Action Research…too organic for me?

I’m working my way through the Dip TESOL course now.  The theory stuff on SLA, loved it.  Action research, not so much.  And it really is getting to me.  Why don’t I dig the action research?  Here’s my chance to evaluate what’s going on in my classes and for some reason I find myself shaking my head side to side much more than up and down.  I had to critique Nunan’s Action Research in the language classroom and giving it a careful read changed my mind somewhat.  But there is still this lingering unease.
Kemmis (2007) has said that, “Action research aims at changing three things: practitioners’ practices, their understandings of their practices, and the conditions in which they practice.”  So what could there be to disagree with.  I want to improve how I teach English, I want to have a deeper knowledge of how I see my teaching, and there is no doubt I would like to have a mechanism for changing the environment in which my teaching takes place.
I guess part of my problem with action research is the idea that I can spot a problem or am aware enough to pick out something useful in my teaching to focus on.  Sure, I understand it’s subjective, that there’s no wrong thing to focus in on. If I or a co-worker identify an issue in my classroom, then I’m good to go.  I should tackle that problem with the same kind of focus I have when I read about and try to implement SLA research in my classroom.  But…but there is always the feeling of “but.”
I did what I usually do in these cases.  I read more.  I buried myself in Action Research for Language Teacher (Wallace, 1998).  Good book.  Didn’t help.  Kept getting hung up on lines like, “the process of professional development varies from one person to another,” and “[Action research] nearly always arises from some specific problem or issue arising out of our professional practice.”  Am I crazy or are there other people out there who feel that problems and issues that ‘arise’ might not actual be so much of a problem as the problems and issues that somehow stay hidden?
 
Then I read Head & Taylor’s (1997). Readings in teacher development.  Chock full of goodness.  Especially the stuff on ‘Self and peer assessment.’  But did it leave me satisfied?  Nope.  So instead of reading, I decided to take Head & Taylor’s advice and do a peer assessment.  They said watching another teacher was going to teach me loads about my own teaching.   
Luckily I have a game fellow teacher by the name of Scott.  We teach together on Fridays.  So I hit him up and he said no problem.  As suggested, I asked him what he was interested in getting feedback on.  Turns out that the issue arising from his professional practice is, “how to give classroom instructions.”  Then I sat in the corner and took notes.  Lots and lots of notes.  Scott, like me, is a big kitchen timer kind of guy.  If you’re interested in my kitchen timer fetish, just check out my earlier post.  As I was watching him give instructions, very similar to my own style, I started to feel kind of itchy.  “OK,” he boomed out, “let’s practice for 3 minutes.  Go!”  or “OK, we are going to practice for 3 times.  1st time is 2 minutes.  Start!”  The look on the kids faces.  He said “start” and it was like the crack of a whip.  Is that what the kids looked like when I pushed the button on the kitchen timer?  Not good.
During our feedback session, I asked Scott, “How do you come up with the times you set for your activities.”  He didn’t know.  He looked a little depressed.  I told him I only asked because I also didn’t have any real basis for the times I set either.  We both kind of agreed that maybe it might be better to just ask the students, “How long do you think you need to practice this language to get a little more comfortable?” or see how many times the students wanted to practice. 
That’s what I’ve been doing in my classes since Friday.  With a little tweak.  First I give the students a ridiculously short amount of time to practice.  Maybe only a minute.  Just so they can see how far they can get.  It’s their baseline.  Then I ask them, “OK, how much time do you really need to practice this conversation from start to finish one time.”  The student suggestions are, in and of themselves, awesomely random.  Students yell out, “10 minutes,” “3 minutes,” “5 minutes.”  But they YELL out a time.  They are yelling to practice English.  Same goes for number of times to practice.  In my morning class today the kids built a dialogue on hobbies. One kid said he wanted to practice it 35 times.  We would have been in class until 7 PM.  Luckily the other students had a bit more confidence and negotiated him down to 7 times.
Identifying an issue, careful observation, and just a little bit of feedback has already made my class more student centered and probably more productive as well.  And I wasn’t even the one being assessed.  Still, I can’t shake my doubts about how I should go about implementing action research for myself.  I long for some kind of truly objective tool to help me identify what to focus on.  That being said, probably my biggest issue with action research is just…me.  I want to learn something before I do it.  I want to break everything apart and put it back together mentally before I’m willing to try it out on the road.  But reading text after text isn’t going to carry me any closer to a place where I’m comfortable with action research.  Just like arbitrarily setting a 3 minute time limit on practice isn’t necessarily going to get my students any more comfortable with a particular aspect of English.  However long it takes, it takes.  However many times I need to try it, I need to try it.  To find out the value of action research, I’m going to have to put it into practice and watch as it unfolds inside and in-front of me. 
Head, K. & Taylor, P. (1997). Readings in teacher development. Oxford: Heinemann.
Kemmis, S. (2007), “Action Research As a Practice-Changing Practice.” Opening Address for the Spanish Collaborative Action Research Network Conference, University of Valladolid. Retrieved 17 January, 2011 from http://www.infor.uva.es/~amartine/MASUP/Kemmis_2007.pdf
Nunan, D. (1990). “Action research in the language classroom.” In J. Richards & D. Nunan (Eds.). Second Language Teacher Education (pp.62-81).  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Wallace, M.J. (1998), Action Research for Language Teachers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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2 thoughts on “Action Research…too organic for me?

  1. As I was reading this post, the first thing I thought was, "Peer observations!" And then I read that you had done one and the resulting conversation had been beneficial. Why not continue this partnership with your colleague and see what else comes out of the dialogue? – Signed: A teacher for whom collaborative dialogue has been one of the most significant professional development tools.

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  2. Hi Liz,I think your response (I can imagine it pretty clearly) shows how you and most professional educators must feel when dealing with those of us going through the basic training. Peer observations and action research and reflective teaching as ideas on paper are a good stating point, but fretting like I've been doing is pretty pointless. I've just got to do more of it. I actually hit my colleague up for another observation but he was having a week of monumental stress so we'll be doing it next week. And I've been doing a lot more recording of my classroom interactions, so that's revealing a lot of what's going on in my classroom that I was missing before (how I ever thought I was actually able to judge my students output and development without this recordings I'll never know). Signed: a guy who is striving to join the "collaborative dialogue has been one of the most significant professional development tools" team.

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