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- Five Sustainable Practices from Action Research to Enrich Your Everyday Teaching
Five Sustainable Practices from Action Research to Enrich Your Everyday Teaching
Jennifer is an academic program coordinator at UTS College (formerly UTS Insearch) in Sydney, Australia. She has undertaken action research in her own classroom and mentored other teachers in the practice. Jennifer’s research interest is teacher attitudes, beliefs and practice, and her passion is teacher professional development. Email: email@example.com.
We all want a feeling of satisfaction from our jobs. When we are thriving, rather than just coping, we are more effective teachers, and our students have a more fulfilling learning experience. Action research (AR) is a challenging and rewarding way to observe your teaching through a critical lens and implement changes. If you are curious about undertaking an AR project in English language teaching (ELT) I recommend reading A Handbook for Exploratory Action Research (Smith & Rebolledo, 2018), a free online resource from British Council. For those of us who do not wish to undertake a full research project, AR offers practices which can enhance our classrooms. Taken individually or together, these simple and sustainable ideas will help keep your classroom fresh and engaging for you and your students.
Approach with curiosity
We all encounter problems in day-to-day teaching, but how we react to them can make a difference to whether we and our students have a rewarding experience or undergo a stressful ordeal. Perceived problems in learning and teaching can be significant sources of angst or insecurity for teachers, but cultivating a mindset of curiosity can help to alleviate feelings of frustration and powerlessness. AR encourages us to reframe difficult situations as opportunities to investigate a gap in our practice. Burns (2010, p. 2) refers to this process as ‘problematising’ an issue: ‘subjecting it to questioning, and then developing new ideas and alternatives’.
A typical classroom issue is low student motivation, which is an occurrence that can be demotivating for the teacher and slow the pace and disrupt the flow of the lesson. Approaching this issue with curiosity enables us to explore it more deeply: what are my expectations of students in this lesson? Why might they be unmotivated today? How could I adjust my activities to make them more engaging? Subjecting the experience to questioning gives the teacher greater agency to change it, and potentially relieves any negative feelings that arose with the issue. As one teacher quoted by Burns (2010, p. 166) expresses, teachers can find a way to ‘transform […] questions from a source of anxiety into a source of curiosity’.
Keep a diary
While keeping a journal or diary is not a central practice of AR, it complements the other practices in this article and can be a valuable habit. The process of writing can make problematising and exploring a classroom issue more effective because it has a ‘built-in reflective mechanism’ (Farrell, 2019, p. 83), in that a writer must organise their thoughts before committing them to paper. Writing can help teachers ‘“see” (literally) their thoughts and reflect on these for self-understanding’ (Farrell, 2019, p. 83). Smith and Rebolledo (2018, p. 42) note that diary writing can feel uncomfortable or unnatural for those unaccustomed to the practice. If we are engaging in the practice whole-heartedly, making a record of our ideas from our teaching that day compels to us to avoid selective memory or fixating on especially positive or negative events.
Writing a diary could occur before, during and after a lesson, and include notes on procedure and activities, comments on thoughts and feelings, and an evaluation of the effectiveness of the lesson. A helpful tip is to set a goal and a timeframe for the diary (Farrell, 2019, p. 84). For example, to return to an earlier idea, a teacher might decide their goal is to gain some insight into student motivation in class. To do this, they make notes during and after class over the course of a week, focusing on student behaviour and mood. The teacher then reviews their notes, compares them with the activities from class, and looks for patterns and potential areas for development.
Seek different perspectives
Teaching can be an isolating experience, and many of us seldom seek an outside perspective on our classroom environments. Keeping a journal allows us to explore our own perspective more fully, but, as Smith and Rebolledo (2018, p. 10) point out, our own thoughts, feelings and experience still give us only a partial view of our classroom environment. The writers explain that exploratory AR encourages teachers to engage our own senses in the classroom, and then borrow the senses of others, including students and teacher colleagues, to gain a more accurate and nuanced understanding of a situation.
Some simple and sustainable ways to seek wider perspectives on your classroom are:
- Collecting samples of student work and other classroom documents. Burns (2010, p. 92) suggests having your students write a letter to future students telling them ‘the best way to learn in your class’, and then identifying which strategies students mention.
- Giving your students a brief poll or survey to gain their opinions or experience. This can be especially engaging if the poll gives students choices about lesson direction.
- Chatting to colleagues teaching the same materials. Did they approach an activity in the same way as you? What success did they have?
- Asking a colleague to observe you and give you feedback on the element of your practice you want to explore. Their outside perspective will help ‘“make familiar things strange”’ (Burns, 2010, p. 57) and enable you to consciously notice that which was unconscious before.
For many of us, novice and experienced teachers alike, delving into the vast body of ELT literature can be daunting. In his review, Borg (2010, p. 409) suggests that barriers to engagement in research can include sceptical teacher attitudes towards reading research literature, and more practical concerns such as limited access and resources. However, consulting literature can provide teachers with the validation that our teaching approaches are widely-shared. Furthermore, reading widely helps us locate beliefs and experiences in a broader body of literature, and give terms and descriptions to nebulous feelings and attitudes. In addition, Borg (p. 414) suggests that engaging in research can provide teachers with new ways of experimenting in their classrooms and explore their planning and teaching choices. He emphasises that literature should be ‘relevant to teachers’ context [and] concerns’, be practical, and ‘build on what teachers already know’ (Borg, p. 415).
How do we find such resources, including research, magazine articles, webinars and videos? We can seek out recommendations from colleagues for the resources and research they value. We can subscribe to teaching magazines like Humanising Language Teaching. And we can access materials local, national and international teaching organisations, such as British Council.
Share with colleagues
Personal benefits to sharing our thoughts, ideas and practices can include: the rewarding feeling of seeing colleagues engaged and interested in our ideas; praise and constructive criticism; and further reflection as we shape ideas to express to an audience (Smith & Rebolledo, 2018, p. 108). Sharing can break down the isolation of the classroom, and it can also be the key to connecting with the wider ELT community. Presenting at an event or publishing online can increase exposure to wider professional networks and a greater variety of experiences and perspectives. Sharing can take many forms. For example, teachers can try:
- Exchanging lesson planning ideas at a staff meeting.
- Giving a poster presentation at a professional development event.
- Writing a blog.
- Publishing in an online magazine.
Other teachers can also be inspired by and learn from your ideas. As we have already seen, teachers respond best to research that is practical and relevant to their context. Presenting our own ideas and approaches can enrich the classroom practice of our colleagues and wider teaching community.
Borg, S. (2010). Language teacher research engagement. Language Teaching, 43(4), 391-429. doi:10.1017/S0261444810000170
Burns, A. (2010). Doing Action Research in English Language Teaching. Routledge.
Farrell, T. S. C., (2019). Reflective Practice in ELT. Equinox Publishing.
Smith, R., & Rebolledo, P. (2018). A Handbook for Exploratory Action Research. British Council. https://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/sites/teacheng/files/pub_30510_BC%20Explore%20Actions%20Handbook%20ONLINE%20AW.pdf
Please check the Advanced NLP and Coaching Skills for the English Classroom course at Pilgrims website
Anxiety in the Foreign Language Class: An Action Research Program Focused on Academic Staff and Students
Michelle Ocriciano, Australia
Five Sustainable Practices from Action Research to Enrich Your Everyday Teaching
Jennifer Wallace, Australia