Babita Sharma Chapagain*
It is obvious that we teachers experience both successful and challenging situations in our teaching. Since we are overburdened with tight schedules, we don’t usually have the time to think what happened and why in both of the situations. Consequently, the challenges get multiplied and can go beyond our ability to handle them. Lack of practice of reflecting on the situations can make us lose the opportunity of learning from our successful experiences. In other words, we might remember we were successful at some point and feel good about it but we may not exactly recall what specific strategies made us successful at that time so that we can adapt those strategies in our present teaching context. Similarly, when we begin to sense that we are unsuccessful, we might begin to develop a tendency to blame students’ abilities and/or behivour or we might jump into new actions without examining the situation carefully. However, we may fail to solve issues if we keep taking actions without having a good understanding of the problem itself. The repeated failures can be dangerous as they might lead us towards having frustrations and negative impressions about teaching profession. This short article has intended to guide teachers to carry out exploratory research to support themselves to have a deeper understanding of their teaching situation and guide themselves to develop appropriate action plans.
What is Exploratory Research and why?
Teachers are likely to hesitate when they are asked to carry out research because the term ‘research’ sounds, in general, like a heavy academic task that require a great deal of time and energy. However, unlike any academic research, exploratory research is carried out within the teaching time, in order to acquire deeper insights and understanding about their own successful teaching as well as challenges. It refers to stepping back from the present situation and beginning to take a careful look at one problem at a time and spend some time trying to understand the problem itself rather than acting quickly to solve it ((Smith & Rebolledo, 2015).
We can see, hear or feel and know whether something is working or not working in our classroom but that knowledge is not sufficient to explain the reason behind the situation. In the process of Exploratory Research,we get to carefully examine the issue, gather information and reflect on our experiences and thus we bring improvement from within ourselves.
Here I will share a situation I encountered some years ago in my classroom and some example steps I had taken:
Some years ago, when I was working in RatoBangala School as a teacher. I was very enthusiastic and eager to learn as well as implement new ideas in my classroom. I believed that I was one of the teachers who always tried to bring some kind of innovation in my teaching and my students used to enjoy my class very much. But then one day I realized there were few students in my class that year who never improved in writing. They scored very low in writing even after teaching them throughout the first term.
In the school, teachers have to attend Education Philosophy session that RatoBangala Foundation runs as a part of Primary Teachers Training Programme. I as a teacher had to complete that one-year training course in order to be eligible to work as a teacher trainer in the same programme. In the training we were always asked to write reflective journal based on our teaching experiences. One evening, when I was writing my reflective journal, I began to reflect on my writing lessons and thought about the students who always avoided writing and never improved. Then I started asking such questions to myself:
- Why do some of my students (not all) lack interest in writing?
- How am I teaching writing?
- What is their interest?
- What kind of books do they pick up in the library?
- What do other teachers think about their writing?
- How do other teachers take my writing lesson?
- What do the students think about my writing lessons?
- What kind of writing activities they enjoy the most?
I began to write down these questions on my reflective journal and from that time I began to pay particular attention on the students’ behavior and observe their interest. I organized special Parent Teacher Conference ( PTC) and interacted with their parents. I talked to my colleagues to observe some of my lessons and asked for feedback. I did a focus group discussion with the target students and also learned a lot by observing them. The more I observed the students and my own teaching, the better understanding I began to develop. After paying particular attention to the children, I discovered some new information regarding how they prefer to learn writing and here are some examples:
- Student A loved to write if he was asked to write about animals and plants. Every day, as soon as he came to class he used to go to the window to see the plants in the bottle garden and was always curious how much the caterpillar and tadpoles grew.
- Student B always carried comics and Goosebumps stories in his bag.
- Student C was so interested in music.
So I began to bring varieties in my writing tasks, e.g. students were asked to write imagining themselves as are one of the Goosebumps story characters and answer the question: how they would tackle the particular situation? Or they could write an autobiographical piece imagining themselves as one of the tadpoles or caterpillars sitting in their classrooms or as a plant in their garden.
It was a small attempt to understand the existing situation and gaining more knowledge about what was going on and why. Although it was not a planned exploratory research but it is an example how reflecting on lessons helped me as a teacher. Reflecting on my experiences I developed some new strategies appropriate to my context. It made me believe that we do not always have to be dependent on theories that come from outside and that may or may not address our local issues. It made me believe that teachers can construct knowledge reflecting on their own experiences and develop approaches that is contextually appropriate instead of depending on background theory (Smith, 2015).
How is Exploratory Research Carried Out?
Champion Teachers: stories of exploratory action research (Smith, et.al. 2013) has a good collection of teacher stories and it can guide teachers thoroughly how to conduct exploratory research. Similarly, Electronic Village Online (EVO) Classroom-based Research for Professional Development training,which is led by Dr Richard Smith, takes place every year in January. This online training has been a good platform for all the teachers, teacher educators from around the world. As one of the co-moderators of that training session, here I will share with you some steps that were introduced to the participants and that might be useful for you to have some insights about classroom-based exploratory research.
First it is important to explore the problem/issue carefully. Doing so will help us come up with an idea that works in our context. It might also be the case during our exploration some good practical ideas might emerge or some issues begin to be resolved naturally while we talk about the issue with students.
- What are some problems you are facing in your teaching these days and/or what are some things you are wondering about in relation to your teaching?
- Choose oneproblem or area you are wondering about and make a question or questions from it.
Moving into action
Exploratory Research Plan
- What are my exploratory research questions?
- What evidence will I gather, and how?
- When will I start?
How do you gather evidence to answer your research questions? Now think of the way that will help you to have in-depth understanding of the problem. Can you consider possible sources of information and appropriate way of gathering information? Come up with some ideas. An example of a good idea can include: (1) reading, e.g. internet sources and (2) Discuss about this issue with you colleagues who are familiar with the same (kind of) teaching situation as you (this solves the problem involved in. Not many sources are written specifically for ‘difficult circumstances’. This is the way you will really engage in your research.
Teacher should think about the ethical consideration when they carry out the classroom-based research. They should always think about whose consent they need, who will be affected by the research and who should be told about the research when it’s completed.
Some suggested steps for data analysis:
Underline the words/phrases and word groups that are repeated and/or have similar meanings
- Label and name the categories
- Identify the emerging patterns in the data
- Ask a colleague to follow the same procedure
- Compare and contrast your and your colleague’s analysis
- List the common themes that emerge
Find a study which interests you and read the data analysis part. Write a short report and share your approach to analysis, and your doubts/questions with your colleagues.
- Which study did you choose?
- How is the data analyzed and presented (e.g. charts, figures, tables, etc)? What calculations have been used (means, percentages, ranking, etc.)?
- How could the data analysis and data presentation of the study you focused on guide your own classroom-based research?
Develop an action plan using the ideas that were emerged from the exploratory research and implement in your classroom.
To sum up, classroom-based exploratory research is a good medium to empower teachers and enable us to acquire deeper insights and understanding about our practices. The data gathered during the research can have good evidences to make interpretations so that we can develop an effective action plan. Also, we can share the research findings or any success stories among our colleagues and we can learn from their successes. Learning how they solved any particular issue in their context can be a valuable source of inspiration to develop our own action plan for working differently and creatively.
(Babita Chapagain completed MA in ELT from the University of Warwick in 2015 as a Hornby Scholar. She works for Literacy Improvement Programme Solukhumbu, Nepal. She has 10 years’ experience working as a teacher & teacher trainer in Rato Bangala Foundation. She also worked at Kathmandu University as a tutor.)
Smith, R, Bullock, D &Rebolledo,P(2016). Champion Teachers: Stories of Exploratory Action Research. London: British Council.
Smith, R (2015) ‘Exploratory action research: why, what, and where from?’, in Dikilitas, K, Smith, R, and Trotman, W (eds) Teacher-researchers in Action. Faversham: IATEFL, Chapter 3, 37–45.
Smith, R &Rebolledo, P (2018). A Handbook for Exploratory Action Research. London: British Council