Action Research – Part 2

Last time we were talking about my friend Eliza’s problems with a rowdy FCE group and how none of the solutions we brainstormed worked. In the end we came to the conclusion that action research was the answer. To remind you, action research means looking at your teaching with a critical eye, identifying the roots of the problems you’re having in the classroom, and implementing changes to help ameliorate these.

It’s different from the one-size-fits-all solutions one might sometimes get on training courses or workshops, as this is fully customised to fit the particular situation you are dealing with and to work with the learners you have. Lest I sound too dismissive, I mention that we of course must use the techniques we learn on training courses or somewhere else – it’s not like you’re going to reinvent the wheel on your own – it’s just that you need to make an informed decision on which ones would best help you and your students. By doing action research, you are in fact “taking a step beyond” the certificates you have and continuing your professional development by putting into practice everything you’ve ever learnt about teaching.

Now back to Eliza, who had completed the first step towards finding a solution. She’d narrowed down the potential sources of learners not being on task to two causes: they were either bored with the activities or the topics discussed, and so found something else to talk about, or they didn’t always know what they were supposed to do or how to do it.

Step number two involved gathering data to find the cause of the problem. Now, I know this may conjure up two different kinds of images in your mind. On the one hand, you might imagine a discouragingly large pile of paper filled with graphs and numbers that you have to trudge through, which doesn’t sound like the most appealing way of spending your spare time. On the other hand, you may see the more adventurous side to this, and imagine an archaeologist using their tools to unearth a priceless ancient Egyptian scarab amulet. They’re both means of gathering data, but fortunately (or maybe not) neither of them is true to the reality of action research.

Basically, to get the data you need you have to observe the way you teach and the way your students react to it. You may do this by:

  • taking field notes (i.e. taking notes during your lesson)
  • keeping a teaching journal (over a period of time)
  • asking someone to observe your lessons and take notes
  • making audio or video recordings of your lesson
  • giving students questionnaires
  • interviewing your students

You can read more about these in Wallace (1999) or Hopkins (2008)

The list could go on, but this is the one Eliza and I settled on. Thankfully, it doesn’t look as boring as analysing charts, but neither is it as fascinating as finding artefacts under desert dunes. But while it may not be literal treasure that we come up with following our research, our findings are just as invaluable to us as teachers (as long as it means being able to finish a lesson without constant interruptions).

Due to a variety of constraints (mostly time, which never seems to be on the side of us teachers), Eliza couldn’t use all the ideas from the list, but she did decide on three: filming herself while teaching, giving her students questionnaires, and asking someone to observe her lesson. She chose three because she could triangulate the information she got i.e. she could cross-examine it and if all three approaches told her the same thing, then it would be definite proof that it reflected what was happening in the classroom.

Understandingly, Eliza was rather apprehensive about asking someone to drop in and see her lessons. When she voiced her concerns, I must admit it all started coming back to me as well: the nervousness I used to feel whenever someone observed my lessons during my first year of teaching, the fear that every little aspect of my teaching would be criticised, that word would get out about the things I did in my classroom that maybe the school didn’t know about, or, the worst of the worst, that my Director of Studies would say “I cannot believe we even hired you in the first place!”

Well, quite.

While I do not deny that this may be the reality in some schools, it was definitely not true in my case, nor was is it Eliza’s. For both of us, the observation was done with development, not evaluation, in mind. In short, the people that watched us teach were there just to help us improve, not to give us a score on a scale of one to ten just to label us (one meaning Professor Snape levels of nastiness, and ten being Dumbledore-like wisdom and calmness, both of which I find impossible to attain anyway).
So, swallowing down her fear, Eliza asked Audrey, a colleague she was particularly close to, to come and see her teach. She prepared for Audrey an observation handout, so she could focus on the aspects that Eliza was most interested in. One of them was used to take down notes on the learners’ disruptive behaviour, and the other on how instructions for tasks were given (because, remember, Eliza though that maybe her learners don’t understand what they have to do in class).
This is what they looked like and you can also see Audrey’s notes following her first two visits to the group:

Class Observation Handout 1 – Observing disruptive behaviour

Class Observation Handout 2 – Giving instructions

So, whenever you want someone to observe one of your lessons, be prepared with one or several observation handouts such as these. This way, you are clearly telling your colleague which specific aspects of your teaching you want them to take notes on, and as such, the information you can get is much more focused. More than that, designing such a handout also helps you clarify what exactly it is that you think might be the cause of the problems you are having in class.
If you want to try your hand at creating such tasks, I recommend reading Wajnryb’s “Classroom Observation Tasks”.

The students were also given a questionnaire. Eliza did this in order to see if the cause of their rowdiness was their lack of engagement with the topics or the tasks covered in class. You can see below what it looked like. Eliza basically asked her learners to rank some topics and types of activities so she could see what they’d rather do in class, instead of her deciding for them. She also wanted to see if they were having trouble understanding her instructions. If you want to create a questionnaire for your class, make sure the questions are relevant to the problem(s) you identified.

Questionnaire for students

  1. Rank the topics below from 1 (most liked) to 7 (least liked)
    • computer games
    • sports
    • school life
    • family
    • film
    • music
    • current affairs
  2. Rank the activities below from 1 (most liked) to 7 (least liked)
    • interviews
    • buzzer games
    • running dictation
    • listening
    • writing paragraphs
    • group discussion
    • fill in the gap (grammar)
  3. Circle one option
    • I clearly understand how a task can help me with my English
      • yes
      • not really
      • not at all
    • I clearly understand the instructions
      • yes
      • not really
      • not at all
    • I have the necessary skills to finish the task
      • yes
      • not really
      • not at all

She administered this at the end of one of her lessons. It took her students less than five minutes to fill it in. They even told her it was the first time any of their teachers had taken an interest in what they’d prefer to do in the classroom, so they seemed pretty happy to be able to give input on this.

Finally, Eliza recorder four of her lessons with this FCE group (the more you manage to record, the better chance you have of gathering more useful data). Before this, however, she talked to her Director of Studies, who gave her the green light, and then told her students about her filming the lesson. They were fine with it, since she told them she’d be the only one who would watch the clips (although some of her students later wanted to see them themselves, as they were curious to see themselves “in action”).
Eliza placed her phone on a tripod at the back of the classroom so no one’s face was really visible, but she could still film what everyone was doing. You see, you don’t need any fancy equipment to do this. When I tried it out, I also used my phone, but I just put it on a pile of books and stabilised it between two pencil cases.
In addition to this, Eliza also prepared an observation handout, similar to the one she had given Audrey, so when she went back and watched the recordings, she could gather data in an organised way, again focusing on the issues she had previously identified.
She also went through the data from Audrey’s observations of her lessons and from the students’ questionnaires.
We’ll find out together what conclusions Audrey reached, how she changed her teaching, and what happened to the FCE group in the next and last part of this article. Stay tuned!