Action Research Part I – What it is and why we need it

We all have one, and everyone’s is different.
Yours may be dark blue, yours may be the lovely pale-red of a brick. Yours may be slimmer, yours may be thick. Yours may have many, yours may have few. Yours may be older, yours may be brand new.
 
I am of course talking about the folder we, as teachers and professionals, keep our certificates in. The apple of our eye, it has a special place in our heart exactly because it proves to the world (and to us) that we’re qualified to do our job, and that we’ve also kept on learning new things and adding certificate after certificate to our collection.
While wanting to expand our skill set is fine, I fear that, overall, we have become obsessed with amassing paper. We constantly want to add more, and this frenzy is only further fuelled by our school, institution, or boss demanding physical evidence that we haven’t been stagnating, that we’ve been up-to-scratch with our professional development. Of course, I applaud anyone’s wish to learn something new and I encourage taking classes, or attending workshops and conferences. However, it’s what happens once they’re over that interests me.
 
Above, I said we add certificates to our “collection”. But doesn’t that word conjure up rather a sterile image? Think, for example, of someone’s collection of coins. Sure enough, they may be pretty to behold, but more often than not you’re not allowed to touch them, flip them, or even buy something with them, which defeats the initial purpose of a coin. In the same way, I feel that certificates sometimes tend to become a false currency, insofar as we revere the paper they’re printed on and the name of the institution that issues them (the more Anglo-Saxon sounding, the better), but lose sight of what they represent. It’s not about the paper itself, but about what you, as a teacher, can now actually do in the classroom that you couldn’t before.
 
Now, as well-intended as we may be when we sign up for this or that conference, as diligent as we may be in taking notes during plenaries and as careful as we may be to hold on to all the handouts (or to the pictures we take of the slides) for safe-keeping, the fact of the matter is that most of the time we end up forgetting what we’ve learnt, or never put it into practice. Which begs the questions, what’s the value of the certificate we’ve received if it does not have an observable effect on the way we teach? What joy does buried treasure bring if it’s hidden away underground?
 
I want to make a small clarification here. Obviously, there are some who actually manage (or have the time) to apply what they learn. They might try out a new activity they picked up at a workshop or employ a novel approach to lesson planning (and for their commitment we hold them in the highest regard). They’re not afraid of leaving their comfort zone and experimenting with new techniques (which, again, is commendable). But here be dragons as well.
 
We are all aware that no two people are alike (and sometimes we may say this with a sigh of relief, or at least my twin brother and I do). By extension, no two groups of learners are identical. So, then, can all the shiny new ideas we bring back from a course on teaching be greeted with the same level of enthusiasm across the board? Will all our learners react positively to the new way of practicing speaking that we’re so eager to try out?
 
The point is this: continuous professional development is not a one-size-fits-all process. The content of your certificate folder and mine may very well be identical (although this is unlikely) but we would still find that, in our respective classrooms, we come up against totally different problems. Not only that, but in the happy event that we do find a solution, we might be surprised to see it works with the Monday group, but the one on Tuesday is wholly unresponsive to it.
 
So, what is there to be done?
Well, first of all, we keep on working on our professional development as before. We just need to bear in mind the fact that any training programme we finish should not mark the end of our development. That should actually herald the beginning. There’s one more thing we should do after getting any certificate.
 
That’s what I told one of my friends who’s working abroad. We’ll call her Eliza (because that is obviously her real name). Whenever we had time for a quick catch-up, she’d complain about one of the FCE groups she was teaching that year. She told me there were twenty students in her class (too many for my taste, but then again that was not up to her) and they wouldn’t quiet down enough for her to teach her lesson without interruptions. Well, welcome to the club, Eliza. She even told me she’d done a course on classroom management, but that it didn’t help at all and she was reaching the end of her tether. Again, welcome to the club.
 
I made all kinds of suggestions, hoping one of them would work. She tried all of them, also hoping that one of them would work. To our surprise, none did.
 
And how could they? I was just taking wild stabs in the dark, having never seen her teach that group, and Eliza was desperate enough to go with anything I’d recommend. But we were looking at things the wrong way. It was the same “one-size-fits-all” approach that often leads nowhere.
 
So, one day after we spent a good half-hour letting off some steam about work, I told Eliza about something I’d been trying out in my classes – action research.
 
In a nutshell, action research means taking a long hard look at the way you teach, reflecting on it, fining the sources of the problems you’re having in the classroom, and then doing something about it. Up until now, Eliza and I were just doing guesswork. It was high time we identified the reasons behind her learners being so rowdy.
 
We came up with some ideas. Were her students acting out because:

  • they were tired?
  • they were bored? And of what, the tasks or the topic of the lesson?
  • they didn’t know what they were supposed to be doing or how to go about doing it?
  • not everyone was set a clear task they had to do?

Eliza quickly eliminated two of the possibilities.
 
“They’re definitely not tired, out lesson is on Monday morning, so they come in refreshed after the weekend. And I’m sure it’s not about them having nothing to do. I mean, it’s an FCE group, we’re constantly doing exam practice!”
 
We were then left with two possibilities: they were either bored (something unheard of when it comes to teenage learners, of course) or didn’t know what or how they were supposed to be working on. Well, at least we had a starting point! But this was the easy part. In order to see which one of these problems was behind her learners’ lack of concentration, Eliza had to find the source of the issue. And that meant putting her teaching under the microscope. She wasn’t thrilled by it, and to be honest, who can say they’re completely comfortable scrutinising the way they work? In the end, aren’t we all afraid of what we might find out about our ability to teach?
 
Look out for the second part of this article, where we see what techniques Eliza used to assess her own teaching, what changes she implemented, and whether or not her FCE group kept being brought up when we had the chance to chat.