I wrote this report based on my first cycle “How can I help my students become more active in class” (see www.actionresearch.net/moira.shtml), in which I explored the ways the New Curriculum’s emphasis on students’ activity interacted with my own educational values, and from which it also raised the further questions:
So the cycle continues, showing a change in thinking as well as a change in action (Jean Mcniff, 2001). Therefore, I started the second cycle of my action research form these enquires in the same class I taught before. In this paper, I’ll show readers and colleagues more about how my educational values formed or are forming with the influence of my family’s values in education. In addition, I’ll represent the students’ gradual progress with the help of student-centered methods that I practiced in class in line with New Curriculum. I will not claim that my teaching is completely student-centered style after my second cycle of AR. What I am presenting to the reader in this paper is simply how my learning process has helped the process of my students’ learning, including their awareness of personal responsibility for their own studies.
My family: My father was a technician in the government-office of agriculture. I mention my father first not just because he is my father - although fathers are the centers of power in most Chinese families - but because he had a great effect on every member of our big extended family. I will never forget his long and back-breaking observation of corn leaves in my uncle’s farmland even though I was very young; I will never forget my uncle’s gratitude for his instructions for a scientific approach to planting corn and potatoes. It was he who convinced the whole family that the knowledge is productivity. He was the first university student from a very remote village. At that time, having a college student in the family meant everything for it was a seed of hope. He himself told us the seed would grow up, blossom and bear fruit in order to reward those people who had given the seed nutrition. I perceive now he really placed a huge value on hard work, knowledge and strong personal responsibility. My mother was a nurse. She was quite similar to my father in the sense that she overcame many hardships in order to have the opportunity to learn for herself. She had a deep belief that one could be competent and independent in, and available to, society only by being armed with knowledge. When I finished my three-year college life in Guyuan Teachers’ college, I knew I should find a job and reduce the family burden, but she encouraged and supported me to get further education in Ningxia University. All this lingered in my mind and made me realize that not only should I study hard to gain knowledge, but that everyone ought to consider the family and the people around them rather than simply oneself.
Starting in my teens, I was often to be found taking care of my cousins; I played with them; I studied with them; we did homework together. As I’m the oldest I helped them with any difficulties in their studies in the way a teacher would. My aunt and my mother often praised me, because they thought I was being considerate to them and was sharing part of family affairs. It seemed to me that this was my way of doing something for m family. I was as proud of myself as my father was of me. I cannot necessarily say my early experiences made me want to be an English teacher in the future, but the moment I had to choose my major in college, I realized it did have a crucial effect on my decision. Teachers, I thought, had to be knowledgeable and able to help students gain knowledge, and this, after all, is what I’d schooled myself in when young. When I entered college and majored in English Education, I was supposed to be rehearsing my time as a real teacher for the future. To that end, therefore, I spent almost every vacation teaching my cousins English. I helped them review what they had learnt in school, and then asked them to learn something new for the new term’s programme. I wanted them to be excellent in study, because I cared about them: in my hometown, an area quite poor in everything, especially education, the only way for us to be independent and useful was to study well and go to college. Once my aunt said that Ruirui (my cousin) wouldn’t do very well in school learning if not for me. This thrilled my mind and made me feel a strong responsibility and pride as a family member, and I then realized that if I were a real school teacher, I could help more and my life would be even more meaningful.
I’m sure now, as I write this, it is my father himself and my mother’s belief in the power of education that led to my desire for knowledge, and gave me a sense of responsibility for myself and for others. My early experiences as a tutor may also partly account for my decision to become a teacher. That is to say, personal achievements lies in helping others gain achievement. All of the above, I believe, have motivated me to become a teacher in Guyuan Teacher’s college, and later to be an action researcher in our AR Centre.
Further Understanding of Teaching Knowledge with the help of AR
It seems to me so logical that a teacher isn’t a good teacher if students can’t learn knowledge from her. Teachers’ responsibilities require them to teach students in order that they might learn something worthwhile. Bearing responsibility as a teacher in mind, I started my teaching practice with the question “what do I want to help students learn today? before every lesson, and with that in mind, I followed several steps:
l Before the class, I prepared my lessons very carefully and thoroughly. In my lesson plan, I placed emphasis on the quantity of knowledge I could teach my students. I noted down every usage of all the new words in order to remind students to master them.
l In the class, I introduced cultural information to the students and then led students through the text of grammatical sentences in class. I wanted to paraphrase some difficult words or sentences on grammatical points.
l After class, I asked them to do some post-discussion about the text and some vocabulary exercises and translation as written work. Later I told the students how to improve their homework after I had checked them.
I believed I succeeded in delivering the necessary knowledge to the students. As a result, I did all the work and explained the troublesome points in learning; I found I was much more involved in learning; the students became more and more quiet; I learnt a lot but I’m not sure the students did. But I really want to help my students learn a lot but was actually causing part of the problem. I am in this sense my own ‘living contradiction’ (Whitehead, 1989).
AR guides me to research myself and my students concerning any problems in the learning process, then to find relevant and appropriate ways to improve the actions, and finally to evaluate the ways I used in order to know whether my problems were solved. In the AR Center, we colleagues often share problems in doing research:
“We share each other’s joy when a problem is found to have a solution. And when our research comes to the end, we become evaluators and “critics” to that work. So, the colleagues have become helpers, supporters and simulators in an individual’s professional development,” (Wang, 2005).
I began to benefit in this learning environment. I realized I had to make some changes in my teaching. I started to prepare my lesson with the general question “How can I help my students learn more today”,
I began to realise there wasn’t anything wrong with teaching knowledge as a teacher, but there was something wrong with the way of teaching knowledge I was trying to employ. Could I, for example, really expect to be able to teach my students all the required knowledge in three years? What students really needed, it seemed to me, was how to gain knowledge by themselves. I even questioned my father’s kind of knowledge in finding the proper approach to planting crops without helping others to apply experiential knowledge to the lived situation over the years.
“Education aims to foster lifelong learning and enable the students to transfer knowledge and abilities to their life’s experience. Knowledge is never static or complete; it is in a constant process of development as new understandings emerge,”
I believe I gained new understanding of the nature of teaching-knowledge from my own exploration of that knowledge.
My Understanding of Action research and New Curriculum
In 2002, China put forward its “New English Curriculum” for English Language education from primary school to university. The new rationale reads like this:
The aims of learning a foreign language are not be limited to master of knowledge and skills in the foreign language. Like other school subjects such as Math, Music, Art and Physical Education, foreign languages are part of the overall development of all students. Through learning a foreign language, students can enrich their experience of life, broaden their world vision, and enhance their critical thinking skills. Language learning is most effective when students’ interest, motivation and attitudes are taken into consideration. New learning strategies should be incorporated into the language curriculum, so that students can become autonomous learners, which is fundamental for lifelong learning. Evaluation should be summative and formative and designed and administered to encourage the learners rather than frustrate them. It should be carried out in terms of what students can do rather than what they cannot do. (Laidlaw, 2005)
The principle aim of the New Curriculum for the teacher of English is to help the students ‘move from competence to performance’ (Chen, 2002). ‘Competence’ is about what the students know in their minds, their theoretical knowledge, in other words. ‘Performance’ refers to what it is that the students can do with that theoretical knowledge. ‘Performance’ refers to what is practical, useful, creative and imaginative. Our jobs as teachers are to find ways to help the students’ knowledge become active, practical, flexible and responsive, rather than inactive, theoretical, inflexible and imitative. Students need to learn how they can control their own knowledge, use it differently in different situations, and be able to make their own decisions about how they learn, (op.cit).
The New Curriculum (NC) brings out a lot of new teaching and learning approach changes as well as challenges.
It advocates student-centered as opposed to teacher-centered; participatory as opposed to passive; experiential as opposed to rote; flexible as opposed to pre-determined, (op.cit).
Over the last three years, my observations have taught that Action Research has opened our minds to the new changes in the NC. Through knowing and doing AR, it has led me closer to the requirements of New Curriculum step by step, but the teaching approaches are not limited to one certain model. Action Research and the New Curriculum both stress the importance of learning by doing, discovery-learning, autonomy as an important goal in the learning process and the benefits of collaborative approaches to learning (Tian & Laidlaw, 2006). The teacher is allowed to try any reasonable way to solve problems in teaching and learning until the problems are solved. In the process of doing action research in my class, the students were being expected to make progress in learning how to use language well and I was hoping to improve my ability to develop a real interactive learning atmosphere for them to do so. The following commentary is about the research I undertook, in which I will show how the teaching and learning, in line with New Curriculum, were improved, accompanied by my self-reflections.
What did I want to improve?
I started my second cycle of AR in the same class of Integrated Skills of English. There are three parts in each unit: Listening and Speaking, Comprehension and Extended Activities. I worked on the second part of this textbook and wanted to help my students become more engaged in reading comprehension. I started this research from the beginning of the second year English majors in our department and finished it in a year.
Why was I concerned?
My second AR question came from my first cycle of AR question How can I help my students become more active in class? In terms of my insight into the values of AR, I learnt that the aim of education in a class was to improve students’ learning rather than the teachers’ teaching. Dr. Moira Laidlaw once told me after she observed my class:
Your students are so delighted with what they are seeing. Let’s use this delight in helping them learn more…In terms of making the students more active, I think you can extend the use of the following e.g self-evaluation (in more detail, with you giving guiding questions to help them); getting the students to ask you questions, rather than the teacher-centered method of you asking all the questions; …
My responsibility told me that I want to help my students learn more. Though I could show some evidence in the first AR paper that the students became active; Zhang Fangling, my colleague, who taught listening for my students, told me that she found my students appeared more active than the term before, some of my teaching ways prevented students from learning more. I do not want to encourage my students to depend too much on me without thinking independently. I do need to improve my teaching as well as learning. I believe so long as the students were the centre in the classroom teaching, they could learn more.
The second part of Reading Comprehension of Integrated Skills of English takes up half of the given teaching hours in a unit. On the one hand, it plays an important role for student’s language input. It is hoped that students will be skilful at using the linguistic rules. On the other hand, students are expected to express their ideas correctly and appropriately in the natural learning settings while they are getting information from reading. I wanted to improve my practice of learner-centered teaching in this part in order to help the students with their language performance.
Therefore, I formulated my second AR question: How can I help my students become more centered in reading comprehension of Integrated Skills of English?
A brief introduction to the students I taught:
To start with, I will give more information about my students. It is a lovely class. The twenty-eight students came from the nearby county or provinces. Their ages ranged from 19 to 21 years old. Most students’ family economic conditions were not affluent. They carried their families’ hopes and wanted to be financially independent after graduation. I really understood their situation. But they still remained the shining characters of their localities. They were uniformly kind, friendly, open-minded and diligent. I enjoyed teaching them. Maybe because I was also young I found most students liked to make jokes with me and told me that I was more like their elder sister. Anyway, we were able to learn in a very sound atmosphere.
I would like to focus on three students in this paper. They are Zhao Caihua, Zhou Peng and Luo Jianbing. I have chosen them for different reasons. Zhao Caihua was often quiet and seldom volunteered to speak in the class. Whenever I asked her to answer questions, she seemed unable to. However, I found out she often spent more hours on learning than others. I decided I could help her adjust her learning habits in terms of becoming more student-centered in class.
I chose Luo Jianbing, because of his introverted nature, and general low language-acquisition. I cared about him and hoped he could make progress in the limited college-study period.
Zhou Peng was a very clever student. In my first cycle, I found he was very active in some performance activities, such as role-play, drama competition; but quite passive in activities, which required more speaking in English and thinking. I wanted him to realize that he had to be responsible for his own learning no matter whether he liked to be or not.
What did I do for my AR?
I reflected on myself and my students again. In the first year, as I taught reading comprehension, I mainly delivered the knowledge for the students as I have said above. The students’ tasks in class were just to listen to the teacher and take notes, the interaction between reader and writer, students and teacher being restricted to the usage of language only. Even when the students were asked to do some discussion or paraphrase the key sentences in a text, it became a repetition of the teacher’s words in another form. It did not have any communicative value to my mind. So, I consulted some academic books about teaching reading. Shu (1992) wrote:
A general principle of most education is to proceed from the known the known (Brumfit, 1978). However, the traditional classroom procedure starts from the unknown, believing that if the teacher does note explain the new language items to the class, the students would not be able to learn or know anything. This teacher-initiative procedure treats learners as passive recipients of knowledge. They don’t have to take any responsibility for their own learning.
It was exactly what was happening in my class. I was also told what a good reading habit could be and given some possible solutions to any problems I might have been experiencing in that area:
We can set the students some tasks so that they are provided with a purpose or a reason for reading, …because the tasks make the language learning process meaningful and purposeful… Students do the exercise while reading the passage: read the title of the text; skim the text quietly, looking for keywords in the text. Use all the typographical indications, their precious knowledge, cognates and repeated words. Then write down, in no more than fifteen words, the main theme of the text.
In addition I observed Dr Moira Laidlaw’s Teaching Methodology Course for grade three students on the Monday evening sessions for most of the term. I had thought in a Methodology Course the students would learn the advanced pedagogic theories from the teacher’s lecture and the current teaching methods with their own practice. In Dr. Laindlaw’s teaching, however, I seldom saw the teacher telling the students any theories at all and what advantages and disadvantages of different methodologies might be. What I experienced in her teaching were that the students had enough chances to experience teaching-situations themselves and gaining knowledge of teaching by doing, plus self- and peer-evaluations.
On Nov. 24, when Ma Xiaoyan, a grade three student in Moira’s class, finished her 25 minutes’ micro-teaching, the self- and peer- evaluation followed. She said:
I drew the pictures for teaching in order to give the students visional impression of the new words and text. I organized pair and group work for letting the students practice more. … But There were lack some real communicative activities in class. For example, I should lead the students talk with each other their real story about the topic in the text today.
For peer-evaluation some of the students noticed that she didn’t show the picture round to everyone and they reminded her of that. Another student pointed out that perhaps it wasn’t easy for Junior One students to learn vocabulary in the way she was suggesting because she has been a tutor herself and that method hadn’t worked then either! That was so good because it was a reflection on a real situation and not an imagined one. I could see the students were gaining living insights about teaching language by teaching and learning themselves. It dawned on me that from doing educational action research, Moira had influenced the future teachers in their self-reflection and led them to gain the knowledge from their own teaching practice. I could sense her strong passion for students and education. I shared lots of evening with Dr. Laidlaw in discussions of the progress of students that we could see in her class. And also from discussion with her, my ideas about responsibility were refreshed. The way I take responsibility for myself and for students now has become a process of enabling students to take responsibility for themselves. But back to the story…
During this whole process of learning from books and from Moira I took actions in my own practice. I made some changes from my previous teaching reading:
l I headlined the focus in every lesson on the blackboard. Before class, I asked students to consult their reference books to get some background information by themselves, which they were expected to exchange during the lesson with their peer group.
l The students took more pair work and group work for pre-discussion and exchanging of background information. A questioning method was more employed in the teaching and learning the text.
l I asked the students to do some challenging exercises in order to consolidate what they had learnt in class and asked them to give feedback and evaluation to each other.
In addition, I would evaluate whether every change in my teaching was helpful in moving towards a solution to my concern with two unchanging aspects:
1. I could achieve my educational aims through each change of my teaching-methods in class.
2. The students’ self-study abilities were gradually improving.
More details of changes in my class and the evidence I collected that the students were becoming the center of teaching in class:
First, I reversed classroom procedure from ‘Presentation-Drill-Practice in context’ to ‘Free Communication-Presentation-Drill if Necessary’ to provide opportunity for real communication. I put the discussion before the detailed study of the text. I wanted to place the students in a situation where they might need to use language not yet taught; they would have to search for circumlocutions, to search their own memories for items long ago learnt to express their ideas; they were not to be confined by ‘the correct answer’ by the teacher; they were to have more freedom to extend their interpretations and imaginations and could also draw on their fellow students’ ideas to develop their own thinking.
The following descriptions will show my educational aims in action.
When the students had a pre-discussion for a text entitled My Father in book III, Ma Ling Fang showed us a very logical understanding about the generation gap:
As we all know, generation gap have to happen in any generations, because as time goes on, every generation’ experiences are quite different. The young generation’s minds are always occupied by some new things and they like to keep pace with the modern world. The old generation sometimes cannot agree with their cloth style, hair style and some habits. So, as far as I am concerned, parents should recall their youth a lot, and then they will understand their children. At the same time, the children shouldn’t always argue with parents and try to talk with them. For example, Wang Yongling (a student in their group) said, if my mother complaints my clothe style, I kept silent and don’t argue with her at the moment. After several days, I’ll tell my mother I like it and she seems to accept that. So, we should give our parents enough time to accept something new.
Ma Lingfang’s employed some expressions such as be occupied by, as far as I am concerned, complained in her speech, which are the key phrases and words in Unit 1 Book I and Unit 10 Book II. I was also impressed by her consideration of group members. That she mentioned her group mate showed the class that their discussion was useful.
On a Friday afternoon, as the students had finished exchanging their ideas about how appearance can influence a person, Ma Ling Fang, Lu Wenji, and Xie Juan came to the class and gave their groups’ feedback that people shouldn’t be judged by their appearance and people’s inner beauty should be more carefully attended to. The moment Xie Juan had finished her words, Zhao Wengang stood up and said, “Can I ask you some questions?” I realised the class seemed a little bit surprised, but so was I. Zhao Wengang went on after gaining permission:
Zhao Wengang: Can I say in English?
Liu Hui: English would be perfect (smile).
Zhao Wengang: If you have to choose one of the two boys as your boy friend, they have the same inner beauty (He hesitated and say it in Chinese) but one is handsome and the other is ugly, which one will you choose?
The whole class laughed, and I was also delighted by their ideas.
Xie Juan: …I don’t want to have a boyfriend now, if you choose your girlfriend, so how about you?
Zhao Wengang: to be honest, I will choose the beautiful girl.
One of the boy student shouted: So, you choose Yang Xiao
Then, some students joined the debate to support Xie Juan and some supported Zhao Wengang. I could see every student was delighted and paid attention to the speakers.
It came to me that language learning comes about through using language communicatively (Krashen, ?); to learn a language, the students themselves must go through the process of learning. The teachers’ job is only to provide the ‘condition’ for this process (Li Xiaoju, 1983).
However, as the pre-reading discussion in pairs or in groups went on in my class, the questions also arose. I found half of them were always trying to express their ideas in English; some still talked with each other in their native language; several of them were even chatting, but when I came near to them, they pretended to talk something about the text; when they were asked to say their personal understanding about discussion topic in front of the class, it was always the same students who volunteered to speak. Because we had shared a year in teaching and learning, I knew them well. I supposed the passive participation of some of the students resulted in negative attitudes towards free speech and a lack of awareness of responsibility for their own study. I thought I should do something about this now.
After a pre-reading discussion on a Wednesday afternoon, I asked the students to share their ideas with each other, but the class became so quiet and nobody came to the front to say something. Generally, I directed someone to speak, but I didn’t that day. I waited and waited: almost 6 minutes passed, Huang Juyan stood up and said,
‘I want to try?’
Both fluency and accuracy in her speaking were perfect. Then I asked the students to give her warm applause. I also exchanged my ideas about our responsibility for family. I told them:
Today I spent six minutes waiting for you to speak in class. I don’t think it is a waste of time. Because Huang Juyan has proved it was very worthwhile. I said that not only because of her perfect English, but her courage and her strong responsibility for herself. Shall we applause for her again? (applause)Now I want to chat with you about our responsibilities for your family because you often told me you cared for your family very much.
They kept quiet, but I saw they were very attentive. So I continued:
Please believe me that I am not criticizing you. I just want to know how you can connect your study here with your responsibility for family. I love my family too and my mother so much. Life is so hard for our parents’ generation. They really gave us a lot. My mother often said to me it was rewarding as she saw I became independent and capable in my job. So, for me, I think my responsibility for family is to take responsibility for myself and do well in what I am doing now. To make it concrete, that is to be responsible in my teaching work. If she knew that today in my class I really helped you learn something, my mother would be very satisfied with me. So, how are you responsible for you family?
I did not ask the students to say anything detail about their responsibility, for I didn’t want to make them feel that I was treating them as primary students by feeding them moral knowledge. However, from the expressions on their faces, I believed that at least I reminded them that speaking voluntarily in class is one of the ways to take responsibility for themselves.
Later in the following discussion, I found some slight changes. More students participated in group-work. Zhao Caihua did not always listen to others and spoke to her peers sometimes. Luo Jianbing seemed to be confused in group-work. I found he often asked his desk-mate what I had asked them to discuss. I considered that it showed he has cared about the discussion, though, by trying to communicate with his friends. Zhou Peng still kept silent. But I found he was attentive to the discussion and seldom seemed distracted from the lesson.
Secondly, ‘Reading is essentially a “top-down”’ process, whereby the reader samples the text visually, making use of background knowledge…. To understand, the reader has to proceed reasonably fast if “tunnel vision” is to be avoided’ (Scott, 1984:115).
Nattall (1982) also points out:
‘All good readers faced with a difficult text will move from global to detailed interpretation and back again many times during the course of their work on it, as each kind of interpretation supports the other.’ (p.151)
When I ask the students to read in class, I found 80% of them were held up by problems of vocabulary and grammar, and prone to word-by-word reading, thus developing a tunnel vision approach to the passage. From my own experiences, the readers easily lost interest in reading. To make the students see both the wood and the trees, I needed to train them to cope, to use a top-down strategy, applying their background knowledge and hypotheses about textual meaning to the full without looking up the dictionary. Then I asked the students to do reading comprehension before the text rather than afterwards. Usually comprehension questions are placed at the end of a passage. Students read the text carefully before they answer these questions and by doing so they know how much they have understood the text and where their problems were located. However, these questions served only as a means of testing reading comprehension. They didn’t teach the students how to read. By asking the students to use top-down strategies and read the questions first, I hoped they would sense the following and gradually they were implicitly taught the techniques of reading.
To be honest, so far I don’t have any powerful evidence to show my students’ reading efficiency was improved. I did interview some of the students to talk about the top-down strategy, however, after I had strengthened this method in their reading for half a term. I prepared the outline of my questions in advance:
1. How do you often read the text in Integrated Skills course?
2. Do you have any changes now? If yes, what are they?
3. What reading method do you prefer now and why?
4. What do you think I can do for your reading?
Here are some extracts of their ideas:
Ma Jia: I don’t like look up dictionary while reading. But sometimes I consult the lexicon page for new vocabularies if the text is so hard for me. …I like top-down strategy better. Actually, in my former reading, I use it. In our extensive reading cause, we have been introduced by this method. But I don’t know it is called top-down strategy. …you can help us analyze the structure of the text, which will improve our understanding.
Chen Yabing: I feel the same. I can’t understand the text without looking up dictionary. But with reading question first, if I could find the answers, I felt I can understand some. In face, I think my vocabulary is so poor. So, I …
Zhao Caihuo: …I think I couldn’t understand the latter if I couldn’t understand the former. So generally I read word by word, paragraph by paragraph. But you ask us several times to give up this method. I tried top-down strategy. It can save my time, but I still confused after reading. Miss Liu, what’s wrong with that?…maybe my vocabulary was so poor. …
Zhou Peng: …I think the method you teach us is more efficient. So, I like the top-strategy. In my reading, I found I could suddenly understand some clues at the end of the text.
It showed me that students were getting some benefits of top-down reading method to some extents, which meet some of my standards for evaluation in forming good reading habits. But I was not sure they have formed the good reading habits. I told my concern to Yao Xiangli, an experienced teacher in teaching reading course in the department almost for 8 years. He said to me:
To form good reading habits need long time. It involves a lots aspect. You have to consider the difficulty degree of reading materials and the present reading capabilities of your students. To a large scale, our students have formed their own reading habits; maybe theirs are best for them. Maybe theirs needs to be improved, but we have to know them well and then give them the most helpful suggestions. …
I learned that I needed do more investigation and maybe to help students form a good reading habit would become my next AR question.
Thirdly, when the further study of learning in text came, I put questioning methods into practice. In other words, I devised tasks through which students could devise questions of me and each other. Students were asked to solve the questions in pairs or in groups. Sometimes, they raised questions about reading for each other group and competent to solve them in groups; sometimes they asked me questions and alternatively I supervised their learning by questioning them. Mainly based on group-work and this kind of questioning method, I also asked students to do some task-orientated activities. For example, each group had a task for discussing the theme, character, attitude, purpose, or style:
Task-oriented teaching makes the language learning process meaningful and purposeful because the ‘tasks’ provide ‘actual meaning’ to the learning, (Shu, 1992).
By doing the above, the students become more active than before. At the end of the first term, I collected the students’ feedback about questioning. Here are their comments:
Li Jing wrote: The questioning method gave us more chance to practice in class. It cam make our learning more active. We could learn in use in an entertaining and pleasant atmosphere. … I think your teaching is improving.
One student wrote: Your teaching methods are very flexible. You tried questioning to lead us learn autonomously and provide us more space to show ourselves.
Another student wrote: I like talk with group member and solve problems by ourselves. It can improve our interests and our self-study ability. But I don’t always feel safe about my understanding of some sentences in the text and even I couldn’t combine every paragraph together. Our questions are just focused on grammar and sentence meaning. Sometimes, it was boring to ask questions.
Wang Yongling wrote: The questioning method is a new way, but a lot of language points will be neglected. It is not as clear as Miss Liu explained it. We waste time. I ‘d rather you lead us learn the text.
Honestly speaking, I had the same worries as the students. Their critical-thinking made me reflected a lot. My students and I had been controlled by teacher-centered methods for many years. I do believe our education now aimed to foster lifelong learning and enable the students to transfer knowledge and abilities to their life’s experience. Students couldn’t understand what they were supposed to do in the activities when it came to expressing themselves, however. They needed time to adjust to the new learning atmosphere in the same way that teachers need time to improve their teaching. In addition,
“It is rare to encounter a classroom that is a pure version of one or other of these teaching styles as none of them fully satisfied all the needs of any real class of students: nevertheless they provide convenient reference points for the discussion of language teaching.” (Cook, 2000:174)
So, I believed that students could benefit from a diversity of teaching methods. And questioning, as a learner-centered method should be made use of more efficiently. For example, I should improve the students’ abilities to ask questions and encourage them to solve problems by themselves more often.
I talked with my colleague Wang Shuqin in an AR meeting on 7, April. I was impressed so much by her words:
…Students learn much more in teaching by questioning and task-based learning than teacher telling knowledge to students.…
Later, I also exchanged ideas with Moira. She was very affirming with Miss Wang’s ideas. She also stressed the idea that both the teacher and students are lifelong learners. They need learn by themselves. She also suggested that students themselves would prove my ways could help them learn more or not as the case may be. When I collected the following evidence, I really felt excited and my belief in teaching the students how to learn felt more assured.
Carolyn, a foreign teacher in our department, observed my teaching of Integrated Skills of English on Wednesday afternoons for most of the term. She talked with me after her observation every time. She gave me feedback and asked me some questions about her own study. She commented in her feedback to me:
When the teacher asked if the students had questions, they usually responded by reading a sentence or phrase and then looking at the teacher. The teacher often responded by encouraging the students to ask more specific questions. She (It is me) did this by asking: “what is it you don’t understand?” “Which word prevents you from understanding?” “What is your exact question?” The students then said “meaning and structure” or “meaning and grammar.” One student asked the following question in reference to a specific sentence: “what does ‘they’ refer to?” Several classmates answered the question correctly. The teacher didn’t have to provide the answer. When a student asked a question, the teacher didn’t simply provide an answer. Instead, she asked questions of the lass to help the students discover and produce an answer. She only provided the answer if students remained confused and provided an incorrect or incomplete answer. … In this way, she encouraged the students to use their own minds and work together to find an answer. Their answer may not be the most accurate, but the skills they are developing in the process are more important…I can incorporate these methods into my oral English classes when we focus on the dialogues in each unit. Before providing an answer, I can ask if any classmates want to try to answer. I can also encourage the students to ask specific questions about the dialogue.
She went on, however:
The teacher often asked questions such as, “Do you understand?” and “Are you ready?” The teacher seemed to feel that if the majority of the students, or the most vocal students, understood and were ready to move on, she was free to do so. She didn’t give students a clear way to indicate any lack of understanding. For example, she didn’t ask, “If you don’t understand, raise your hand.” Some of the weaker students may have been lost because of this.
Carolyn’s critical comments not only encouraged me a lot to see the advantages of questioning, but also reminded me that I was neglecting some of the students’ learning needs in my class. As before, I was thinking that the weaker students might have so many questions. Thus, on the one hand, they didn’t know what questions would be asked in the class; on the other hand, in order to fulfill the teaching schedule and syllabus, we couldn’t spend a lot time on one text. I hoped they could be encouraged to learn more by themselves outside the class in order to catch up with the others. It seemed to me that my ways of asking questions partly prevented them from learning. Therefore, apart from encouraging those weaker students, I realized I had to improve my skills of asking questions so as to give more chances for the students involving in the classroom learning.
Based on a questioning method, I also designed some task-oriented activities in teaching the text. As we were learning the text ‘The Land Where There Were No Old Man’, I asked four groups to discuss the ideas through the devising of a teaching task. One group was to teach the content and the language points in the text, the other groups might teach the writing style, writing purpose and what the readers get form the text. The following were the students’ self- and peer- evaluations.
Huang Juyan’s self-evaluation: I spend a lot of time for today’s teaching of 15 minutes. But I found something is quite different from my preparation. I supposed you knew some points. When you appeared confused, I don’t know what I shall do. But I asked you to discuss the structure of some sentence in pair or in group, we found the answer together. I think that’s good.
Ma Lingfang’s evaluation for Huang Juyan:
I think her teaching manner is good. She made eye-contact with us. Her speaking language is good too. She made very clear instructions.
Wang Yonshou’s evaluation for Huang Juyan:
I think her teaching ways are impressing. She also gave us encouragement when we finished our answers just like a real teacher.
Lu Wenji’s evaluation for her was:
I like her writing in the blackboard. They are very clear and can help the students get the key points of the teaching. But when the students answered the questions after the group-work, she was busing in writing on the blackboard. I think the teacher should listen to the students carefully.
Some peer-evaluation for Luo Jianbing when he finished teaching grammar on behalf of their group:
Wang Yongshou: I think he did very well today. We lived in the same dormitory; I saw Luo Jianbing has consulted several grammar books for today. I learned a lot from his teaching V-ed/v-ing as non-finite clauses.
Ma Jia: Luo Jianbing impressed me quite and seldom to talk loudly. But today he himself talked almost 15 minutes as a teacher to teach us grammar in this text. He really made a great progress. But if Lu Jianbing asked us to do some exercises after his teaching, I think it would be perfect.
Students’ evaluations made me feel that both their evaluation-abilities and critical thinking skills were improved; in addition I believe what was more important was that they also cared about other people’s learning in the class; I sensed that our class was like a big happy and harmonious family. I love this family.
Fourthly, as my writing develops here, I have to mention the great function of encouragement for any learner both from students and teacher. I had some personal communication with Zhou Peng, Cheng Yabing and Luo Jianbing. I helped them analyze their situation, their strong points and their personal problems in their studies, and then I also told them I cared for them and suggested what they should do in order to improve their study. As a result, I found they had some big changes themselves:
On one occasion Luo Jianbing acted a very funny young man and made the whole class laugh when their group presented their text adaptation;
Zhou Peng once volunteered to ask an excellent question about the context of the text in the class, which made the whole class and me discuss for at least 10 minutes in order to make it clear;
Li Yanzhi also volunteered to evaluate one of the student teacher should have organized more group-work for students practice when we did peer-evaluation for the student’ teaching;
I praised them in front of the whole class and told them I was very happy to see their progress in learning. When the class was over, I said good-bye to the students and as they passed, I patted their shoulders and said: “You are really excellent today. Come on!” Encouragement accompanied me for the whole of the subsequent teaching and learning. In other words, whenever I had the chance, I encouraged my students. I believe the students’ increasing co-operation with my teaching practices partly resulted in the encouragement: it was a generative thing (McNiff, 1993). At the same time, I was also encouraged by my students. Yang Xiaoxia, a brilliant girl student, is always attentive and active in the class. Her command of English is professional and impressive. I often noticed she often helped the others during group-work. She wrote me a letter with a New Year present:
Miss Liu, Happy New Year! I’m so happy to know you in Guyuan Teachers’ College and so lucky to be your student. No matter when I speak in class, I’m sure your smile will give me enough confidence. Thank you so much. As a teacher, her/his encouragement is so important for a student. When I get to be a teacher in the future, I’m sure I will be a good teacher just like you!
Her words struck me deeply. How important a teacher’ slight action can be for students, even an encouraging smile or eye contact! If I could influence one or two students in their future teaching job by such encouragement, my students would influence their own students in turn. A sound education recycle would be formed. It sounds so hopeful and wonderful!
To sum up, my ways of triangulating evidence were through:
l students’ feed back
l colleagues’ observations
l students’ self-evaluation and peer-evaluation
And now, in conclusion to my second AR cycle, I will show some more evidence. At the end of the term, we teachers who taught the same course had to grade the final papers together. Each teacher is responsible for a particular aspect of the examination. He Lina (my colleague), who graded Item III, paraphrase, told me that she found my students’ answers for paraphrasing were different from the standard answers. The students tried to produce their own language to paraphrase. Most of them did a good job except for some spelling and grammar mistakes.
Her words thrilled me and reminded me to turn to the students’ examination results myself. The New Curriculum encourages varied forms of evaluation (Interpretation of the New Curriculum, p14). If the above evaluation for my students’ progress are formative, then I turned to summative evaluation, which will strengthen my research and encourage me.
I took a sample from the students’ final examinations for the two terms of 2004, and made a comparison in the paraphrasing parts, which could result in the same percentages. This would provide an ipsative criterion from which to deduce progress. I believed if the students could learn more from my student-centered methods, they should be able to do well in this part of their examinations because paraphrasing requires flexibility of language-usage. Here is the list I made:
Average scores (%)
Average scores (100%)
Not failed (%)
Not failed (%)
From the chart, we can see the students’ examination scores improved, especially the scores of paraphrasing, which increased a lot. Then, I analyzed the details of each student’s paper for the answers of paraphrasing in two terms. I also found that:
l in the first term, their answers were similar in the paper; three of the students didn’t write anything in the paper the paraphrasing; another three students just answered half, the other half were black
l in the second term, their answers showed differently; but they were near to the point; no black paper and two students left two or three sentences not paraphrased
Therefore, I drew the conclusion that in the first term, the students still tried to remember the standard answers mechanically in order to pass the examination. If they didn’t remember, they couldn’t get it right. In the second term, there were standard answers, but a minority of students was trying to produce their own language to clarify meaning through paraphrasing. That, I believed, showed the students’ self-study ability also improved.
Later on, during the summer vacation, Zhou Peng emailed me:
Miss Liu, how about your holiday? I stayed at home and helped my mother do some housework. I found a very interesting English program in Channel Six. At six o’clock everyday I watched this program; I found the usages of some words we learned in the textbook had also various usages…I knew you cared me a lot. Please believe me that I will do my best in study in the next term …
I emailed back to him that I really did believe in him, because I cared for him and had believed in him from the beginning.
On another day, Luo Jianbing and Wang Yongshou visited me with some fruit as presents. Luo Jianbin later told me the fruit they gave me were just bought by their first wage-packet. We had a nice talk.
Liu Hui: How about your vacation?
Wang Yongshou: It’s all right, but we learned l lot. We two find a job as salesman for promoting telephones in nearby county for Unicom Company.
Liu Hui: Really!? How did you deal with your job?
Wang Yongshou: It’s really hardly at the beginning. But later on, it’ OK.
Luo Jianbing: Exactly, we are refused by people even without saying anything. I felt so embarrassed. But there are some kind men. They let us say something and we sold out several telephones.
Liu Hui: You are great! You are more courageous than me. Why do you two want to find a job in this vacation?
They both thought a while and said with a smile:
Wang Yong Shou: I have nothing to do if I go back home. We will graduate next year, we want some social experiences and also we can make some money.
Luo Jianbing: Yes, and I will not worry more even I couldn’t find a job immediately after graduation. From dealing with people, I found myself also need learn and competent. But I don’t scare any more… I should thank you, Miss Liu, you made me enjoy learning and be confident for myself …
Luo Jianbin also told me the fruit they gave me had just been bought by the money they had earned and I was so moved by his words. What I felt was that Luo Jianbing was becoming competent and responsible for their future. At the moment I fully understand Dr. Laidlaw’s words: “Education is everything. I love education.”
Through the above evaluation, I may claim that my practice of student-centered teaching has helped my students become more engaged educationally in the year of my action research and make them realize their self-responsibilities. But I don’t mean that my teaching is completely student-centered style. Because student-centered teaching was just a subjective concept in my mind, I didn’t know what exactly a student-centered class would be like in a concrete teaching atmosphere of my own making. I am still in the process of finding the answers through my teaching practice with the standards both from my teaching objectives and teaching methods. From this cycle, I crystallised some of the concepts of student-centered teaching as follows:
In a student-centered classroom, students do most of the talking; they ask questions; they work in groups and pairs; they develop inquisitive minds and learn to think for themselves. (Laidlaw, 2005)
However, in a student-centered classroom, it is the students’ learning that is at the center, and it is the students’ learning that indicates, to an extent, the direction of the learning (Laidlaw, 2005).
If those were entirely my standards of student-centered teaching, I would have failed. I hadn’t arranged for any students to direct the learning-process. Take questioning in my class for example, I implicitly indicated the direction of the learning; but the difference from teacher-centered teaching was that I tried to motivate students to solve the problems themselves without delivering the answers to them. Carolyn also commented on the question in the class by writing this:
Although this activity could be indentified as teacher-directed, the teacher’s methods place her in a role of a discussion leader rather than an expert. In this way, she encouraged the students to use their own mind and work together to find answer.
A common pattern is to move from teacher-directed accuracy to more student- directed fluency activities. This reflected the pattern of presentation-practice- production. However, alternating between teacher and student-directed activities keeps a class momentum and provides interest.
I have to admit that there are teacher-centered practices in my teaching. But it does not mean they cannot work or they automatically prevented the students from learning more. While deliberating about these ideas for this part of my report, a famous analogue created by Deng Xiaoping came to my mind, which Dean Tian repeated several times in AR meeting,
“No matter what colour the cat is, it’s the cat that can catch the mice that’s the good cat.”
That is first what I want to share with my readers about my living educational theory.
Second, during this year, I experienced my actions denying the values I held (Whitehead, 1989). I learned from my students that my former controlling ways in teaching text limited their freedom to communicate, their deductive and inductive thinking as well as their rights as a whole person (Zhong &, 2003). I also learned from my moral and emotional reflections on the students that education is also a way to show care and love to those who need it. I believe that to be a better teacher is my way of taking responsibility for myself and my family. When I saw the progress the students made, the students moving from unknowing to knowing, from weak to strong, I started to perceive that nothing is more worthwhile and rewarding than education.
To sum up, what I achieved will not only improve my students’ learning as well as my leaning as a professional teacher, but also will improve my character, which may enrich my values for education.
Lastly, my achievement in these two years would not have been possible without my students’ collaboration, and Dr. Laidlaw’s instructions, as well as other colleagues’ help—Carolyn Stent, Yao Xiaoli, He Lina, Wang Shuqin and Dean Tian Fengjun.
I would like here formally to show my respect to them and to thank them all.
Hu, Z., (2001), ‘Linguistics’, Peking University Press,
Laidlaw, M., (2002), ‘A Handbook of Communicative Methodology’, CECEARFLT, Guuan Teachers College.
McNiff, J., (1993), ‘Teaching as Learning’, Routledge, London.
McNiff, J., (1996), ‘Action Research for Professional Development’, London
McNiff, J., with Whitehead, J., (2002), "Action Research: Principles and Practice", Routledge, London and New York.
New Curriculum, (2003), National Education Bureau of P.R.C
Richards, J C. and Rodgers, T S., ‘Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching’, Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press, (2004)
Laidlaw, M., (2005), ‘Handbook One ‘From Competence to Performance: English- Teaching Methodology for The New Curriculum in China’
Shu, B., (1992), “Teaching Intensive Reading within a Communicative Framework in ‘ELT in China’, Huazhong Normal University, Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press,
Tian, F., & Laidlaw, M., (2006), ‘Action Research and the New Curriculum in China: case studies and reports in the teaching of English,’ Beijing Foreign Languages Research Press, Beijing, in press.
 In 2003, Dean Tian Fengjun presided over the opening of our AR Centre (see website for pictures from 10th December), which has the brief of improving educational provision for all children in China! Practically at the moment, it aims to help education-students and experienced teachers to improve their critical thinking skills, their methodology, their understanding of the New Curriculum for the teaching of English in China, and their understanding of the significance of learning as opposed to methodology in raising standards. Currently about 20 teachers are engaged in their own AR enquiries here and 12 at Haiyuan Middle School. Individuals like Fang Fang (see website) and Helen King in Gansu are conducting AR enquiries, all of which are concerned with improving methodology in teaching English. In October 2004, CECEARFLT held its first international conference.
Chen Xiaotang, one of the people on the New Curriculum (NC) working party, said this at a VSO conference in November 2002.
 I guessed she is Zhang Wengang’s girlfriend, but in order to respect their privacy, Yang Xiao is not her true name.
 Carolyn Stent, from ELIC (English Language Institute, China), is pursuing a Master Degree in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of other Languages). She observed colleagues’ teaching for a Teaching Practicum.