simple and focused on a specific area.
The process for investigation depicted in the slides is derived from the model developed for the IH Action Research Course. It tries to emphasize not only the cyclical nature of action research (whereby looking into one thing inevitably leads to another), but also that the process is not a solitary one. Research is not conducted in a vacuum and the action researcher should draw on the people around them for help, support and reflection on the process. The process itself is fairly standard as far as these things go, but feel free to comment if anything is unclear.
The example I give is based on my own experience and should be viewed more as a mini-project than a long term investigation, though it is a sort of ongoing process for me! I feel that the feedback I give to students tends to focus on errors and mistakes and things they are doing badly (or not doing) and that I don’t give enough positive feedback or acknowledge examples of good language. This project is really a way for me to think about how to do that more effectively!
One of the questions that came up from a participant in the conference was how to start something like this off. Chris Farrell gave probably the simplest and most effective answer: just go for it! The process I run through in my slides is really a way for you to help yourself not get carried away by things and a way to help you focus in on what you’re asking. Otherwise it can become a bit unwieldy and difficult to know where to start: the question “how do I help my students with their writing?” is very broad and has so many facets that it could easily become a very long term investigation, but if you want to see more immediate impacts on your teaching, I would break it down a bit further.
Another question that came up, more in the context of running action research groups in schools, was about how you ensure the quality of the research that teachers – or yourself – are doing. The IH Action Research Course goes some way to addressing some of these concerns by looking at a range of educational research tools and techniques and thinking about what kind of information they provide – what they tell you about what you’re discovering. I think research skills are things that develop as you go though, if you want to find something out and you use a poor instrument (if your survey doesn’t give you the answers to the questions you were really asking), then I think you learn from the experience. My message would be not to get disheartened, but instead to think about how you could do it better next time. The action research process is not necessarily about creating research for publication in an academic journal (though it could be); it is more about working out how you can develop and improve the teaching that you do.
To watch my bit of the presentation – and of course to watch Chris Farrell go into much more depth than I do about the why and how of an action research project – or to watch Pete Clements and Sarah Smith talk about running a teacher-led action research group in their school; take a look at the British Council Teaching English conference page here: https://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/article/action-research-panel-discussion
Hope you enjoy – and any questions, please let me know in the comments section.