The Impact of Action Research

To mark the publication of the reports from the 2015 cohort of teachers on the Cambridge English-English Action Research scheme, I wrote a short piece about action research that reflects on the work of these teachers. It has not appeared on-line yet, so here is a link to it:

AR – not just about ‘results’

One of my key conclusions here is that the main impact of action research is not the results it generates but “the kinds of professional reinvigoration and attitudinal realignment that will stay with teachers long after the formal conclusion of any particular action research scheme”.

If you’ve done or supported action research it would be interesting to hear your views.

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Long live grammar teaching (or ‘It ain’t over till the fat lady sings’)

In the last 20 years, repeated messages in the literature about communicative and task-based approaches, and the uptake of these approaches in contemporary coursebooks, may have created the impression that a ‘modern’ approach to grammar teaching is now a universal norm. This is, though, rather fanciful. My suspicion is that in many classrooms around the world, grammar remains the driving force and the way it is taught has changed very little over the years. Even where teachers have modernised their approach to other areas of language teaching, such as reading or speaking, grammar has often remained impervious to change.

Let’s look at some examples. I recently spoke to some teachers who had completed a four-week methodology course which emphasised learner-centred, communicative and interactive strategies for language teaching. A few weeks after the course, the teachers explained that these ideas were influencing their lessons: for example, they were making more use of pair and group work, being less direct and more selective in their correction of spoken errors, and general trying to make lessons more enjoyable for the students. However, they also agreed that how they teach grammar – which as one them told me was ‘I explain to my students the grammar rules and then we do grammar exercises and different tests’ – had not really changed. Here’s a summary of a lesson plan from a teacher in this group which illustrates this approach in more detail.

The lesson aimed to help students learn the difference between the present perfect continuous and simple. The steps were: (a) Teacher presents the grammar, establishes the names of the verb forms and writes these on the board; (b) Teacher asks the students to use the grammar to describe the pictures on the board; (c) Teacher gives further explanations and writes detailed notes about each verb form on the board; (d) Teacher asks concept questions, for example, ‘Which of the 2 sentences is in the perfect simple and why?’; (e) Students complete a series of written and spoken activities individually, in pairs and in groups; (f) Students complete a translation exercise from their own language into English.

Here’s a second example from a different country (this also happens to be about the present perfect). In this case the students had to complete a gap-fill exercise by writing in the correct form of the given verbs. Here’s an example of the work one student produced:

grammar-1

In the light of arguments about the importance of teaching grammar in context, my reaction as I read these examples was to try to imagine situations in real life where such utterances might occur. I did eventually come up with some, but it does take some imagination. In the context where this example was used (and in many others I am sure) students are fed a steady diet of such gap-fills. I am not saying there is no place for such exercises; what I am saying is that they are over-used and that teachers are often unable to provide a clear rationale for them.

Here’s one final example. Have a look and think about it – my comments are below.

grammar-2

Once again, grammar is being practised without any larger meaningful context. But it was the first example that caught my attention. The saying is ‘the show is not [or it ain’t) over until the fat lady sings’ but in this case the teacher’s sole concern was that students write a third-person singular verb – anything – jumps, dies, flies or groans – would have been marked correct. This is such a great example of an exclusive focus on grammar without any concern for meaning or even lexis.

So the point, then, is that despite everything that has been said and written to transform English lessons around the world, conventional approaches to the teaching of grammar have proven very resilient. Here are some reasons for this, in no particular order. I’d be interested to hear whether these resonate in your context, if there are other factors you can add, and, of course, of you disagree:

  • Curricula and assessment systems where substantial weight is given to discrete knowledge of grammar
  • The widespread availability of grammar practice materials (online and in language practice books)
  • Convenience, as grammar exercises are easy to administer and quick to mark
  • Identity, for teachers who feel that being able to explain grammar is the hallmark of a competent language teacher
  • Educational systems where effective teaching is seen to be a process of transmitting knowledge
  • Lack of alternative models, which means that teachers often teach the way they were taught
  • The belief that learning a language means learning grammar
  • Classroom management – grammar exercises keep students busy and quiet
  • Security, where teachers stick to what they feel they know best
  • Lack of training to support changes in how grammar can be taught.

As always I look forward to your comments.

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Workshops and Teacher Change

Recently I observed a training workshop that teachers of English were attending as part of a teacher development project they were on. The theme of the workshop was ‘Using Games’ and the teachers assumed the role of learners and experienced first-hand a number of different games, mostly focused on learning vocabulary. I am sure it was the type of practical workshop that thousands of English teachers around the world attend each year. Do such sessions, though, lead to changes in what teachers do in the classroom? I am quite sure that in most cases they do not. And teacher development work which does not impact on what teachers do is problematic, so let’s look at this example a bit more closely.

The experiential and practical approach taken during the workshop was a strength. Teachers were not just told about games and their value, but they played games themselves. Several elements which impact on teacher learning, though, were absent:

  • there was no prior discussion of teachers’ existing experience of using games – unpacking their prior beliefs, knowledge and classroom experience is important before engagement with new ideas. This is a basic principle not just of teacher learning but of learning generally (see the report How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School).
  • there was little critical discussion of the games the teachers played – e.g. no space to question how suitable they were for their learners
  • the games presented were not contextualized with any reference to the curriculum the teachers followed – e.g. there were no examples of how a particular game might be added to an existing reading comprehension activity in the course book
  • teachers did not see any examples (e.g. through video) of teachers using a game in a real classroom nor were they able to practise (e.g. through micro teaching) using games themselves
  • there would be no further discussion of this theme – the next workshop would move on to another topic.

It is likely, then, that by the end of the workshop (which the teachers clearly enjoyed) they were aware of some new language learning games. They did not acquire the skills, though, to adapt the games to their classroom contexts and to integrate them into their existing practices. And consequently I very much doubt how much of the workshop will have translated into enhanced teaching.

I can apply the same analysis to a 45-minute workshop I led recently for teachers attending a one-day conference. The workshop was reflective in nature, encouraging teachers to share examples of activities they found effective in their teaching and pushing them to articulate how they knew those activities were effective. The teachers engaged in these activities with interest, but is it likely that many of them subsequently applied in their teaching the reflective processes modelled during the session? Of course not, and that is not a criticism of the teachers but of the inherent limitations workshops have in promoting teacher change.

I do not want to dismiss the value of workshops for teachers. What is problematic, though, is the assumption (which I often encounter on teacher development projects) that workshops (simply by increasing teacher awareness and knowledge) lead to changes in what teachers do. They can support teacher change, but as part of a more extended programme of work where teachers have not only input but also, crucially, repeated opportunities to try out new ideas in the classroom, to receive skilled support as they experiment with change (e.g. through mentoring) and to reflect (including collaboratively – e.g. through peer observation) on their efforts. These critical elements are, unfortunately, often wholly absent or given token attention in teacher development work and it is therefore no surprise at all that limited change in what teachers do takes place. Repeated opportunities to engage with specific ideas are also typically lacking; in a 30-hour workshop-based course teachers might cover the teaching of all four skills, grammar, vocabulary and assessment, spending limited time on each; what they need, though, is many hours of supported theoretical, practical (in the classroom) and reflective engagement with one specific idea for this to be integrated fully and effectively into their teaching. This report on effective professional development makes interesting points in this respect.

If we know, then, that workshops of the type discussed above are not an effective mechanism for deep and sustained teacher change, and if contemporary alternatives are available (e.g. see the review in Teacher Professional Learning and Development), why is it that workshops (and the training model of teacher learning they are often based on) remain the core of so much of the English language teacher development work that takes place around the world? Teachers, teacher trainers/educators and project managers/designers, I am very interested in your answers to this question.

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Do Teachers’ Beliefs Really Matter?

I’ve spent many years promoting research on language teachers’ beliefs, so the above question may come as a surprise, especially given that beliefs are such an established area of inquiry. But it is precisely because the status of beliefs as an important focus for research on teaching is no longer contested that this question is timely.  I am concerned that generally as a field we have become complacent, and much of the research on language teachers’ beliefs I read today is rather superficial.

Let’s start from the basic issue of purpose. How can research which seeks to understand language teachers’ beliefs be justified? Twenty years ago simply invoking ‘belief’ was sufficient justification because research of that kind was a novelty. Today this is no longer the case; the argument that we must study teachers’ beliefs about a particular topic because there is a ‘gap’ in research knowledge is no longer sufficient – there needs be some stronger theoretical and/or practical rationale for the work. Much recent work I have examined, though, lacks a strong sense of purpose. The study of beliefs is often motivated by researchers’ interest in a particular topic (whether the participating teachers are interested in it does not always seem to matter) and the purpose of the research is to analyse teachers’ stated beliefs on that topic. Why documenting teachers’ beliefs in this way is important is never fully explored beyond the need for ‘more research’.

Some studies go further by comparing what teachers say (stated, professed or espoused beliefs) with what they do. Typically, stated beliefs are first elicited then compared to what happens in a (normally small) number of observed lessons. Why such comparisons are of relevance or value, though, often remains undiscussed. Such studies often conclude (quite predictably) that teachers’ stated beliefs are not congruent with their observed practices. Again, why is this important and how does an awareness of this gap take the field of language teaching forward? For example, it could be argued that making teachers awareness of mismatches between stated beliefs and actual practices can stimulate reflection that enhances professional development (e.g. Farrell & Ives 2015).

In addition to a lost sense of purpose, research on language teachers’ beliefs remains methodologically unsophisticated. Questionnaires continue to be the dominant mechanism for accessing teachers’ beliefs, despite recurring warnings over the years about the limitations of this approach. The fact that the questionnaires used are often not well-designed simply exacerbates these limitations. It is well-established that beliefs elicited via short decontextualized Likert-scale items will often reflect what respondents feel is ideal, expected, or socially-desirable. And it should not be at all surprising that the beliefs elicited in this manner are not congruent with what teachers do in the classroom. In fact, the lack of congruence is so predictable that (in the absence of a clear justification) the value of such comparisons needs to be severely questioned.

The final point I want to make here relates to the manner in which the relationship between teachers’ beliefs and their classroom practices has been conventionally viewed. When we separate the two – first studying beliefs, then comparing these to practices – an unnatural separation is created. Through this separation, the complex, networked (i.e. beliefs as systems), situated and social nature of beliefs is grossly over-simplified. Much more natural is an approach which sees beliefs as one way of making sense of what teachers do, and from this perspective it is situated professional practice that should be the entry point, not belief. The attention beliefs have received over the years has perhaps created the mistaken impression they are what matters most.

Beliefs, of course, do matter and understanding teachers’ beliefs and the role they play in what teachers do and how they learn and develop will continue to be important areas of research. However, to avoid the stagnation that arises when an area of inquiry becomes a taken-for-granted bandwagon, we need to be much more committed to justifying why studying teachers’ beliefs is necessary, how the results of such work can be used to support education, and engaging critically with the conceptual and methodological developments which are redefining the nature of language teacher cognition research (the collection of articles in The Modern Language Journal 99/3 is an excellent starting point here).

If you are interested in contemporary perspectives on teachers’ beliefs I would also recommend Fives, H., & Gill, M. G. (Eds.). (2014). International handbook of research on teachers’ beliefs. London: Routledge.

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From Activities to Reflection in Teacher Development

I’ve just returned from a visit to a project that is promoting mentoring as a strategy for the professional development of English language teachers. During the visit I observed English lessons in secondary state schools and also sat in on post-lesson observation discussions between mentors and teachers. Several discussions went something like this:

Mentor: How do you feel about the lesson?
Teacher: I think it was successful.
Mentor: Why do you feel that way?
Teacher: Because the students worked in groups, they did activities, and I finished all the activities in my lesson plan.
Mentor: Yes, I think the lesson was very nice.

Such conversations reveal the beliefs that teachers (and often mentors too) have about successful teaching. Earlier in the project the teachers had received training on student-centred, communicative, activity-based learning and it was clear in the lessons I saw that that teachers were taking on board many of the messages that had been promoted in this training and which their mentors were also encouraging them to focus on. For example, many lessons I saw were characterised by:

  • the use of laptops and projectors
  • asking students to work in groups
  • teaching aids such as posters and pictures
  • matching activities involving slips of paper (e.g. match vocabulary with meaning)
  • almost exclusive use of English by the teacher and students.

My presence as a foreign visitor inevitably meant that the lessons I saw were not always typical (see the entry for ‘reactivity’ in this glossary), but they did reflect teachers’ beliefs about what a successful lesson was. And on the basis of the lessons and the post-lesson discussions I saw a successful lesson was conceived as one where

  • students complete activities (rather than just listening passively)
  • students are placed in groups
  • students are encouraged to speak English
  • a range of materials or resources (including technology) are used
  • the planned activities are completed in the time available.

These are clearly positive beliefs for teachers to have, particularly in a context where language teaching has traditionally been very heavily text-based and teacher-centred. However, it was also clear that teachers needed ongoing support to help them develop more productive understandings of how the effectiveness of a lesson might be judged and in particular to focus more on what students were actually doing and learning during lessons. For example, although students were regularly asked to sit in groups, the activities they were assigned did not require group work and my observations suggested that very often one more able student did all of the work (these were thus physical groups rather than co-operative groups – more on this distinction here).  And to take one more example, while teachers knew how to implement various activities they had learned through their training, the links between these activities and the objectives of the lesson were typically not obvious. Lessons were often sequences of unconnected activities.

Relative to their practices before the training and mentoring project they were involved in, these teachers had I am sure made visible positive changes to their teaching. I was, though, left with a number of reflections on the choice of content on professional development projects for English language teachers more generally:

  1.  During training, a simple focus on new activities and techniques will not suffice in helping teachers improve the quality of English language learning that takes place – e.g. simply putting students into groups or using the projector does mean the students will learn more.
  2.  Teachers thus need support in developing a reflective stance on their work – not just thinking about the activities they will include in a lesson but also about why such activities are there and how they promote learning (and also appreciating that you do not need to have group work or use a computer in every lesson).
  3.  Teachers also need to understand how learning can be assessed during lessons and to develop strategies for doing so.
  4.  The ability to define clear objectives for English lessons and to devise a staged sequence of activities that address these objectives is also a fundamental competence that teachers require (see Professional Practice 1 in the new British Council CPD framework).
  5.  Overall, teachers would benefit from a view of good teaching and successful lessons which focuses very directly on learning rather than activities and resources.

So important questions arise here I think for the topics which are given priority during professional development projects. Teachers do need to develop a repertoire of new techniques and activities but what is more important is that they have the ability to use these critically, to sequence them effectively to fulfil specific objectives, and to assess the learning the takes place during lessons. Without these deeper forms of professional learning there is a risk that teacher development projects will achieve superficial gains without, though, having a significant impact on the quality of learning that students experience.

As always, I’d be interested in any experiences you have relevant to this post and of the kinds of professional development (especially the content) that can help teachers of English improve the quality of learning in the classroom.

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