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Action Research

Martin Parrott

Action research is not so much something that we do in addition to our teaching


as something that we integrate into it. In many ways it is a state of mind it is a
scepticism about assumptions and a willingness to put everything to the test. It is
something which should take very little time and which does not necessarily need
to be made public. It is a way of ensuring that we continue to learn even as we
teach. It helps to stave off staleness and routine.

Red ink

I dont know when I stopped using red to use in marking their homework.
ink to correct homework, or whether I Most students preferred red, and no
ever used it in the first place. one seemed to find this in the least
Somewhere along the way I had threatening. I began to use red as a
absorbed this idea that using red ink matter of course, but I would still ask
was a bad thing. I even told CELTA my classes which colour they
course participants not to use red ink preferred: red came out on top each
and, in that irritating way that teacher time. I asked my colleagues what
trainers sometimes do, produced an colours they used to mark homework,
instant pseudo-rationale to support my and strangely enough I discovered that
prejudice: People find red ink my prejudice was by no means unique
threatening. They associate it with to me. I encouraged them to ask for a
negative experiences at school. show of hands in their classes, and in
almost every case the result was the
I had two fountain pens; one with same as in my own classes. Without
black ink and the other with blue. If knowing it, I had discovered action
students wrote in black, I used my blue research.
pen to underline and annotate; if they
wrote in blue, I used my black pen. The best thing about this example of
And I was rather proud of being so action research is its simplicity it
resourceful. took a few seconds to carry out and
involved no time in preparation of
Ten years or so into my career and for materials or computation and
the nth time, I was asked by a student interpretation of data. Something had
why I did this: But Martin, wouldnt happened to make me question my
it be easier for us to read your assumptions I did a little bit of
corrections if they were written in research and modified my practice
red?. Out came the same platitude (and my assumptions) accordingly. I
about red ink being threatening. This also extended the original piece of
time I noticed looks of amused research by asking other colleagues to
indulgence pass among the students. replicate my experiment a sequence
Who would like me to use red ink?, I of events (question assumptions; do
asked. Hands shot into the air. research; modify practice; extend)
which corresponds quite closely to the
From then on I asked each of my classical four developmental phases
classes what colour they would like me of action research:
Phase I: Develop a plan of action to diagnosing what needs to be taught and
improve what is already happening. as a way of demonstrating the
Phase II: Act to implement the plan. relevance of what we teach to the
Phase III: Observe the effects of action learners. We can also integrate a
in the context in which it occurs. modified test-teach-test approach into
Phase IV: Reflect on these effects. our teaching in order to evaluate the
(See Nunan p12) effectiveness of what we do. The tests
need to be simple, and often we can
Action research as a way of learning just bring our practice activity forward
about our learners and use it as a test.

My red ink anecdote is one example of Example 1: I started testing classes on


learning about what learners like, and a their ability to discriminate minimal
simple show of hands is one of the pairs before using exercises and
easiest and most effective tools of activities designed to aid their
action research: Who wants to be discrimination. Then I repeated the
corrected more? Who wants me to test later and found that a worryingly
correct their mistakes? Who likes large number of the students had made
mistakes to be corrected by other no progress at all and, in all the years
students? Who likes working in pairs? that I have been carrying out exercises
Who likes written homework? of this kind, presumably the same has
been the case.
Short questionnaires can also be very
useful to find out in more detail what Example 2: I have always had a hunch
our students like and dislike handing that presenting vocabulary up-front is a
out paper in the last five minutes of the waste of time, and that students learn
lesson and asking the students to write vocabulary more effectively if they
down what they learned, what they research it themselves. I asked the
enjoyed or what they found useful in students in an elementary class
the lesson. If we use individually to write down the names
journals/reflection books we can ask of everything they could find in a
for feedback on specific issues, and kitchen and I collected in their sheets
can follow up questionnaire results and of paper. I then taught them the
feedback in journals with brief names of ten items. A week and then a
interviews to clarify what individuals fortnight later I repeated the write
have said. Institutions often ask for down the names of everything you can
feedback of some sort from students at find in a kitchen exercise to see how
the end of their course. But at the end many items they had retained. I did a
of the course is too late if we want to similar exercise with a second
take students attitudes and preferences elementary class, but this time I simply
into account, if we wish to make asked them to use their bilingual
changes to our teaching and to evaluate dictionaries to find the names of ten
or reflect on these. kitchen objects for homework instead
of actually teaching the vocabulary.
Action research as a way of learning Over a period of time I repeated this
about the effectiveness of our procedure with classes at different
teaching levels and with different areas of
vocabulary, each time keeping a record
Test-teach-test is seen as a model for only of the total number of new words
presenting new language, as a way of remembered after one and two weeks.
Of course my original assumptions had learned in the first ten minutes of
were wrong (they often are) not that their lessons in their journals. On the
up-front teaching scored better in this Friday I began the lesson with my first
instance, but on the basis of my ever wall dictation, expecting that
research it became apparent that across students would say that the beginning
the whole range of students neither of the lesson had been silly and a waste
approach seemed to be more effective of time, wondering if any of them
than the other. The point was that would seize on what I understood the
certain students seem to learn much objective of the procedure to be
better in one or other of the approaches developing accuracy in listening and
and so now I consciously vary my pronunciation. What I discovered was
approach (grudgingly waving that they thought that the exercise had
flashcards about when no one is been a useful way to help them
looking). And I keep on trying to remember vocabulary. I asked a
repeat the experiment. colleague to replicate this with a
general English class at a lower level
Action research as a way of the result was much the same. No one
monitoring and evaluating thought there was anything remotely
innovation silly about the activity and I have now
absorbed the (judicious) use of wall
Im someone who tends to react to dictations into my teaching.
innovation with dread and a gut
reaction of it wouldnt possibly work, Action research as a way of learning
and I have always envied people who about our teaching
greet new ideas with enthusiasm. At
both ends of this particular scale there There is a great deal that we can learn
are problems, however. Stick-in-the- about the way we teach through simple
muds like me are in danger of observation of different kinds.
fossilising, while over-eagerness to
jump onto the latest bandwagon can We can record our lessons and take the
cause the students to be subjected to tape home to listen to.
unprincipled and inappropriate
teaching. Do I really talk so much? Or so
slowly? Do I really answer so many of
Action research can help both kinds of my own questions? Or ask so many
people simple but systematic questions in the form of statements?
evaluation of innovation can help Do I really sound so patronising when
stick-in-the-muds to incorporate I check instructions or so bullying
principled change into their teaching when I correct pronunciation?
and, at the other end of the scale, can
act as a brake on the over-application If I want some data thats more
of whizzo ideas. objective, I can actually count the
number of questions I ask in the form
The secret is partly to start evaluating of statements as compared with those
before the innovation is introduced, in which the auxiliary precedes the
and partly to make the evaluation subject, and arrive at a precise ratio. If
indirect. I remember being taken to I want, I can consciously try to change
task by a colleague for sneering at wall this in my lessons, make a second
dictations. For a week I asked my recording and compare the ratio here
(executive) class to describe what they with that in the previous lesson. I can
change the way I give instructions and middle-aged Italian women as to
correct pronunciation and ask the anyone else? Did Else from Finland
students if they have noticed a really speak to absolutely no one at
difference; ask them which way they any time in the lesson?
prefer.
The basic methodology of action
We can also video our lessons. It research
seems to me that teachers who do this
sometimes get hung up on wrong I have tried to provide examples of the
things they become self-conscious basic tools of action research in the
about gestures and verbal mannerisms preceding sections. To summarise,
(O.K.?) that actually pass unnoticed in these are:
class. More revealing, I think, is to let
the camera play on the faces of the questionnaires (to be filled in by
students. students or by other teachers)
journals
How come I didnt notice how bored interviews
Gretchen and Sumi were in the role tests
play? Or how confused Hiroko and audio recordings
Renaldo looked during my video recordings
presentation of the present perfect
objective observation schedules
continuous that I thought had broken (something to keep those CELTA
new records for clarity and simplicity? observers quiet!)
How come I didnt notice the number
of students who said absolutely
Some pay-offs of action research
nothing in the pair work exercise?
Action research lends itself to sharing
If we had the luxury of peer of experience and ideas among
observation, we can use observation colleagues, and can often open up
schedules. For example, we can ask a dialogue on issues that otherwise tend
colleague to draw a plan of the to remain under the carpet. In
classroom and to record all the particular, it is often both helpful and
interaction that takes place in the revealing if two or more teachers carry
lesson. The evidence is undeniable out the same piece of research,
and invariably surprising. compare the results and discuss the
implications. It can help to kindle and
Who do I give the lions share of my maintain enthusiasm, and if it involves
attention to is it to one or other side regular evaluation of teaching, it can
of the room? Is it to the men or to the also help to promote confidence
women? The attractive ones or the (knowing what the problems are is
less attractive ones? The stronger better than worrying about what they
students or the weaker ones? might be!).
I can repeat the exercise another day or
Some dangers inherent in action
in another class. Is a pattern
research
emerging?
The greatest danger in my experience
Why did no one ever tell me that I give is that we are over-ambitious: that we
more than twice as much attention to collect too much data or that the data is
the attractive South American men and too complicated to process easily.
The following hints are intended to
offset this danger:
generally ask no more than two or
three questions in a questionnaire
avoid asking anyone to put
statements in rank order
(impossible to process)
try to use questions to which the
answer is yes or no, or which
involve choosing (circling or
ticking) three or at most four
options
if you have a large class, pre-select
students whose
questionnaires/journals etc. you will
use in your research (and, for the
purposes of the research, ignore all
the others)

The second danger is that of over-


generalising on the basis of findings.
To go back to my red ink anecdote, it
is tempting to assert that students do
not find the use of red ink threatening.
I think we need to be very careful to
avoid assertions like this. All we can
reliably conclude is that the students I
asked seemed not to find red ink
threatening. The aim of action
research is not to arrive at universal
truths but only to learn more about
ourselves (at the moment), our
teaching (at the moment), our learners
(at the moment) and their learning (at
the moment).

Further reading

Understanding Language Classrooms


(David Nunan, Prentice Hall) inspired
me to take action research seriously.

Chapter 2 of Tasks for Language


Teachers (Martin Parrott, C.U.P.)
provides a very short introduction to
the topic, and the book contains 12
classroom-based tasks, which are
effectively ready-made action research
projects.