Teacher-research as continuing professional development

This article is an extract from the British Council publication, ‘Innovations in the continuing professional development of English language teachers’. Here the authors, R Smith, T Connelly and P Rebolledo, explore teacher-research as continuing professional development.

Extract from the editor’s overview (p 9 - 10)

Smith, Connelly and Rebolledo discuss types of action research and how this related to the design of their CPD innovation project, working in the extremely challenging conditions of state secondary schools in Chile. They paint a picture of a school system which has been blighted by under-investment and historical associations of teaching as a 'subversive' profession, where teachers have low incomes and low status and teach on average 38 hours a week in classes with 40 or more students. Little wonder that teachers suffer from demoralisation and are reluctant to engage in professional development programmes. This does not seem fertile ground for a project which would involve teachers in additional work by engaging them in research. Nevertheless, Smith and his colleagues decided that they needed to move away from the traditional one-off, top-down, INSET courses which had been the staple of ineffective CPD in Chile for so long, and to attempt to involve teachers in their own professional development through voluntary teacher action research. They also felt that Chilean teachers' sense of vocation and commitment to their students' learning, despite the conditions of their work, which had been found by Ávalos and Sotomayor (2012), gave them cause for optimism.

Their description of the difficulties they faced provides important lessons for anyone designing similar programmes. They discovered that decisions on such things as the choice of online platform and even when to begin the project had important implications for teachers' capacity to become involved. However, what is striking is that, in spite of the difficulties, the project showed that even in conditions which seem hostile to CPD there will always be teachers whose sense of vocation and whose desire for self-improvement will push them to overcome obstacles in their path. Yet they also found that teachers' commitment needs to be complemented by enabling conditions that take account of contextual constraints and provide forms of engagement which fit the pattern of their everyday lives. A significant enabling condition was an official Ministry of Education letter approving teachers' participation in the project, another example of the importance of top-down/bottom-up synergy for effective CPD evident in other chapters in this volume. Ultimately, the project succeeded in demonstrating the capacity of teachers to engage in research as a form of CPD, despite their difficult working conditions. Teachers' own narratives exemplify the professional learning that took place, their capacity to analyse their own practice, and its impact on their relationships with their students. Above all, teachers felt empowered by the experience, or in the words of one teacher: 'You realise that you can make a change and that it is in your hands'.

Extract from Chapter 5 ‘Teacher-research as continuing professional development: a project with Chilean secondary school teachers’ in ‘Innovations in the continuing professional development of English language teachers’ (p115 - 117)

Action Research

'Teacher research' is an umbrella term that comprises various possible modes of teacher inquiry. A dominant form of teacher research in our field is action research (AR). AR pursues improved practice and professional development via the systematic collection of data in reflective cycles. It represents a distinct approach both from reflective practice in general and from other forms of TR in its intention to 'solve the immediate and pressing day-to-day problems of practitioners,'(McKernan, 1996: 6) that is, to improve practice through problem-solving (Allwright and Bailey, 1991; Nunan, 1990).

A definition of exploratory practice

Other forms of teacher research may focus not on intervening to gain improvement but instead on careful observation of a particular situation to achieve gains in understanding. Indeed, in the field of ELT, Exploratory Practice (EP) has emerged as a powerful alternative to AR's problem-orientation, placing the focus on understanding why problems arise and, consequently, laying emphasis on exploring 'puzzles' rather than solving problems (see Allwright and Hanks, 2009). According to EP advocates, it is only by understanding a situation that a problem can be accurately addressed. Allwright and Hanks (ibid.) additionally argue that the empowerment pursued through teacher-research should also reach learners. They claim that unlike AR, which can marginalise learners or at least underrate the potential of their participation, EP views learners as partners in the research process. Moreover, EP involves a critique of the technical frameworks often proposed for AR, which, it is claimed, make the activity unsustainable and add a burden to teachers' already busy lives. In opposition, EP proposes ideas for making research an integral part of teachers' everyday practices. However, the criticisms made of AR, which led to the development of EP are not AR-exclusive, since they have been reported in teacher-research initiatives more broadly as well.

There are widely recognised difficulties that prevent many teachers from engaging in self-directed inquiry, including negative attitudes towards research, time constraints, unsupportive school cultures and perceived deficiencies in ability (Atay, 2008; Borg, 2013; Burns and Rochsantiningsih, 2006).


As mentioned above, publications about the role of teacher-research in teachers' professional development have increased in the last decade; however, there are limitations in previous descriptions both of AR and of EP practice in ELT. Firstly, previous initiatives have tended to be located in small language school or ESOL settings (Burns, 1996; Kirkwood and Christie, 2006) or in higher education settings (Barkhuizen, 2009; Borg, 2006), or they describe small projects and thereby fail to have many lessons for larger-scale reform programmes (Atay, 2008; Burns and Rochsantiningsih, 2006; Vergara, Hernández and Cárdenas, 2009). Considerable doubts have been expressed about the feasibility (though not the desirability) of teacher-research forming part of 'ordinary' teachers' lives (Borg, 2013), but, to our knowledge, there have been no previous reports on national-level, state-supported projects taking place in EFL contexts, focusing on primary and secondary school teachers working with minimal support and/or resources. Thus, this chapter describes an innovative CPD initiative aimed at promoting teacher-research in an under-explored setting and is likely to contribute to a new understanding of the practical constraints associated with supporting teacher-research in relatively under-resourced contexts.

‘Exploratory Action Research’

In counterpoint to previously published accounts of TR initiatives in ELT, our project is innovative in several respects: (1) it relied on voluntary participation, not being part of work for a qualification; (2) it was focused on secondary school teachers confronted with large classes, very busy timetables and other unfavourable circumstances; and (3) it was a relatively large-scale project for its type (80 teachers were initially involved, with four mentors and British Council/ Chilean Ministry of Education backing). The project was ambitious, then, and deliberately 'experimental' and self-reflective. Given the doubts that have been previously expressed about the feasibility of teacher-research forming part of ordinary teachers' lives, the question uppermost in our minds was: 'Would it be possible to design an intervention that could overcome some of the previously recognised barriers?'

Recognising that contextual conditions and local realities cannot be stripped from any CPD initiative, we developed an approach to supporting TR which attempted to acknowledge these constraints in an innovative manner. It was based on a year-long plan, which would allow teachers to develop an understanding of research processes progressively. It also involved ongoing online support from a group of mentors who would communicate with teachers as supportive research collaborators rather than as assessors. For the purposes of this project, based on an awareness of the difficulties teachers would be likely to face and the need for a gradual lead-in to 'action research proper', a decision was also taken to recommend what was termed 'Exploratory Action Research' to teachers.

In brief, teachers were encouraged to engage first in exploration of problematic issues via means which would not interfere with their everyday teaching, rather than immediately trying to 'solve' problems by taking and attempting to evaluate a new action. Only later were they guided optionally to consider trying to 'solve' problems by implementing and evaluating new plans. Thus, borrowing from EP, the exploratory first part of Exploratory Action Research was to involve clarifying the existing situation - the nature of 'the problem' - before any action for change would be undertaken.

An example

An example given to teachers was that, if lack of motivation seems to be an issue, students can write about their current motivation (in Spanish or English) and the teacher can analyse their writing by identifying common concerns. This can not only help teachers decide on changes that are appropriate to their students, it can also provide them with 'baseline data' - a way to compare the situations 'before' and 'after' any change they do try to introduce at a later stage. Finally, an innovative approach was also adopted towards the development as well as the content of the programme; rather than all steps being determined in advance, a relatively self-reflective, process-oriented stance was adopted with regard to planning and development. Thus, an exploratory/action research orientation informed the ongoing design of the programme as well as the projects engaged in by teachers.

Extract from ‘Innovations in the continuing professional development of English language teachers’ (R Smith, T Connelly and P Rebolledo, p309 - 312).

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