by Steve Mann
Unit 1 - Methodology and Action Research
By the end of this unit you should be able to:
• Establish a link between your personal methodology and action research
• Differentiate between key terms, especially method and methodology.
• compare different models of Action Research and have a clear idea of possible steps and stages.
• Burns, A. 1999. Collaborative action research for English language teachers. New York: Cambridge University Press.
• Edge, J. (ed.) 2001. Action research: Case studies in TESOL. Alexandria, VA: TESOL.
• Prabhu, N. 1990. There is no best method - Why? TESOL Quarterly,
• Nunan, D. 1993. Action research in language education. In Edge, J and Richards, K. Teachers Develop Teachers Research. Oxford: Heinemann.
• Kumaravadivelu, B. 2001. Toward a Postmethod Pedagogy. TESOL Quarterly 35(4) 537 - 560
• Allwright, D. and Bailey, K. 1991. Focus on the language classroom:
an introduction to classroom research for language teachers. Cambridge: Cambridge
• Altrichter, H., Posch, P. and Somekh, B. (1993) Teachers investigate their work: an introduction to the methods of action research. London: Routledge.
• Bailey, K. and Nunan, D. (eds.) (1996) Voices from the language classroom: Qualitative research in second language education. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
• Burns, A. 1999. Collaborative action research for English language teachers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
• Cohen, L. and Manion, L. 1985. Research methods in education. London: Croom Helm.
• Crookes, G. 1993. Action research for second language teachers. Applied Linguistics, 14 (2): 130-144
• Edge, J. and Richards, K. 1993. Teachers Develop Teachers Research. Oxford: Heinemann (esp. Somekh, Nunan & Allwright).
• Edge, J. (ed.) (2001) Action research: case studies in TESOL practice. Alexandria, VA: TESOL Inc.
• Freeman, D. (1998) Doing teacher research: from inquiry to understanding. Boston: Heinle & Heinle.
• Holliday, A. 1994. Appropriate Methodology and Social Context. Cambridge: CUP. (Chapter 10 &11)
• Holliday, A. 1994. Appropriate Methodology and Social Context. Cambridge: CUP. pp9-18.
• Hutchinson, T. and Waters, A. 1987. English for Specific Purposes, Cambridge: CUP (pp128-143)
• McDonough, S. 1995. Strategy and Skill in Learning a Foreign Language. London: Edward Arnold. (Chapter 1)
• Nunan, D. 1991 Language Teaching Methodology London: Prentice-Hall. (Chapter 1 &12)
• Ozdeniz, D. 1996. Introducing innovations into your teaching. In Willis, J. and Willis, D. (eds.) Challenge and Change in Language Teaching. Oxford: Heinemann. (pp 110-125)
• Richards, J. and Rodgers, T. 1986. Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching Cambridge: CUP. (esp. Chapter 1).
• Richards, J. C. and Rodgers, T. S. 2001. Approaches and methods in language teaching. 2nd ed. New York: Cambridge University Press.
• Widdowson, H.G. 1990. Aspects of Language Teaching Oxford: OUP. (pp55-72)
Methodology and Action Research
• Investigate and Read
• The researcher and the teacher
• Researching routines
• Action research
• Values, beliefs and Action Research
• Action research and your Master’s course
• Linking action research with the Study Companion
• Criteria for assignments
• Your personal methodology
• Methodological worlds
• Methodology and the Course
• Beyond Methods
• Appropriate methodology
• Getting started
• Of problems, puzzles and exploration
• Problems with Action Research
Unit 1 and Unit 2 form a pair as they both concern methodology and the classroom. Unit 1 concentrates on an exploration of the term methodology, partly by contrasting it with the term method. This opening unit suggests that action research offers an engagement with methodology that is ongoing, empowering and productive. Unit 2 looks more closely at what we mean by communication and communicative. This second unit discusses the nature and value of classroom interaction and the role of action research as an appropriate tool to conduct an investigation into the relationship between communication and methodology.
Unit 1 is one of the longest unit in the Methodology module. This is partly because we feel that a view of action research is so crucial to an understanding of methodology that it is worth making the connection explicit by treating them together. Through an understanding of what is involved in action research, we can begin to define methodology.
The unit encourages you to think about and account for what you are currently doing in the language classroom. This is the best place to start. We believe this is true for a number of reasons. The most important of which is that it is empowering, in the sense that this view of methodology places great importance on you starting to articulate your current and personal methodology. In other words, start with the view that there is a great deal to be discovered right under your nose.
Investigate and Read
You will understand from the Foundation Module that a process of investigation and reflection needs to go hand in hand with reading. It is important to reconsider this relationship between the experience we ‘name’ by reflection on practice and the knowledge we might gain from a process of reading.
Wallace (1991:14) makes a distinction between received knowledge and experiential knowledge.
Received knowledge - This is close to what Schon calls ‘research-based theories and techniques’ (1983:58). This might include the key terms and lexis of TESOL, concepts, research findings and related theories.
Experiential knowledge - This involves the development of knowledge-in-action. This includes the opportunity to reflect on this action or practice. Wallace includes in this category the ‘observation of practice’ but also suggests that this knowledge is of a different order from knowledge-in-action.
If you accept that there is this distinction, perhaps the beginning of the methodology course is a particularly apt time to stop, think, and consider what you expect from this folder. Do you expect this module to supply with you with products (theories, methods and techniques) which will help you to see certain errors in your ways? Or, do you expect this module to outline a process in which you can better investigate, understand and articulate your practice? Metaphorically, you might see this choice as module as transmitter or module as catalyst.
Compare the three models that follow in terms of how you see this Master’s course. If you have access to Wallace (1991), you might read pages 2-17 at this point.
From: Wallace 1991 pp 5-15
1. The Craft Model
‘master’practioner: Practice Professional
2. The applied science model
Application of scientific knowledge/
refinement by experimentation
Results conveyed to trainees
Periodic up-dating (in-service) Practice
3. A model of ‘reflective’ practice’.
existing knowledge Practice Reflection PROFESSIONAL
conceptual COMPETENCE schemata
or mental Experiential
Pre-training------- Professional development and education ----------------GOAL
Whether this module becomes more of a catalyst than a transmitter is going to be determined by the degree to which you consume the ideas, models and theories of other writers, and the degree to which you develop your thinking on your practice.
The researcher and the teacher
It is important for the TESOL/TEFL profession that we avoid what Wallace sees as ‘the almost complete separation between research on the one hand and practice on the other’. There has been a gap between theory and practice which has caused a negative response to ‘theory’ from teachers.
Gap between theory and practice
Those of us who work in teacher education know that one of the most difficult
things to balance in a course is the tension between theoretical and practical
aspects of the profession. ... theory and practice are not perceived as integral
parts of a teacher’s practical professional life. ... This situation is
the result of communication gaps caused by an increasingly opaque research technocracy,
restrictive practices in educational institutions and bureaucracies (e.g. not
validating research time, or not granting sabbaticals to teachers for professional
renovation), and overburdening teachers who cannot conceive of ways of theorizing
and researching that come out of daily work and facilitate that daily work.
van Lier (19:3)
In a scenario where applied linguists provide the theory and teachers apply the theories in their practice (the applied-science model), we run the danger of creating what Schon (1983: 36) sees as a division of labour which reflects ‘a hierarchy of kinds of knowledge’ which is also a ‘ladder of status’. In terms of the relative standing in the relation between theory and practice, Somekh states that
On the whole, in Britain, the more abstract and theoretical your work, the higher your status in the academic hierarchy; and the more useful and applicable to practice, the lower your status in the academic hierarchy. (1993: 33).
This perceived distinction is exacerbated by the apparent gulf between the lexicon of terms and concepts belonging in the sphere of applied linguistics and the terms and concepts widely used by teachers to refer to the world of language classrooms. There is often a perceptible gap between an `academic' view of what happens in the classroom and a teacher’s own. This process of academic distortion is described by Elliot (1991) :
We take an idea which underpins teachers' practices, distort it through translation into `academic jargon', and thereby `hijack' it from its practical context and the web of interlocking ideas which operate within that context (1991: 14)
There are two problems here. The first is one of a difference in language. The second is a question of ownership.
In terms of talking about language itself, Bloor and Bloor (1995:14) address this dilemma and argue that it is necessary to use labels in order to achieve a precise understanding of what language is and how it works. What about language to describe what we do when we teach? Most teachers have probably used terms like drill and elicit. However, trainee teachers may not yet know these terms. Similarly teachers may not use the label teacher-elicit exchange. For the classroom researcher, terms like this can help describe classroom interaction. We could use a bit of classroom talk where the teacher tries to get some information from the student instead of teacher-elicit exchange. However, you would soon use up your word quota in a 4,000 word assignment or article. Terms and concepts do help us to talk with precision.
The question of ownership is more problematic. Elliot's words imply that the only way forward is for teachers themselves to find terms for articulating 'an idea' from within the 'practical context'. The teacher is a participant in this practical context and so in the best position to comment on the 'web of interlocking ideas'. Clearly we need a shared language in talking about language teaching, but these terms and concepts need to be developed by and with teachers, if they are to have any relevance.
Increasingly, there is a recognition that we need to look more carefully at this web of interlocking ideas and that this participant- based inquiry has more potential than the development of abstract and contextless models and methods:
Slowly the profession as a whole is realising that, no matter how much intellectual energy is put into the invention of new methods (or of new approaches to syllabus design, and so on), what really matters is what happens when teachers and learners get together in the classroom. This shift in emphasis from concentrating on planning decisions to concentrating on looking at what actually happens in the classroom, has led researchers to have much greater respect for classroom teaching. The more we look, the more we find, and the more we realise how complex the teacher's job is. (Allwright and Bailey 1991)
It is worth saying that teachers themselves may not realise or be able to describe this complexity until they have begun a process of reflection and reading. One reason is that a great number of actions are unconscious and routinised. Indeed it would not be possible to do all the things that a teacher does in the classroom if all the actions were conscious.
Routinised teacher behaviour is clearly revealed and detailed by Altrichter et al (1993). Clearly, routinisation is a necessary aspect of handling the complexity of teaching. If a great number of actions and decisions undertaken in the classroom are unconscious, it means that a full understanding of the teaching process may involve both of the following:
1. rediscovering what was once conscious but has now become routine;
2. seeing (for the first time) aspects of your teaching which you have never considered consciously.
You might reflect further on this distinction in terms of your classroom practice. Certainly, in terms of the division proposed by Wallace, as well as received knowledge and experiential knowledge we need to reveal the 'invisible knowledge' that Barnes outlines, in order to form appropriate research questions:
...to frame the questions and answer them, we must grope towards our invisible
knowledge and bring it into sight. Only in this way can we see the classroom
with an outsider's eye but an insider's knowledge, by seeing it as if it were
the behaviour of people from an alien culture.
This is where your research and observations are of value and why it is suggested
that you keep a diary while you do this module. This will help in what Allwright
and Bailey (1991) call the description of what has become instinctive. This
unconscious competence and its description and analysis is the major challenge
for our profession:
Being a good classroom teacher means being alive to what goes on in the classroom, alive to the problems of sorting out what matters, moment by moment, from what does not. And that is what classroom research is all about: gaining a better understanding of what good teachers (and learners) do instinctively as a matter of course, so that ultimately all can benefit. (1991:xvi)
Nunan sees the important defining aspect of action research (AR) as the controlling role of the teacher:
For me the salient distinction between AR and other forms of research is that in AR the research process is initiated and carried out by the practitioner. (1993: 42)
The term ‘action research’ originates with the social psychologist Kurt Lewin (1952). A model of action research proposed by Lewin and developed by others (e.g. Carr & Kemmis 1986, and Kemmis & McTaggart 1988) has had a great influence on the development of current teacher research. The key elements are action, planning and reflection. The action can involve teaching interventions and observation and collection of data.
AR is seen as a way to integrate theory and practice. It is possible to consider received knowledge as derived from theory. Wallace sees received knowledge as
the vocabulary of the subject and the matching concepts, research findings, theories and skills which are widely accepted as being part of the necessary intellectual content of the profession. (1991: 14)
It is worth pointing out that research findings might include large-scale second language acquisition studies and smaller-scale qualitative accounts of classroom experience. If this is the case, then experiential knowledge has the capacity to form a major part of our profession’s received knowledge. This is what needs to happen if we want to properly integrate theory and practice.
Typically AR starts with an idea, observation, puzzle or focus and is a cyclic series of steps or actions which provide the basis for personal reflection (perhaps as well as planning and reading) on the process and its outcomes. There are then further steps and reflection as the action research ‘cycle’ is repeated.
Chapter 6 of Elliot (1991) is a useful practical guide to AR. AR is not an area which has hard and fast models of `how to do it'. However, you may find Elliot (1991) Kemmis et al (1981), Nunan (1993) and Allwright (1993) useful starting points for clarifying what might be involved.
Look at these stages of an AR project. In which order do you think they should
• identification of an idea or focus
• reconnaissance (observation) and data collection
• reflection on classroom experience
• construction of a plan (series of steps or cycles)
The stages listed above are the core elements. It is likely that, in conducting AR, these elements will be present. However there is no necessary or correct order. There will be action steps and (at the same time, before or in-between) planning, reflection and observation/data collection. Several units in the Methodology folder have at least one example of a real AR investigation. These examples demonstrate that there is no one way to conduct action research.
At the risk of repeating myself, then, I am not advising that you adopt any model of AR and stick with it. `Models' of AR are here, at this stage, to clarify what might be involved and to highlight possible choices.
Strickland (1988: 76) outlines the following steps in an AR cycle:
1. identify an issue, interest or problem
2. seek knowledge
3. plan an action
4. implement the action 5. observe the action
6. reflect on your observations
7. revise the plan
In terms of step 2, we have already identified three forms of knowledge (received, experiential and invisible) which might all have a legitimate place in this cycle. It would be worth looking at these categories again to consider sources from where we may 'seek knowledge'.
We have said that the use of the term 'invisible' knowledge suggests that when we tap our experiential knowledge we need to bear in mind that some of our teaching behaviours may be unconscious. Video taping a class or peer observation are powerful ways to reveal this invisible knowledge. This is one obvious way of getting a perspective on practice.
Locally situated action research is probably the only hope of keeping theory and practice connected. However, not all of our profession are optimistic about the growing currency of action research, particularly those more used to working in a quantitative paradigm. McDonough (1995:15) speculates that education change through locally conducted research 'may be a pipe dream'. This is, perhaps, unduly pessimistic and in our continuing discussion of methodology and methods it will become clear that this puts too much of a focus on change rather than a first stage of description. Naidu et al (1992) talk of recovering experience in order to improve practice. They also affirm that as teachers we
...possess a vast repository of classroom experience, which when shared with other teachers can lead to a body of theoretical insights and practical procedures. (1992: 162)
Interestingly, although pessimistic, McDonough does go on to say, of action research, that
...given the general perception of other kinds of language learning and teaching research as irrelevant, inaccessible, and often too late, it may be the only way forward. (1995: 15)
Values, beliefs and Action Research
Somekh (1993) sees AR as an essential tool in increasing a teacher’s understanding of his or her capacity to routinize action and, furthermore, that this process may reveal the strong ties between a teacher’s actions and his or her values and beliefs.
Do you think it is easier to articulate your actions in the classroom than the values and beliefs that lie behind them?
There is probably only a personal and individual response to this one. In the sense that you can at least video tape a class and make a fairly detailed account of your actions, the first is probably easier for me. Somekh sees the difficulty being that our values and beliefs are only partly conscious and explicit:
Our explanations of what we think we do and say, and why, rarely tally exactly with what an observer sees who observes what we actually do and say. Much of what we do and say is guided by either half-known (what Elliot calls `tacit') or sub-conscious values and beliefs. (1993: 35)
In addition to routinisation, then, there are related values and beliefs. They are mutually creating. One of the benefits of a Master’s is that it enables us to look closely at some of the things we do as a matter of routine. We are then in a better position to 'understand our tacit and sub-conscious theories and beliefs' and 'develop our value system'.
Edge (1996) argues that we are all engaged in the development of TESOL culture ‘which also reflexively encultures us’ and through which our values are expressed. This is an article that is worth reading in full, as it reflects on the degree to which we recognise and value diversity, inquiry, cooperation and respect:
...these are not merely abstractions: these values are made operational in the TESOL class every time a teacher says, “I want you to get into groups.” Or, to put that more carefully, the strategic and contextually sensitive use of groupwork is one way in which a teacher can communicate a respect for diversity of learning process and learning outcome, while encouraging co-operative inquiry. (1996: 12)
This module aims to provide input and tasks to help in this process of increased awareness. It is likely that you have incorporated techniques and classroom procedures and adopted ideas and concepts in ELT that have helped shape your values and beliefs. At the same time you have chosen classroom procedures in accordance with your values and beliefs. Obviously, there is a chicken and egg relationship here.
Action research and your Master’s course
How you view the importance of creating opportunities and means of reflecting on your practice, uncovering your invisible knowledge and conducting AR is vital to how you go about this course (your course methodology). It will have an obvious effect on the quality of the assignment by which you are assessed. In this assignment, we expect to see evidence from the world of your practice (what you do in your teaching context). This needs to relate and connect to your reading. You have to find a focus for AR and read relevant articles and accounts of others' practice.
There is a danger in beginning this process of reading (articles and books etc.) and losing sight of the parallel aim of reflection and gaining insight into your personal methodology. Other writers' examples, models and approaches can best be evaluated for their significance for what you might do, while you are thinking and reflecting on what you actually do do.
It is certainly worth thinking about beginning a piece of AR now, if you have
not already done so. This may form the basis of your assignment or you may end
up choosing an entirely different focus. It is usual for MSc participants to
choose a pedagogic problem or focus (an element of practice) and then articulate
the underlying and connected issues (elements of theory). However, it is also
the case that MSc participants sometimes start with a concept, read widely about
it, and then think about the implications for the classroom. There are dangers
in both and this is taken further in a later section of this unit (Getting started).
Linking action research with the Study Companion (criteria for assignments)
1. Look at the example of action research from Nunan (1993) below and read
over the notes on assignment writing in the Study Companion. (SC)
2. Now see how the criteria listed in the SC might relate to the example below.
The Action Research Cycle: A Foreign Language Example
1. Problem Identification -—> A teacher identifies a problem in her
classroom. ‘My students aren’t using the target language ‘ (GERMAN)
2. Preliminary Investigation -—> What’s going on? Recording and observing class over several days.
3. Hypothesis —-> Teacher uses too much English.
The important stuff is done in English.
4. Plan intervention —-> Teacher increases target language use.
Teacher uses German for classroom
5. Outcome —-> Dramatic increase in use of German by
6. Reporting -—> Article in teachers’ newsletter.
Nunan D. 1993. Action research in language education. In Edge J and Richards K. Teachers Develop Teachers Research. Oxford: Heinemann.
If you want to read the full article by Nunan, you can find it at the following link:
It would also be worth reading the article by Somekh: (Quality in Educational Research) at the same site: http://www.aston.ac.uk/lss/research/prodd/TDTR92/tdtrbs.jsp
Although we have already established that there is no necessary linear progression through the six steps above (or even that there must be six steps), looking closely at this example has probably demonstrated to you that the criteria for the assessment of the Methodology assignment are very similar. This reflects the Aston MSc’s commitment to the importance of classroom based research.
The following list makes direct comparisons between Nunan’s AR example
and the MSc Assignment Assessment Criteria:
• Relevant contextual details are necessary so that the reader can gain an insight into your teaching situation.
• Problem identification represents a focus.
• Your argument and explanation makes your ideas, steps or stages of your investigation clear and justifies your procedures and interventions.
• Procedures make clear how you investigated the focus/problem and also detail the 'intervention' or change.
• Evaluation is an essential factor in fully reporting outcomes. Evaluating outcomes might include discussion about the way you collected data (research methodology) and the effectiveness of any interventions/changes you have made to your practice (classroom methodology).
Your personal methodology
Having discussed the importance of AR to this methodology course, it is necessary to work towards a greater understanding of the scope and nature of the term methodology itself. In this section you are asked to reflect on your personal methodology.
Your personal methodology
1. Work quickly through the questions that follow in the next box. Make a quick note against those that seem important or interesting.
2. When you have finished working through the questions, go back and reflect on the ones you marked as important. Do these reveal anything fundamental about the way you teach, or about your approach to learning ?
3. Read chapter 1 of Richards and Rodgers (1986) and think about the origins of some of your classroom procedures.
Do you ...?
1. employ substitution tables to demonstrate sentence patterns and choices?
2. use materials to raise issues of cross-cultural significance?
3. allow students to use L1 in class? If so when?
4. use materials which include a variety of world Englishes ?
5. give students a group of similar sentences and ask them to supply a rule?
6. ask students to correct each others’ writing?
7. correct students when they make mistakes in a role play?
8. concentrate on the development of students’ fluency rather than accuracy?
9. choral drill to practice an important structure?
10. explain grammar rules and devise exercises to practise the rule?
11. use information gap activities?
12. have students do improvisations, promoting spontaneous interaction?
13. encourage students to talk about their experiences and lives?
14. point out cohesive elements of text ( ...spider...these web builders ... they ...spiders...creepy crawlies.) ?
15. use tape recordings of native speakers talking on the radio?
16. undertake project work which runs over a series of lessons?
17. encourage group work in most classes?
18. point out words and phrases which link and signal in text?
19. regularly ask students to brainstorm a quick list?
20. ask students to translate from L1 to L2?
21. ask students for feedback on a lesson?
22. give students choices and a role in planning classes?
23. ask students to read texts aloud in class?
24. respond to the content of students' written work?
25. ask students to sort a jumbled dialogue?
26. devote a class to teaching a certain function (e.g. making a complaint)?
27. discuss with students how they store and recycle new vocabulary?
28. ask students to repeat from your prompts?
29. follow the course-book very closely?
30. give groups a lateral thinking activity?
31. ask students to make up sentences using a given structure?
32. explain a point of grammar or vocabulary in the students' L1?
33. correct all errors or mistakes in students’ essay writing?
34. get students to try different reading techniques?
35. audio-tape written feedback?
36. put together a booklet of student poems?
37. use extracts from television and film?
38. point out cross-cultural differences?
39. encourage the use of L2/L2 dictionaries?
40. ask students to solve a given problem?
41. start a lesson with a production activity and pick out interesting features of students’ language?
42. point out different registers in written texts and spoken dialogues (e.g. formal/academic/ conversational/familiar) ?
43. conduct quizzes with competing teams?
44. focus on vocabulary rather than grammar?
45. get students to give a short presentation to the rest of the class?
You may find it difficult to articulate your influences. It may also be difficult to describe, at least in detail, what you currently do in the classroom. As we have said, it is probably the case that a great deal of what we do in the classroom has become a matter of routine. If this is the case, then there are a great number of decisions and choices in the classroom that need to be revisited; not necessarily because you will end up changing the way you do things, but because you might understand more about why you do them.
It is likely that in a number of years of training and teaching we move through
the following cycles. Consider the four cycles below and think of examples from
your own development as a teacher that confirm or disconfirm these stages.
Note - I first heard this cycle in a British Council Skills Through English training course from Helen Hawari.
These cycles probably make more sense when you look at particular aspects of your teaching. For example, the first few times I taught an EFL class I was told, by a teacher trainer, that I needed to work harder at starting the lessons. They were apparently ‘flat’ and ‘de-motivating’ (funny how long you remember negative criticism!). Peer observation confirmed this problem and I became conscious of this aspect of starting lessons (conscious incompetence). Suggestions from tutors and ideas from other teachers provided a number of ways to get students more involved and interested right from the start. Practice and implementation of these took me into a stage of conscious competence. I have not thought about this aspect of my teaching for a great number of years now and probably this `number of ways’ has become unconscious. I hope this skill (managing the first few minutes of a language class) is still in the competent category.
It is interesting that, while you are doing this course, you will be involved in at least two methodological worlds. In one world (the more familiar one) you are a teacher. In the other, you are a student. This is the world of distance learning. Distance learning has its own theories and concepts, and you will be in a position to make comments and give us useful feedback on your experience
As a student, learning at distance, you will probably experience some of the following:
• working through the tasks in module folders
• collecting data
• taking notes from journal articles
• reading assignment feedback
• analysing texts and discussing them with other MSc participants
Your experience in each type of activity is a methodological one and a further point is that there are possibilities that this experience of these two worlds may throw out useful insights and comparisons. In other words your experiences as an MSc participant may inform some of your thinking about your teaching. To give a couple of anecdotal examples:
Beverley told me that her experience in getting assignment feedback had changed her views on how she should respond to student writing.
Neil told me that doing the Cooperative Development module, which encourages a different way of talking between teachers, had made him more aware of the way he listened to and responded to students in the classroom.
Methodology and the Course
As we have seen from the previous section, you are currently living in two methodological worlds. In fact, though, we now need to extend the distinction because it will be clear by now that when we talk about methodology, we can talk about three different areas in which you are a participant. These areas will hopefully connect and be mutually insightful as your Master’s course progresses.
1. Your classroom methodology (Teacher)
2. Your research methodology (Researcher)
3. The methodology of distance learning (MSc participant)
So far we have talked mostly about methodology in terms of your future experience of this course and the value of AR. We now need to consider the difference between method and methodology.
Take a few minutes to see if you can make a distinction between the terms methodology and method.
It will be clear by now that method does not equate with methodology. Indeed, Nunan (1990: 66) talks about designer methods which can be ‘bought off the applied linguistics shelf’ and which contain in-built assumptions and beliefs about language and how it is learned. He goes on to say that these beliefs reflect the dominant psychological and linguistic orthodoxies of the particular period of time when the methods emerged. As we saw earlier, there are dangers in allowing theory to have a dominant role over observations from classroom practice and, as Nunan goes on to say, methods are based on assumptions drawn from 'logico-deductive speculation' rather than 'the close observation and analysis' of the classroom.
1. Read Richards and Rodgers T (1986) if you are unfamiliar with the most well known of the `methods' that have gained varying degrees of currency in the second half of this century. How do they define the terms method, approach, design and procedure? Their book Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching contains an overview and analysis and comparison of major language learning methods: the Oral Approach, Situational Language Teaching, Audio-Lingual Method, Communicative Language Teaching, Total Physical Response, The Silent Way, Community Language Learning, The Natural Approach and Suggestopedia.
2. This would be a good moment to re-read the key article - Prabhu (1990).
Prabhu (1990) and Clarke (1994) question the idea that there exists a best method which can be articulated in the form of theory (by outsiders) and applied in practice (by insiders). It is recommended that you read both these articles, especially if you did not do so in the foundation module.
Although we might dismiss the search for a ‘best method’ for TESOL and TESP in terms of a priori procedures and principles, we need to remain committed to a concept of best practice on a principled individual basis. This commitment necessitates a clear distinction between method and methodology, especially when language teaching is claimed to be a ‘post-method condition’ (Kumaravadivelu 1994: 29). Perhaps the term methodology is best seen as an inclusive and neutral umbrella term. It is essentially a general term and Richards (et al) provide a wide enough definition to raise no objections; they define methodology as
...the study of the practices and procedures used in teaching, and the principles and beliefs that underlie them. (1985: 177)
However, there are possible objections to their fuller definition:
Methodology Richards, J., Platt, J. and Weber, H. 1985.
(1)...the study of the practices and procedures used in teaching, and the principles
and beliefs that underlie them.
(a) study of the nature of LANGUAGE SKILLS (e.g. reading, writing, speaking, listening) and procedures for teaching them
(b) study of the preparation of LESSON PLANS, materials, and textbooks for teaching language skills
(c) the evaluation and comparison of language teaching METHODS (e.g. the AUDIOLINGUAL METHOD)
(2) such practices, procedures, principles, and beliefs themselves
It is worth looking at it closely. This course is not concerned with the ‘evaluation of teaching methods’. Neither, on this course, is methodology ‘the preparation of materials and textbooks’.
Having made the distinction above, it is important to recognise that many writers (e.g. Breen 1984:52 ) see a great deal of overlap between methodology and course design. Holliday (1994) sees one aspect of methodology as the designing and managing of English Language Education. There remains one important distinction, though. This is that syllabus design and course writing are not always part of a teacher’s experience, whereas classroom practice (e.g. classroom management) is common to all teachers.
There is by no means agreement on what we mean by appropriate methodology. The very notion of appropriacy implies a principled or theoretical justification of one methodological choice rather than another. Widdowson and Bowers provide two very different stances on the relationship between theory and practice.
Look at the box below. Consider the two positions (Bower’s & Widdowson’s 1986) with regard to Stern (1983: 23-52) who distinguishes three ways of looking at theory:
T1 — This, the widest sense, is “the systematic study of the thought related to a topic or activity”.
T2 — A theory might also be regarded as a school of thought, as in the “direct method”.
T3 — Finally, and in its most rigorous sense, a theory is a hypothesis or set of hypotheses which have been verified by experiment or observation.
1. Theory is context free; but teachers face The concern of Applied Linguistics
a number of important constraints in their is to provide a theoretical perspective
work. for practical and applicable courses of
2. Language is irrelevant. What we need We obviously need to understand
to understand is teachers, students, language because that is precisely
administrators, and how they react to what we are teaching.
3. There is nothing demeaning about It is demeaning for teachers to deny
being practitioners impatient of theory the importance of theory, for in doing
so they deny themselves opportunities
4. There is nothing ‘mere’ about expediency There definitely is
something ‘mere’about expediency; it is not informed or
supported by principle.
5. We need blueprints, not maps. We don’t need blueprints: they’re
“fixed, unchangeable, inflexible”.
We need maps.
Bowers, R. and Widdowson, H. 1986: 6-10
The approach which Stern identifies is one which begins with T3 and ends with T1. Is it possible, perhaps, that what lies behind Bowers’ arguments is the suspicion that Widdowson’s approach to issues depends too heavily upon T1, unsupported by adequate evidence from T3? It is an argument you might bear in mind when reading Widdowson.
If you reject the idea of a best method for all teaching contexts and you also reject indiscriminate eclecticism, you are left with articulating an appropriate methodology for your teaching context. Conscious choice and decision making, concerning what is appropriate to a given teaching context, means principled pragmatism. It is the development of this context-orientated understanding that Prabhu calls a sense of plausibility. This is teachers’
...subjective understanding of the teaching they do. Teachers need to operate
with some personal conceptualisation of how their teaching leads to desired
learning - with a notion of causation that has a measure of credibility for
them. (Prabhu 1990: 172)
Holliday (1994) is probably the clearest and most persuasive argument for the importance of keeping methodology appropriate to social context. This is recommended reading and we will return to his views in the next unit.
Read Holliday A. 1994. Appropriate Methodology and Social Context. Cambridge: CUP. pp9-18
For now, Holliday distinguishes three basic types of methodology, `all of which sooner or later affect what happens in the classroom’. These are included in the box below:
Three types of methodology Holliday 1994
The methodology for carrying out the work of teaching English, which includes what the teacher does in the classroom - what we normally think of as ‘methods and approaches’.
The methodology of designing and managing English language education.
The methodology of collecting the information about the particular social context in question, which teachers and curriculum developers need to make the other two methodologies appropriate
Do you see yourself equally involved in all three views of methodology?
In this section we will discuss how to get started in a process of AR and reflection. The first step is usually identifying an idea. This may start out as a general idea. `My students don't seem very motivated' is fairly general, for example. The movement to a focus, for example, on increasing the proportion of referential questions rather than display questions provides a much narrower `idea' or focus.
It is also worth saying that you may like to start small in terms of classroom
research. You do not have to be too ambitious at first. Furthermore, as far
as action research is concerned, there is often no need for a radical change
in what you do in the classroom. Becoming a researcher does not mean stopping
being a teacher. Elliot (1991) stresses the need for AR to be seen in terms
of the continual interrelation between practice and research.
Task 11 Getting Started
The task is designed to get you to think about the differing approaches adopted by Chris and Marion. It is suggested that there is a tension in exploring your teaching context between finding out (looking in) and reading (looking out).
To further highlight the relation between your classroom practice, your reading of other ELT writers and the nature of action research, two possibilities are outlined below. Discuss them in terms of
1. possible success in finding a focus for action research
2. possible dangers
3. usefulness in writing an assignment
1. Chris decides, after reading part of the methodology module, that he is interested in top down strategies. Going to a resource centre, he selects three books and three articles and spends a weekend reading them. He develops a definition and generates several pages of useful notes, including key quotations.
2. Marion has been dissatisfied with the way she gives feedback on writing assignments. She believes that students may not be taking much notice of her corrections and wants to try something different. She decides to select a sample of students and talk to them individually about what they do with their feedback. She also drafts a questionnaire for all the students she teaches to find out what kind of correction/feedback they find useful.
These are familiar characterisations. The first participant (Chris) starts with reading and theory, and he will be left with mapping this onto classroom practice. Anecdotal evidence from previous MSc participants suggests that this is the most common way to spend that first period of thinking and getting started. This may be, especially for graduates, a familiar way of working. There are obvious limitations:
1. This may lead to a `state-of-the-art' type piece of writing. In other words it can lead to a trawl through major positions and concepts in this field.
2. It is, at least in part, a result of a view of learning and development that the truth lies ‘out there’.
The second participant (Marion) starts with considerations of practice and is left with placing this local investigation into a wider theoretical context. The danger here is that:
1. It may be initially difficult to find reading that is immediately relevant to your chosen focus from general methodology books. You may have to track down a few journal articles.
2. It may be tempting to continue to collect more and more data and not leave much time for interpretation, evaluation and the development of pragmatic theory from practice. Observations that are unconnected to the writings and experience of others are limited in ‘resonance’.
This is, perhaps, a crude comparison; however, it is worth thinking about now if you are going to make the most of this module.
You are being encouraged to undertake a planned piece of AR. Whether this piece of AR takes place before, at the same time or after a period (or periods) of reading and reflection, is less important. However, this still leaves you with making a start.
Allwright and Bailey in a chapter called ‘Getting Started’ give the following advice:
...it would probably be best for you as a new classroom researcher, to start with a general issue you want to investigate and to use your thinking about that issue to help you decide what sorts of data you will need. (1991: 39)
As I have said, it is important to consider how a ‘general issue’ can be made more manageable and also to suggest possible techniques for this kind of thinking and decision making.
Read Mann (1997) and, in the next few weeks, try to develop possible starting points, using focusing circles and mind mapping.
Mann (1997) suggests the complementary use of focusing circles (Edge 1992) and mind mapping (Buzan & Buzan 1996). The article discusses how these two thinking techniques may be helpful for teachers in establishing a focus for research.
One final comment, connected with establishing a focus for your assignment comes in the form of an anecdote. When I started the Master’s course at Aston, my tutor told me that this focus ‘should be something small enough to grow’. This is simple but powerful advice and, at the risk of stretching an obvious metaphor, a seed may seem small (and not able to fuel a 3000-4000 word assignment), but it soon flourishes and you will be engaged in a pruning job.
Of problems, puzzles and exploration
In the early nineties, Aston encouraged the following pattern as a template for an account of methodological inquiry. It suggested that a successful account would articulate the teaching context, focus on one problem, develop a response to that problem and then evaluate the implementation of that response.
Can you predict what change was made to this template?
This template helped encourage and frame some interesting research but it was felt that the word `problem' needed to be changed (or at least modified) with the term focus or purpose. This is more inclusive and does not imply that only problems can become the topic of an assignment.
Similarly, Allwright's view of action research is not so much centred on the idea of revealing problems:
The term ‘puzzle’ is deliberately chosen in preference to the more usual ‘problem’ to avoid the potential threat to self-esteem that admitting to having ‘problems’ might represent, and to capture the important possibility that productive investigations might well start from poorly-understood successes just as much as from poorly-understood failures. (1993: 132)
Changing something in what you do is not necessarily the same as concentrating
on a problem. Allwright and Bailey (1991) calls this process exploratory teaching
and sees this as a productive way of integrating research and pedagogy. Allwright’s
(1993) use of the term ‘puzzle’, then, appears more inclusive of
positive, as well as negative, classroom outcomes.
It would be a good idea to read Ozdeniz (1996) at this point. Her account details a simple framework which helps in-service teachers to explore and investigate what they are doing in class. She illustrates how she applied Allwright's (1993) model of Exploratory Teaching in order to investigate her class's reactions to task-based learning. Look at the two versions below. Do you think there are any significant differences between these two versions of exploratory teaching?
Ozdeniz (1996) 10 steps and exploratory questions.
Step 1 Identify what it is you wish to explore.
Checklist of Exploratory Questions on Starting an Innovatory Puzzle
1. What do I know about the innovation at present?
2. Where can I find more information about the innovation?
3. Is the innovation new to the students or new to the teacher, or both?
4. In which ways might the innovation differ from my present teaching practice?
5. What possible effects could implementing the innovation have on my students, the learning situation etc.?
6. Is there any aspect of the innovation or my present practice that I can foresee having to alter in any way so that the integration of the two is successful?
Step 2 Identify what you hope to discover in exploring this puzzle.
Step 3. Identify the type of information needed to enable you to come to informed conclusions about whatever you wish to discover in answer to the step two question " what am I trying to do in exploring this innovation?" Identify how you will gather this information.
Step 4. Draw up lesson plans incorporating the innovation and information gathering methods. Carry out the explorations.
Step 5. Examine the information gathered to discover more about what exactly took place during the teaching/learning event and to find out how students reacted to it.
Step 6. On the basis of your findings from step five decide which areas of the innovatory puzzle require further investigation.
Step 7. Repeat steps three to six where appropriate as many times as is necessary for you to gain a clear picture of the innovation operating within your specific teaching context.
Step 8. Reflect on all of the information you have gathered and the conclusions you have drawn from it. What is your overall assessment of the innovation in relation to your teaching style and your students’ learning preferences?
Step 9. According to your overall assessment of how the innovation operates within your classroom, decide whether or not you will incorporate it into your teaching repertoire and if so, whether either the innovation or your teaching needs to be modified in any way so that they concord with one another.
Step 10. You may wish to write up your teaching puzzle and circulate it among colleagues or have it published in a teaching journal so that other members of the profession can profit from your explorations. This is in fact what I have done here by writing this paper and sharing my exploratory teaching with you.
The basic concept of ‘exploratory’ teaching (and learning)
based on Allwright (1993)
• is a practical way of bringing the research perspective properly into the classroom
• does not add ‘significantly and unacceptably’ to teachers’ workloads
• can contribute both to professional development and to theory-building within and across the profession’.
• help investigate teacher and learner ‘puzzles’.
Step 1 Identify a puzzle area
Step 2 Refine your thinking about that puzzle area
Step 3 Select a particular topic to focus upon
Step 4 Find appropriate classroom procedures to explore it
Step 5 Adapt them to the particular puzzle you want to explore
Step 6 Use them in class
Step 7 Interpret the outcomes
Step 8 Decide on their implications and plan accordingly
See Allwright 1993 for more detail.
Classroom procedures for exploring puzzles
1. Groupwork discussions.
2. Pair work discussions.
6. Role-plays. 7. Role-exchanging.
9. Dialogue journal writing.
11. Poster sessions.
12. Learner to learner correspondence
Problems with Action Research
Nunan (1993), whilst being very positive about the possible benefits of AR, takes account of the main problems that teachers face when conducting this research. For example, one of them is the fear of being revealed as an incompetent teacher. The possible problems and solutions are included below:
Action Research - Problems and Solutions Nunan 1993
1. Lack of time
2. Lack of expertise
3. Lack of ongoing support
4. Fear of being revealed as an incompetent teacher
5. Fear of producing a public account of their research for a wider (unknown) audience
• Someone ‘on the ground’ to ‘own’ the project.
• Individuals with training in research methods available to provide assistance and support to teachers.
• Release time from face-to-face teaching during the course of their action research.
• Collaborative focus teams are established so that teachers involved in similar areas of inquiry can support one another.
• Adequate training in methods and techniques for identifying issues, collecting data, analysing and interpreting data, and presenting the outcomes of their research.
The MSc course itself provides (potentially) four of the five solutions. The other (lack of time) is forever a challenge!
Allwright (1993) notes that good classroom research is much easier when there is significant `learner involvement'. This, in turn, relies on learners having a well-established command of the target language. In classes with low levels of English, (if you have access to the learners’ L1), you may consider conducting discussion sessions, getting feedback and interviewing them in their L1.
Despite the possible problems listed above, almost all MSc participants find action research stimulating and rewarding. At the end of many subsequent units there will be an example of an MSc participant’s action research. These examples will provide further exemplification and clarification. However, there is no theoretical or practical substitute for getting started.
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