Can an outsider become an insider? Analysing the effect of action research in initial EFL teacher education programs

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Published: 
2019

Source: Educational Action Research, 27:5, 709-725

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

Research context
The research reported here was focused on EFL teacher education programmes in two Chilean universities and focused on the experiences of students in the final stage of their initial teacher education programmes who undertook action research projects as part of their final practicum experience.
The two programmes that were the focus of this study were significant in scale (both having in excess of 400 enrolled students across the programme).
One programme was based in the metropolitan area of the capital, Santiago, and the second in a large regional city.

Researching student teacher experiences with action research
Drawing from this broad context, The researchers designed a qualitative research study which sought to understand the learning experiences of students engaged with action research as part of their initial teacher education.

Essential to this was assessing how effectively such experiences accorded (or otherwise) with the learning objectives articulated by the universities in which they studied. As a result, three guiding research questions were devised to frame the study:

1. What were the experiences of Chilean student EFL teachers undertaking action research projects as part of their qualification?
2. How significant did these student teachers think these action research experiences were in shaping the local practices they investigated?
3. To what extent have these experiences influenced later teacher adoption (or otherwise) of action research as a means of responding to subsequent educational questions or problems in their practice?

The data for the research were derived from three primary sources.
First, a series of in-depth semi-structured interviews were undertaken with 11 graduates of an EFL programme from two Chilean universities.
These graduates had all undertaken action research in the final semester of their 5-year EFL teacher education programme, in tandem with their final practicum experience.
In addition, the action research co-ordinators from the two university EFL programmes from which the students originated also participated in semi-structured interviews about their experiences overseeing student teacher action research.
Finally, a systematic artefact analysis, involving curricula and associated documentation designed by both universities was undertaken in order to understand the role, function and purpose ascribed to action research.
The collected data were transcribed and subsequently thematically coded and networked with the assistance of qualitative analysis software.

Data analysis
The interviews with graduates and coordinators were transcribed and thematically coded using an iterative process to determine the primary currents emerging in responses.
The further data from curriculum documents and artefacts were similarly analysed thematically, with a deliberate focus on the nature of daily activities, tasks, employed tools and key interactions.

Research outcomes
In regard to the first research question around student teacher experiences with action research, the data suggested that understandings of action research were both complex and multi-layered in form.
One of the most significant reflections made – equally by both less experienced and more experienced respondents – were the affordances offered by action research to frame theoretical knowledge within the authentic contexts of practice.
This imperative was central in the curriculum of both teacher education programmes, with programme documentation identifying action research as the opportunity for student teachers to bridge the divide between theory and practice.
This was also reported as key aspiration by the university-based supervisors.
Similarly, this dichotomy loomed large in the programme curricula and was prominent in the rationale of university-based supervisors for action research as of significant method of assimilating institutional learning into situated pedagogical practice.
University supervisors regarded the systematic nature of action research as an important means of instilling a form of rigour in this application to practice.
This was seen as in contrast to earlier practicum experiences, where student teachers tended to implement strategies to deal particularly with problems or limitations without sufficient grounding or reflection upon the effectiveness of these interventions.

However, for most graduates, any sense of achievement of breaching the theory-practice divide was moderated by two persistently troublesome realities in their experiences of action research.

First schools were seen to have to generally been unable to provide a suitable environment to enact action research.
The most frequent reasons cited for this related to practical realities of busy classroom teaching contexts.
Supervising teachers were fully occupied with their existing teaching demands and other more immediate issues inevitably took much greater priority.
Therefore, the student teacher – particularly, given their status as an uncertain ‘outsider’ – attempting to launch an intervention-based action research cycle (especially, if it was problem-orientated) was considered peripheral and at times, even an irritant by local supervising teachers
With regard to the second research question on how significant these action research experiences were in shaping the local practices, a strong theme that emerged was that student teachers simply did not possess sufficient understanding of everyday pedagogical practices of schools to make a real impact.

In addition, their ability to collect data, reflect and intervene was further restricted by their limited sense of self-efficacy in the school environment.
This was built on having little if any real knowledge or confidence to propose potential actions in practice-based environments.
Often, this was compounded by the dismissal of the value of university-derived knowledge by supervising teachers.

Responding graduates universally reported that the schools in which they were based had no existing culture of action research.
Their work was overwhelmingly orientated towards direct student learning activities.
Given the existing high workloads of teachers under the weight of elevating social demands for improved student outcomes, the action research aspirations of the student teacher were reported as being more an interruption or an impediment than prove a prospective method for improving local pedagogical practices. This meant the action research was in some schools ignored, in others disregarded and, in some others, actively opposed by local teachers.

Another significant limitation reported by graduates in their ability to influence local practices was the availability of time and support to undertake action research.
In both institutions studied, action research needed to be conceived and undertaken over a semester (with a preceding research theory subject being offered in the previous semester).
In particular, the necessity to define, enact and reflect upon some form of intervention proved extremely challenging.
Most identified that they felt they were insufficiently supported by their university programme in navigating these demands, with university-based tutors often unfamiliar with the demands of school-based research and the practices for enacting action research.
As a result, all graduate respondents reported finding the technical demands of the action research cycle difficult to understand and problematic to put into situated practice.
Graduates also reported considerable frustration with the lack of clarity around what the university required them to do, and there was clear tension between the developmental imperatives of action research and the assessable dimensions of university assessment of it (creating seemingly divergent priorities).
Although the universities acknowledged this tension, it is evident that the needs to quality assure student performance via action research was a more significant objective than the outcomes of the research itself.
Significantly, several graduates reported opting to contrive their action research (or parts of it) to meet the assessment demands on them.
This action left these graduates dispirited about their actions and disillusioned with action research as a prospective tool in practice.

The third research question in this study centred on whether preceding student teacher experiences in the use of action research had proved influential in subsequent professional practice.
On this question, the outcomes were unequivocal.
Graduates universally reported they had not – and did not – intend to use action research as a means of responding to educational questions or problems emerging in their practice.
The reasons for this reluctance to prospectively use action research were multifaceted:
the negative experiences of undertaking a student action research project, the amount of work that was experienced in the project, the underdeveloped outcomes that were achieved or the lack of a facilitative culture in their current school environments.
Yet, this sentiment was in sharp contrast to the beliefs expressed by university co-ordinators.
Both asserted a confidence that these graduates that had undertaken this action research experience would have been encouraged to make greater use of action research.
In addition, the same assumption was explicitly stated in the curricula of the two programmes.

The outcomes of this study, albeit of small scale, do suggest that the epistemological, social and practice dimensions of action research are not necessarily manifested in the designs imposed by institutional framing of assessable student action research projects.
Moreover, this method may also potentially overstate the ability of students to understand and enact what is a sophisticated and challenging methodology; particularly, when cast as externally focused in a practicum teaching persona. 

Updated: Apr. 21, 2020
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