action research rojak

A summary of a book I have just finished reading on Action Research. The summary is a rojak of different passages in the book that are interesting to me and the research I intend to do.

Action research – a methodology for change and development
By: Bridget Somekh [Open University Press – McGraw-Hill Education, 2006]

I picked up this book in the NIE library when I was looking for some books on Action Research and Design Research. I’m still not quite sure what exactly the difference is between the two, or perhaps there is an overlap of some sort, whereby Design Research focuses on the instructional design more than its implementation, whereby Action Research more focuses on the implementation? Still a question to be further explored.

Back to the book, it’s very insightful, as Somekh uses her personal experiences in doing action research, which she started doing in the 1980s and explores different fields and uses of action research. It’s interesting to read how a practitioner does research as most of the articles or book chapters I have read so far explaining about action research approach it more theoretically.

Some common threads keep reappearing, throughout the book. I will just randomly summarise some of the points she made that I found interesting and think I can use in my own research.

1. action research in ‘developing countries’ (pp. 32-40)

When doing action research in Brazil and South-Africa, during times of political she found that the fear and the hope of the political change reflected in her research findings. As she didn’t fully understand this impact, being a European researcher, she needed help from her local colleagues there to get a better view on the situation.

This made her feel inadequate at times and a feeling of guilt being “white” in a place where “white” people were seen as the oppressor. She quotes Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1972)” on this, who believes that:

“Genuine education can only be experienced through ‘praxis’, that is combined reflection and action through which the consequences of action ‘become the object of critical reflection’”.

The following statement she quoted of Freire made me think:

“Oppression is a ‘cultural invasion’ which is a complex process whereby even those whose intention it is to liberate will perpetuate oppression unless they engage consciously in praxis, in partnership with the oppressed, rather than as their intended benefactors.”

So, am I actually an oppressor? Am I engaging my students in praxis? I am trying to do so, but sometimes the means and time are not there to do it the way we would like to do it.

2. action research from the inside: a teacher’s perspective (pp. 62-73)

In this section of the book she gives a vivid account of her action research project she did in the late 1980s when she just started as a school teacher. At the time she had to prepare her students for the national ‘O’ levels exams in poetry and at the same time she wanted to encourage the students to enjoy poetry.

She started of teaching poetry using one particular poet and asking opinions from the entire class on the poems that she recited. She discovered that the students could not relate to the poet that she had chosen and also that it was already difficult for most students to try and understand the poem, let alone speak in front of the entire class to voice out how they interpreted it.

True recording and active dialogue with the students she revised her lesson plan and gave the students one book with famous poems and the freedom to select poems from other books of their choice. The students were then to discuss poems of their own choice within smaller groups. Lastly they had to write their interpretation of the poems and optionally to write their own poem, of any form they chose. All of this very much in line with situated cognition and socio-constructivism, though she doesn’t mention that.

What is interesting is not so much on how she changed her lesson structure during her research, but how the students responded to it. She mentions for instance that initially in the group work the students did not really take the assignment seriously, until they discovered that they were being recorded and that what they said was listened to. Somekh sees this as the students feeling involved in the research, being listened to, but I wonder whether it is not just a case of fearing that they will get a bad mark, or a bad representation in the research report.

Another interesting finding is that she let each of the students whom she had quoted and transcribed in her research report read their own story and comment and approve that it can be used. One of the students read the story about himself and then asked why she had changed his name. After that she decided to use the pupils real names instead and they had a proud feeling of it.

At the same time I’m wondering how I would collect data and interact with my students on my research if I were to do an action research. Probably I will need to use some form of ICT to do so.

3. Action research and innovative pedagogies with ICT (pp. 178-195)

She uses the notion of “exploratory praxis”, whereby she is using Susan Noffke’s definition of praxis as:

the continuous interplay between doing something and revising our thought about what ought to be done

This is something I can very much relate to. I think when teaching a topic, we have an idea of what we need to do, afterwards we reflect on it, or sometimes even while teaching and then get new ideas of what needs to be done. Even though we plan, we also need to be flexible and respond and interact with the learners.

In the research project PELRS she describes that the teachers in the study are co-researchers, doing the action research. In the past research had been focused on how ICT could be used more effictively to support traditional pedagogy rather than looking at how it could be used to support the introduction of new pedagogic practies. Somekh’s research was focused on the latter.

Secondly she introduces the Structuration theory of Giddens as an influence on the design of the research. This theory is interesting as it addresses the resistance against change (by ICT) in an agency (e.g. a school) based on the power and hierarchical structure. Something for me to perhaps research further on. Having seen introduction of ICT in corporate environments and the behaviour of people in those organisations towards the changes that it brought with it, I would like to explore more on this.

Somekh uses the theory to define four outcomes for the learning process (p.182):

  • learn creatively (e.g. contributing, experimenting, solving problems) 
  • learn as active citizens (e.g. acting autonomously, taking responsibility)
  • engage intellectualy with powerful ideas (e.g. using thinking skills, grappling with ideas/concepts)
  • reflect on their own learning (e.g. evaluating it through meta-cognition)

The third aspect influencing the design of her research is a pedagogical underpinning. She states (p.183) that in the learning process of the curriculum with help of ICT, a three-way interaction is created: teacher – learner – ICT. Earlier there were interactions between teacher – learner, learner – learner, but not the learner – ICT interaction is added. ICT intervenes in the teacher – learner interaction by drawing away attention from the teacher to the screen and at the same time also offers a different form of interaction and opportunities from which the teacher will be partly or wholly excluded.

The fourth area of influence is the concept of Vygotsky that all human activity is mediated by the use of tools. A selection of technically expert students were also made co-researchers with the goal to learn from them how they enculturated the use of computers, at school and at home. An interesting finding from this was that although the students found certain software for learning maths boring, but did not voice this out to the teacher during the lesson, as they were afraid by doing so they would not get to use the computers at all anymore.

The last area of theory used in the design of the research is the Activity Theory. This also encorporates Vygotsky’s notion of tools mediating human action within larger organizational strutures. Human activity is never individual and isolated, but is always integrally part of an activity system. She also mentions situated cognition and cites Brown (1989):

“the notion of situated cognition, with its insight that learning is shaped by the context and is most often a joint and distributed process between different minds is a key to understanding activity theory”

The activity framework was used by including not only the school and teachers, but also the home environment, other adults, peers, the community at large as influencing the learning of the students. ICT became a set of mediating tools over which the students could exercise choice and through which they could learn through play and experience flow. Roles of teachers and students were negotiated and learning focus was framed by both teachers and students. The transformative learning outcomes are the four points as mentioned earlier.

Somekh’s generic pedagogic framework (GPF) is highly influenced by:

  • Claxton’s learning styles (2000)
  • Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of intensive engagement in activity or flow (1996)
  • Lave and Wenger’s vision of learning in a community of practice (1991)

I have not heard of Claxton’s learning styles, but very much like the concept of flow and Wenger’s CoP.

Some lessons learnt as Somekh shares on her research:

  • teachers initially enthousiastically adopted the new methods, but the sense of ownership was lacking. They were co-researchers (and assumed to have ownership by having this title) but adopted the methods because the main researchers had established them, not because they directly saw the need to change themselves. Some teachers went back into their old styles of teaching unintentionally and e.g. wrapped up lessons at the end of class timing, instead of at the end of the learning event (project).
  • the GPF diagram contains two levels of outcomes, one on the transformative level and one on the level of the national education program.
  • the student-researchers did not immediately dare to take on their roles, as they were still fixed in the old concept that children are not taken seriously or that their could be consequences for what they would say. Once the relationship with the researcher had been established only, they started to critisize what was going on in the classroom.
  • the introduction of PELRS did not fully succeed as a transformative learning platform, but it did help to introduce ICT and new pedagogies into the education system. There were several constraints, like limited time frame to teach.
  • the introduction of using the internet to get information, provided a liberation on one hand, introducing the students to new info that even the teachers may have limited knowledge about, but on the other hand gave them the need to learn about ‘information literacy’ skills. How to distinguish and filter the trustworthy information from the not trustworthy. Normally teachers / schools would filter out this information, but now the students had to make this distinction themselves.

An interesting read with some interesting pointers for me to further explore on. Changing teaching habits is not easy and introducing new tools will definitely automatically introduce a change, but how to change the pedagogy along with it? Another question is whether the learners (in my case adults) are able to work more or less indepently and collaborate. This is only possible if the goals are negotiated and very clear from the beginning and some form of scaffolding is in place to help them get started.

An insightful and interesting book.

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One Response

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