Cambridge English have for several years now been actively supporting action research for English language teachers. In Australia, their action research scheme has been run in collaboration with English Australia since 2010; in 2014, the Cambridge English-English UK action research award scheme was also launched. Six teachers participated in the first year of the UK scheme and last week the second year kicked off last year with eight new participants.
Action research is not a new idea; its origins can be traced back many years to the work of Kurt Lewin in the 1940s. Australia, in particular, has a strong tradition of educational action research going back some 30 years (see, for example, the work of Kemmis & McTaggart) and this is evident too (especially through the work of Anne Burns) in the field of English language teaching. The basic idea in action research is that professional growth and better quality educational provision can be achieved when teachers (individually or collaboratively) engage in cycles of systematic classroom inquiry. Issues of interest, puzzles, problems and challenges are first identified, changes to practice are made in response to these and the impacts of these changes are then examined, leading into another cycle of inquiry. Practice is thus fine-tuned over time. Various diagrams are available which illustrate the cyclical nature of action research.
I was at a conference recently where action research was dismissed as being an unrealistic activity to expect busy teachers to engage in. So the first point to make is that action research is but one of many professional development options available to teachers and in many cases it will not be a suitable option – so no one is (or should be) suggesting that all teachers should be doing action research. Unfortunately, action research is sometimes promoted (by Ministries or teacher educators) without sufficient understanding of the kinds of conditions that need to exist for it be a productive experience; in such cases the outcomes will inevitably be negative. However, where the conditions are conducive, then there is no doubt that action research has significant transformative potential (read about one teacher’s experience here). I have been writing about the necessary conditions for a number of years (here’s an early article on this topic) and recent experiences on both the Australia and UK action research schemes mentioned above are providing further evidence of what makes action research successful. Some key ingredients are:
- motivated teachers
- institutional support
- on-going expert mentoring
- access to resources
- realistic goal
- an extended time-span (months rather than weeks)
- opportunities to share outcomes (orally and in writing)
Some of these conditions, though, need to be qualified. For example, ‘time’ does not mean that teachers need to be given a significantly reduced workload to do action research – that is never really going to happen. Action research can be to a certain extent integrated into what teachers normally do, but some additional time will always be needed – in some projects I have worked on, for example, this has been one hour a week. And ‘access to resources’ does not mean that action research involves copious amounts of reading; some awareness of key sources of relevance is desirable but action research is primarily a practical activity and reading should support that and not take on a life of its own. Teachers typically do not have access to subscription-based journals, but plenty of good quality material is freely available on-line (I have compiled some here).
At the IATEFL conference in Manchester this year I will be talking about the first year of the Cambridge English-English UK action research scheme. Participants on the scheme were very positive about the experience and while this is rewarding for everyone involved I would also like to look more closely at the issue of continuing impact: several months after the end of the scheme, what do the teachers say about its lasting impact on them, their students, colleagues and institutions?
Some resources to follow-up here:
Reports from the Cambridge English-English Australia action research scheme : Issues 44, 48, 53 and 56.
A chapter called ‘What is action research?’ from this book
A booklet called ‘How to do action research in your classroom’.
Some chapters in this collection also look at action research.
And a new book ‘International perspectives on teacher research’ will be available in March 2015.
If you have been involved in action research – as a participant or a facilitator – please post a comment about your experiences.