The Personal Side of Evidence-Based Practice

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My classroom after laying Post-Its to track where I went and who I monitored.

“Evidence based”. It’s so trendy, it’s science-tastic, you the forensic teacher in CSI (Classroom Sciencey Instruction). How many research papers we have found Open Access, through Sci Hub or requests hashtagging #ICanHazPDF!

It’s not all about reading research. Sometimes it’s more about doing very small-scale research to see what happens. Sometimes using recording media, sometimes just paper and pens.

 

A lot has been written about Action Research by much better brains than me. Anyway, this is a guide to what I might do in a personal action research project.

Gather thoughts

Research for the sake of it is just making work for yourself. What might be better is having a think about what you’d like to understand more about in your classroom(s). Write it down, and keep asking yourself probing questions, for example:

What about this could be a problem?

Is there simply a difference in personal values?

What would do I think is happening? Is this ideal? Is it definitely true?

This is likely to make your findings more compelling to you because they’ll be less superficial and you will understand already what the connections may be to other aspects of your practice.

Design your evidence capture

How you gather your evidence depends upon your classroom and the people in it. You might ask learners to help, or not. You might track your movement, or not. You can use post-it notes to stick in places, on items, etc. You can tally things on paper. You can record yourself on video, audio, or even log your steps taken with a pedometer. What and how you capture it is an important thing and you want accuracy but also ease of use if you don’t have a team (or peer) to help.

Check it before you forget it

You need the time to check your gathered data. Can it be interpreted in more than one way? Which way has most significance for you? It’s likely to suggest further action/intervention or continuing the action you were already doing. If it’s something different, you might need time to prepare and read up on how to do this, or get advice from someone who already does it. Also, keep your information somewhere you can find it. If your new action gets challenged, you want to be able to say why you’re doing it.

More data

As you take your new action/intervention, you may want to write down what happens when you do it, both positive and negative. It may be that any information is not strongly suggestive of anything: rather than stop, give it time or tweak it according to your intuition but write down what you did differently. You might find that the first way was the best way (or not). You might find that this intervention is not as good as what happened before. This is fine, because at least you know that this does not work for me/this class/this situation.

Decide what happens next

This could be a repetition of the same cycle, it could be that you feel you’ve finished it, it could be a return to the status quo. Keep your findings, though. It might be grist for the mill if you or a colleague have a similar train of thought in the future.

Foolish Utopianism in Teacher Development?

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I was going to go to a conference relatively recently but at the last minute I decided not to because I hadn’t actually looked at the price. I thought that because it wasn’t the JALT (Inter?)national conference (nor was it a JALT event at all) that it might be relatively cheap, also seeing as it was at a university campus.

I nearly vomited in my mouth at the price when I saw it. Seeing it there, I hope the keynote presenters were paid for their time, especially seeing as it was unlikely that major publishers would have been paying for them.

1. Possibilities vs. Practicalities

I know that space with nice chairs and decent coffee doesn’t come for free but I also know that some of the teachers who give a damn about their CPD or lack of it can’t afford to pay the equivalent of US$200 to see someone give a talk or workshop that may (or may not) be useful for them in their context.

I’ve never really been that interested in any of the ‘name’ ELT people bar Scott Thornbury and Luke Meddings because what seems to be the case at IATEFL is that facile reinforcement of (perhaps erroneous) beliefs is what draws the attention on the internet, with the exception of Silvana Richardson’s NNEST plenary and Russ Mayne’s Myths in ELT presentation. Geoff Jordan complains about the IATEFL palaver, with big names. To justify a large cost I suppose they need names, but why not cut the costs?

I’ve never been able to get to big conferences due to work but the ones I have made it to have been highly participatory and kind of grassroots. I have also loved many of the webinars I’ve attended and some stuff that might fly might be a hybrid of the two.

2. The Interzone of Cyberspace and Meatspace

Imagine 20-odd people gathered in a space with a mike, a projector, a webcam and several others watching online,  feeding questions for the speaker into a public Google document or Twitter hashtag. Imagine 20-odd others in another space in another country watching on a projector, while one of them has the familiar stomach-cramps related to their upcoming presentation-come-workshop.

Google already allows live streaming on YouTube and there are other providers, too. Electronic Village Online has already done web conferences. What about face-to-face with an electronic function? The live-tweeting phenomenon points in this direction, as people seem to want it.

You get to have the communal experience, with networking breaks, yet also have people presenting that you’d never see because they would never normally be able to make it due to time/money/family.

3. Outreach

What good is a conference when it is an echo chamber? Why preach to the choir? In Japan, we need chain eikaiwa teachers and dispatch agency ALTs to come and listen but, more importantly, make their voices heard. Do you know why there is little action research or exploratory practice done in eikaiwa? It isn’t the companies, because people could be taking notes on their regular students, and often do in the roll books. It’s because the teachers know that nobody outside is reaching out to them. Nobody gives a monkey’s. Yet these people do ditch the book, do try out-there things with their students from time to time. I know it would help more of them (as it helped me) to learn more about SLA without it seeming high handed. It would help them if they saw principles put into practice in a workshop. If they could hear people like themselves elsewhere, and also unlike them, with new ideas and alternative perspectives, it would help massively. If it were made accessible, through technology, at cultural centres or coworking spaces, this could easily happen.

4. What could this be like?

It could be like Lesson Jamming.

It could be like Edcamps.

It could be like Electronic Village Online, the ToBELTA web conference, iTDI’s summer webinar season.

It could be like JALT Saitama’s Nakasendo, or Michinohe MEES linked to different locations, available on mobile phones and laptops and projectors and TVs.

If you are interested, message me on Twitter.

The Constraints of the Syllabus, the Restraints of the Teacher

I’m on holidays. Wooh!  Rather, a busman’s holiday but it’s an enjoyable one. I’ve been watching ITDi.pro webinars and TOBELTA webinars. Some of what follows is about things I’ve seen, things I’ve read, things I have to deal with and just… things.

Action Research and Ordinary Classroom Teachers

Divya Madhavan gave a webinar on ITDi about action research, about our own practices, about what we can do to develop as teachers. She had everybody think about what research is and who can do research. In my opinion the whole ivory tower-ness of research is basically because ordinary rank-and-file teachers don’t share their own research. You just need to have a bit of curiosity about what happens in your class (either learning or teaching or both) and ask a question, think of something to test over a period of time (because we all have flukey classes that go far better than we have any right to expect and awful classes where things just go awry from the get-go). This gets us into a situation where we can share ideas about what works in our situation (or not), why it might (not) work, and further ideas for research.

Syllabi and the Constraints they put on us and Control!

Luke Meddings gave two webinars in one day on both ITDi and TOBELTA. One was about how we teach and how learners learn in the classroom (or learner-centredness) and one about tests and the changing roles of teachers.

I’ve been thinking about coursebooks, grammar/linguistic syllabi, word lists and so on for the last year at least. The coursebook becomes a syllabus (either top down or by insinuation due to how easy it is), whether grammar-based or lexis-based. We ‘need’ to cover the things in the syllabus, getting through all the vocabulary and then we have a car-crash situation where the learners have not taken on what has been taught except in a very superficial way. In Meddings’ ITDi webinar, there was an interesting slide: Teachers are at the side and the learners are in the centre. We need to welcome them in with the things they want to talk about. I’d say that also the teacher needs to watch out for domination by one learner, but if the learners are coming in with something to say (in L1 you could facilitate it being taught in English) you can run with it and negotiate your syllabus.

In the second webinar for TOBELTA, he advocated for 50-FREE, or 50% of class time devoted to non-syllabus learning. I am a big fan of lip-service to syllabi. I cover what has to be covered as quickly as possible then get onto tasks that will allow learners to express what is on the syllabus but maybe not with the grammar on there (because linguistic syllabi don’t necessarily result in learners learning the linguistic items so why not teach something useful). I still have a syllabus, but it’s fluid and I try to link things as far as possible to students’ interests. I’m also willing to give control to learners and just have them using the language with me able to go around, differentiating teaching according to conversation groups, bringing emergent language that corresponds with the set syllabus to the whole class.

Word Lists

I’ve been thinking about word lists as well. Things like the New General Service List and how, when we get a list, we get bogged down because we have so much to get through. Something like the NGSL gives teachers a tool to ensure the most frequent words are ‘covered’ and the possibility to check for recycling in class. What we don’t usually do is give learners a checklist based on this about how often they encounter these words outside the classroom, or how often they use them. We could, but we don’t. Why? Probably because we know that lists become dominating forces and then will probably turn off students. So , should we systematically teach vocabulary, try to have vocabulary systematically ‘noticed’ or used? I’m not sure I could agree with that. How word lists might be better used is as a diagnostic tool, with learners highlighting what they know at first, then at a second milestone highlighting in a different colour, and different colours for further milestones. Of course this is not a test, it’s highly subjective but it might be an alternative to the pressure cooker state of language teaching for standardised tests that a lot of us hate.

Tokyo Lesson Jam

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I have already set up a Tokyo Lesson Jam site for the first (and hopefully not last!) Tokyo Lesson Jam on Thursday 14th August.

Various: Status Update

The action research I started is in full swing and the independent study that students were asked to undertake was done by around 80% students in both the sample classes, although some students changed their independent study methods from video to songs and nobody read at all.

I did the listening with my false beginner class today and they really enjoyed it although they found it difficult.

I participated in my second ever #KELTchat on Twitter and it was very informative, especially for my university classes.

Other than that, Twitter was on fire this morning due to my previous moaning arguing moaning about how rubbish bland coursebooks don’t meet student needs but teachers are forced into using them anyway.

I have bad news in that a language school I just started working for is being bought. The new owner seems nice but I do feel uneasy in my work. Conversely, I had an interview with another agency that teaches a lot of IELTS courses. I await that with bated breath, as I do my MA TESOL and Applied Linguistics application.

Classroom Research

As part of my DipTESOL I have to do bits of Action Research in my classroom. Action Research is basically doing research to see whether action is effective. You identify a problem, research baseline data (your norm), do your action/intervention (change), record your data and make your conclusion or else repeat the cycle till you think you’re finished.

This research isn’t for my Dip, more for my own interest.

In two of my university classes, I recorded some data about baseline listening skills. Students listened for stressed words on a coursebook CD, wrote them, then tried to make sense of the message.

Class one had the following comprehension self assessments:

  • Exact: 0
  • Pretty similar: 10
  • Lacking info/minor errors: 18
  • Huh?!: 4

Class two was:

  • Exact: 0
  • Pretty similar: 6
  • Lacking info/minor errors: 18
  • Huh?!: 4

What is interesting is that I had the students tell me what they were going to do for independent study this week and the vast majority said they were going to watch videos or listen to music rather than read or use textbooks.

I want to see how this baseline data develops over the semester.