Facilitating Action Research in China (Fonte)

Over the last year I have picked up some ideas, which might be useful for you in conducting AR enquiries here in China. AR is not an easy option, and requires the facilitator to be working hard behind the scenes — to read up on information, help with data collection, listen to colleagues’ needs and concerns, encourage, set an example, provide helpful reading, or at least where to find it, offer suggestions, but also to hold back often from trying to solve the problems of others — encourage them to solve their own! Most of all, it requires tact and the belief that people can sort out their own problems, with a little help from their friends and colleagues. Because in China teachers have not traditionally been seen to create their own knowledge, but only to transmit the knowledge of their forebears, making them see the value of AR can be the biggest problem. Wide reading in Chinese culture to find similarities between AR values and Confucius, say, can be helpful. There are numerous websites on Confucianism. Might I also suggest you read Lin Yutang’s ‘The Importance of Living’, (Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press, ISBN 7-5600-1421-6) which is such a brilliant insight into different ways of seeing life and its importance from a Chinese and Western perspective.

I suggest you read the information in this ‘pack’ first and get back to me with questions if you want. Another course of information (lengthy but relevant) is a Guide to Action Research in Initial Teacher Education which I wrote for an English context in the 1990s, but which has long explanations about writing, reading, conversations, collecting data, making evidence, etc. in an AR enquiry. You can find the document at:

http://www.bath.ac.uk/~edsajw under Pre-Service Education. Might I also suggest you read Jean McNiff’s article Action Research for Professional Development at: http://www.jeanmcniff.com/. Both documents go into much more detail than I can in this pack, on processes and outcomes.

Most important of all is that you do an Action Research enquiry yourself. Might I suggest that your AR question revolves around the idea of how you can improve the quality of your facilitation of the AR group? It is quite unfeasible for a facilitator of Action Research not to do it her/himself. If you are simply the leader of the group, you cannot offer suggestions, advice, help, to anyone with any real insight or authority. In addition, if you do it, the processes you uncover and share will help your Chinese colleagues to see the value of learning and researching for themselves. In other words, doing it yourself, ensures greater sustainability. It seems to me that the aim of what we are doing in China, especially since Mark Goldring’s evaluation in May 2002, is to be able to leave at the end of our time of service, with an appropriate process in place by which your Chinese colleagues can develop their own systems of educational improvement for and by themselves.

O.K., on to the process itself. First, then, in your college/placement, it is important to gauge interest in improving teaching and learning, and to promote it. Last year I talked to people about what they were doing in their classrooms, offering to visit theirs, asking them to come to mine — in other words, setting up a climate of co-operation and trust. This is vital. I also evaluated carefully with my colleagues, as they often felt afraid of my criticism, and were unsure about their own competence.

After that it is wise to talk to the Dean and ask her/him what s/he wants for the department. In my case, my dean’s replies about increasing professionality were easy then for me to capitalize on. I suggested that some colleagues work with me, on a strictly voluntary basis, in my classes and theirs, in order to improve the quality of what we were doing. I mentioned AR around the department a lot at this time. I think then, you need to talk to people, especially deans and vice-deans in order to explain what you are trying to do. Also talk to colleagues; try to enthuse them about what they are doing, and the chances to enhance it. Needs tact and diplomacy this stage. Possibly the most difficult part of the process to manage well.

After this invite colleagues to a seminar on action research, its process and some of its characteristics, giving internet addresses (this goes down well) for further information. These enclosed notes can be modified into a powerpoint demonstration, or simply some notes for colleagues for circulation. You’ll need to decide what is appropriate. I invited colleagues, and bought fruit, soft drinks etc. in order to create a welcoming environment. Tell them you’ll set up a meeting within the next week or so.

Invite colleagues to a meeting shortly after this (announcing it at the seminar is a good idea) at a time convenient to them. Invite the Dean/Vice-Dean if appropriate. Providing nibbles is a good idea. Talk to them about the processes of AR again, and the reasons for doing it: Improving the quality of teaching and learning. Stress the importance of their work in the light of the educational and curriculum reforms from Beijing, which must be in place by 2005. Professor Wang from Beijing Normal University stressed the need for student-centred learning, for reflective teachers, for use-based English teaching. Doing AR can help teachers realise these aims. Give out an Action Plan and explain the significance of filling it in very carefully, using the format: ‘How can I improve…..?’ for the first question, and delving deeply for the second one. Push colleagues to be specific, detailed, and to confine their AR question to one, manageable task, otherwise they won’t be able to do it. They should also confine it to one class. Some teachers may ask you about the suitability of choosing two classes in order to compare. You need to be firmly against this, as comparison is entirely unsuitable for a research method, which is looking at individual situations and trying to remedy them. In this form of research it is deemed impossible to compare one lot of humans with another, because of the nature of the uniqueness of human being, classroom and teacher. You need to stress that what makes their research valid on a wider scale, is the sharing of educational values. (For help on this point, see http://www.jeanmcniff.com/ in her book, Action Research for Professional Development. This booklet is being translated into Chinese, and will soon be available bi-lingually at http://www.bath.ac.uk/~edsajw/otherpages.shtml .)

At the same meeting, you need to tell them about keeping notes in lessons. This is often seen as a very strange request, so you will need to say why careful observation of what their students are doing, is really vital in gathering evidence about what is happening in the learning process. Insist that they keep a journal. It is the most reliable and rich source of data available to most of our colleagues. Those who have videoing equipment, tape-recorders, etc. can obviously boost the reliability of their data-collection through these means. Now, if you are keeping a journal yourself, which you should be, you can talk to them about your questions and concerns. This can open them up to being more forthcoming about their own perceived situations.

Set up another meeting, perhaps two weeks after this first one. Ask colleagues to bring their action plans filled in and any notes they have made about their enquiries. It is quite possible that there will be confusion about the whole process, so you may want to take along stuff to that subsequent meeting, which enables you to repeat aspects of what you have done already. Allow the speed of the enquiries to find their own pace. Encourage, but don’t force.

Between the two meetings, be available. Ask colleagues how it’s going. I found the most difficult aspect of this stage was that colleagues were mystified as to what was needed. They were stuck in the idea that I was there to provide solutions to their questions about improving methodology, and couldn’t grasp that I expected them to start imagining solutions of their own and then putting those into action. Reassure them that the answers in Action Research don’t come at the beginning. In China (read article about the use of AR in China) theory precedes practice. In AR it’s the other way round. They do the actions and then draw conclusions from them. This is an alien way of thinking. Some colleagues may react with negativity, even hostility, and because of feeling threatened, might start to rubbish AR. It happens. Just let it happen and continue to encourage those who have glimmers of insight. It is hardly surprising that there will be some resistance, even though they chose to do it, because actually, they didn’t know what they were signing up for.

If the negative vibes happen, don’t take it personally. Talk about them openly (not relating it to any individual). I tend to say that this is a stage of the research itself (which it is). Show an understanding that what you’re asking them to do is really new and must feel dangerous. Don’t argue with them about their feelings. Their feelings are legitimate. It is hard to do AR anywhere. To do it in China is very hard indeed. I found in Guyuan, that this negativity lasted about a month. It was a tough month. But I kept going because I believed in it and knew it would come right in the end. It usually does in AR. And some colleagues also believed in it strongly. This helped.

Before the second meeting, it’s a good idea to make a poster advertising it. Make it colourful and interesting. Set out what the agenda is, or even better, invite colleagues to add items to the agenda. This should work progressively well later on when the group is established. An agenda might be to follow up action plans, for example, in whatever way strikes you as helpful.

At the second meeting, try to find areas where colleagues have made progress. Ask them to talk about what they are doing. Encourage them to answer questions. When you find any evidence that a teacher is thinking in a new, more critical way, then make a fuss about this. Say that this is progress. Encourage teachers to talk openly about their teaching and about individual students’ improvements in their classrooms. Get them to start perceiving value in the AR process through the enhancement of learning by their students in their classrooms. I find it is a good idea at this meeting to get pairs of teachers working together. This takes the limelight off you, and starts making the teachers work more collaboratively. Also at this meeting, try to impress upon colleagues that they are, like the students, responsible for their own learning, and therefore should come to you with questions, rather than waiting for you to come to them. It is possible, however, that they will find this difficult to do, probably for cultural reasons of not wanting to disturb you because you are so busy. Just keep harping on about how available you are. Set a date for the next meeting.

Be available. Talk to your colleagues. Show an interest in what they are doing. Ask them specific questions about their APs. Encourage them to show you their journals, and to ask you questions. Part of creating sustainability is realised through individuals and groups asking questions, thinking critically, evaluating needs and acting on them for themselves. By doing this, you are helping to create a learning environment.
The next few meetings should really be guided by your colleagues’ learning needs. It is important, therefore, to talk about open agendae, rather than fixed ones, and to get colleagues used to the idea of working in this more flexible way. This also takes tact and courtesy, as many colleagues might react negatively to what they perceive as a lack of direction and organization on your part. This is not a personal attack on you, simply an expression of confusion and worry. Talk to them about why in AR you need to have open agendae:

  • the flexible nature of individual enquiries means that different people have different learning needs at different times in the process;
  • the impossibility of predicting where all the group’s learning needs are located;
  • there is no specified amount of time for this process (actually it is often life-long!) as each enquiry takes into account different ideas, needs, students, processes etc., thus it is not possible to fit the enquiries into time-slots.

However, within this openness, there are some constants:

  • the focus on teaching as enquiry;
  • the need to review and evaluate individual enquiries as they are in process;
  • the need to recognise when a researcher has finished one cycle of action research and when to start another;
  • the need to show others their writing, ideas and intentions.

Try at the meetings to encourage your colleagues to talk. Try not to be talking all the time yourself. Try to get them to share their experiences of AR, either in pairs, or, when it’s a cracking piece of research, with the whole group. I find this is really a boost to their sense of achievement, when one of their own colleagues can talk about, say, collecting data, writing in her/his journal, and the improvements this has brought about in a lesson. These are the exciting moments, and we need to share them. Make a fuss about these moments. Refer back to them in the future.

Facilitating Writing:

This is one of the most tricky areas of the whole thing. The resistance, in my opinion, comes from not understanding the benefit of it. There is a point at which I think you, as the facilitator, have to ask for their indulgence on this issue. To take it as an article of faith. Just do it for a few weeks after their initial creation of their research question, and after a month or so, ask them to look back and see what they have done. This often surprises the researcher with a sense that they are making progress. Capitalise on this if you can! Look at the documents on writing in this pack and the reasons for writing. Repeat them. Ask colleagues to share their writing with each other, whether or not you are there. After eight months of this process, I constantly find colleagues brandishing their journals and other written evidence around the office, and engaging in heated discussions about progress, problems, inconsistencies, students’ learning, turning data into evidence, etc..

You should prepare a short powerpoint demonstration, or short talk about turning data into evidence. See notes. There is often much confusion about this. If you have this prepared, you can offer a short meeting-lecture when it seems appropriate.

You will need to work towards getting your colleagues to write reports about their enquiries. This, however, doesn’t happen in the first six months. When you feel that a colleague is ready to start cohering all their research findings into a report, get back in touch with me.

I think that’s enough for now. It isn’t everything, by any means, but it is a starter. If I write much more, I am in danger of overwhelming with information, which is a real killer. I hope I haven’t done that already.

I am really open to your questions, queries, frustrations, dead-ends, victories, successes, etc.. Dean Tian Fengjun and myself and AR colleagues would be very happy for any VSO colleagues to come here, preferably with your deans and colleagues, for weekend workshops in the next two terms. We feel that such workshops would greatly facilitate the sharing of ideas, processes, outcomes, successes and problem-solving. If you are interested, please discuss it at your placement, and get back to me a.s.a.p. so that I can arrange stuff. Alternatively, if individual VSO colleagues would like to come and meet staff and talk about the process, you’d be most welcome. Think it over!