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Researching the classroom | Martyn Clarke

In this OUP blog post from March 2017, we briefly described 5 key stages that we could usefully take when carrying out action research into what happens in our own classrooms.

  1. Finding the focus
  2. Identifying the tools
  3. Carrying out the research
  4. Analysing the information
  5. Taking action

In this webinar we will be exploring the options we have at each stage and how they might be suited to different kinds of investigations. Let’s look at an example.

Sara is a teacher in a secondary school and is concerned that her Year 9 group (13-14 year olds) are not meeting the requirements of the speaking exam that they are studying for.     

Finding the focus

There are 3 key things to bear in mind here.

  • Is it reasonable? In our example, it would be unreasonable for Sara to explore how she could change the requirements of the exam. It is out of her control. But it would certainly be reasonable to explore what happens during speaking activities in the classroom.
  • Is it focused appropriately? If Sara were to ask ‘what motivates my students?’, then the possible answers would be very general and too complex to be useful immediately. But if she were to ask, ‘when do students actually speak in English?’ then this is a more manageable focus with clear outcomes.
  • Is it bias-free? If Sara asks, ‘Why do my students hate speaking?’ she will end up looking for data that confirms her preconceptions. Research should hopefully help us explore our own perceptions as well as the realities of our classrooms. So, a question such as, ‘how do my students feel about specific speaking activities?’ might be more useful.

How can we get to these questions? Working on our own, applying the tests above might help. Writing a question down, editing, leaving it for a while, and then coming back for review and re-editing is a useful process. If we have colleagues, then asking them for feedback on this process is always helpful.

In the webinar… we’ll evaluate some questions for their usefulness and suggest possible changes.

Identifying the tools

There are so many:

  • Field notes
  • Audio recordings
  • Student journals
  • Questionnaires
  • Photographs
  • Teacher journals
  • Videos
  • Interviews
  • Group interaction maps
  • Observations (by colleagues or students)

As we pointed out earlier, it all depends on the information you want to get. For Sara, a questionnaire or an interview might help her discover what her students feel about different speaking activities. If she wants to understand what students actually do during speaking activities, she should try video recordings, field notes, or even colleague observation.

In the webinar… we’ll look at a reading activity that Sara gives to her students to explore their feelings towards speaking, and we’ll look at some examples of other tools in action.

Carrying out the research

A potential problem with research is that it might interfere with the lessons themselves. It’s important to minimise this either by being as discrete as possible with your research tools or, as we mentioned above, carrying out the research in a way that combines the exploration with language learning itself. In Sara’s project, she might do the questionnaires and interviews herself, or have the students write and administer them as part of a class project – combining research with language learning.

In the webinarwe’ll look at some examples of Potentially Exploitable Pedagogic Activities (PEPAs) which combine language learning with research activities.

Analysing the information

So, we’ve identified the focus, chosen our tools, and collected our information. What do we do with it? This stage of analysis needs frameworks of categorisation, synthesis, evaluation, and many other cognitive processes found in the higher order thinking skills of Bloom’s taxonomy (or lots of HOTS, if you like a nerdy joke).

Sara might ask the following questions:

  • What categories of speaking activities do the students tend to enjoy more?
  • Are there any particular themes that they enjoy more than others?
  • Is there any information on the impact my behaviour has on their attitude to speaking?
  • How does the behaviour of their peers affect their engagement with speaking activities?
  • Have we collected any unexpected date? Do I need to change my mind on anything?

In the webinarwe’ll look at a variety of analysis questions that we can use to gain insights into the data we discover, and also examine the possible pitfalls of leaping to conclusions without checking our biases.

Taking action

The first point to make is that there doesn’t actually have to be any action in the actual teaching we do. It’s possible that your research suggests what you thought was an issue isn’t, in fact, such a problem. In this situation the change will come not so much in your classroom practice but in how you see things as a teacher. Sara might discover that her students are actually better at speaking than she thought.

It’s also possible that your research has led you to more questions and you decide that it is important to find the answers to these in order to identify a strategy to address the situation. Sara might find that her students are demotivated by her correction techniques, and so needs to read up on ways of responding to spoken contributions in the lesson.

But it’s possible, however, that we decide to try something new as a result. Sara might decide to increase her use of pair-work as students find this less threatening than speaking in groups or in front of the class. She might decide to trial using their phones to record these interactions for later review.

In the webinarwe’ll evaluate actions for their appropriateness to different data analysis outcomes.

Whatever strategy we try, it’s useful to then continue the research and obtain data on what happens as a result. In other words, action research can become a cycle of development into learning about our teaching. Does that sound like a good idea?

I look forward to seeing you at the webinar in November.


Martyn Clarke has been an ELT professional for 30 years. As a consultant teacher-trainer, he has experience in education development projects in more than 15 countries around the world. He has designed and taught on under- and post-graduate teacher and trainer development programmes for universities in the UK across Europe and the Middle East. He’s also a trainer development course writer for the British Council.


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Coming of Age as a Teacher

Teacher in classroomAnna Parisi is course tutor and materials designer for teacher development courses at ACCESS, in Greece. Anna has extensive experience in syllabus design and producing supplementary materials for private language institutions in Greece. Ahead of her webinars on 27th and 28th January, she gives us a preview of what she will be talking about…

I envy new teachers!

When you are a new teacher, everything you do is new. While ‘learning the ropes’, you constantly take risks and experiment, evaluate and take decisions. There are so many surprises: your students surprise you, you surprise yourself. It can be highly stressful but exciting because it’s an on-going process of observation and discovery.

We call this ‘enthusiasm’.

And then, routine starts settling in. We know we have to cover the curriculum no matter what, finish the book, and after so much trial and error we know what works best ( well, most of the time) so why take risks?  We change our routines when something goes seriously wrong or when we are bored out of our wits.

We call this ‘experience’.

Occasionally, both enthusiastic new teachers and experienced old-hands attend conferences, listen to experts and take notes. Later, we may use 1 or 2 ideas in class but generally we find ’there is no time’, ‘you can’t do this in the real world’ as real students often respond in a different way to what we want them to.

We also share fabulous ideas and photographs on the social media; we follow gurus and mentors online in search of general truths and successful practices. But still most of our issues in the classroom remain unresolved, and out of date or over-demanding curricula remain in place.

In the meantime, there is so much that goes unacknowledged, devalued or ignored: teachers’ tacit knowledge, the knowledge that teachers have acquired through the years but find it difficult to articulate or transmit.

While PLNs (Personal Learning Networks) have helped in this respect with sharing lots of ideas, thoughts and insights, teaching lives as depicted online have left a lot feeling they are missing out on developments or even with undeserved feelings of inadequacy. This wealth of ideas from teachers, trainers, authors is a host of wonderful recipes but not a better diet overall.

The gap between theory and practice remains as large as ever, published material sometimes seems to come from a parallel universe, and although everything takes place for the good of students, they are not part of the decision making and are not even asked what they think some or most of the time.

For teachers to take control and have greater professional responsibility over what we do, small scale teacher-led research is the next step in teacher development.

Why research?

Research is by definition questioning, challenging preconceptions, discovering, experimenting. Teacher-led research is action taking place where the action is: in the EFL classroom. If we, teachers, would like to see change and improvement then we are the best placed to initiate and undertake it. If we want greater autonomy, we will have to seek and welcome greater responsibility.

If we believe that we, teachers, should be involved in curricula change then we ‘need to take a critical and experimental approach to our classrooms’ (Nunan 1989). Solutions to practical problems in the classroom can rarely be imported from outside the classroom. It’s the teacher who is best placed to investigate and resolve issues by taking some course of action.  By researching our own classes we can better understand our own classroom procedures. We can become better able to assess what actually happens in the classroom as opposed to our own assumptions about what happens.  Teacher-led, classroom based research also means consulting our students, understanding and catering for their differences.

But what does teacher-led classroom based research involve?

Carrying out research should be a collective project, not a solitary task.  It’s really about discovering, sharing and transmitting knowledge, problem-solving. It’s an integral part of teacher development. Carrying out such a project can be a collective experience inclusive of all teachers in all stages of professional development. Teachers being part of this experience is the heart of a collective, teacher-led research project.

In the upcoming webinar, we’ll look at some of the basics of teacher-led classroom based research and how it can transform our teaching lives. You’ll be surprised! You can register for the webinar here.

References

Nunan, D.  and Bailey, K.M. 2008 . Exploring Second Language Classroom Research : A Comprehensive Guide. Boston: Heinle

Nunan, D. 1989. Understanding Language Classrooms . Cambridge : Prentice Hall International