The action research project that UoL EdD students are expected to complete (or at least instigate) is likely to contain information that is sensitive to the institution. And as my employment can be traced quite easily, I need to exercise extreme care about what I can and should not post here. However, as the main purpose of this site is to record my doctoral output and to allow easier searching of my work, I will endeavour to keep these next few months as complete as possible.
Here’s a brief summary of the problem that I seek to investigate over these next few weeks. There’s still much, much more to be elucidated, and that task should unfold over the next week. I’d like to mention here two things that are of importance. The first is that this project is not ‘merely’ an academic one. [ … ] The second is that the actual timing is quite unfortunate. This is our final test week of the academic year. Before the new academic year starts in April, very few students will be available, and any project cannot be predicated on accessing the student voice. This is a pity. Also, many of the teaching staff will be away during this time. It remains to be seen how these absences will affect the project.
The [ … ] requires fourth-year students to produce a twenty-five page graduation thesis in English. The quality of these theses is variable, and the task of supporting students through the writing process continually present serious challenges to both the faculty staff and the students themselves. In summary, the English language abilities, the control of the thesis topic and the level of critical thinking displayed by many students as they enter the writing process, a period that spans about a year, is low.
The structured curriculum offers a preparatory course in general academic writing which second-, third- and fourth-year students are able to attend. Beyond this, a tutorial system in in place in which the supervising faculty member deals with writing and content issues on an ad hoc basis. In addition to these targeted measures, all four years must take a minimum number of general English conversation and grammar courses.
The Dilemma as I Perceive It
Fundamentally, the productive English abilities of graduating students tends to be low. Furthermore, the transmission model of tuition that is the norm severely inhibits the development of productive academic skills. Two structural problems serve to maintain this situation. The first is that there is no achievement-based system for continuing English classes. All cohorts take the next class together, irrespective of their scores in previous classes. The second is that whereas native speaker teachers of English typically utilise communicative teaching methods, the grammar classes are taught by Japanese teachers, creating a serious disconnect between the function and the form of language. Personally, I dislike the existence of the grammar classes because they reproduce the notion that English must be understood through Japanese, a dominant feature of Japanese English teaching that does little for productive skill development. The communicative approach, also, contains a flaw. The graduation thesis needs a high level of English abilities [ … ].
The discrepancy in the preparation of language skills is only half the battle, though. Students’ academic abilities, in the sense of critical engagement with knowledge, is also very low. Recently, critical thinking has been seen as a way forward to develop these skills. While this is a solid step in the right direction, critical thinking fails to address aspects of epistemic cognition, and so, if it is introduced as a set of skills, it is likely to fail in developing critical engagement beyond the use of techniques of critical thinking.
How to (Action) Research this Dilemma
This problem is one that involves teaching and managerial staff and cohorts in a single institution; it affects the lived daily experiences of all stakeholders; and it can only be addressed by those with an intimate knowledge of and ability to alter the structures and processes of the institution. As such, confronting this problem is only achievable through an insider research paradigm (McNiff & Whitehead, 2006). There are multiple AR modes to investigate this problem. Kline’s (2012) edited volume of approaches to organisational AR outlines a number, yet the choice of which—from an interview or a programme evaluatory approach—depends on how the AR project is best likely to work within the organisation. Moustakim (2007) begins his attempt to deepen his students’ critical engagement by investigating his own living educational theory. This first-person self-conscious stance (Coghlan & Brannick, 2014) allows him to locate and place his subjectivity at the centre of the investigation. Although Moustakim does not make this point, highlighting his subjectivity serves to heighten the construct, internal and external validities of his investigation. His educational belief system is best served on a subjective plate; readers can judge how the beliefs interact with the observable actions, and they can decide for themselves the degree to which the actions have meaning. Should I, then, follow Moustakim and adopt a first-person approach? The argument for doing so is strong. I have beliefs regarding the failure of the current system and am ideally positioned to promulgate those beliefs.
Yet, a purely first-person approach ignores the latent politicality in any insider research (Klein, 2012). Greenwood and Levin caution AR researchers to “be proficient in participatory evaluation” (2007, p. 139), recognising that any programme evaluation is necessarily conducted with others. Agostinone-Wilson (2012) explains how interviewing methods may be compatible in AR. This form of second-person inquiry(McNiff, 2014) allows for phenomenological data collection as well as tapping into institutional knowledge sources. I am new in HSS, and there is quite possibly some important historical reasons for the present situation that impede or preclude the possibility of effective change. An interview approach may elicit such key institutional knowledge. However, the rigidity of the interview (even a semi-structured one) fails to acknowledge Coghlan and Brannick’s (2014) characterisation of identifying institutional dilemmas as “fluid, dynamic and emergent” (p. 69). Furthermore, the sense of them-and-me is intensified in a formal interview, and the inclusiveness of an ‘us’ approach is lost (McNiff, 2014).
AR is more flexible than this characterisation, though. Many writers describe AR as a cycle, a spiral process during which earlier questions are revisited and revised, or re-understood in new lights (Coghlan & Brannick, 2014; Kemmis, 2009; Klein, 2012; McNiff, 2014). Alternating and spiralling between a first-person “living educational theory” (Moustakim, 2007, p. 211) and various modes of second-person approaches may offer a more dynamic, secure and, most importantly, inclusive mode of AR. The more that stakeholders, i.e. “those who have authority … have a defined accountability … receive a benefit … who may be disadvantaged” in and by a programme (Thomas, 2012) are invited into the AR paradigm, the more the likelihood of some success.
Agostinone-Wilson, F. (2012). Interviews. In S. R. Klein (Ed.), Action research methods: plain and simple2 (pp. 21–48). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Coghlan, D., & Brannick, T. (2014). Doing action research in your own organization (4th ed.). London: Sage Publications.
Greenwood, D. J., & Levin, M. (2007). Introduction to action research: Social research for social change (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.
Kemmis, S. (2009). Action research as a practice-based practice. Educational Action Research, 17(3), 463–474. http://doi.org/10.1080/09650790903093284
Klein, S. R. (2012). Action research methods: plain and simple. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
McNiff, J. (2014). Writing and doing action research. London: Sage Publications.
McNiff, J., & Whitehead, J. (2006). All you need to know about action research: An introduction. London: Sage Publications Ltd.
Moustakim, M. (2007). From transmission to dialogue: promoting critical engagement in higher education teaching and learning.Educational Action Research, 15(2), 209–220. http://doi.org/10.1080/09650790701314734
Thomas, J. J. (2012). Program evaluation research. In S. R. Klein (Ed.), Action research methods: plain and simple (pp. 175–196). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.