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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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Everyday development activities for busy teachers | Learning in the rush

Development activities

Martyn Clarke has led education development projects all over the world, and has written numerous blogs for OUP! In this article, he examines the everyday development opportunities that teachers could be missing out on. 

When I work with groups of teachers, we often build a concept map of what has influenced us in our development as teachers. What do you think are the most influential factors? Our pre-service courses? INSET? Methodology books? OUP webinars?

 

Well, it’s none of those. Whether in Djibouti, the Ukraine, Vietnam, or anywhere in between, the two most influential factors are consistently:

  1. Our own experience of teaching;
  2. Our colleagues.

Surprised? Probably not. In fact, given the amount of time we spend in the classroom and with our colleagues in comparison to how much time we spend on training courses and reading methodology books, it’s quite obvious that this should be the case.

If this is true, we should be learning all the time. We teach all day. We talk to colleagues in-between lessons. We have all we need to develop just by doing the job, don’t we?

I’m not sure we do. You see, experience just isn’t enough.

This is because we only tend to notice certain experiences. Simply, we don’t see things as ‘they are’; we see things as ‘we are’ (Anais Nin). We have a tendency to interpret information so that it fits into our existing frameworks of understanding. So, if I think my students are generally unmotivated, I will tend to notice behaviour which I believe proves this. I might miss things that show otherwise.

I see what I expect to see. I experience what I expect to experience. And then I get tremendous satisfaction when I can say ‘I told you so’ or ‘I knew’ that would happen’.

It’s a little like living in a box. Clearly you can’t go far if you stay in a box! But to be successful, I’m in no way suggesting that you must leave the box.

Boxes are comfortable places to be. They’re safe. You can focus on what you’re happy with; you can enjoy yourself and increase your confidence. It’s great to be able to do what you do, do it well, and then celebrate that certainty. I know I’ve had many happy ‘box periods’ in my career where I focused on the enjoyment of honing my existing skills. And when our professional lives are busy, and we teach and work in a constant rush, it’s sometimes good to have that security.

Yet we can’t escape the fact that we’re teachers. We believe in learning. And if we believe in learning, we believe in change. So, there are times when we should use development activities to open the box and look at the world around us with different eyes. Even in the rush.

I’ll be showing you how to do this in my upcoming webinar on the 15th-16th November. Some of the practical learning activities for teachers can done alone, some can be done with colleagues. And none take more than 30 minutes.

Here’s one development activity you can do on your own:


Why it Worked

Reflection often starts with problems or areas of difficulty, but this activity focuses on the learning’s we can gain from our successes, and possible applications to other areas of our practice.

Suggested Activity Procedure

  1. Set aside 30 minutes.
  2. Use the Recalling Prompts to guide your exploration.
  3. Use the Reflective Questions to guide your analysis of the data and record your conclusions and future actions.

Recalling Prompts

Identify something you are involved in that was successful this week.

  • Where did this happen and who was involved?
  • How do you know you were successful?
  • Have you tried the activity before with different results?
  • What effect did the success have on the people involved?

Reflection Questions

  • How do you measure the success?
  • Does everybody involved share your evaluation? If not, why?
  • How replicable is this success – can you repeat the activity with the same results?
  • If you’ve tried this before with different results, how do you account for the change?
  • What aspects of the activity (in planning or in delivery) could you use with other activities?

Action

  • Write down one action you will take as a result of this reflection.

Here’s one development activity you can do with colleagues:


Me time

Find two other colleagues.

One of you has ‘Me Time’ on a specific afternoon for 30 minutes after school each week.

What this means is that the other two colleagues focus completely on you. You may have a problem with a student, or with a language point, or with a task you have to do, or with how you are feeling, or with ANYTHING you want to talk about – as long as it’s something to do with your job.

Because you are the focus, they have to spend at least 15 minutes just listening to you and can only ask questions.

After the first 15 minutes, they can describe possible alternative actions that you could take, but they can’t say what they think is right or wrong.

You control the conversation completely, and if you want to talk you just raise your hand and the other speaker stops.

Then – wherever you are in the conversation you ALWAYS stop at 30 minutes – and the next week it’s someone else’s turn for Me Time.


The ideas are simple, but good ideas often are! In the webinar, we’ll be exploring 12 more teacher-focused learning activities that you can use for your own professional development.  

Click here to register your place on the webinar.

Hope to see you there!

 


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Classroom dynamics in a changing world

Students and teacher at the boardFreelance teacher trainer and materials writer, Martyn Clarke, explores the difficulties in finding a neat solution to classroom dynamics, given the changing nature of classrooms and the world as a whole.

If you’re looking for a series of articles listing ‘How To Achieve Better Classroom Dynamics’, then stop reading. I have no idea what the perfect classroom looks like. In fact, my opinion on what makes a good class changes frequently. My views on classroom dynamics are, themselves, dynamic.

This is because it’s a complex world. What works in one context, might not work in another. What is successful at one time, may well fail the next. I imagine we’ve all come across this in our careers.

The key question in looking at classroom dynamics is how do we respond to this?

It seems to me there are three basic approaches we could adopt:

1. Methodology is king

We could decide that theories of language learning are universally applicable to all classrooms. There are good and bad classroom dynamics. We can observe behaviour, judge it according to one set of criteria, and ‘improve’ it accordingly. When things don’t work, it’s because students don’t understanding or lack the ability to engage with the approach. I’m the first to admit that this is highly seductive. The certainty of belief provides a sense of security in this uncertain world.

But it’s not quite as simple as that. Every classroom is made up of unique individuals, each bringing their own expectations, values, and attitudes, to create a one-off community. This community is also influenced by the culture of the society it belongs to, and the institution of which it is a part. It is itself constantly evolving, as do its individual members. It really is quite a messy place when you come to think about it, so one-size-fits-all answers won’t, in fact, fit.

Should we, therefore, leave theory outside the classroom door?

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