Action Research | What does yours look like?

Divya Madhavan has been inspiring teachers around the world through her personal action research journey for several years now. I first experienced Divya (and action research) for the first time a couple of years ago while watching a livecast talk from the ISTEK conference in Istanbul. Her talk, punctuated by incisive quotes, really struck a chord with me and I’ve been interested in action research (AR) ever since. While Divya’s talk in Istanbul was largely focused on the ‘why’ of AR, she facilitated a webinar for BELTA in early March which explored the ‘how’.

Diyva and I co-wrote this post, and it’s based on the ideas, questions and steps that were explored in the webinar – Action Research – what does yours look like? I’m guilty of dawdling and not publishing this post when it was ready to go online. The webinar this post is based on might be slightly old but the ideas and questions Divya laid out are fresh, relevant and practical for any teaching professional who is interested in starting their own AR journey. You might also want to check out Divya’s blog – Unwrapping the Education Box, an extraordinary collection of critical reflections about our profession. My favourites include What if teaching became a prestigious profession? and How do you draw a line so fine?

action research

Written with Divya Madhavan. 

What does Action Research look like?

 Where is the book in which we can read what teaching is. The children themselves are this book. We should not learn how to teach through any other book other than the one lying open before us and consisting of the children themselves. In order to read this book, however, we need the widest possible interest in each individual child and nothing must divert us from this.

 – Rudolf Steiner     

This is a useful quote for framing an exploration of Action research and we can unpack three ideas from it:

  1. -“the one lying open before us”- The most important source of improving our practice is the one we physically engage with every day… this goes all the way back to the work of John Dewey, who said things like, education is a process of living and not a preparation for future living – we have, before us, in classrooms every day, what we call our practice, what we do, how we do it, our moments of requisitioning why we do it, this is a process that’s very alive and constantly changing in very organic ways. It’s about rolling up your sleeves, getting involved, getting messy and learning within and with a community, this doesn’t just happen with books, it happens by doing, being and living.
  2. -“In order to read this book”: Connectedness is a not given, not something automatic. Being a teacher doesn’t automatically put you in a position to research your practice, there is a whole mental make-up that goes with having a research mindset, understanding what you’re looking for, and it is something that requires a certain amount of preparation.
  3. -“widest possible interest, nothing must divert us from this”: AR is quite dependent on the amount of discipline and rigour we apply to it, and so not being distracted when we’re in ‘research mode’ is fairly important. One of the most important conditions for research is the attempt to understand and document everything that the scope of research demands.

Questions to consider in your Action Research journey

  1. Research question
  • What sort of a critical lens do you have?
  • What’s happening in your classroom?
  1. Plan, plan, plan: You don’t need a hypothesis, but you do need a plan. Your plan comes from your research agenda and from your world view.
  • What kind of information are you going to get or excavate from the context?
  • How do you see this information as being available to you?
  • Do you have a very scientific mindset? Do you think this information will be black & white or testable?
  • Are you of a much more a participative mindset? Do you prefer to engage with the social reality of the classroom, finding out things as they emerge?

It’s not that you can’t ever have a hypothesis in action research, but that’s just not where your thinking starts.

  1. Action & observation
  • How will you document? Will you keep a journal? Will you use Evernote where you can capture both audio and written notes?
  • What exactly are you going to do?
    • You’ll find that once you start, everything happens quite quickly because you’re right there in the classroom with both your teacher and researcher hats on and the multi-tasking is quite overwhelming if you don’t have enough clarity with what you are doing.
  • When will you reflect?
    • Reflection time is something that we might initially cut back on. However, it’s important to give yourself more time before re-engaging with the context. Practically speaking, you could time it so that your project would end just before the holidays if you teach in an educational institution so you would have some time to digest how it happened.
  • What are you trying to change?
    • What are the individual changes?
    • What are the social changes?
    • What are you trying to deal with?
    • Are you comfortable with talking about these changes?
    • Are you comfortable with doing so in academically responsible language free of unnecessary hyperbole?
  • How will you report?
    • Are you comfortable with going public with what you’ve done, flaws and everything?
      • It’s quite rare for research projects to be perfectly flawless but what matters is how responsibly we report it. When you report something as inadequate, you explain how you would do it differently the next time round and then apply it in the next cycle.

Don’t we plan, act, observe and reflect in our everyday lives as teachers?

The difference is the rigour we impose on our documentation and analysis. We might test drive new things in the classroom all the time. However, we wouldn’t necessarily document, analyse and look up theory.

“Action research is a form of collective self-reflective enquiry undertaken by participants in social situations in order to improve the rationality and justice of their own social or educational practices, as well as their understanding of these practices and the situations in which these practices are carried out … The approach is only action research when it is collaborative, though it is important to realise that the action research of the group is achieved through the critically examined actions of the individual group members.”

– Kemmis and McTaggart

Three important attributes

1. Reflexive

Give yourself adequate time for self-reflection where you have opportunities to think through what’s happening at each stage. The reflexive critique also requires an awareness of your own biases, cultural, linguistic and administrative, in perception. The important thing is not the absence of bias but how you take ownership for them and report them. You recognize who you are as a researcher and are aware of how you are about to engage with the context. Therefore, you take responsibility for the impact you create in that context and how that in turn has an impact on your thinking

2. Dialectical

These are dimensions of thinking where you notice the relationship between all the different phenomena in the structure and the context. Upon analysing the data, you can infer that X relates Y because Z happened or identify single events that might have changed the course of the project.

3. Plural structures

It’s crucial to get a rich description of your data so you can analyze several threads from it. You will have a problem when you document your data from just one perspective and then reconstruct inefficiently it from memory. One way to overcome this is to video students or use a dictaphone, after having them sign consent forms. In this way, you can take your time with analysing the interaction. Additionally, while writing up parts of subsequent cycles, you may want to revisit what happened before. Instead of going back to your notes which represent just one version, you study the original in the form of audio or audiovisual media

Demystifying research

Research is a powerful tool.

     Research is a tool of power

                         Research says

Research is used as a tool of power in everyday discourse and  the phrase “research says” skews the general opinion of what research is.

Research becomes the yardstick by which we measure all professional practice with often insufficient regard to context. Throwing in a comment about research shuts up a conversation because we perceive research as the outcome of hard academic labour and many of us don’t have access to it as it might sit behind pay-walls as is the case with most journals.

Research becomes a tool of intimidation however well-meaning. It raises a barrier between those who can and those who can’t. While this might distance academic practice from teaching practice, action research is very elegantly situated between the two. To tell a teacher who is in a classroom every day that they must do research in order to become a better teacher is patronizing. It reduces research to yet another badge on your CV. Not every teacher needs to do research and many teachers have perfectly happy and fulfilled careers without being researchers. However, certain reflective processes in a lot of teaching practice could benefit from research.

We often perceive research as a tool but the only limitation with this line of thinking is that we see it as a fairly nuts and bolts process. So, it becomes quite dull and therefore untenable whereas you could be doing far more interesting things with your time. If we start with the view that research is an end defined by data collection, we miss the wider complex structures of research being a means through which we understand our scientific, social and critical realities.


Image attribution: Teaching Assistant Orientation (TAO) 2012 by Center for Teaching Vanderbilt University | CC BY-NC 2.0

TEC15 Day 3 | How to write papers for publication | Talk summary

This is the last of my TEC summaries and it’s from a session facilitated by the hugely entertaining George Pickering who’s worked extensively with IATEFL and is currently involved with the Leadership & Management SIG (LamSIG).

George shared some practical advice for people who want to write a paper, particularly for those who’ve never written one before.

George Pickering

There was only standing room during this talk. It seemed like George’s reputation had preceded him or perhaps word had gotten out that he was going to distribute some chocolates. 


1. Write about something you’re passionate about.

2. Source information for your paper from your own research as much as possible. Quotations are illustrative not demonstrative and you shouldn’t get carried away with merely rehashing the comments of others.

3. Garbage research, garbage paper – action research is the best possible approach for Ts.

4. Find out about publications you can write for like the IATEFL SIG Newsletters, English Teaching Professional, ELTAI Journal, ELT Journal, IATEFL Voices and the TEC15 publication.

5. Research the specific requirements or guidelines of the publications you’d like to target such as word count, referencing conventions, format etc. One way to do this is to read papers from that publication.

6.  Plan & start your article as early as possible. The creativity cycle takes time (i.e., decision, opening the file, incubation, illumination, implementation & evaluation). Break down your writing into specific objectives and tasks, use a check list.

7. Audience before content. Put yourself in the shoes of the reader.

8. Structure your article properly.


9. Use appropriate language. Be formal but not overly so. Don’t overuse the first person. Use tentative language when describing the implications of your research.

10. Include all the references you need to include.

11. Find yourself a critical friend to look over your draft. Someone who’s honest.

12. There is no failure, only feedback. If you are asked to rewrite your paper, pay close attention to any comments .

13. Don’t plagiarise.

14. Celebrate your successes.

It was somewhat unfortunate that George threw in a couple of NLP references into what was otherwise a fabulous talk. I was also puzzled by the reference to ‘Mehrabian, A. and Weiner, M. (1967) Decoding on inconsistent communications. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology 6: 109-14′ which he used to support tip no.2 on making “sure whatever you write is evidence-based, not based on unsubstantiated rumour or hearsay”. Surely, the irony of quoting the infamous Mehrabian in an exhortation of writing evidence-based pieces couldn’t have been lost on someone conducting a session on writing papers for publication!

So, I fear I must add an additional piece of advice.

15. Don’t succumb to the logical fallacy of appeals to alleged experts by referencing discredited and dated academics. 

Upcoming webinars for educators | Feb-Mar 2015

A webinar a day keeps atrophy at bay.

I’m really looking forward to Divya’s talk on action research and the IATEFL PronSIG event. Some of these webinars were listed in an earlier post. New additions are in green.

1. Motivating teenage learners | Rebecca Robb Benne | Macmillan | Feb 11, 1500 GMT

2. Flip, Blend and Project: Technology for language teachers | Russell Stannard | Feb 15, 0900 GMT

3. Virtual Strategies for Social Learning | Tom Massato | On24 |Feb 17, 1400 EST

4.  The Melody of English: Research and resources for teaching the pragmatic functions of intonation | Marnie Reed and Tamara Jones | IATEFL PronSIG | Feb 17, 1700 GMT | Read the summary

5. Challenging students to think critically | Edmund Dudley | OUP | Feb 17 & 19, 2015, 1400 & 1600 GMT | Read the summary

6. Lesson flipping and creating video presentations | Thomas Healy | OUP | February 17 & 19,  1300 & 1200 GMT

7. Level-up Students’ Learning: Gaming the Blended Classroom | Jessica Anderson | Fluency MC/WizIQ | Feb 18, 2300 UTC

8. The power of pronunciation in business | John Hughes | OUP | Feb 20, 1000 & 1500 GMT

9. Reflections on why I wish I was a non-native English speaker teacher | James Taylor | TEFL Equity Advocates | Feb 22, 1700 CET

10. Solutions Writing Challenge* |  Olha Madylus | Oxford | Feb 24 & 26, 2015, 1400 & 1700 GMT

11. Cambridge English: Advanced – Reading & Use of English paper | Jacqueline Douglas | Cambridge English Language Assessment Feb 23 & 25 2015, 1400 & 100 GMT

12. Developing and Teaching Effective English for Specific Purposes Programs | Carol Derby | Tutela | Feb 24, 1800 EST

13. Technology Enhanced Language Learning | Aisha Walker | Oxford | Feb 25 & 26, 1000 & 1530 GMT

14. Appraisals | Jenny Johnson | IATEFL LamSIG | Feb 26, 1630 GMT

15. Play, learn & grow together: An after school language project’  | Nives Torres | IATEFL YltSIG | Feb 26, 1800 GMT

16. Get Them Speaking & Learning with Digital Icebreakers | Shelly Terrell | IATEFL | Feb 28, 1500 GMT | Read the summary

17. The transition from general English to business English training | Marjorie Rosenberg | IATEFL BeSIG | Mar 1, 1500 GMT

18. Informed learning activities in the Adult ESL Literacy context | Svetlana Lupasco | Tutela | Mar 3, 0000 GMT

19. Horrible History: Rising to the challenge of writing engaging materials | Genevieve White and Emily Bryson | IATEFL MaWSIG | Mar 7, 1200 GMT

20. Action Research: What yours might look like | Divya Madhavan | Belta | Mar 8, 1500 CET

21. Learning Orientated Assessment: a theory in search of a pedagogy | Neil Jones | IATEFL TeaSIG | Mar 9, 1700 GMT 

22. Moodle for Language Teachers: Increasing interactivity | Russell Stannard | Landesinstitut für Pädagogik und Medien | Mar 9, 1900 CET 

23. Teach Your Learners to Fish: How Holistic Learning Makes Performance Gains Stick | Alex Khurgin |  eLearning Guild | Mar 11, 1000 PST 

24. Thinking Through English | Alan Mackenzie | Cambridge English Teacher | Mar 11, 1500 GMT

25. YLT Webinar: Digital Marking and Flashcards to Motivate Learners | Andreas Molander  | IATEFL YltSIG | Mar 12, 1210 IST

26. Help Teachers Integrate App Building into any K-12 Class or Subject (It’s Easier than You Think!) | Michael Braun | Simple K12 | Mar 13, 1100 EDT 

27. Setting Up an Audio Project | Shelly Terrell | American TESOL | Mar 13, 1600 EST

28. 15 Free Mobile Apps to Promote Collaboration, Critical thinking, Creativity, and Communication | Lauren Boucher | Simple K12 | Mar 14, 1000 EDT 

29. 15 Free Mobile Apps to Support Struggling Readers | Jenna Linskens | Simple K12 | Mar 14, 1100 EDT

30. 15 Free Mobile Apps to Engage and Motivate Learners | Jayme Linton | Simple K12 | Mar 14, 1300 EDT 

31. teachSTEP 2015 | Carol Read, Ceri Jones, Scott Thornbury. Silvana Richardson, Jack Richards | Cambridge | Mar 13, 1500 – 1720 GMT & Mar 14, 1000 – 1240 GMT

32. E-merging Forum 5 online | Link to the live session | All times are per Moscow time zone

  • Mar 12
    • Herbert Puchta: Teaching Very Young Learners — What’s Hot, and What Not | 1400
    • Malgosia Tetiurka: Myths and facts about teaching Young Learners |1450
    • Vera I. Zabotkina: Essential skills for academic success | 1710
    • Steve Kirk: Teaching ‘EAP’: Enabling Academic Participation | 1800
  • Mar 13
    • Catherine Walter: Learning grammar and pronunciation: What do we know, and what can we do about it? | 1100
    • Svetlana G. Ter-Minasova: Teaching Language Issues in Todays Russia: to think about… | 1150
    • Jane Allemano: Authenticity in Speaking Tests | 1650
    • Thom Kiddle: Technology in Classroom-based Assessment: Friend of Foe? | 1740
  • Mar 14
    • Alla L. Nazarenko: The Power Of Technologies? The Power of a Teacher? The Power of a Learner? | 1100
    • Gavin Dudeney: Of Big Data & Little Data — How Numbers Have (Almost) Ruined Everything | 1150

33. Storytelling in the classroom | James Keddie | IATEFL | Mar 14, 1500 GMT

34. Barefoot with beginners | Ceri Jones | British Council | Mar 17, 0900 GMT

35. Engaging beginnings: Grab their attention & get them engaged | Andrea Langton | Oxford Professional Development | Mar 17, 1800 CET 

36. Young Literacy Day | Macmillan | Mar 18, a whole day of talks

37. Retro teaching techniques | Jamie Keddie | Oxford Professional Development | Mar 18, 1800 CET 

38. Thinking Inside the Exam Box | Andrew Walkley & John Hughes | Nat Geo Cengage | Mar 18, 1600 GMT

39. Solutions writing challenge #2* | Gareth Davies | OUP | Mar 19 & 20 | 1400 & 1700 GMT

40. Storytelling Projects | Shelly Terrell | American TESOL | Mar 20, 1600 EST

41. Spring Blog Festival | Various topics & speakers | WizIQ | Mar 21, 1100 to 2300 GMT

42. Computer-based testing for young learners | Cambridge English Language Assessment | Mar 23 & 25, 1400 & 1000 GMT

43. Increase Motivation, Understanding, and Participation with a Gamified Classroom |  Avi Spector | Simple K12 | Mar 24, 1630 EDT 

44.  Small steps to going digital in the Pre-Primary and 1st Cycle classroom | Jennifer Dobson | March 24, 18:00 CET 

45. Choosing your words carefully | Caroline Krantz | OUP | Mar 25, 0900 & 1500 GMT

46. How to get Kindergarten Children Speaking in English | Sandie Mourão | OUP | Mar 25, 1700 GMT

47. Oxford Discover: Getting students to speak* | Susan Rivers | OUP | Mar 26, 1700 GMT

48. Presenting with Digital Posters | Shelly Terrell | American TESOL | Mar 27, 1600 EST

49. How to get published in YLTSIG Children & Teenagers | David Valtente | YLTSIG | Mar 29, 1200 GMT

50. Must-See Google Tips and Tools for Teachers | Richard Byrne | Simple K12 | Mar 31 (A set of three hour-long webinars)

  • Going Google: The Quick Start Guide to Getting Started with Google Tools, 1300 EDT
  • Google Search Strategies You Probably Don’t Know, But Wish You Did! 1400 EDT
  • Save Time and Make Your Job Easier with Google Spreadsheets and Form, 1500 EDT

*Disclaimer: These look like plugs for course books.

I’ll keep adding to this list as and when I find more webinars for Feb-Mar. Do let me know if you know of any online events which I’ve missed out on.

Image attribution: Flickr | GDC Online 2011_Show Environment_Jesse Knish Photography | by GDC Online | CC by 2.0

19 upcoming MOOCs for educators

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) may have dwindled to a trickle over the Christmas-New Year period but they’re back with a vengeance. Here are 19 courses that are relevant to educators and ELT professionals. All 19 are free and many offer a signature track with a verified certificate for a fee that’s usually less than $50. Several of these courses started last week but I reckon it’s not too late to join.



1. English for teaching purposes | Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona – Coursera | Starts February 2 – 4 weeks

2. Introduction to Communication Science | University of Amsterdam – Coursera | February 4 – 7 weeks

3. Shaping the Way We Teach English, 2: Paths to Success in ELT | Univ. of Oregon – Coursera | Starts February 9 – 5 weeks (This is part 2 of the course they ran in January and has a different syllabus)


What is character? Virtue ethics in education | Univ. of Birmingham – FutureLearn | Starts January 19 – 2 weeks

5. Personalized and student centred learning | ISTE – Canvas | February 9 – 5 weeks

6. .Foundations of Teaching for Learning 6: Introduction to Student Assessment | Commonwealth Education Trust – Coursera | Starts January 26 – 6 weeks

7. Foundations of Teaching for Learning 4: Curriculum |  Commonwealth Education Trust – Coursera | Starts February 23 – 7 weeks

8. Reflective Practice for Adult Educators | Inst. for Adult Learning – Canvas | Starts February 23 – 5 weeks


9. Powerful Tools for Teaching and Learning: Web 2.0 Tools | Univ. of Houston System – Coursera | Starts Feb 1 – 5 weeks

10. Emerging Trends & Technologies in the Virtual K-12 Classroom | Univ. of California Irvine – Coursera | Starts Feb 23 – 5 weeks

Elearning & Instructional design 

11. e-Learning Ecologies | Univ. of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign – Coursera | Starts January 26 – 8 weeks

12. Becoming a blended learning designer | UCF – Canvas | Starts February 23 – 12 weeks

13. Minecraft for Educators | Canvas | Starts January 26 – 6 weeks

Leadership & Behavioural

14. Inspiring Leadership through Emotional Intelligence | Case Western Preserve Univ. – Coursera | Starts February 2 –  8 weeks

15. Better Leader, Richer Life | Wharton, Univ. of Pennsylvania – Coursera | Starts February 8 – 10 weeks

16. Positive Psychology | Univ. of North Carolina at Chapel Hill – Coursera | Starts February 9 – 6 weeks

17. Ignite Your Everyday Creativity | State Univ. of New York – Coursera | Starts February 16 – 6 weeks

For our learners

18. Crafting an Effective Writer: Tools of the Trade (Fundamental English Writing) | Mt. San Jacinto College – Coursera | Starts January 30 – 5 weeks

19. Academic integrity – values, skills & actions | Univ. of Auckland – FutureLearn | Starts Feb 2 – 4 weeks

I hope to meet you virtually in some of these courses. Happy learning! 


Image attribution: Flickr | Danger Men Working Online by Cory Doctorow (yup the famous SF writer) | CC by SA 2.0

Quote for thought

Divya Brochier

In her talk on action research at the iSTEK ELT Conference at Istanbul on April 27, 2013, Divya Brochier mentioned three insightful quotes which I’d like to share. Brochier’s session was on practitioner perspectives toward action research and overcoming her own apprehensions about action research and how that benefited her professional development. She begins by dispelling the notion that research is the preserve of academics and explains that “the essence of action research is that it is the right of every practitioner to be a researcher.” I particularly liked how she talks about the tendency to view action research as solely a problem-solving approach; things that go well also deserve to be studied and magnified. What Brochier said when she concluded her talk also struck a chord with me, “I believe in the potential of what’s going on in the classroom and I also think that in being & becoming actively aware, a teacher creates a space for professional growth within their own classrooms. And for me action research is one way of doing this.”

Three quotes


Where is the book in which we can read what teaching is. The children themselves are this book. We should not learn how to teach through any other book other than the one lying open before us and consisting of the children themselves. In order to read this book, however, we need the widest possible interest in each individual child and nothing must divert us from this.

  – Rudolf Steiner     


Human beings are not built in silence but in word, in work, and in action reflection. To transform the world is not the privilege of some few persons but the right of everyone.  –   Paulo Freire

If you want to truly understand something, try to change it. – Kurt Lewin