Trying stuff out

I was thinking about “trying stuff out” recently, in the sense of experimentation as a teacher. It was in the context of getting better at your job, which is really what is of most importance to me, at least, and is certainly getter better at ones job is what occupies my mind most of the time at work. It led me to think about experience and reflection and how these build into action research, which formed the basis of a plan I had last year for developing some good practice ideas.

How does it work then? There’s a lot been written all over the place about Action Research, including this from the excellent Infed website. It doesn’t take long to find out the action research cycle, really. It’s based broadly on experiential learning, and looks like this:
1. Reflect and identify an area for improvement
2. Analyse thing to be improved and make an action plan to find out what might work better.
3. Carry out action and gather data about impact
4. Analyse data and identify impact. Assimilate or reject practice.
Return to stage 1.

In real terms, I think, a lot of the writing about AR has mainly been an attempt to justify it as a valid form of research in the social sciences, particularly all the discussions around ethics, data, effective research questions, validity and so on. This is no bad thing, not at all. But it can lead to making it seem much bigger and scarier than it actually is.

Because most teachers do it all the time. Imagine:

1. That lesson went really badly, why? Oh yes, because I the grammar presentation at the beginning didn’t really work very well. Why was that?
2. Well, I could have done this, I could have done that, I shall go away and read a bit about it, etc. etc. then tomorrow I’ll have another go.
3. & 4. So I tried it in a different way this time, and it seemed to work better, the ss managed to complete the practice activities more and were more engaged, as well as more fluent in the target language at the end of the lesson.

Which is pretty much what happens in my head after a lesson, although I do tend to err on the critical with this! It happens several times as you try the new idea with new groups and it is less effective this time, so you reflect and analyse and learn and tweak the idea slightly. You also become more confident in that idea, and so become more adept at on the spot tweaking and assessing the effectiveness of that idea.

So in effect we are all action researchers, it’s just that we don’t spend any time worrying about ethics, reliability of data and the rest. It’s entirely anecdotal in terms of evidence base, but as long as we accept that it may only be that time and with that group of learners, then there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s only when something so small scale gets used to make generalisations the problem kicks in.

It would be fascinating to see all teachers reflections and how they go about learning their trade, so to speak. Blogs can be part of this, which is why they make such interesting reading. But it would also be fabulous if teachers realised there is no great mystery to ideas like action research, despite the books and websites, and that it only represents what we do anyway.

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