On Saturday November 25th 2017 in Barcelona, SLB’s Tom Flaherty hosted an interactive workshop on action research. Here Tom explains what he understands by the term.
What is action research?
Theory is when you know everything but nothing works. Practice is when everything works but no one knows why. In my lab, theory and practice are combined: nothing works and no one knows why.
What does research mean to you? Experimental research designs? Quantitative statistical analysis? Complex jargon? Long-winded journals published by academics for academics? It’s not hard to understand why many teachers are quick to write off using applied linguistic research as a means of influencing their teaching practice. It’s irrelevant. It’s incomprehensible. It’s inaccessible.
Instead, many of us follow a more traditional model for teacher development, which involves reading methodology books, attending conferences, and participating in training courses. Here, we are introduced to new ideas, which we simply implement into our own teaching contexts. To most teachers, these sessions and books are relevant. They are comprehensible. They are accessible.
The question, though, is how many of these sources are evidence-based? Should we be demanding that writers/trainers/speakers back up their claims with research? To what extent can the content of these books, courses and presentations be generalised to our individual teaching contexts?
In ELT, we have conferences and literature for academics, and conferences and literature for teachers, but how often do we combine the two? There is debate and dispute to be had in the ELT profession, and what we’re taught in our initial training and subsequent development can be challenged. Indeed, once we acknowledge that particular approaches work better in particular learning environments, ELT will be revolutionised as a result. Yet how can we take these ideas from either researchers and/or methodology writers and assess their workability in our classrooms, so as to adapt them to our context? The answer lies in action research.
In its purest form, action research is an influential and compelling form of teacher-led professional development. It both promotes purposeful collaboration between teachers and encourages manageable, meaningful change within their local teaching contexts. It’s grass-roots, bottom-up, teacher-led research. It encourages teachers to step away from a ‘one-size fits all’ approach to professional development, urging us instead to reflect on and gain insights into aspects of our own teaching. This is achieved by becoming both simultaneously active agents and investigators of our own communities of practice. In short, through conducting systematic action research to gain a deeper understanding of various aspects of classroom practices, teachers can alter their pedagogical approaches, accommodate recent discoveries, and enhance the conditions of their local contexts.
Many teachers may feel that they already engage in research-led development. They might engage in reflective or exploratory practice. These processes are fundamentally different, however, to action research in one sense: whilst reflective and exploratory practice promote a teacher’s understanding of the classroom, action research goes one step further by attempting to bring about change through understanding. It doesn’t try to reach universally applicable conclusions or models. It doesn’t require complex statistical analysis. It doesn’t even require control groups. Instead, by collaborating on action research projects with your colleagues, teachers will quickly develop the skills needed to not just critically evaluate their own practice, but to also make better-informed teaching decisions. Through sharing these experiences and any subsequent findings, teachers can bring about real, meaningful change in their classrooms.