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Doing action research – what’s in it for teachers and institutions? by Anne Burns

Over the last 20 years discussions of practitioner action research (AR) have become more and more common in the English language teaching (ELT) literature (e.g. Nunan, 1989, Wallace, 1998, Edge, 2001; Burns, 1999, 2009, 2010a). AR has also been increasing in teacher training and tertiary education programs across the world, and in some countries it is recommended as part of educational policy developments for teacher professional development (see Burns, 2010b for a review of recent books that have emerged from training and policy initiatives). So why has action research become more prevalent? What can it offer teachers as individuals wishing to enhance their professional knowledge and practice, and institutions interested in sustaining the quality of their programs?

In this article I will clarify briefly some of the main concepts and processes in AR and provide an example of the AR experiences of teachers working within the same, or similar institutional settings.  My argument is that these experiences not only benefitted the individuals concerned in various ways but also provided insights that could be used institutionally within their organizations.

What is action research?

Action research can seem to be a strange term with its combination of two different kinds of processes. In their volume on research methods, Cohen and Manion (1994, p. 186) comment that the two words seem joined together  “as uneasy bedfellows”.  However, the term does suggest what makes AR essentially different from other forms of research. Action lies at the heart of the process, as it is the strategies, behavioural changes and reflections that are put in place to explore or investigate a social situation that forms the basis for the research.

The process usually begins by participants in that situation (usually teachers in the case of ELT) perceiving a critical gap or dilemma between current practice and their more ideal view of practice. The gap or dilemma may relate to something they have been puzzled, uncertain or dissatisfied with for a while, a ‘burning question’ or issue they have always wanted to experiment with, a change they would like to see happening in themselves or their learners, or a desire to make a difference in the way things are generally organized in their classrooms or schools. Two examples from teachers I have worked with were:

I want to introduce more group work in my class. What kinds of groupings work best: male/female; mixed gender; same ability level; mixed ability level; selected by the teacher; selected by students?

What is the most effective way to teach pronunciation: integrated in communicative spoken activities: integrated in communicative listening activities; through specific pronunciation drills and exercises?

Once the general focus for the research has been identified, the process that an action researcher is then involved in is a cycle or spiral of different phases. To follow an AR model developed by Kemmis and McTaggart (1988), these phases involve a dynamic process of planning, action, observation, and reflection. The planning stage is about refining your focus and working out how you could enhance or extend what is currently happening in the classroom, or address the questions you have.  The action is about putting your plans in place and seeing what happens. Observation means collecting information (data) on what happens when you introduce new ways of working. The last stage, reflection, involves making sense of the processes you have used and gaining greater understanding of what kinds of classroom practices and interactions could lead to promoting better learning or teaching.

Although these processes sound as though they occur in a fixed sequence, in reality they interact dynamically with each other as the researcher’s insights deepen.  Researchers may also go through several cycles before they are satisfied that they have reached interesting or satisfying conclusions about the issues they wanted to explore. When researchers start doing AR it may not be altogether clear where these processes will lead and it may take some time to find the real focus of the exploration. As Jane Hamilton, a teacher I worked with in Australia, commented:

My experience of action research is that it is difficult to grasp or explain the concept until one is in the process of doing it. It is in the doing that it starts to make sense and become clear.

Although conducting research in addition to teaching is time-consuming, AR is said to have a numerous outcomes and benefits for practitioners. Wadsworth (1998, p. 4), for example, suggests that AR helps us to become:

  • more conscious of ‘problematising’ an existing action or practice and more conscious of who is problematising it and why we are problematisting it;
  • more explicit about ‘naming’ the problem, and more self-conscious about raising an unanswered question and focusing an effort to answer it;
  • more planned and deliberate about commencing a process of inquiry and involving others who could or should be involved in that inquiry;
  • more systematic and rigorous in our efforts to get answers;
  • more carefully documenting and recording action and what people think about it and in more detail and in ways which are accessible to other relevant parties;
  • more intensive and comprehensive in our study, waiting much longer before we ‘jump’ to a conclusion;
  • more self-sceptical in checking our hunches;
  • attempting to develop deeper understanding and more useful and more powerful theory about the matters we are researching in order to produce new knowledge which can inform improved action or practice; and
  • changing our actions as part of the research process, and then further researching these changed actions.

 

Ways of doing AR

 

In the literature on AR, of which there is now a growing quantity, it is possible to identify different ways that teachers in the field of English language teaching have been involved in AR (see Burns, 2009). One approach is for individual teachers to undertake their own projects either through assignments for credited programs or for their own professional development (see for example, the accounts in Edge, 2001). Another way is for teachers to become involved in research that supports or contributes to practitioner research development in an institution or organization (see for example Tinker Sachs, 2002).

My own preference and experience is with this last kind of approach. Teachers can benefit more, in my view, from collaboration and dialogue with others and can contribute to areas or issues that might be important for the institution as well as for the individual teachers within it. This kind of approach potentially helps practitioners to increase their skills in research at the same time as their knowledge and understanding of institutional curriculum change. It also helps to  strengthen the quality of the pedagogical work that goes on in the institution.

An example of an institutional approach

 

One recent example of an institutional, or organizational approach I was involved in is an AR project conducted by English Australia (EA), the professional body for institutions providing English Language Intensive Courses for Overseas Students (ELICOS).  EA decided to use action research as professional development that would initiate an increased climate for research in the organization and for its practitioners. It was interested in practice-oriented research that could be conducted in areas that were priorities for the professional field, for example, integration of technology into teaching and learning, innovative ways of teaching language skills, approaches to assessment linked to teaching.

Calls for expressions of interest to be involved in an AR project were publicised nationally. Six teachers from four different states in Australia were eventually involved in the project, which continued for six months during 2010. The topics they chose to investigate ranged across a variety of different areas and questions:

  1. Using electronic dictionaries to develop content-specific language skills for students enrolled in design courses.
  2. Introducing beginner students to extensive reading.
  3. Increasing progress and motivation in high level learners.
  4. Using extensive listening to increase listening and speaking skills with intermediate learners.
  5. Increasing high level learners’ vocabulary development and motivation through extensive reading.
  6. Exploring learning obligation and motivation of learners in IELTS classes.

These topics were selected, refined and developed through a series of three workshops that was held over the six months. Together with the six teachers, I participated as an AR facilitator, accompanied by the Professional Development Officer from EA. Over the course of the three workshops we merged into a collaborative group with different but complementary skills and knowledge.

At the first workshop, held in May, the teachers discussed their interests and the methods they might use to explore the questions they were interested in. By the end of the first workshop they were ready to go back to their teaching centres to try out the various teaching strategies they wanted to explore and to document them as they proceeded. The second workshop in July involved an extensive amount of discussion on what the teachers had experienced so far and the various teaching and research issues that were arising for them. Numerous insights and suggestions were shared during the discussion both relating to their own research and to their colleagues’. As a result of these discussions, all the teachers decided to introduce new strategies, or to adjust their research directions, or to focus more on one area that was becoming important in their classrooms.  The period between the second and third workshops was one where they consolidated the research, and brought it to a conclusion. They also began to write up accounts of what they had undertaken, their procedures, methods, findings and insights. Between each of the three workshops there were also opportunities for group discussion and participation by email as the teachers thought of issues they wanted to raise, problems to discuss or contacts they wanted to make.

The third workshop took place immediately before the annual English Australia Conference in September. As a group, we brought each other up to date in what was happening in the project as a whole, how each individual project had concluded and the main reflections we wished to share. This workshop was also a preparation for the presentations that each of the teachers were to make at the EA Conference. They had been invited to a colloquium on the project where they would share their experiences of AR and their findings and insights with other teachers and administrators within the ELICOS field.  For some of the teachers this was the first time they had attended a conference, let alone presented at a conference, so the positive feedback on their presentations and the interest expressed by other teachers about participating in future projects was particularly gratifying for them. As a further step in sharing their research experiences, an overview of the project and the teachers accounts are to be published in early 2011 in Cambridge ESOL’s Research Notes, so that other practitioners can read about their research.

Conclusion

I would argue that AR undertaken in institutional or organizational contexts is particularly important as a way of understanding and disseminating what teachers can demonstrate about good practice. In this sense, it enhances the quality assurance processes of organizations and enables research to be integrated more profoundly than is usual into institutional curriculum development. As Roberts (1998, p. 288) commented on earlier work (undertaken by Burns and Hood, 1995),

…it shows the need for teachers’ curriculum inquiry to be a genuine part of their work, and for their insights to be seen to contribute to larger-scale change. It would seem to be highly consistent with our preferred framework for [language teacher education]…in that it highlights the exchange between individual development and its social context: positive relationships and opportunities for critical dialogue; and a consistent link between a person’s work and the landscape in which it takes place.

The example provided in this brief article shows how teachers committed to doing practitioner research received support and collaboration from their teaching peers, a professional developer  and an action research facilitator. This approach had the advantage of sharing expertise and knowledge from different perspectives, the theoretical/conceptual, organizational, and practical.  In this way it was possible to orient the research and its outcomes towards the needs of the organization, the interests of the ELICOS field, and the teaching skills and experience of the teachers.

Acknowledgement

The author would like to acknowledge Cambridge ESOL’s sponsorship which allowed for the EA research to take place.

References

 

Burns, A. (1999). Collaborative action research for English language teachers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

 

Burns, A. (2009). Action research in second language teacher education. In A. Burns & J.C. Richards (Eds.), The Cambridge guide to second language teacher education. New York: Cambridge.

Burns, A. (2010a). Doing action research for English language teachers. A guide for practitioners. New York: Routledge.

Burns, A. (2010b).  Teacher engagement in research. Published resources for teacher researchers. Language Teaching, 43(4), 527-536.

Cohen, L. & Manion, L. (1994). Research methods in education, (4th edn.). London: Routledge.

Edge, J. (Ed.). (2001).  Action research. Alexandria, Virginia: TESOL.

Kemmis, S., &  McTaggart, R. (Eds.). (1988). The action research planner. Third Edition. Geelong, Victoria: Deakin University Press.

 

Nunan, D. (1989). Understanding language classrooms: A guide for teacher-initiated action. New York: Prentice Hall.

Roberts, J. (1998). Language teacher education. London: Arnold.

Tinker Sachs, G. (Ed.) (2002). Action research in English language teaching. Hong Kong: City University of Hong Kong.

Wadsworth, Y. (1998). What is participatory action research? Action Research International, http://www.scu.edu.au/schools/gcm/ar/ari/p-ywadsworth98.html, downloaded 13/03/07)

Wallace, M. (1998). Action research for language teachers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Author’s Bio:
Anne Burns began her career as an English language teacher when she lived and taught in France, Kenya and Mauritius, and then moved to Australia. She currently holds positions as Professor in Language Education at Aston University, Birmingham and as Professor of TESOL at the University of New South Wales, Sydney. She has published extensively on the teaching of speaking, teacher education and action research. Her co-edited book with Professor Jack C. Richards, The Cambridge Guide to Second Language Teacher Research (CUP, 2009) was shortlisted for the Ben Warren Prize. (See the Book Review section for a review of this – Ed.) Another co-edited book with Jack Richards, The Cambridge Guide to Pedagogy and Practice will be published in early 2012. Her most recent book is Doing Action Research in English Language Teaching: A Guide for Practitioners (Routledge, 2010). For more information please visit: www.professoranneburns.com

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