I recently gave a talk to a group of young teachers in Brazil. Several were in their first year as professionals. During the talk, I mentioned Action Research (AR). This was met with looks of incomprehension. What on earth was this gringo talking about? When I inquired, it turned out that no one present had done any AR, and most had never heard of it.
It’s an interesting term. Research normally brings to mind the turning over of old bones to make new skeletons. Action is movement – a leap from A to B. Put together, Action + Research means research that leads to a change in practice. It’s undertaken using structured methods and documentation, and it produces observable, usable data.
AR starts with a practical problem or issue, which we turn into a question. The observation “My students don’t work well in pairs” becomes “Why don’t my students work well in pairs?” This is sometimes called problematising.
Problematising can be applied to any area of language education. In my experience, it’s often used to examine classroom practice and affective issues – “How can I motivate my students?”; “Why don’t they do any homework?”; “Why do they revert to L1 when I put them in pairs?” – but it can refer to broader issues involving, say, the learning environment, administration, or parental involvement.
Once the problem has been identified, the next stage is to come up with a solution. We then experiment repeatedly with this solution, and monitor its effectiveness. Finally, the teacher/researcher evaluates the success or otherwise of the experiment.
The process I’ve described is a cycle of question-experiment-monitor-evaluate. (There are various similar sequences for AR, depending on who you read: e.g., plan-act-observe-reflect.) An optional stage for those who want to disseminate their AR is to write up and publish the findings.
As stated earlier, AR requires structured methods. We are not only observing what happens, but why it happens. For this reason, we need some insight into the participants’ beliefs and thoughts about the issue.
This is where it sometimes gets tricky. People, like sub-atomic particles, behave differently when observed. This is sometimes known as The Observer’s Paradox. Formerly troublesome students suddenly act like angels when being monitored. Because of this, AR requires methods that are minimally disruptive to the classroom. These might include questionnaires, checklists, interviews or journal writing.
Some Action Research projects
Sometimes a classroom issue doesn’t need to be solved using the full cycle of AR. A simple inquiry might solve it. Years ago, a colleague of mine at a private language school in London told me his class was wonderful from Monday to Thursday, but they turned into zombies on Friday. A little questioning uncovered the fact that Thursday evenings were Happy Hour at a local bar. Apparently, Happy Hour turned into Happy All-Night-Drinking-Session, so the students rolled into class on Friday morning barely able to speak.
Other issues do require a fuller AR investigation. Here are some I have heard about or participated in:
*Listening to fast speech – the students couldn’t process fast, connected speech. They gave up after twenty seconds or so. The teacher experimented with playing BBC radio headlines every morning for a month while the students took rapid notes.
*Homework – several students didn’t do it because they didn’t see its relevance. The teacher experimented with autonomous learning tasks, e.g. students chose a youtube video in English, watched it for homework, and reported back the following day.
*Student strategy use – some students had poor learning strategies. They didn’t take notes in class or write down new vocabulary or edit their essays. So the teacher included strategy instruction, plus reinforcement, over a semester.
*Regular reading – the teenage students didn’t read enough in English. The teacher persuaded the school to buy graphic novels. He asked the students for a report on one of these books as part of the final grade.
AR is a great tool for professional development. It incorporates academic rigor with practical problem-solving, and is part of a general trend in education for what is known as “reflective practice.” But it goes beyond reflection. That’s why it’s called Action Research.
For those interested in discovering more, here are some excellent introductions to AR:
- Burns, A. (1999). Collaborative action research for English language teachers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Burns, A. (2010). Doing Action Research in English Language Teaching: A Guide for Practitioners. New York: Routledge.
- Freeman, D. (1998). Doing teacher research. Boston: Heinle & Heinle.
- Wallace, M. (1998). Action research for language teachers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.