Can Teachers Do Research?
Research and what teachers have to do with it, whether they should be doing it and, if so, how, has been a topic often discussed on #ELTchat on Twitter, a weekly discussion of teachers meeting online to talk about a topic of their choice. I help moderate this online discussion and in reviewing our summaries page, I was impressed with the fact that over the past two years, we have had not just one or two, but three #ELTchats on different aspects of teachers doing research. Reading through the summaries inspired me to write a short report of how I got started on research and how teachers could be involved as well.
My 1st action research project
The title of my research (my 2nd dissertation submitted towards my M.A. in Applied Linguistics at the University of Reading) was “Aims & Objectives: the Learner’s View”. It was supervised by Ronald White, an extremely helpful and supportive supervisor, who fed my brain with questions and great reading suggestions.
My main interest was to explore whether the learners could identify the lesson objectives as set and articulated by the teacher, or whether what they believed the lesson was about and what the teacher believed the lesson was about were in sync or at odds.
Apart from exploring my research question, I was also interested in the process of triangulation and how class research works, as opposed to large scale, statistical data driven research.
For this reason, I used video to analyse the classroom events, transcripts of classroom talk, personal interviews with the learners, the class teacher and the course director, and a variety of documents, such as the lesson plan used by the teacher on the day of the recording, the class syllabus, the materials used, the teacher’s reflection and learner reflections obtained after the lesson.
The data which was collected demonstrated how the teacher’s beliefs about the objectives of her lesson were not perceived by the learners. In the particular lesson I was investigating, the teacher used a well known poem, called “I so liked spring” and what she believed she was doing was helping the learners improve their reading skills. What the learners believed, on the other hand, was that this was a vocabulary lesson and not a reading lesson
Why the mismatch? In the specific case, the reasons may have had something to do with the interests of the learners. They were participating in a pre-sessional language course which would prepare them for postgraduate work in various universities. They were veterinary graduates and I leave it to you to reflect as to whether a poem about why we like spring was appropriate material for their needs in terms of reading skills development or even for building up field related vocabulary.
I am not going to discuss these results further here, as this was a dissertation marked and awarded a Good Pass – so I will let things lie with this one; also because it was done within an academic institution, followed conventions of academic writing and experimental design theories and, finally, my purpose here is to look at what teachers can do on their own.
My Follow up Action Research
After returning to teaching and, having had these initial results regarding teacher objectives, I set out to discover what would happen if I shared my lesson objectives with my learners – this time, on my own
I wanted to find out whether or not training in identifying objectives might
- affect my learners’ progress
- affect my learners’ ability to reflect on their own learning.
This was one of the points I had tried to make in discussing the results I found in my research, i.e., that given sufficient training to identify lesson and activity or task objectives, learners would be enabled through this metacognitive focus to be more attentive to their learning process, to be more systematic and accurate in the ways in which they approached each task so that they could be more successful in completing it in the best possible way for their stage of learning. Some examples of not doing teacher allocated tasks in the best possible way can include
- a class told to scan may not necessarily be able to scan; they may be reading word for word, mentally translating, getting stuck on unnecessary parts of the text, and so on.
- A class told to improvise a conversation at the post office in order to develop fluency and spontaneous, unscripted talk, may write down the whole conversation script, thus defeating the purpose of the activity.
Given a simply and clearly described activity/task objective by the teacher and, of course, the necessary learner training, the claim I was making was that, eventually, the learners would perform better in the specific activities and tasks. The feedback to the tasks would also need to focus on whether the process was followed, not just whether the output was correct. All this has, of course, since become very much the focus of the Process Approach (but this was not even a glimmer in anyone’s eye when I conducted my research)
How I went about it
At the time, I was in the lucky position of having two classes at the same level – two elementary adult groups. With Group 1, I discussed lesson and activity objectives very systematically. I used simple language and L1 where appropriate. With Group 2, I never discussed the objectives of the lesson or individual activities. Both groups were taught the same syllabus, materials and I believe I was equally good (or not so good) with both groups. Both were highly motivated groups and quite engaged in their own learning.
N.B. Please don’t hasten to think that you always need to have two similar groups, in the true spirit of experimental design, i.e., an experimental group and a control group. Please read on to see how you could do it even with one class or by twinning.
By the end of a 60 hour learning cycle, group 1 was able to identify activity objectives on their own and focus on achieving them in a much more dedicated way. By the end of the course, it was possible to get very good answers to the question “Now, Why do you think we are doing this activity? What is my aim here?”. This group achieved higher scores in all the school assessments by about 30% and, according to my own day-to-day assessment of their progress, they demonstrated a higher degree of accomplishment in all the activities or tasks assigned to them during my lessons.
One could very well doubt as to whether the higher scores indicate anything, or whether in fact there might have been some other factor in the equation, which is what resulted in this class receiving higher grades in the formal end-of-course assessments.
Was it the awareness of lesson and activity objectives that made them much more responsive to the activities, more interested and more eager to participate or was it something else?
Could this be the reason they did better on all the tasks assigned to them?
Or was there perhaps some other extraneous, at the time undetected, factor at play – did I perhaps display a different attitude, some higher degree of energy and engagement in their responses than with group 2?
Or is it because, unwittingly, I was investigating a Process Orientation in my teaching rather than objectives training and, this is why the learners ended up doing better because of the process focus?
All this is possible but without actual records (e.g. recordings or transcripts of some of these lessons for comparison of the discourse patterns involved between myself and the learners) it is not easy to decide.
Does it matter though?
Does it cancel out my observations?
Was it not worth doing?
Is there a lesson to be learnt by this small scale investigation made by one teacher for her own use?
I believe there is, although those dedicated to ‘pure research’ will, I am certain of it, find huge holes in my experimental design. I can, too. But, on the whole, I found it of great use. Whether the excitement of sharing my objectives made the experimental group respond more to the learning materials and activities or my own attitude may have been somehow different to them – as many would argue – it taught me a highly valuable lesson and it is this one:
- Students are interested in their own learning
- They are motivated by teachers who demonstrate a passion for teaching
- They respond more to teachers who show an interest in their learning.
- Students love being the objects of our research
That in itself is good enough for me to encourage teachers to be their own researchers, informed by organised research but ready to conduct their own small scale investigations. I could argue that the act of researching itself made me a perhaps a better teacher for Group 1 than for Group 2 and that is great, too.
Can you, too, do this kind of research?
- Can you do this with your own learners?
- Can you do this with your own learners and/or learners other than your own?
I believe that now teachers can. In the days when I was doing my own research, video-taping the class was a much more complex task than what it is today. Saving an audio or video record of a lesson today, interviewing and saving interview answers is ever so much easier. Sending out a research questionnaire to one’s students and collecting data, displaying it in tables, graphs and pie charts is a simple job, given google docs and free versions of tools such as Survey Monkey or Poll Daddy. This is one of the (many) reasons I often regret not being born a few decades later!
How can you get started?
Choose your own small scale research topic and try to investigate. Be a teacher-researcher – after all, whether you like it or not, this is what you do in your classroom on a daily basis: you try out ideas and activities with your learners.
Try to do something in a different way – you don’t need to have two groups of learners to compare.
Twin with another teacher through Facebook or Twitter and plan your class investigation jointly.
Create a blog or a wiki to share your reflections and to store any data you have collected.
Keep a journal of your observations, if working on your own; use technology to keep track and record your reflections.
Here are some great tools for you to experiment with:
- Blogger – Word Press or Edublogs for keeping a blog – open or private.
- PbWorks or Wikispaces to create a wiki and collaborate with colleagues from around the globe
- Evernote to keep your journal – to record whole or parts of your lessons and keep everything online
- Google docs to collaborate with others, to create surveys and questionnaires; Survey Monkey is also good for surveys
- Audacity for class recordings from your laptop or tablet – Sound Cloud is another alternative
- Penzu for your private online journal
And don’t forget to connect with other like minded educators by joining Facebook communities or Twitter hashtagged conversations such as #ELTchat
Some structured reflection, a more detailed analysis of what students said (often not possible to look at closely while teaching), the comments of a colleague you have invited to help you in your reflection and evaluation, your students’ comments or writings in their learning journals, these are all things which may help you become more involved in your own development, rather than wait for others to tell you the best methods for teaching.
So, can teachers do research?
Yes, they can. And it’s not important if the research is quantifiable, measurable or even replicable. Let research scientists do their thing; let them inform us (with simpler non-academic jargon which the average teacher can read, please); let them feed us with ideas and inspiration. But ultimately, we are the ones who have to test out their theories in action – to see if they work with our students.
To do this, we have to take on our teacher-as-researcher role. And what is more, we have to find some ways of feeding our findings back to them.
What do you think? I would love to hear from you and find out what tools you have been using.
Muirhead, B., 2002, Teacher as Researcher USDLA Journal, Vol. 16 : No. 9
#ELTchat Summaries on the subject of Research by Teachers
Reading the #ELTchat summaries which I have listed here is highly recommended as you will find a wealth of ideas there which I have not repeated in my post.
- How Important is research in ELT?
- Research in class: Doing it and using it to improve your teaching
- Alternative approaches and techniques in ELT How can a teacher research what works in their own context? (transcript only)
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