Action Research to Develop Reflective Teaching Practice
Considerable changes in the field of English language teaching (ELT) appear to have helped build practices of ELT communities, resulting in a number of ELT best practices. What can be learned from the best practices presented in the literature is that all best, creative practices seem to originate from teachers’ searching ways to serve what their students need in learning and to identify what might be right to their students. All this is absolutely intended to give students better classroom instruction.
Nevertheless, in the act of teaching, teachers sometimes miss exploiting the events occurring in both their lessons and their classrooms while those events can actually be used “to develop a deeper understanding of teaching” (Richards & Lockhart, 1994:6).This happens because in trying to understand the problem-solving situations, teachers seem to rely to some extent on their practical knowledge, which according to Ellis (1998:40) is often acquired through actual experience. Practical knowledge tends to be implicit and intuitive, without teachers being able to explain it to others; teachers are generally not aware of what they practically know. Such is one of the limitations of experience in the form of “common-sense knowing” (Cohen & Manion, 1994:2). Relying too much on practical knowledge might then create a possibility of teachers considering teaching activities as routines, repeatedly doing the same actions from year to year.
On the contrary, understanding teaching events can be done by means of research, which can be categorized from the perspectives of how, where, and who: the research methods, the research settings, and the research agency. By using research, teachers have the opportunities to examine their own educational practice more systematically and carefully. As Ferrance (2000) indicates, the process of research can assist teachers in documenting the steps of inquiry and later making informed decisions that can lead them to desired outcomes. In other words, research offers teachers systematic ways to capture the occurring events to obtain fuller information about teaching practice, thus developing reflective teaching practice.
This paper tries to present what can be considered as one of the best practices in ELT, that is, using action research to develop reflective teaching practice. It starts with a discussion of how action research is related to the broader concept of teacher research, which is then followed by a closer examination of how action research can help teachers become more reflective practitioners. Finally, it ends with descriptive accounts of lessons learned from personal experiences in supervising masters students of English Department of State University of Malang (Universitas Negeri Malang – UM) carrying out action research and then reporting the results.
TEACHER RESEARCH AND ACTION RESEARCH
Brown (2007) shows that research might be scary to many teachers. Their daily duties appear to be distancing them from the research world; they live in the world of practical knowledge. Crookes (1998) and Ellis (1998) also indicate that teachers and researchers appear to live in different social worlds, having different professional concerns; teachers and researchers are very often of different people. It is, therefore, very common that the work of research is left by teachers to someone else’s hands, that is, the hands of researchers, causing teachers to be just consumers of research, which is often university-based.
The idea of teacher research emerged as far back as 1975, when Stenhouse (in Nunan, 1991:13) argued that teachers need to research their work themselves as it is not enough for teachers work to be researched. In relation to this, Meek (in Brown 2007:498) emphasizes the importance of teachers doing their own research in the classrooms; according to her, ”leaving all the research in the hands of researchers is an upside-down policy.” She further indicates that the main thing wrong with the world of education is that researchers, who might in fact be people outside the teaching world, think they have the teaching knowledge and therefore have the right to tell teachers about teaching.
The introduction of teacher research has obviously made teachers and researchers the same people. Implied in this term is the paradigm shift of the research agency: teachers do the research themselves. Since research is defined as “the systematic, controlled, empirical, and critical investigation of … phenomena” (Kerlinger in Cohen & Manion, 1994:4), teacher research has made it possible for teachers to critically analyze and evaluate their teaching practice in order to gain understanding of and enhance their teaching. This means that teacher research can be used to put best practices about teaching or learning into actual practice in the classroom; and the person who does that research is the classroom teacher.
In terms of research methods, teacher research might be realized in the form of action research, which is defined briefly by Elliott (1991:69) as “the study of a social situation with a view to improving the quality of action in it”. Similarly, Cohen and Manion (1994:186) define action research as “small-scale intervention in the functioning of the real world and a close examination of the effects of such intervention.” Action research has been introduced as a new methodical model in understanding classroom and learners in order to bring about change in classroom practices. Referring to such definitions, action research in the social sciences clearly involves two stages: a diagnostic stage and a therapeutic stage. In the diagnostic stage, problems are identified and analyzed and hypotheses might be developed, whereas in the therapeutic stage, the hypotheses are tested by a consciously directed change action. Obviously, action research refers to classroom investigation which seeks to increase understandings of classroom teaching and learning in order to improve classroom practice (Richards & Lockhart, 1994:12).
Action research takes place in the form of continuous cycles, each of which is made up of these four phases: planning, implementing, observing, and reflecting (Kemmis & McTaggart, 1988). Implicit in this form is, as also indicated by Ferrance (2000:2), the idea that teacher researchers begin a cycle of posing questions, gathering data, making reflection, and deciding on a further course of action. The planning is made based on the results of questioning, that is, reflecting and evaluating on events occurring in the classroom. The developed plan is expected to help bring about the change in the classroom behavior. While implementing the action, researchers are collecting data by observing the effects of the action plan on teaching behavior. The results of reflecting on the action implementation are then utilized in making decisions of whether there is necessity to initiate the next cycle.
According to Burns (2010), action research involves taking a self-reflective, critical, and systematic approach to exploring one’s own teaching contexts. The term ‘critical’ does not necessarily refer to teachers being judged negative and derogatory about the way they teach. Rather, as Burns (2010) further explains, being critical means taking a questioning and problematizing stance towards one’s teaching. Teachers in this case are encouraged to take an area they think could be made better, subject it to questioning, and then develop new ideas and alternatives. In other words, teachers in action research aim to identify a problematic situation they consider worth examining more deeply and systematically. Borrowing Edge’s (2001:4) words, in action research “the trajectory has changed from outside-in to inside-out” with the primary aims being local understandings; within these local understandings, however, action research is still expected to result in the contribution to theory as well as the contribution to practice. The former implies that through action research educational practice can be theorized, whereas the latter suggests that through action research educational practice can be improved. Such an idea is in line with what Stenhouse (in Cohen & Manion, 1994:186) advises, that is, as far as educational contexts are concerned, action research should contribute not only to practice but to “a theory of education and teaching which is accessible to others”. Nevertheless, it should be noted that the value of action research lies in the change that occurs in everyday practice rather than the generalization to a broader audience (Ferrance, 2000:8); the emphasis of action research is thus not so much on obtaining generalizable scientific knowledge, but on dealing with a specific problem in a specific setting (Cohen & Manion, 1994:187).
Action research might be in different types (Cohen & Manion, 1994:189; Ferrance, 2000:3), depending on the participants involved: a single teacher operating on his/her own with his/her class, a group of teachers working cooperatively within one school, or a team of teachers and others working alongside in a sustained relationship. Individual teacher researchers usually focus on a single issue in the classroom, finding solutions to such problems as classroom management, instructional strategies, use of materials, or student learning. A team of teachers may carry out collaborative action research, working on an issue or a problem commonly shared by many classrooms. In addition, action research might also be school-wide, focusing on problems common to all the school members, so when the problems can eventually be dealt with, there will be the feelings of owning the school-wide effort. Furthermore, action research might refer to wider than a school-based scale, for example, that of a district level.
In spite of its increasing popularity, action research was formerly attacked as “unscientific, little more than common sense, and the work of amateurs” (Ferrance, 2000:8). Concerns have been raised referring to such conflicting issues as research quality and sustainability (Allwright, 1997), research standards (Nunan, 1997), and research accessibility (Crookes, 1998). Action research seems to constitute a way of getting research done in badly since it is very difficult to require teachers to devote much of their time to the research and the teaching standards at the same time, resulting in research products which are of no good quality. Additionally, when teachers have finished carrying out their research, they tend to feel relieved and thus want to get back to the normal life of teaching, not that of research, so sustainability is hard to ensure. Aside from the issues of quality and sustainability, action research is supposed to meet the criteria that are applied to any kind of research; it should satisfy the evaluative standards of research in general even though the quality of the research can be highly contextualized. Finally, as many action-research activities are not always published, they cannot be consumed by other teachers. This condition results in accessibility problem.
Interest in action research faded away since experiments with research designs and quantitative data collection became the norm (Ferrance, 2000:8). However, education practitioners have questioned the applicability of other scientific research designs and methodologies, being too theoretical and not grounded in practice. There emerges the need for practicing action research; action research has been seen to hold great value since then. Additionally, appearing to be very positive and optimistic about action research, Cohen and Manion (1994:187) suggest that action research should be distinguished from applied research in interpreting the scientific method: action research “interprets the scientific method much more loosely, chiefly because its focus is a specific problem in a specific setting.” If not to broader contexts, action research should contribute to the empowerment of individual teachers; in this way, action research “has the potential to be the most scientific form of qualitative research” (McIntosh, 2010:32).
ACTION RESEARCH AND REFLECTIVE TEACHING PRACTICE
“Every successful teacher knows that the pursuit of excellence is a lifelong journey” (Brown, 2007:485). Most papers have revealed that to develop professionally teachers are required to better understand their own classroom practices. They need to continuously analyze and evaluate critically their teaching practice. Teachers’ senses and skills in understanding practice can be sharpened by their being engaged in the kind of reflection and learning. Teachers can benefit greatly from focused reflection and critical examination of their own teaching experiences. In relation to this, McIntosh (2010) states that reflection can be used as a tool to support and develop practice in order to create depth of knowledge and meaning. A number of procedures can be utilized to develop reflective practice, for example, teaching journals, lesson reports, surveys and questionnaires, audio and video recordings, observation, and action research (Richards & Lockhart, 1994:6). Brown (2007) suggests that among other options, classroom observations and action research in the classroom are the two most common forms of professional development. In other words, action research is just one of the many ways in which teachers can become involved in what has been referred to as “critically reflective teaching” or “exploratory teaching” (Richards & Lockhart, 1994:14).
Since action research is meant to empower teachers in their being involved in seeking solutions to their own problems, which in this sense refer to discrepancies between what is actually happening in certain teaching situations and what teachers would ideally like to see happening. Action research is now often seen as a tool for teacher professional development; it is seen as a way of improving teaching and as a way of overcoming the dysfunction of the theory/practice discourse (Ellis, 1998). More importantly, as Burns (2010) points out, the improvements that take place in action research are ones that are based on information, that is, the data that have been collected systematically. Thus, the changes made in the teaching situation result from solid information rather than intuitive knowledge.
The continuous cycles in action research imply time for reflection, taking a look at one’s own teaching in a structured manner. In McIntosh’s (2010:34) words, “the nature of action research is reflective”; action research is an empirical approach to the importance of data in reflectively improving practice. The collection and analysis of data create a stronger basis for the taking of action. So, action research makes it possible for both research and reflection to take place, allowing teachers to grow and gain confidence in their work (Ferrance, 2000:14). By conducting action research, teachers can sharpen their thinking skills, develop their sense of efficacy, increase their willingness to share and communicate, and build up positive attitudes towards the process of change. Action research enables teachers to learn about themselves, their students, or even their colleagues, and to determine ways to continually improve.
In spite of the many benefits that action research can offer to teachers, challenges exist in the methodical undertaking of action research in the Indonesian context. Among the concerns experts have raised, I addressed the issues of accessibility and sustainability in depth (Widiati, 2000), deliberately giving them more priority than the other concerns for two reasons: first, because accessibility refers to the action research being possibly consumed by broader community, thus dealing with the impacts of the action research, and second, because sustainability deals with an ongoing concern for understanding, thus creating possible opportunities for action research to continuously take place. One of the many circumstances that limit research accessibility and sustainability in the Indonesian context is teachers’ working conditions (See Widiati, 2000 for further understanding of the context). The discussion on teachers’ working conditions obviously held true at the time my article was published. However, as the government has headed towards quality-oriented paradigm, under the enforcement of the Teachers and Lecturers Act Number 14/2005 and the Minister of national Education Regulation Number 18/2007 on In-Service Teachers’ Certification, teachers are considered as “prestigious professionals” (Saukah, 2009:11). Implied in the term prestigious professionals are the quality as well as welfare aspects of teachers. When teachers are officially certified, they have the rights to get decent payment, which, as Saukah further describes, is sufficient to meet the needs of educated citizens. Because of this, teachers currently have greater opportunities to develop an understanding of the true sense of being professional. The options towards professional development that teachers can select as proposed by Cahyono (2010:2) include continuing study to graduate programs, joining in-service teachers’ certification, attending the Education and Training for Teacher Profession Program, and developing awareness of the importance of continuous improvement learning.
If formerly most teachers did not have the privilege to further their study to masters program (Widiati, 2000:369), nowadays more and more teachers are attending graduate education, in which research components are generally given greater prominence. For instance, the number of students enrolling to English Language Teaching Program of Graduate School of State University of Malang (Universitas Negeri Malang – UM) tends to increase from year to year. As many of the graduate students in this institution are teachers, this implies that more teachers are at present exposed to the research world. In the following section, I will present my personal experiences as well as those of my colleagues in supervising masters students writing their theses, most of which have been so far in the form of reports on classroom action research.
LESSONS LEARNED FROM THESIS SUPERVISION
Writing a thesis is one of the requirements that graduate students of English Language Teaching Program of UM have to fulfil to get the masters degree. The thesis is in fact a report on the research study each student has undertaken. In the recent years, the design that many students, the majority of whom are teachers, tend to employ is that of classroom action research. As we the lecturers are accomplishing the duties of supervising students writing theses, very often we inevitably experience problems in the process. Supported with information from informal conversations with colleagues as well, the problems that I managed to identify are, referring to Swales and Feak’s (2000) guide for research writing, as follows: the positioning of the research writer, the literature review, and further steps and stops on the thesis road.
Swales and Feak (2000:3) argue that the positioning of the research writers includes “the means by which they create in writing a credible image as competent members of the chosen discipline.” At this point, the students as researchers are expected to start with an introductory section that leads to their research problem. Their job is to convince readers (in the supervision context referring to at least the supervisors) that the research problem is worth exploring. The development and clarification of the research problem should progress as the students build a stronger foundation of knowledge through much reading, and to the best of our personal observation, many of our students fail to do so. In an action research study, the researcher’s position is reflected in these steps: identifying problems occurring in the classroom, providing readers with the evidence of the problems, determining the possible causes of the problems, reviewing the most relevant literature, and finally formulating the research problem. What happens quite often is that our masters students do not support the problems they have identified with evidence, be it in the form of achievement scores, observation results, or others. When there is no evidence, we supervisors are misled to have the impression that the research background or the research position is just made up by the students, as something that is not real, as something that is only imaginary, thus limiting the scientific accountability of the research study being proposed. We assume that such failure in our students’ making position is due to their lack of reading. Their reading should start with many resources that “pull together much information” because in positioning the research knowledge and understanding should be demonstrated through reviewing the most important research and theoretical work that relates to the research problem (Borg & Gall, 1983:86). References should be carefully selected and fitted together to provide an integrated picture of the field of knowledge. Not managing to do so may cause readers, including the supervisors, to question the students’ understanding of the problem they plan to study.
The next problem lies in the quality of the literature review. Similar to the process of positioning the research, carrying out review of the literature is dependent upon how skilled our students are as readers. The literature review demonstrates “how your [researcher’s] current work … builds upon or deviates from earlier publications” (Swales & Feak, 2000:114). Swales and Feak further explain that to some extent successful research work depends on situating the current work within a larger disciplinary context, which is also related to an aspect of researcher positioning. Based on our experiences in supervising, our students tend to overlook previous studies containing related ideas that might have improved the quality of their research study. They seem to rely heavily upon secondary sources. Additionally, much literature our students use to support their argument is not always relevant, suggesting that, referring to Borg and Gall’s (1983) examples of mistakes students usually make, they do not yet have a clear understanding of their own study and cannot separate important from unimportant information. Above all, some of our students might not be familiar with scientific genres due to the fact that reading was not part of their daily activities prior to entering the graduate program of this institution. Their job might not have required them to do a lot of reading nor writing. Generally if they are teachers, their teaching load ranges from at least 24 student-contact hours a week. Furthermore, handling big classes is also burdensome, thus distancing teachers from both reading and writing activities in their teaching life, which is understandable because previously the system of teacher career promotion did not really require them to do so.
Finally, of the ‘further steps and stops on the thesis road’ discussed by Swales and Feak (2000), only two aspects are discussed here: methods section and finalizing the research. To the best of our observation, many students do not seem to realize that the methods sections should be detailed. In fact, in these sections they need to present to readers the detailed information regarding how the study was carried out. When failing to provide extensive descriptions of the methods, our students might have methods sections in their theses which are “… relatively unexciting to read” (Swales & Feak, 2000:207). They could have taken one of the many ways of enlivening these sections proposed by Swales and Feak (2000:207), that is, using “some left dislocations”, placing materials to the left of the grammatical subject. When the students are finished with these methods sections, accomplishing the data-collection and data-analysis processes, they arrive at the final chapters of their theses, which turns out to be essentially problematic. As indicated by Swales and Feak (2000:219), “Indeed, sometimes dissertation [thesis] writers at this late stage hardly care what the wider significance of their work might be!” Our students are likely to forget to emphasize in this final part such points as further identified by Swales and Feak: a restatement of what the thesis has attempted to do and why, the most significant findings, some discussion of the limitations of the study, and some suggestions for further research. In an action research design particularly the students cannot describe their reflection concerning the action implementation of a certain cycle in an extensive manner so that the reasons for continuing or not continuing the cycle can be justified. In short, the capability in dealing with this final section obviously depend on the researcher’s reading and writing skills: how to discuss and interpret the main findings in relation to the literature review and how to write the research work that meets readers’ expectations.
This paper discusses one of the best practices in ELT, that is, using action research to develop reflective teaching practice. The emergence of action research is influenced by the idea of teacher research, arguing that teachers need to research their work themselves as it is not enough for teachers work to be researched. As action research is realized in continuous cycles, where the planning stage is always based on the results of reflection and evaluation, there is a greater opportunity for teachers engaging in action research to develop their reflective teaching practice. More importantly, action research itself can be used to put best practices about teaching or learning into actual practice in the classroom; and the person who does that research is the classroom teacher.
As the government has shifted from quantity-oriented paradigm to quality-oriented one, reflected by the enforcement of a number of laws that put teachers as qualified professionals, teachers in Indonesia at present are offered with many opportunities to develop themselves professionally. Carrying out action research makes it possible for teachers to work in their own environment, with their own students, on problems that affect them directly. Action research thus enables researchers and practitioners to be of the same people. When teachers are able to see the value of the action research as they progress through the research steps and the reflection time, they can find that the benefits of the action research will go far beyond student achievement. In so doing, teachers as practitioners develop skills in analyzing their own teaching practice and subconsciously make use of the action research principles in their professional life. As shown in the descriptive accounts of the lessons my colleagues and I have learned in supervising our masters students writing their theses, I would end this paper by saying that developing an understanding of teaching in a more systematic and careful way by means of research is indeed not an easy job, but, as the wise words say, practice makes perfect.
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