by (Joan) Chung Sau-Kwan
Experienced teachers often rely on their previous experiences to conduct classroom teaching, especially in secondary schools. A teacher who engages in personal action research can indeed enhance the effectiveness of her own teaching and learning in class. In this paper, to a large extent I note English language teachers need to rely on relevant research on second language acquisition and pedagogy at secondary level. Educational research is essential and worthwhile in preparing for classroom teaching and learning. This article draws upon my own experiences of learning at The University of Hong Kong (HKU) and teaching English at secondary level, and applied the relevant theories in the analysis of this paper.
There are several types of research. In teacher research, the purpose is to understand classroom teaching and learning. Teacher research hopes to explore the learning processes happening in the classroom and thus enhance the quality of education (Borg, 2006) using both qualitative and quantitative tools. A variety of approaches are available to teacher-researchers, which include measuring, watching, asking, and doing (Allwright, 2000). Usually, teachers collect data using questionnaires, classroom observations, and formal and informal interviews. On part of teacher research is action research, which generally is undertaken by teachers in their own classrooms, with a view to improving their own practice. But collecting data is not enough in itself: critical reflection is necessary as is the identification of solutions and further planning that follows data collection (Ellis, 1994).
As a student, classroom observation was a research method commonly used and emphasized at the University of Hong Kong’s Postgraduate Certificate in Education. I have come to regard classroom observation as of utmost importance; and, during my work, I did a number of macro-teaching sessions that focused on learning how to teach English. At the same time, I observed and commented on other student-teachers work at the University of Hong Kong, with feedback returned instantly.
During our learning, we English majors were divided into groups of three or four and placed in secondary schools for a school practiculum. We were strongly asked to observe the mentor teachers' as well as our classmates' lessons and vice versa, offering detailed records, critical reflection, and comments. For instance, we might comment on the lesson or on the interactions between learners and teachers. Critical analysis of classroom occurrences and my personal reflective thinking about the merits and demerits of my teaching were recorded daily for continuous assessment in a logbook that I kept. It is worth noting that there was a written exam about observation and analysis of a teacher’s teaching. It was emphasized that classroom observation skills were of vitality and practicality, especially for the inexperienced.
Last, I created an action research project to deal with my immediate problems as a classroom teacher. I reflected on my teaching and chose a theme “giving instruction,” partly because of comments made by my professor’s observation of a lesson I taught. By reading some literature, plus my reflective thinking about my lessons, I set out to improve my instruction, which included changing my teaching behaviors such as speaking more slowly, using simpler language, and writing down key words on the blackboard. In these ways, learners could understand it more easily.
While working in a secondary school in Fanling, I was advised by a colleague to give a questionnaire survey to my students as a way to understand them better, find out their needs, and become more aware of their learning preferences. My colleague suggested such a method had been used by a successful teacher who was popular with his learners, gaining the “The best teacher award” from the government. Therefore, I began to use questionnaire surveys at the outset of the school year.
The questionnaires I used centered on questions like students’ preferable ways of learning English in the English lessons and the kind of teachers they liked most. From the survey, I discovered that 80% of my learners liked English games, listening to songs, and group work. As well, about 80% liked teachers who displayed a sense of humor and who were kind-hearted. Hereafter, in my teaching, I tried to utilize activity approaches more regularly, allowing more interaction or presentations among learners, and giving visual aids during the lessons. At the same time I became more aware of being friendly and patient. My students became more extroverted; they enjoyed giving their presentations and having interactions in class. They were also playful young learners; and, both kindness and strict discipline were necessary.
When I taught senior form students (F.6) in a school in Kwai Chung, again I gave learners questionnaires to investigate their language proficiency level at the certificated level and their weakness in English grammar. These questionnaires helped me discover that senior form students welcomed and often used activity approaches. Learners did role-playing for oral practice given a particular social situation. They enjoyed learning in fun ways. As a result, we began to use competition games reading the South China Morning newspaper and learned vocabulary during the lesson. They told me learning in a relaxing way was more preferable rather than having dictation, which they found serious and boring.
As a teacher researcher, I discovered that cross-sectional surveys could provide a large amount of data from the learners efficiently and economically (Aldridge & Levine, 2001). Through questionnaires, I discovered that I could meet the learners’ genuine needs as soon as possible. Otherwise, it would take months to come to know their interests and abilities. I found student questionnaires helpful tools that provided a channel between teachers and learners, offering mutual benefits in teaching and learning. I discovered that questionnaires have value beyond their quantitative natures.
During my teaching years, colleagues reminded me to communicate with learners whenever and wherever I could contact them. I talked to learners during recess or after school privately to understand their needs and to improve or modify my teaching approach. In this way, I was informally interviewing small groups of learners. These informal interviews became crucial research activities. And, although I did not write down the content of the conservations exactly, these “interviews” help me understand learners’ past learning situations and styles and helped me amend my approach.
During my classroom teaching, I learned to observe learners’ motivation, attitude, and behaviour. As a teacher, I am required to be a sensitive observer and analyst, noting my learners' responses and controlling the classroom dynamics. However, for me, observation data alone has proven insufficient. And, I found that my interpretation of the observable data merely through my eyes was limited. Although, all this observable data did help inform my teaching practice, I have found teaching questionnaires to be even more helpful.
Doing teacher-created action research is beneficial to both teachers and learners. Nevertheless, some teachers’ conditions are impediments for doing such research. Lack of time is a stumbling block that discourages teachers from doing a research. In addition, teachers do not possess relevant research-related knowledge and skills. Possibly, they have not been educated to be sound researchers (Borg, 2006), and they find it difficult to undertake the host of problems that come with research that covers a large scope and range. However, doing some simple action research as a teacher can help enhance teaching and learning. I came to utilize teacher-created questionnaires. These have helped improve my understanding of my students’ needs and desires; and, they have helped me gain insights that have improved my instruction. In doing so, I have learned that doing action research – even in its most simple form – is beneficial to teachers and learners.
Joan Chung Sau-Kwan is currently a doctoral student of Applied Language Sciences at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University.
Borg, S. (2006). “Conditions for Teacher Research”. English Teaching Forum 4: 22-27. UK: University of Leeds.
Borg, S. (2006). “Research engagement in English language teaching”. Teaching and Teacher Education, 731-747. Retrieved from www. Sciencedirect.com.
Allwright, D. (2000). Focus on the Language Classroom: An Introduction to Classroom Research for Language Teachers. UK: Cambridge University Press.
Ellis, R. (1994). The Study of Second Language Acquisition. London: Oxford University Press.
Aldridge, A. & Levine, K. (2001). Surveying the social world: Principles and Practice in Survey Research. UK: Open University Press