Action Research: Something For

Everyone

 

Gregory Hadley

hadley@nuis.ac.jp

 

Introduction

For many language teachers, the word "research" often evokes images of a controlled, scholarly project that is only understood by those in the mystic realm of linguists and second language acquisition research specialists. Lightbrown (1985, p. 184) highlights this situation by noting how in recent years researchers have ". . . increasingly arranged their own research meetings, apart from the teaching conventions where they are always asked by someone in the audience to relate their findings to teaching practice." On the other hand, when asked, most teachers say they are either unable or unwilling to attempt their own research project, saying they lack the time, background, or experience to undertake such a project. Most teachers do not realize the benefits that come from doing small scale action research projects with their classes. If they did, many would make pains not to miss any future opportunities, and to invest themselves in the adventure of classroom-centered research.

The purpose of this article is to answer the following questions: 1) What is action research? 2) What obstacles must one overcome before doing an action research project? 3) How can a new or inexperienced teacher begin an action research project from the ground up? 4) Finally, why should classroom practitioners attempt to do action research? After reading this article, language teachers will be prepared to start their own action research project.

What is Action Research?

During the past few years, special attention has focused on one form of classroom-centered research (CCR) which is called Action Research (AR). LoCastro (1994, p. 5) defines action research as " . . . one form of CCR which is seen as being small scale and situational . . . focused on a particular problem, to try to understand and perhaps solve some concrete problem in an individual teacher's classroom." She also feels that AR is not to be done by outside researchers, but by the actual classroom teachers. Kemmis and McTaggart (1988) also feel that teachers should use action research with the goal of solving a specific problem in their classrooms. Other experts in the field (Cohen and Manion, 1985, Nunan, 1992) have similar definitions. I feel that, especially with a classroom practitioner who has never done an action research project, gaining the advice and assistance of an outside researcher or veteran teacher would be quite beneficial. However, the classroom teacher should do the bulk of the work in order not to disrupt the natural flow of the class. I define AR as a process designed to improve teaching and facilitate learning through identifying a specific classroom problem, targeting causes through systematic data collection (surveys, observation, interviews, etc.), and applying an effective solution to the problem as a result of the data being collected and interpreted.

Action research can be carried out by language teachers who do not have any special training in psychometric research methods or statistical analysis. AR has the potential to take pragmatic potential of research out of the ivory towers of empirical think tanks, and put it back on the "mean streets" of language learning. To use an analogy from medicine, action researchers, while not specialists, are similar to "general practitioners" who diagnose and prescribe remedies for the everyday "illnesses" (low motivation, undefined learner goals, etc.) that language classes are prone to catch.

Obstacles to Action Research

Barriers to starting an AR project are: Vague research ideas, professional isolation, lack of available resources and lack of time. These must be addressed before starting the research. The first order of business is to develop a clear research idea.

Discovering this idea may be difficult at first. Griffee (1994, p. 19) says that most research begins with a simple idea which might be noticing something or wondering why something is the case. Griffee adds that another way to get a research idea is to pay attention to the areas of pain and frustration in your teaching. Problems are the prime movers for action research projects. We as teachers from time to time need to "hit the wall", so to speak, in our classrooms. Only then are we able to slow down and reflect upon what is not working well in our classes. Ideas for action research usually come naturally from this process of introspection.

If "getting in touch with one's pain" proves too daunting or metaphysical a task, teachers interested in action research should devote time to reading current teacher's journals that deal with problems, solutions and issues that others have encountered in their classrooms. Sometimes this can reveal a problem that has previously gone undefined.

After identifying a problem in your classroom situation, write your research idea as a question that will help in finding a solution for the problem. It must be possible to find an answer to your question. For example, "Why do students come to class?" may be a vague and difficult question to answer, but the question, "What classroom activities interest my students?" might be possible to answer through systematic observation, surveys, or another research tool.

Seek out other teachers while forming your research question. The old adage, "Iron sharpens iron", is especially apt for teachers involved in action research. I believe that teachers improve their craft when in productive dialog with other professionals. If possible, join a language teacher's union or organization. In Japan, the most influential professional organization that teachers choose to join is JALT, but there are other organizations as well (JACET, Nippon Communication Gakkai, etc.) It is possible that a local chapter of a professional teacher's group is in your city. If there happen to be no chapters nearby, seek out experienced teachers. Every city or region has at least one or two local "gurus" who are invaluable in helping new teachers get started. Find them. At all costs, break the isolation and start to network with other teachers. Share your ideas and pedagogic problems with them. New teachers are often surprised to find their problem is common to many in the profession. If this appears the case in your situation, other teachers may ask to collaborate with you on the AR project.

After forming the research question and have making contact with other colleagues, search for resources. It is vital to gain a better understanding of your research ideas. If you do not check the background of your subject properly, you may find out later that you have only repeated another person's work. Joining a local teacher's organization such as JALT provides a monthly magazine and biannual journal full of interesting and helpful articles. Going to a regional or national language teacher's conference gives teachers the opportunity to browse through various publishers stocks of resource materials.

Some teachers may be fortunate enough to live near a prefecture or university library. However, as a word of warning, learning how to cooperate with a local library bureaucracy may require an investment of time before it bears much fruit. Having a computer with a modem is also a great tool for a literature search. Baskin (1994) has written a very helpful article listing names, addresses, current costs and the red tape involved with searching for journal articles and documents in Japanese universities and computer networks. Persons wishing to do research in Japan would do well to read his article.

Time is probably the major concern for any teacher wishing to embark on an AR project. It is difficult to make the time for reading or networking. There are always many immediate and pressing needs. Yet the foundation of idea formation and reading for action research is an investment that produces lasting dividends. One's teaching and understanding of the processes involved in learning acquisition are enhanced by the insights gained in the literature search. The relationships we build through networking also enrich our lives. The increased rapport we gain with students who respond to our efforts can make a world of difference in the day to day grind of the school year. Not making the time for this type of endeavor is a lost opportunity.

Doing Your Own Action Research Project

Can a teacher with no previous experience do action research? The answer is an emphatic "yes". This section will show how I started with absolutely no knowledge of AR to finally finishing my first project, which resulted in an encouraging turnaround in my classes.

Nunan (1992, p. 19) describes a seven-step cycle for action research:

1. Initiation

The teacher notices a problem in class.

2. Preliminary Investigation

The teacher spends time observing the class and taking notes of their behavior.

3. Hypothesis

After observation, the teacher forms a question or hypothesis as to the cause of the problem.

4. Intervention

The teacher tries several strategies to solve the problem.

5. Evaluation

After some weeks, the teacher consciously observes or measures the class again to see if there has been any improvement.

6. Dissemination

The teacher shares his findings with others.

7. Follow-up

The teacher looks for other methods to solve his original classroom problem.

Although I was not aware of Nunan's cycle when I started my first action research project, it was this process that I followed when I did my first project.

Initiation: Teacher Notices a Problem in Class

My English technical college was not responding. From the first day of class, the students were slumping over their desks. They rarely looked up. When I greeted them, none returned the greeting, but looked furtively at each other before returning their meditation of their desks. Some slept through the class despite being awakened several times. When asking simple questions, such as "What's your name?", the response I would get from several was "No." I was assured by the school management that the students were merely shy, and would eventually come out of their shells. However, the situation continued for weeks and then months. When no amount of class preparation seemed to work, I knew I had a real problem on my hands.

The first thing I decided to do was to begin networking. I've never been ashamed to ask another person for help. I joined the local chapter of The Japan Association of Language Teachers (JALT). It was there I met experienced, concerned teachers who were more than willing to help me. Drawing from their advice, I found local libraries and received catalogs of international educational publishers. I read texts that provided me with a better understanding of second language teaching methodology and theories. It was my hope that research could somehow help me find some solutions to my problem.

Preliminary Investigation

One day, I came across an article in The Language Teacher concerning an action research project done on the motivation of Japanese college students to learn English in relation to university entrance exams (Kobayashi, Redecop and Porter, 1992). The findings were interesting to me since the article mentioned in passing that one group surveyed was from an English technical college. Their findings suggested that while their overall interest in English-speaking cultures is high, their intrinsic motivation to learn English was much lower than their university counterparts.[1]  They hypothesized that perhaps lower scores on college entrance exams had something to do with this, but left the door open for someone else to investigate the issue.

Hypothesis: The Teacher Forms a Question After Observation

It occurred to me that my students, who had just recently graduated from High School, might have intrinsic motivation problems similar to the technical college students mentioned in the article. I decided to find out the answer to this question: Is the intrinsic motivation to learn English by Japanese technical college students lowered due to their lack of participation in or inability to pass the university entrance examination?

After forming my question, I began to read as much literature as I could find on the subject of motivation and the Japanese educational system. Since I already set up my network in JALT, I quickly obtained books through publishers who helped me get a general idea about my topic. I also took advantage of the English research library at the Northern Illinois State University's satellite campus in Nakajo, Niigata. I took my time in reading, soaking up as much as I could.

I then made a survey similar in focus to the one that Kobayashi et al. (1992) administered to their students. (See Appendix) I omitted questions which did not pertain to technical college students, and added a few others to ascertain their intrinsic motivation to learn English. After consultation with a Japanese teacher, the survey was translated into Japanese, and distributed among all eighty-three students.

I tallied the results, (see Table 1) and compared them to the percentages from the Kobayashi, et al. (1992) study.

Table 1: Comparison of Survey Results (NA = Not Answered)

Results of Survey (Percentage of Responses) Hadley 1993.

Results of Survey (Percentage of Responses) Kobayashi, Redecop and Porter (1992).

1. Abroad to speak English

Yes: 20% No: 80%

1. Abroad to speak English

Yes: 4% No: 96%

2. Interested in foreign cultures

Yes: 94% No: 6%

2. Interested in foreign cultures

Yes: 83% No: 17%

3. Interested in explaining Japanese culture

Yes: 53% No: 47%

3. Interested in explaining Japanese culture

Yes: 52% No: 48%

4. Have a foreign friend

Yes: 27% No: 73%

4. Have a foreign friend

Yes: 19% No: 81%

5. Interested in English in Junior High

Yes: 75% No: 25%

5. Interested in English in Junior High

Yes: NA No: NA

6. Interested in speaking to a foreigner

Yes: 100% No: 0%

6. Interested in speaking to a foreigner

Yes: 73% No: 27%

7. Interested in English in High School

Yes: 76% No: 24%

7. Interested in English in High School

Yes: 60% No: 40%

8. Want to speak to foreigners outside school

Yes: 27% No: 73%

8. Want to speak to foreigners outside school

Yes: 73% No: 24%

9. English is important

Yes: 75% No: 25%

9. English is important

Yes: 87% No: 13%

10. English most enjoyable

Kin: 2% Elem: 6% JH: 30%

HS: 46% Pres: 16%

10. English most enjoyable

Kin: NA Elem: NA JH: NA

HS: NA Pres: NA

11. Took university entrance examination

Yes: 18% No: 82%

11. Took university entrance examination

Yes: NA No: NA

12. Examination facilitated speaking

Yes: 19% No: 81%

12. Examination facilitated speaking

Yes: 15% No: 85%

13. Watch English movies

Often: 20% Some: 75% Never: 5%

13. Watch English movies

Often: 8% Some: 50% Never: 42%

14. Class that motivates more

Serious: 19% Relaxed: 81%

14. Class that motivates more

Serious: 12% Relaxed: 88%

15. Regularly read other sources of English

Yes: 17% No: 83%

15. Regularly read other sources of English

Yes: NA No: NA

I was surprised to find my students all indicated they were interested in foreigners and English-speaking culture (100%). However, as in the Kobayashi et al. (1992, p. 15) study, only 28% of their students intrinsically wanted to speak to a foreigner. My students showed a virtually identical response with 27%, even though more of my students (20%) had been abroad for the purpose to speak English. What also surprised me was finding out that most of my students did not even attempt to take a university exam.

I correlated the variables of the responses in question #12 to question #9 by using a simple survey software package which I purchased for the purpose of doing this type of research. The result of analysis showed that 74% of the students who did not take an examination were also not interested in speaking with foreigners in English. Correlating question #12 with question #16 revealed that 83% of students who did not take the examination were also not likely to read any English materials once outside the demands of the classroom. Since both questions #9 and #16 were clear markers of intrinsic motivation, I interpreted that failure or lack of participation in the university entrance lowered their intrinsic motivation. I also interpreted the results as suggesting high school to be a crucial time in the development of intrinsic motivation for these students. The highest percentage of students said they were interested in English during their high school years, and the majority of students also felt that their most enjoyable school years were in high school. I inferred from the data that intrinsic motivation initially existed in some form before they came to the technical college. Could it be revived, or was it too late?

Intervention: Offering Solutions

I discussed the results of the survey with the rest of the native English staff at the school and noted the following: 1) A high percentage of students interested in speaking to foreigners, 2) A strong interest in English movies, 3) A desire for a more relaxed classroom setting. Through my role as head teacher at the school, other native teachers and I attempted strategies we hoped would raise the students' intrinsic motivation to learn English.

During our seasonal school parties, more native English speakers were invited. In the past, the parties had been a closed affair which looked sadly like a middle school dance party, with the male students on one side of the room and the female students on the other side. Now the students were interacting with native speakers. This gave the students opportunities to speak English in a natural setting. Together with other native teachers at the school, we introduced video to the classroom, using focused listening and information gap activities. We already knew how important pop music was to our students, and we incorporated a number of activities using music.

Griffee, Songs in Action (1992) has an excellent resource book for teachers interested in using music in second language classrooms. To foster a more relaxed classroom setting, we changed our old texts, which were based on an audiolingual syllabus. We switched to a newer text that had a more communicative-based syllabus. We included many task-based classroom activities to get students out of their chairs and speaking with several group member. Borrowing ideas from Moskowitz (1978) as well as Davis and Rinvolucri (1990), we used more caring and sharing activities so that students could express themselves on issues important to them, such as dating, jobs, and entertainment. We encouraged them to work together in their language learning.

On occasion we took our students out of the confines of the classroom and taught in parks, markets or coffee shops. Although not all the students warmed up to it, we instituted a drama day at the school, where classes could highlight their skills in theater and role-play.

Evaluation

After three months, all teachers observed a higher level of classroom participation. Where before most of the students were often absent, unresponsive or asleep, now a majority were laughing, speaking, and even joking with the teachers in class. Several of the students made new friends or penpals with native English speakers outside the school, and the students began have more conversations with teachers outside of class. After graduation, a number of students went on extended personal trips to Australia, England and the United States for the purpose of meeting penpals, learning more about English-speaking cultures, or improving their language skills. None of these trips brought any extrinsic rewards for the students, yet they went anyway because of their revived intrinsic motivation to learn English. We saw a dramatic turnaround in our students' motivation thanks in part to the data gathered through action research.

Dissemination: Sharing the Findings with Others

Teachers can share the findings of their action research projects in local teacher's meetings as a presentation, in informal meetings with other colleagues, or by publishing their results for a larger body of readers. I chose to share my results with other teachers in informal meetings and presentations, although now my results are being shared on a wider scale. While many teachers would find articles written by linguists to be dry and unrelated to their classrooms, the same teachers are quick to listen to the findings of a colleague who shares the same day to day difficulties as they. Action research reports get read, and appear to have greater immediate impact on the lives and practices of other classroom teachers than the findings of second language researchers.

Follow-up: New Solutions

Out of curiosity, I networked with other teachers of English technical colleges. I wanted to see if the survey results of my school would be similar if we took a larger sampling from a other schools in the Niigata Prefecture and the Tokyo Metropolitan Area. We administered the same survey to 562 students. The results were indeed similar, yet not as clearly delineated as in the original survey (see appendix). This follow-up of my research on a larger scale lent credence to the dissemination of my earlier findings and helped me to show my colleagues that the dynamics present in my school might also be in theirs, hopefully spurring them on to starting action research projects of their own.

My contract had reached its two year limit at the school, and I moved on to teach at the college level. Had I more time at the Technical College, I would have looked for other solutions from the ones we tried. This is another aspect of action research: The process is constantly in motion. One cannot afford to rest on one's past accomplishments, but must move forward to keep on the cutting edge of the class's task of learning.

Why Should Teachers Do Action Research?

The advantages of having AR in one's "teacher's toolbox" are clear. Apart from improving one's craft, teachers will gain a greater insight into what is going on in the minds of their students. Clearer communication will be fostered between teacher and student. Few teachers work well in a professional vacuum, so opportunities for networking with other dynamic and conscientious educators is a definite plus.

Instead of being a reactive teacher who fumbles in the darkness, groping for "something that will work" in class for that day, one can become a pro-active teacher through the thoughtful use of action research. Based upon the data gained from his research and that of others, a teacher can seize the moment, moving forward with purpose and clarity about what should be done in his classroom.

Conclusion

I had problems when I arrived in Japan over three years ago as an inexperienced teacher. Not only did I feel isolated and overworked, I also had to deal with culture shock. At the same time I was struggling to find ways to reach a particularly gloomy, poorly-motivated group of technical college students in a dilapidated building. The administration had no training program for new teachers. Our teaching materials consisted of tattered 15-year-old TESL textbooks obtained from what appeared to be an American college bargain basement sale. I was overwhelmed and didn't know where to go for help. It is in this type of environment that Action Research flourishes.

Appendix One: Survey

1. Have you been abroad to speak English?

[ ] A. Yes

[ ] B. No

2. Are you interested in foreign cultures?

[ ] A. Yes

[ ] B. No

3. Are you interested in explaining Japanese culture to foreigners in English?

[ ] A. Yes

[ ] B. No

4. Do you have any foreign friends?

[ ] A. Yes

[ ] B. No

5. Were you interested in studying English in Junior High School?

[ ] A. Yes

[ ] B. No

6. Are you interested in speaking to a foreigner?

[ ] A. Yes

[ ] B. No

7. Were you interested in studying English in High School?

[ ] A. Yes

[ ] B. No

8. Do you ever try to speak English with foreigners outside the school?

[ ] A. Yes

[ ] B. No

9. Do you think that English is important for your future job?

[ ] A. Yes

[ ] B. No

10. When did you enjoy English the most (circle one)?

[ ] A. Kindergarten

[ ] B. Elementary School

[ ] C. Junior High School

[ ] D. High School

[ ] E. Present School

11. Did you take a University Entrance Examination?

[ ] A. Yes

[ ] B. No

12. Did the university entrance examinations help you to speak English?

[ ] A. Yes

[ ] B. No

13. How often do you watch English movies or videos?

[ ] A. Often

[ ] B. Sometimes

[ ] C. Never

14. Which type of class motivates you more, a serious or relaxed class?

[ ] A. Serious

[ ] B. Relaxed

15. Do you regularly read books, magazines or newspapers in English (not including your textbook)?

[ ] A. Yes

[ ] B. No

 

Appendix Two

 

Motivation of English Technical College Students: Results of Survey (Percentage of Responses) Hadley, Fountaine and Megill 1993.

1. Abroad to speak English

Yes: 44% No: 56%

 

2. Interested in foreign cultures

Yes: 90% No: 10%

3. Interested in explaining Japanese culture

Yes: 57% No: 43%

4. Have a foreign friend

Yes: 38% No: 62%

5. Interested in English in Junior High

Yes: 68% No: 32%

6. Interested in speaking to a foreigner

Yes: 93% No: 7%

7. Interested in English in High School

Yes: 65% No: 35%

8. Want to speak with foreigner

Yes: 37% No: 63%

9. English is important

Yes: 79% No: 21%

10. English most enjoyable

Kindergarten: 7%

Elementary School: 8%

Junior High: 21%

High School: 45%

Present School: 23%

11. Took university entrance examination

Yes: 31% No: 69%

12. Examination facilitated speaking

Yes: 33% No: 67%

13. Watch English movies

Often: 29%

Sometimes: 64%

Never: 7%

14. Class that motivates more

Serious: 23%

Relaxed: 77%

15. Regularly read other sources of English

Yes: 20% No: 80%

 

 

References

Allwright, D., & Bailey, K. M. (1991). Focus on the Language Classroom. Cambridge: CUP.

Baskin, R. (1994). Research in Japan. The Language Teacher 18, (11), 14-15, 110.

Cohen, L., & Manion, L. (1985) Research Methods in Education. London: Croom Helm.

Davis, P. & Rinvolucri, R. (1990). The Confidence Book. Longman House, Burnt Mill, Harlow, Essex: Longman.

Deci, E. L. (1975). Intrinsic Motivation. New York: Plenum Press.

Griffee, D. (1994). The Art of Language Research. The Language Teacher 18, (2), 19-21.

Griffee, D. (1992). Songs in Action. London: Prentice Hall.

Kemmis, S. & McTaggart R. (eds.). (1988). The Action Research Planner. 3rd ed. Geelong, Australia: Deakin University Press.

Kobayashi, S., Redecop B., & Porter, R. (1992). Motivation of College English Students. The Language Teacher 16, (1), 7-9, 15.

Lightbrown, P. M. (1985) Great Expectations: Second Language Acquisition Research and Classroom Teaching. Applied Linguistics 6, 184.

LoCastro, V. (1994). Teachers Helping Themselves: Classroom Research and Action Research. The Language Teacher 18, (2), 4-7.

Moskowitz, G. (1978). Caring and Sharing in the Foreign Classroom. Rowley, MA: Newbury House.

Nunan, D. (1992). Research Methods in Language Learning. Cambridge: CUP.



[1] I define Intrinsic Motivation as motivation that comes from within. The desire to acquire something without any rewards or incentives. Extrinsic Motivation is motivation that has an external reward, such as a good grade, job, societal acceptance, etc. For a more detailed discussion, see Deci (1975:23).