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Many writers have defined Action Research but the most applicable to me as an educational practitioner is the definition by Calhoun (1994) who states
“Action Research is a fancy way of saying let’s study what’s happening at our school and decide how to make it a better place”.
Literature Review -The development of Action Research
Lewin (1946) first coined the term Action Research and described it as a method of professional development within a social environment. His work responded to the social challenges after World War II and focused on group actions for dealing with conflict and change in organisations.
During the 1950s to late 70s Action Research had diversified into several forms consisting of radical, contextural, traditional and educational research. Corey’s (1953) was the first writer to focus his work around Educational Action Research and suggested that this form of Action Research is a method of improving practice in school and recommended that practitioners should research their own practices in order to discover ways of improving them.
The 80s resulted in academics/theorists becoming increasingly interested in the area of Action Research. As a result various schools of thought have developed. I will examine the work of two theorists who have published papers on Action Research; those of Elliott and Whitehead who have differing opinions to the best fit approach to conducting Action Research.
Action Research is best conducted by one researcher as oppose to a group of researchers; this is the belief of Whitehead (1985) who argues that due to differences in perceptions between each researcher, the more researchers conducting the research; the less reliable the results. However, Elliott (1991) claims that the ‘best’ Action Research involves groups of people exploring and testing their professional lives. Elliott differentiates between ‘isolated’ and what he terms essentially as collaborative ‘educational’ Action Research because if practitioners reflect away from each other they are more likely to condense Action Research to a form of methodological practices solely for the purpose of developing their own personal skills. ‘Educational’ Action Research as Elliott (1991) refers to is the procedure of examination and allowances of practitioners to develop their skills within the set curriculum structures by being able to analyse and develop them.
Varying characterisations of Action Research procedure exists and of course which subsequently allows for common fundamentals to co exist too. These common fundamentals can be thought of as constituting a ‘bottom line’ in any definition of Action Research. It is agreed that the purpose of Action Research is to enable practitioners to recognise and develop their skills. An essential element of Action Research is that it exists on a personal level to the practitioner and so can easily follow on to the evaluation of situation where the practitioner can use those skills; however this is not the main purpose. Planning, action and reflection upon action is the process for Action Research, therefore this can be seen as an action-reflection ‘cycle’.
Consequently with all research methods there is a pool of criticism around Action Research. While reviewing Action Research literature I found that Action Research has been said to be a very weak example of research as it lacks the integrity of honest scientific research (Foster, 1972) and absent of peripheral control and therefore can be deemed inadequate in its contribution (Merriam and Simpson, 1984).
There is also a risk that practitioners, who conduct the research, dissert their enquiry due to educational demands. Whereas academic researchers have flexible workings patterns and therefore have adequate time to complete the research.
Additionally, exploring appropriate action methods during conducting the research means that Action Research is seen as unreliable for data collection due to its ad hoc planning.
I have provided a brief outline of a variety of theories of Action Research, to conduct a full literature review would exceed the scope of this paper. It is to note that there are many different models of Action Research to choose from as there is not a unified theory of conducting Action Research out there.
Application of Action Research to my study
The area of my study derived from a departmental meeting that was held at the start of the new academic year. The agenda for this meeting was to review the performance of the post Year 11 business students. Although the department achieved a 96% A-C pass rate it was evident that a high proportion of students exceeded their expectations and achieved two grades higher in other GCSE subjects compared to what they achieved in Business Studies. As a result my Head of Department set out the aims for the department to challenge the new cohort of Business Studies’ students to attain a grade higher than their predicted grade.
I devised an action plan that I would implement into my teaching practice to ensure that I achieved the expectations set by my Head of Department. As the target set was assessment driven, I would involve students to peer assess each others work against the assessment criteria. If students were able to understand the content of the work set, this would help them achieve to a higher standard. My previous cohort of students had difficulties with successfully completing higher level questions, as a result failed to capitalise on their full potential.
Initially, I would have proceeded and implemented my actions but after acknowledging Action Research I adopted a different approach. I decided to use Kemmis’s and McTaggart’s (1982 cited in McNiff, 1988) Action Research model as this provided me with a guide to my research. One criticism I have of this model is the aspect that all the phases of the cycle have to occur in stages. I disagree with this and consequently if I can change something during the observational stage, I will change it immediately and not wait until the reflection stage to act on my findings. Hopkins (1993) shares a similar view and mentions that the model can be a useful devise to use but there is a danger that dependency on the model may inhibit independent action.
Upon comparing Kemmis’s and McTaggart’s (1982 cited in McNiff, 1988) model to my previous actions I realised that I had not carried out a great deal of prior planning. As a result these actions were unsuccessful which resulted in me abandoning my plan. Kemmis and MgTaggart (1982) suggested that if the process did not work after reflection then a revised plan should be put into place to achieve the action. This is what I intended to do if my first action failed to come to fruition.
Testing my initial thought- cycle 1 Kemmis and MgTaggart (1982 cited in McNiff, 1988)
During the planning stage of my enquiry I used Elliott’s (1991) and Sagor’s (1992) suggestions on working in collaboration with others. Prior to any reflexive teaching I discussed my initial actions with other colleagues within my department. Through my reconnaissance I delivered a departmental meeting where I discussed my initial idea. The information that derived from this discussion changed my initial thoughts as it was highlighted that possibly the main problem was the students’ written skills which proved to be a barrier for their success in answering higher order questions. As a result this may have been one of the reasons for low student attainment in Business Studies compared to Mathematics. My Head of Department stated that the English GCSE results were 30% lower compared to Mathematics. This was a substantial gap and led me deeper into my ‘fact finding’ Ebbutt (1985)
My action was to find out the opinions to the following two questions:
Why students generally face difficulties when responding to higher level answers?
Do students face similar difficulties when expressing themselves in other subjects, in particular when writing answers to evaluative questions?
I decided that the respondents were to include a selection of Year 11 Business Studies students as they have attempted higher level work throughout the course and Heads of Departments of English and Humanities. Gathering the opinions of the above respondents provided me with a broader understanding of the answers to my questions. Cambell and Fiske (1959) and Webb et al. (1966) (cited in James, 1996) describe my method of data collection as the triangulation process of information gathering consisting of numerous methods studying the same topic. Furthermore, Elliot (cited in James, 1996) specified the triangulation process as gathering varying opinions from the standpoint of those involved within the research. In this situation, myself (the researcher), a selection of my Business Year 11 students and fellow colleagues were part of the triangulation process.
While reading literature on Action Research, I realised that there were several criticisms. One of these criticisms highlighted that those who carry out the research are interested parties in the research. This can hinder the legitimacy of the research process; with accusations of unavoidable researcher bias in data gathering and analysis. I was aware that researcher bias would have some involvement but the outcomes that I believe would derive from my research would far outweigh the criticisms. Lewin (1948) suggested that social practices within a group could only be changed if the social environment could be understood and this would be best achieved by the involvement of the practitioners through the course of the research.
To avoid researcher bias I devised a student questionnaire to obtain answers to my first question (see appendix 1). The questionnaire was completed independently in order to avoid students sharing their opinions which may have affected the validity of my research.
However, I did not use the same method of data collection when attempting to find the answer to my second question. I opted to hold informal discussions with the Heads of Departments. I felt that this was the best method for two reasons; firstly, a deeper understanding of opinions from my colleagues could be gathered, in particular, identifying good practice in which a paper based questionnaire would not offer. Secondly, I wanted to avoid a paper based questionnaire as this would formalise the procedure where I did not want the departmental leaders to feel that I was questioning their departmental actions.
Observing the responses of both departmental heads, I discovered that they both shared the same view; that written language was an issue in particular when the students were attempting higher level questions. Clearly, this was a problem. I then enquired whether any teaching strategies were put into action to overcome these barriers. It was evident that both departments implemented several writing strategies to improve the attainment of the learners. To name a few, scaffolding for the learners and modelling good work were techniques that worked best within the English department. The Head of English also brought to my attention that upon the implementation of these strategies the English grades improved by 15% A-C pass rate compared to the previous year.
The Head of Humanities mentioned that the use of word banks was an essential criterion for her department practitioners to use within their lessons. As a History practitioner herself, she had stated that the use of word banks supported the students, in particular, when writing evaluative answers. It was evident that she wanted to do more to develop her learners and adopt other writing techniques, but the subject content that had to be covered did not allow for any buffer time to implement further writing strategies.
The students’ responses to the first question confirmed the views of the practitioners. The particular response that came to my attention was 8 out of 10 students found Unit 1 more difficult compared with Unit 2. Unit 1, involves a great deal of written work whilst Unit 2, focuses on finance where not a lot of written work is required. This highlights that students are more competent with their work when numerical values were involved as appose to written tasks. Upon reviewing the student grades confirms this view. Besides this, the students that highlighted Unit 1 as the most difficult, the majority of the reasons reviewed were all focused around the written element of the course, however there were two students who mentioned that they did not understand the Business content in particular the higher level work. 9 out of 10 respondents welcomed the idea of more teacher support with their written tasks. Did this mean that students faced some difficulty when they attempted their written work? The answer was yes, as 7 out of 10 students stated that if they were to complete their coursework again, they would improve on their structure and written language.
Cycle 1 of Action Research has allowed me to take on board the views of others when reflecting on my own actions. The responses I collated changed my Action Research enquiry for two reasons; I was now interested in exploring the theories behind writing strategies. Secondly, I wanted to test several writing theories to determine whether the overall grades improved within my subject; this will be the refined focus of my Action Research.
A change in action from my initial idea to overcome student attainment levels using peer assessment towards researching writing strategies is what Elliot describes as the ‘general idea’ being allowed to shift.(cited in Hopkins, 1993). Kemmis & McTaggart (1982 cited in McNiff, 1988) called this stage ‘revised plan’ and this will be discussed within cycle 2.
Writing strategies- cycle 2 Kemmis and MgTaggart (1982 cited in McNiff, 1988)
Many academics have published numerous amounts of articles on topics such as behaviour management and assessment for learning in which writing strategies comes under this well researched group. The research I conducted was mainly desk based, reading through e-journals and web based articles together with academic textbooks. Some of the research I conducted was gathered from industry professionals within our partner schools network.
A definition of writing strategies has two key components; the first was to understand what is writing, which Graves (1983) defines as a means of communicating ideas and information. The second is to define the term strategies. Collins dictionary describe ‘strategy’ as a plan of action to achieve a particular goal.
Reading through various literature sources I have discovered that there has not been a specific connection between writing strategies and the improvement of student attainment within Business Studies. However, there was a large quantity of published literature focusing on literacy in primary and secondary English. I had selected a variety of these strategies that I researched and observed simultaneously. In particular, I wanted to determine whether it was practical to incorporate the research findings within my subject area. The findings of my research are explained below.
Writing process theory
Graves created a five phase process of writing known as the ‘writing process’ (1983) based on his studies of how students write. The first phase involved the pre- writing phase where the writer collects together all the ideas for the piece of writing. Many other writers comment on the importance of this stage, Murry (1982) mentions that 70% of the overall writing time should be spent on the first stage. A reflection on my teaching practices is contrary to Murry’s (1982) view, whereby I allocate the bulk of focus on the actual write up and this is known as the second phase of Graves (1983) writing process. The third phase is when students begin to review their work in terms of content and this is known as the revision phase. This phase has received many criticisms specifically from Hayes and Flowers’ (1980) who emphasised that the students would not be able to review the content of their work without the use of task descriptors that students could compare their own work against. The fourth phase of Graves’ process was to proof read and correct their own work. In order for this stage to be a success the students will need to know what errors and mistakes to look out for. Graves’ focus was on spelling and grammar, however this stage will only work if the students have previously been taught spelling and grammar and how to correct grammatical mistakes. The final stage of the process is the publication stage where the work is submitted and handed in as a final piece of work.
Graves’ work has been influential as the writing process has been embedded within the National Curriculum for English and The National Literacy Strategy (DfEE, 1998). The possible downfall of implementing this strategy is that it could be time-consuming as the bulk of my time would be spent on teaching writing skills instead of business theory. However, National Assessment of Educational Process (1998, cited in The Writing Process Report, 2007) surveyed approximately 160,000 students nationwide and discovered that students who spent more time during the first stage of the writing process achieved higher results compared to those that did not plan beforehand. If I was to adopt this approach I would incorporate Hayes and Flowers’ view towards the writing process where I would ensure students are able compare their written content against clear task descriptors which need to be explained beforehand.
Scaffolding learners is another theory that originates from Lev Vygotsky’s socio-cultural theory (1962). Scaffolding is an instructional strategy that involves supporting novice learners by limiting the complexities of the context and gradually removing those limits as learners gain the knowledge, skills, and confidence to cope with the full complexity of the context (Young, 1993).
Vygotsky’s work was concerned around Zones of Actual Development (ZAD) and Zones of Proximinal Development (ZPD). The ZAD student is one that is able to complete his/ her work to a high standard without any supervision. This student is competent in completing the work on their own as he/she have previously mastered these skills. This may explain why the students in my Action Research are not able to complete higher level tasks as they have not mastered the appropriate skills to accomplish work at this level. The mastered skills in question to my research are focused around writing and restricting some students towards the ZPD stage.
Another similar theory which derived from Vygotsky research was the ‘Teaching and Learning Cycle (TLC)’ (2007). Compared to the three stages of Vygotsky (see appendix 2), the Teaching and Learning Cycle includes an additional stage which is ‘setting the context stage’ (see appendix 3) which is integrated before the four stages put forward by Vygotsky. This stage allows the practitioner to review what the students already know about the particular topic area. This is a useful model to follow and input within my research as I feel as previously I did not assess the students’ prior knowledge when setting higher level work, I assumed that most students already had this pool of knowledge to hand and could attempt the set task. Using this approach within my teaching practice I would gain feedback. Upon gathering this information I would be able to determine the level of understanding gained by the students which would give me an opportunity to iron out any misconceptions that they may hold surrounding the subject content.
Writing frames provide a structure that allows the students to communicate what they want to express. These frames can be classed as a method of scaffolding. Wray & Lewis (1997) researched around the use of writing frames and concluded that writing frames are a useful tool to use to develop the learners writing. Initially, the research was primarily focused around literacy but further research into this area by Wray and Lewis (1998) led them to publish practical examples of the implementation of writing frames in Maths and Science. Looking through the examples within this text, there are two resources which I could possibly integrate into my Action Research thus focusing on persuasion (see appendix 4) and the discussion (see appendix 5) of work. I feel that these frames are useful to support students when answering higher level questions; in particular when they have to discuss their own views and in some cases writing in a persuasive manner. Also, analysing the writing frames I have noticed there is a frequent use of connectives to support the learner. This idea is useful as some students in my research investigation struggle when writing extended pieces and becomes confusing.
Wray and Lewis (1998) also highlight that writing frames engage students, helping them to start promptly by avoiding students being presented with a blank page which for the weaker writers in my class is unappealing. Furthermore, Wray and Lewis (1998) make a valid point that through classroom discussions students are able to express themselves as they receive discussion prompts which gives them confidence and a writing frame is similar to this. Thinking back to my teaching practices, I do agree with this view as students were confident when expressing themselves through classroom discussions but struggled when answering similar questions during written tasks. There are many classroom based studies by practitioners on writing frames suggesting the usefulness of this tool. One classroom based study conducted by Steve Adderley at Castleway Primary School (2000, cited at standards.dfes.gov.uk) was relevant as the focal point of the research was to determine whether student attainment increased as a result of implementing writing frames. The study concluded that writing frames improved the boys literacy and were best utilised when they were demonstrated by the practitioner. Demonstration is a form of scaffolding, described by Vygotsky as modelling (cited in Young, 1993). In a nutshell the school based study identified that modelling and writing frames go hand in hand.
I believe that the implementation of writing frames will be a useful provision for me to trial and ultimately determine whether they improve the academic success of my students. However, I would need to be cautious as the risk is that students may become reliant on the use of writing frames and struggle when this tool is not used. If I was to implement writing frames I would after several successful attempts remove them slowly, giving less help each time and determine whether the students have learnt the necessary skills in order for them to confidently write higher level answers independently.
According to Quandt (1973) word banks is a process where students or practitioners write key words on a piece of paper or card that will be referred to at a later date. Quandt (1973) argues that the use of word banks will develop the learners if they write the key words down themselves. Anything that was written down by the child becomes personal to them, therefore they are more likely to understand the word. His work focused around primary education, in particular researching whether word banks enhanced students ‘reading’ level. Reading around his work enabled me to consider whether the use of this tool helped support higher level writing within my subject. I was still sceptical whether this method worked as there was not a great deal of published material to confirm my initial idea of whether word banks supported writing.
To overcome this, I contacted an old work colleague who is the Head of English at a partner school. I chose to collaborate with this school as it had gained excellent English results in 2008. The demographics of the student background were similar to my school. During my meeting, I asked whether word banks were useful to support writing. The response was that word banks do help with writing but is not the means to an end as the practitioner will need to teach the content so students understand the work. He continued by mentioning that word banks are only helpful if students are able to understand the key words they wrote. A risk is that students will not be able to express themselves appropriately using the key words due to not understanding their meanings which will result in the written work yet again become confusing.
The insight into word banks was useful as it enabled me to determine whether it could be integrated within my teaching practice. The information I had gathered through theory based and field research concluded that word banks were a helpful tool to support learning. Writing higher level answers does require the student to have a good applied knowledge of the key business terms applicable to the question. I think this tool may be useful to prompt students to use the key words when completing their work. However, if I was to use word banks I must ensure that prior to this students have a solid understanding of the key business terms.
The Head of Department for Business Studies set out the aims for my department to challenge the new cohort of Business Studies students to attain a grade higher than their predicted grade. To try to achieve this I decided to introduce peer assessment within my teaching practice. Action Research has enabled me to explore my initial problem from a different perspective; as a result, I changed my first action of peer assessment and shifted focus towards writing strategies. If I failed to gain a deeper understanding through my reconnaissance I would have had revert back to my initial plan. Through collaboration with students and colleagues, it was evident that writing is the prevalent benefactor towards poor student attainment. Having had the opportunity to conduct further reconnaissance within the area of writing and upon analysis of this information it is now apparent that the use of writing strategies play an important role towards increasing student attainment. Following on from my analysis, I had a conversation with my Head of Department about the implementation of writing strategies within Business Studies. It was decided in order to measure the success of my actions, I would need to trial this with class 10B who are of mixed ability and have recently started the BTEC Business course.
Leading on from the discussion, I intend to implement three writing strategies within 10B Business Studies in order to determine whether student attainment increases to a grade higher than their predicted grade. Coulter (2002) describes my Action Research as a praxis form where the end results are not certain. I will continue with Kemmis’s and McTaggart’s cycle of Action Research (1982 cited in McNiff, 1988) and move into cycle 3; however cycle 3 will not be the end as I believe that my proposed action will be a continual cycle of planning, acting, observing, reflecting and re-planning. This is because I now have the motivation and drive to become a reflexive practitioner and move away from being a reflective practitioner, Elliott (1995).
Future plan of action
As highlighted earlier, I will move into cycle 3 of my Action Research. For my future plan of action I have adapted McNiff and Whiteheads (2006) guidelines on questions to consider when pursuing Action Research to my own questions. Upon which I have produced an overview table below that will be useful to start me off with the next phase of my Action Research.
What will I do about my concern?
I will intend to implement writing frames, scaffolding and word banks with class 10B.
I feel all the mediums above can be implemented individually as all have their own benefits. However, I feel after examining each of the writing strategies I will simultaneously integrate all these tools into my lessons. The reason for this approach is I will be able to use the ‘TLC’ as and outline when planning my lessons and the Graves writing processes, Wray & Lewis’s writing frames, alongside word banks can all be integrated within the TLC.
How will I determine the success of my implementation?
I will use quantitative data to measure the success of my actions. This will be judged through coursework that students have produced for Unit 1. This unit represents 40% of the overall grade of the entire course. I have decided to use this data as this I will be able to obtain this information before the write up of my second assignment.
I will compare the students’ results with their predicted grades (see appendix 6) to see if the students have achieved a grade higher than their predicted grade. For validity purposes, I will compare the grades with my other YR10 mixed ability class to determine whether writing strategies have played apart towards increasing student grade. Class 10A (see appendix 7) is the other class that I teach will not have writing strategies integrated within their lessons. To overcome the criticism that every class is different and that comparing data with another class is not feasible, I will also conduct a student questionnaire to judge the effectiveness towards the implementation of the various writing strategies.
How will I ensure my analysis of the above data is fair?
To ensure the effectiveness of my action I will collect qualitative data by gathering the views of the student’s from class 10B to see if their experience of writing strategies has improved their written skills. This data will be gathered through a questionnaire. Gathering this information will also strengthen the validity of my analysis.
My approach of data collection is supported by Elliot (1995) who suggests the importance of gathering data from other points of view for comparison purposes.
What potential problems should I be aware of that are outside of my control?
Student frequent absenteeism could affect the outcome of my study as the coursework produced may be of poor quality anyway. However, this will only be a potential problem if a high number of students were absent as the data gathered will not be sufficient to make any final conclusions.
Adderley, S. (2000). Investigating the Teaching of Writing Frames: Raising Standards in Writing. (online article) Available at
http://www.standards.dfes.gov.uk/ntrp/lib/pdf/adderley.pdf. Date accessed 14/01/2010
Calhoun, E. (1994). How to use Action Research in the Self-Renewing School. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development
Corey, S. M. (1953). Action research to improve school practices, New York, Columbia
Coulter, D. (2002). What counts as action in education action research. Educational Action Research 10(2), pp189-206
DEPARTMENT FOR EDUCATION AND EMPLOYMENT. (1998). The National Literacy Strategy: Framework for teaching. London: Department for Education and Employment
Ebbutt, D. (1985). Educational Action research: some general concerns and specific quibbles, in: Burgess, R. (ed.) Issues in Educational Research: qualitative methods. Lewes, Falmer
Elliott, J. (1991). Action Research for Educational Change. Milton Keynes: Open University Press
Elliott, J. (1995). What is Good Action Research? – Some Criteria. The Action Researcher, 2, pp.10-11
Foster, M. (1972). An Introduction to the Theory and Practice of Action Research in Work Organizations. Human Relations 25(6). pp.529-56
Graves, D. (1983). Writing: Practitioners and Children at Work. Portsmouth, N.H, Heinemann
Hayes, J.R. & Flower, L.S. (1980). Identifying the organisation of writing processes. in GREGG, L.W. and STEINBURG, E.R.(Eds.), Cognitive Processes in Writing. Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erl
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