How can I help to enable sustainable educational development in our AR Centre at Guyuan Teachers College?

Draft by Dr. Moira Laidlaw, China's Experimental Centre for Educational Action Research in Foreign Languages Teaching, June, 2004.

Guyuan Teachers College, Guyuan, 756000, Ningxia, P.R. China.


Abstract: My paper represents an interim report of a five-year action plan currently in its third year. In the report I discuss my present concerns as an educational Volunteer about how I can promote sustainable educational development with some colleagues and students in GTC and what actions I have taken to move towards our negotiated imagined solutions. I show how, through collaboration, I have helped to facilitate a change of learning-climate within the department and its multiple effects on subsequent teaching and learning. I outline my negotiated plans with the department for the coming eighteen months and draw conclusions about the possible significance of developing AR with Chinese characteristics in wider contexts.


Aims of this paper: In this paper I would like to outline and explain how I have facilitated some of our processes and achievements this term as my colleagues and I build our foundations towards educational sustainability. I will look at the issues of visibility, colleagues' teaching and writings, my own observations, meetings and our growing network. This paper, like many of mine, is an interim report. So many of our plans are in the making! I think, however, that readers of previous papers will discern a development of scope, personal responsibility and political awareness in my own actions and insights this term.


Context: I am a volunteer with Voluntary Services Overseas and am in my third year of a five-year programme at Guyuan Teachers College in Guyuan, Ningxia Province, in the northwest of the People's Republic of China. I am Advisor to China's Experimental Centre for Educational Action Research in Foreign Languages Teaching. I want to start this paper by saying I love my life here. I initially signed up for two years and reports of the work I did then, and before in England as a secondary school teacher, can be found at: After eighteen months it became clear that the scope of the AR work here was growing beyond my capacity to facilitate sustainable educational development sufficiently in the department within another six months, and thus I extended for another year. Sustainable educational development is one of the key aims of VSO and it comprises my chief aim as a volunteer. Shortly after the beginning of the year, it became apparent that again, the scope of our work here was changing and I needed to change with it and stay to help it. This paper will give some of the details about these changes and how they are resulting, it seems, in a new form of AR epistemology, which we are calling here, Action Research with Chinese characteristics. What an exciting time to be in this wonderful country!


Developing Visibility:

'Women, particularly those of talent, react sharply to the process of being seen.'[1]


This quotation has followed me through many stages of my educational development[2]. I have gradually come to understand[3] that, of course, women would respond sharply to being seen in the context of their culturally enforced subordination over generations. Here I understand 'seeing' to mean that quality of gaze in which the other seeks to know one in a way, which enhances that individual's ability to grow in directions which impact well on that individual and the world. To be seen in that way, even in my own experience as a privileged, educated and independent woman, has been one of the most empowering experiences of my life, because with this seeing has come a sense of self-respect, identity and purpose. I am referring most particularly to the gaze that the Bath AR group has conferred on me in the last fifteen years. I have experienced this gaze as benevolent but challenging. The quality of my visibility within the group has been experienced as empowering because although at times it has been difficult emotionally and spiritually, it has never been felt as derisory, judgmental or demeaning of my potential as an educator or a woman. As a woman, I had often felt derided, overlooked, patronized and demeaned in my professional and personal lives. The AR group, however, was a place for my sense of human equality to flourish, and in flourishing, I grew in ways that have rendered me increasingly able to work fruitfully for myself and others. This gaze has been received not as admiration, not as flattery, but as a belief in my potential to do something worthwhile. This has led me to reflect on the possible consequences for my colleagues here in Guyuan if they too do not have a safe space to explore that sense of equality with others. If they are constantly regarded as other, as less, then what can I and others do to circumvent this trick of geography? This has constituted much of my work here.


Let's begin at the end of last term. As I have written about elsewhere ( China's Experimental Centre for Educational Action Research in Foreign Languages Teaching was opened by Dean Tian Fengjun and other important officials in December 2004, and we received the unusual endorsement by letter from Liu Zhong (Chief Education Officer for Ningxia) of praise for our work here. This needs an explanation. Why unusual? Well, Ningxia, and particularly Guyuan, suffer, undeservedly in my opinion, from a bad press, in the sense that because they exist in rural China, they are considered by those in richer provinces to be backward and even ignorant[4]. Such a note from the Chief Education Officer, which highlights the potential for educational action research to make a significant difference (not only in Ningxia but in the whole of China), is thus very encouraging for us.


At the end of last term, I wrote a paper about my educational logic, which rendered my choices to stay and develop this work in Guyuan as inevitable. In this paper I outlined what I saw as the principal emphases of my work:


To be a part of what I perceive to be emancipatory [one of my chief aims here] is both a vocation and a privilege as it is in the service of a better world. What do I mean by that? Well, I perceive a better world as one in which people have more power to make decisions about things in their lives, which affect them profoundly. Better means not to be exploited, corrupted, used, abused, and the right to be seen as worthwhile. Better means having the freedom of choice and the means to develop both oneself and assist in the development of others. I am able to do both of those, and that incurs, I believe, an ontological responsibility based on the contradiction that if I can, why can't others? And hence, what am I going to do about it?#


I see myself living in the name of education and in loving service of humanity. The distillation of the above in language is fairness and in the form of my sense-making in mind and thought is logic and in motivation and actions is love. You see, in my logic, from heart to mind or from mind to heart, I experience contradictions because it is not fair that because people are born in different countries, with different geographical, climatic, political and cultural backgrounds that they are denied certain privileges of being human. I perceive those as necessarily including staple requirements like food, or a home, or water, and on a spiritual level, access to the respect of others and being valued by others, and on a structural level, education. Many people are in a position in this world, it seems, of being able to take the above for granted. Being a volunteer is, for me, about answering questions of some of the unfairnesses I see, and putting into action those dynamics that enhance human rights. My actions are fuelled and augmented by love because it is love, which enables me to clarify. As James Finnegan (2000) so beautifully expressed in his thesis, it is love which enables justice to see rightly#


And finally from that paper I wrote this:


So this is where my logic has brought me: if it is wrong for people to live hand-to-mouth and have to sacrifice everything else to gain any form of education, or to do without it altogether, when I have financially been handed my education on a plate all my life, then it's always wrong, regardless of whether I am inconvenienced by living in Guyuan and doing without certain things, regardless of whether it 'suits' me or not. I recognise that I may not always feel like this, or draw the same conclusions I am drawing now, but at the moment, I perceive what I am doing as a logical process, the result of an increasingly self-aware life, one of, I hope, increasing 'inclusionality' (Rayner, 2003). I am also coming to see that what suits me is actually to live in accordance with my logic. To see myself not as discrete and separate, but part of the flow, as the flow is part of me.


Thus I found myself at the beginning of this term experiencing a living contradiction (Whitehead, 1989) by, on the one hand, the injustice against my colleagues, and on the other the potential this new Centre had to change everything. I also recognised that a lot of responsibility would be apparently thrust onto my shoulders. After Jean's visit, Dean Tian agreed to absolve me from any teaching responsibilities this term. I would be expected to promote the work of the department. I can say here that I didn't really know what that work was going to entail. I felt rather lost and burdened. I had a free timetable for doing 每 well, something! Time would have to tell. I did realise, though, that Dean Tian's political acumen in opening the Centre had changed the whole nature of our endeavours here, and after Jean Mc Niff's powerful visit to us, also in December 2004, the scope of our work was changed forever. Instead of supporting a departmental innovation through educational action research, which might eventually spread to others institutions, this inauguration conferred wider ramifications on every educational action we undertook. Gaining visibility, it seemed to me, would become both the means and a partial end of our endeavours. It would also embed educational sustainability if we became visible to the appropriate people and agencies. Comments from my journal:


February, 2004. I think Dean Tian and I work very well together. He has such political insight, which I have always lacked, and I have some valuable experience in the processes of AR and educational development. His determination about the opening of the Centre sets us off in a new direction, however. I feel less able to envisage a possible future now. This frightens me a lot. I know, however, that this Centre is highly symbolic as well as an aspect of our departmental work. Without the Centre we have no centre! This forces a form on us, which we will have to live up to. So we need to develop our visibility, increase our networking capabilities, make links with powerful people and organisations, set up meetings. We have to be political. Perhaps God has a sense of humour after all! Here I am now, in the position of politicising knowledge, a stance I have resisted all my life, and feeling a sense of ignorance and imminent failure! #This means that we need to change our learning style in the department. We have to get over this sense of not being competent. We have, as individuals and collectively, to see ourselves as knowledgeable and capable professionals. And I have the time to develop this sense in others, and this is what I am good at. It's providence, I guess! So, let's get on with it!# I have never been in the position of not having a timetable before and certainly have had no experience of advising to a Centre of the potential of this one. And my heart is certainly heavily involved in this work. This is my life's work. I believe, rightly or wrongly, that everything I have done in my life, everything I have suffered and taken pleasure from, has led to Guyuan, and to this new opportunity to empower individuals and groups. It's both exciting and terrifying. I so want to do it well#


So here is one of the AR questions, which derived from this initial disquiet:


How can I enable us to become visible as a means of empowering us as individuals and as a group in ways that can enhance our educational development and build a solid foundation for the future with the new AR Centre?


One of the key ways has been through the writing of AR reports this term together with a book to be called: 'Action Research and the New Curriculum', edited by Dean Tian and myself. After Jean's visit last term, colleagues had produced interim reports of their AR work, which Jack kindly posted on the Bath-website at: A seminar held in November 2003, had already enabled us to publicise our work to an extent, in that we had invited colleagues from the Hui Middle School in Haiyuan, and members of the English department at the Longdong Institute in Qingyang to learn from GTC colleagues' enquiries. This was deemed to have been successful.[5] Something further and more developmental, however, was needed to focus a consolidation of our work. It came mostly in the guise of AR writing and in two forms. One was the writing of reports by colleagues, and the second was in book-form. I will say a few words about the book as it links so closely with the New Curriculum, which will be the subject of much of the rest of this paper. Then I will offer descriptions of the processes of learning in the department through action research, for example meetings and reading-materials - before looking at classroom observations and finally consolidating the learning into a tentative introduction about what AR with Chinese characteristics might look like.


'Action Research and the New Curriculum', ed. Dean Tian Fengjun and Dr. Moira Laidlaw (in process)!

Shortly after the beginning of this term, I started to study the New Curriculum guidelines, and found, to my delight, that the values within this new curriculum resonated with many of the values of educational development encouraged through AR enquiry, particularly through a living theory approach. Elsewhere I have written in detail about the context of Chinese education,[6],[7], which is characterised by didactic methodologies, with teachers as purveyors of knowledge, and students as passive recipients in the processes of learning. The New Curriculum turns such traditions on their head. (See Appendix One)


Our book is outlined as follows:


The first part deals with a concise historical and social background to the present educational system, which highlights how the past has become the present and given us the New Curriculum. It also describes in some details the premises of AR, and most particularly Living Theory AR. It finally outlines the links between the values of LT AR and the NC.


The second part will consist of case-studies by colleagues who are implementing communicative methodologies in their classrooms. These case-studies will be edited to highlight the links between AR methods and NC.


The final part will draw together the epistemology developing here, which we are calling AR with Chinese characteristics, and will point towards possible future developments.


In order to inform colleagues in China, VSO has published a short article[8] about the major changes in the New Curriculum that focus on rendering the classroom a more active, dynamic and personally-focused place. Students are expected to move from competence to performance.[9] Such a huge change in educational processes has caused some consternation amongst Middle School and College/University teachers, who are expected to be implementing the changes by September 2005. Information about the NC is currently being disseminated to schools and higher-education establishments from Beijing, but it is largely, as far as I can make out, in the area of implementation that teachers feel insecure.


I realised, however, that what was needed in China's English-language education system was what we in the AR Centre had already been concerning ourselves with for the last two years[10]. The links were unmistakeable, particularly in our shared views of knowledge. In the New Curriculum, individuals and groups are required to work together to make meaning from their environments. In addition, knowledge and people are perceived as dynamic, developmental and open-ended. Furthermore, individuals' interests and concerns are taken seriously as meaningful and significant, and the context of learning and the way in which context interacts with individuals and groups are perceived as of paramount importance. Finally, the New Curriculum believes in learning as a life-long process.[11] So does Living Theory AR, in which individuals' and groups' potentials are seen as exerting a potential influence for the good on the development of society (McNiff, J., Whitehead J., and Laidlaw, M., (2002); Whitehead, 1993; McNiff, 1993; Laidlaw, 2001; McNiff, 2002).


Not only was this situation a real one, but it also gave us hope in the Centre to offer something of value on a wide scale. Our teachers were already improving their practice through their AR enquiries, as well as implementing the values of the New Curriculum. A meeting in Wenzhou that Dean Tian and I attended strengthened this view. Teachers there were concerned about their ability to implement the New Curriculum. We realised that our book could have immense political and epistemological impact.


In April 2004, I called a meeting for which I had printed off copies of VSO's notes about the New Curriculum (see Appendix 1 again), and I invited colleagues to reflect on their own enquiries in the light of the new guidelines for the teaching of English. Notes from my journal:


It was lovely watching colleagues this evening - their faces as they started to realise that their work in completely in line with the New Curriculum. Smiles of recognition at what they were already achieving. It's so much part of my job here, it seems, to alert colleagues to what they are naturally achieving and to help them to give it a more international context. That sounds patronising and I don't mean it like that at all. It's my admiration for my colleagues, which grafts me to this place#No, it's more than that. It's love. It's an ontological obligation. I have to be here doing this, and I have to do it to the best of my ability. I love these people. I love their determination and their courage and their stoicism. I love the way that whatever they're having to do, they'll take on more, be it report-writing, invigilations, ceremonies, concerts, whatever. I have an international background, and internationalisation is not only the way of the world now - but particularly in this developing country, and in one of its most needy parts - it needs to be harnessed in the service of this department and centre. I have links, connections and privileges, which these people don't have. And therefore, I must use those privileges for their good. It's the way I want my life to be# I then suggested that colleagues go through their reports and incorporate aspects of the NC into their writing, because this would give their work the necessary political and social applicability, which, in turn would render us more visible in China at this time. The New Curriculum will be implemented in 18 months. A book of our writings and a rationale about the links between the NC and AR could galvanise our Centre into the public arena, where, I believe, it deserves to be. I can think of no other way at the moment more powerful than this for raising both standards of educational development within the department, and publicising the particular achievements of this Centre.


At the meeting, Ma Jianfu asked which was more important in their reports 每 AR or the New Curriculum. This was a key-question because I didn't want my colleagues to subordinate their AR to a preconceived set of ideas in another paradigm (the NC). I replied that in my opinion, AR was the deciding framework, because it was bigger than any enquiry it contained. It remains, however, a contradiction of a sort, in the sense that I am directing the research to solve problems in the implementation of the NC. Li Peidong (10th June) alerted me to the possible dangers of subordinating our research to an end. He was right, of course. He suggested that the colleagues should weave NC references into their enquiries only when it was authentic.


At the time of writing, Dean Tian and I have written the first part of the book, and had it evaluated by, amongst others, colleagues here in the department, at Bath University and in VSO Beijing. We have received the majority of the case-studies from the department. And here a note about two departments we have been working with as well this term.


Haiyuan Hui Middle School: It has been strategically difficult this term to travel to Haiyuan, although we have been twice, and at both meetings, work has been clearly accumulating in terms of reflective practice, as well as early draft report-writing. Next term we are going to make Haiyuan a priority, as their contributions are a significant part of our epistemology. The class I observed in Haiyuan was excitingly fresh, innovative and active. Mr. Yang's question is: How can I help my senior students to improve their reading? The students were accorded responsibility in their learning, and in this class of 67, the teacher managed to make space for the youthful energy and high spirits of his students, as well as conferring logical order and educational discipline. I wrote in my feedback to him about his class:


I hope you don't mind me writing to you directly, but I wanted to say thank you for letting me visit your class on Saturday and maybe raise some points. It could not have been easy for you when I walked into your class without warning. However, I really enjoyed your class, and I learnt something new. I have never seen the method you used to encourage your students to use the language creatively 每 the exercise with the four initial letters - to make a story. I can see from the students' responses, that although they found it difficult, they were trying their best and some of the more able students really did a good job.


I realise it is a very large class, and I was impressed by the way the students were active throughout# You did not allow them to be lazy at all, but you encouraged them all the time to be active and to try, even if they made mistakes. Perhaps this is the most impressive part of your class 每 your students all tried. Even when they made mistakes, you praised them and allowed them to have courage in your class. This is a great achievement, because, as we all know, encouragement helps us to learn. You have a friendly manner with your class, and they trust and respect you 每 just as they should, of course!


#I think that your teaching is showing the students two things: first how to learn English well; second, how to become good citizens in the future.

My impression of our work with Haiyuan is that it is truly ongoing and a vital part of my vocation here. Haiyuan is a poor town, and largely Hui. Minority education is a focus of VSO's concerns in China. I am committed to working there, and hope that next term we might be able to make more visits. Not only is it friendly, full of warmth for me, and a delight to visit, but also in terms of our developing epistemology, it is, I believe, vital to our AR Centre.


Longdong Institute: I spent a week in Qingyang in March. The visit was exciting and busy. However, since then, the AR work seems to have largely called a halt (according to the VSO volunteer there). I think there may be many reasons for that. One is possibly that AR needs a consistent expert presence, especially in the early stages, in terms of encouragement of risk-taking, of meaning-making, of spotting significances. I have the utmost respect for our Chinese and international colleagues at Qingyang, and hope that we can pick up our work again in the future. Helen King, the volunteer most active in the AR group there, has produced some outstanding work with action planning with her students, which will constitute an aspect of Part Two of our Book. You can see her action plan and AR report about improving her students' oral work on the website at:


AR Meetings:

Dean Tian: The first kind of meeting here is constituted through my frequent visits to Dean Tian's office, twice or three times a week, in which we discuss current issues, and I ask him for advice about how to improve my facilitation of the Centre. I feel it's vital to keep him fully informed of my actions, if for no other reason than that he has given me the freedom to choose my timetable this term, and I want to ensure that I am accountable for my actions. Dean Tian has endorsed my sense at times that I need to work in a more 'Chinese' way with my colleagues. I feel diffident about chivvying my colleagues to greater efforts, feeling that they are already working so hard, but he has assured me that a more directive style is still necessary in order to encourage colleagues to produce work to a linear timetable[12]. In our discussion about our proposed meeting in Beijing on 2nd July (see Appendix Two), Dean Tian cited one of the achievements of our Centre to be the fact that not only have I helped to engender a learning community within the department, but that I too have changed my ways. Instead of helping colleagues to see differently, I have been influenced to see differently myself. He is quite right, but until he had pointed this out, I had not perceived it for myself. Dean Tian often enables me to see the parameters of our work more clearly and gives me a much-needed perspective on our work.


Meetings with colleagues are now an integral way of working in the department, and take place twice a week 每 once for the Advanced Group and once for the less experienced teachers and researchers (currently called 'Beginners'). Usually they were a forum for new ideas, for discussions of methodology and the ways in which this can be researched in order to enhance learning. I also introduced new materials (from AR literature or the New Curriculum (see Appendix One)). The meetings also became a vital forum for validation. Due to some limitations of time and opportunity, we have had fewer validation meetings than I would have liked. However, in a recent meeting about Gong Lixia's work[13], one that I asked Dean Tian and Li Peidong[14] to attend, colleagues asked Gong Lixia to improve her claims to knowledge through showing the requisite evidence. She made claims, which she had not substantiated. For example, she didn't always define her terms, or the parameters of her research. At the time of writing this paper, Gong Lixia is amending her report to improve its rigour[15]. In a bid to encourage debate about principles of rigour, I presented both groups with transcripts from Winter's (1989) book, and suggested that they may not necessarily be fully appropriate for an AR with Chinese characteristics. I said that perhaps it was one of the issues that this group has to determine in the future: what are the appropriate standards of judgement for our distinctive work here? This discussion is ongoing at the time of writing. (See later under heading, AR with Chinese characteristics.)


Many colleagues have freely acknowledged the helpfulness of our meetings. Li Peidong, in his report[16] mentions:


I have got much help from Doctor Moira Laidlaw (a VSO teacher in my working college) and some of my colleagues engaged in action research, and also regular AR meetings and occasional AR seminars. Here, I want to show my gratitude to them all!


Liu Binyou[17] (a young teacher in the department) wrote:


#the regular two meetings each week are also very helpful, as we can discuss any problems and any questions appearing in our AR enquiries. This is a very practical way to collaborate and to improve together.


Liu Hui[18] (a new member of the Advanced group) said this about our meetings:


AR meetings offer me a chance once a week to share views with colleagues and a chance to learn. When I found my students were becoming active in class, but they were still poor in mid-term-examinations, I doubted whether the data I collected to show my students were improving, and could be convincing to anyone else. I told my worries to Zhao Xiaohong in an AR meeting on a Thursday afternoon. She patiently gave me suggestions:


'Your data shouldn't just be connected closely with students' scores in exam papers. Your question is how to make your students become active in class. The active students mustn't have been the students who are good in exams. So, your assessment should focus on the learning process with your question and gather information on daily basis in order to understand individual student' learning and needs, namely, language assessment should place emphasize on formative assessment.'


At that moment, I knew I had made a mistake in the way I had evaluated my students. I almost neglected the process of students' active involvement in language learning, which is also in line with New Curriculum.


Liu Xia[19] offered this in her report:


As time went by, I attended several AR meetings, and I gradually began to know that it means to design plans, and do something constructive in your teaching process, consulting with what has happened and making comments on it. Now, I have an AR meeting almost every week. At the meetings I am able to learn from other AR members, I can also get information through Moira's help and through the Internet Website she has offered us.


Also, I was greatly moved and encouraged by Dr. Laidlaw's words "I have been consciously influenced in my life by humanitarianism and liberalism, and most recently, by Christianity. I don't believe life should be simple and without problems, however, because as far as I can see, striving to overcome problems is a way to grow."


I am deeply influenced by these words. She has made me clearly aware that people need respect and encouragement. No matter what job he does, no matter how old he is. I think this is natural. Because we are human beings, we are eager to be respected and encouraged.


In her abstract[20], Ma Hong writes:


My claims to knowledge for this paper have been validated through meetings, journal entries, questionnaires, interviews, and students' actions and self-evaluations.


Other new teachers mentioned such sentiments as Zhang Lina's in her report[21]:


At the very beginning, I was totally in the dark. I just attended several meetings for beginners and listened to Dr. Moira Laidlaw's explanation about what AR is, how to start it, as well as examples of other colleagues' research. Day by day, I learned that:


※Action research is a very effective way of helping teachers to reflect on their teaching and to come up with their own alternatives to improve their practice§ (Tsui 1993:173).


She also wrote this:


We held an AR meeting every week. We usually had a free discussion about our AR, read some available materials and discussed my colleagues' papers or action plans. These activities had many advantages. I learnt some valuable methods or experience from others; we also helped each other perfect our papers, and at the same time, I could see the problems in my own paper or action-plan through discussing others'. Doctor Laidlaw often provided us with some imagined solution to the tough problems, as well as giving us encouragement. Besides that she visited my class and gave me some valuable suggestions, which were very important to improve my teaching and in doing my action research.


Changing the format of the meetings:

Recently, I became aware that the meetings were too static. They seemed flat to me. I wondered if I were still taking too much on myself, and that this would not lead to sustainable development. I talked to Li Peidong and Dean Tian about this perception and they agreed with me. We agreed that leadership of the two groups needed to be more than nominal. Ma Hong took over the leadership of the beginners' group and Li Peidong the Advanced group. I explained my reluctance to be a constant driving force in the proceedings, and that leadership of the group meant the power of veto, the organization of materials, the collation of ideas and suggestions and the impetus for direction in the meetings. It is early days yet, but in the first Advanced meeting after our discussions, at which I resigned my position as leader with the explanation I had given Dean Tian, there was a wonderfully heated debate about AR with Chinese characteristics and the New Curriculum, and colleagues clapped at the end of the meeting. There was an energy I haven't discerned in many meetings this term prior to that one. We discussed the significance of creating an environment for 'constrained disagreement'[22], which might offer us both a way of validating the educational value of our processes and opening up more free debate. Ma Hong officiated for a short time in the Beginners' group, but her excellent research[23] won her a position in the Advanced Group. Gong Lixia has now taken over the leadership of the Beginners' Group. She has presided over her own validation meeting and at the time of writing is preparing materials for another validation meeting about Zhang Lina's work.


Classroom Observations: At this point I want to say a little about my role as an observer of colleagues' classrooms this term. I have constructed my observation time more efficiently this term, I believe. I now go into the classroom with some detailed knowledge of the teacher's AR enquiry, and make my observations serve four functions. First I try to encourage through my comments, and point out where particular methodologies seem well suited to their educational purpose. Secondly I offer some constructive advice about processes. Thirdly I try to put the teaching into an AR framework for the teacher's particular enquiry. Finally, I encourage colleagues to integrate their teaching of content with explanations for the students about the methodologies they are using. This serves the function of embedding the knowledge about English and also highlighting the relationship between knowledge and process. Many of the students are going to become teachers in the future, thus an integrated style of teaching should enable them to become more sensitive to process-management. In addition, as regards methodology I try to put my comments into the framework of the New Curriculum, as this is to become a mandatory component of inservice training in China.


Choice of research partners for this paper.

I will now give some examples of this kind of work with two colleagues, Ling Yiwen and Ma Hong and draw some tentative conclusions about the educational influence I appear to be exerting here. I cannot claim that my interventions are causal in our educative relationships, but I can make some professional judgements about possible influences. I have chosen these two colleagues because both of them have made great strides in their research despite their initial misgivings about it. Both of them have written extensively about how their changes in methodology have impacted not only on learning in the classroom, but also in terms of their own educational development. I have chosen one senior colleague and one junior colleague. I want to make the point that I could have chosen many different colleagues' work for commentary in this report. My inclusion of Ling Yiwen and Ma Hong is not in any way to be taken as a suggestion that their work is superior or of more value to themselves or their students. The way they have written their reports, however, and the time I have been able to spend with them, has determined them as my research partners in this paper. I refer colleagues to all the case-studies on the web, however, which are, in my opinion, groundbreakers in China in English Language teaching.


First Ling Yiwen. She is a senior teacher here in the department and her action research enquiry: How can I improve the students' self-confidence in our classroom activities in order to enhance their learning? is of some nine months' duration. Due to restrictions of time and opportunity, I was not able to visit her class until May 2004, by which time I saw her implementing some revolutionary methodologies with her class.


Here is an edited version of the comments I wrote when I visited her class:


First you introduced the lesson and asked a student to give a speech. Everyone clapped enthusiastically. He started with enthusiasm. He wanted to use the blackboard and had already prepared some phrases for them. He was very encouraging, which is a good sign of your student-centred methodology. He introduced a small role-play to illustrate the content of his talk 每 about meeting foreigners in a hotel. Then he asked a student to translate into Chinese. This is a good method, which shows that this student has adopted your own methodologies. It is well known that students copy their teacher's methods, which makes it important for the teacher's methods to be communicative. This is really impressive. I like the way he is using such communicative methods and also humour when no one can translate his analogy. There is a lovely atmosphere conducive to learning. These students are clearly comfortable with communicative and student-centred work. He then asks the students to practice what he has been telling them. This too, is a good method, because it consolidates the learning, which is very important within the New Curriculum (NC). I am again impressed by the fact that this person is able to encourage his classmates and when the student cannot translate, he encourages them to volunteer. His method is modern and pays attention to students' feelings, which is also an important part of the NC. I like the way he gives paraphrasing examples for the students and then checks their understanding.


This is really something, Ling Yiwen. If one of your students can do this, then it shows the ways in which you have organized the learning in the class. Only a confident student could possibly emulate (copy) such methods, if they were already an integral part of your teaching approach. Some of the best evidence in AR comes through seeing how far and in which ways the students can assimilate such methods themselves. This is, as it says in the NC: students must move from competence to performance. That is exactly what the NC requires. Excellent!


Later I wrote in the section on AR:


Again, this is your methodology translating into their methodology. I always think the best learning experiences are those, which function on many levels: not only content, but also process. In this lesson you are giving the future teachers of China a head start with their methodology and enabling them to experience their strengths and weaknesses, as well as giving them an opportunity to see the connections between methodology and knowledge. The student then asks the class if they have any questions. I hope she will then test their knowledge if they say they don't have any. She doesn't and perhaps this is something that can be encouraged. The situation with students encouraging student-centred methodologies is about as student-centred as you can get and really promotes activity, active learning and learning-skills in the students. Again this is in line with the NC. If you promote more communicative methodologies through your students teaching the class, this will improve the quality of learning of English, promote confidence amongst students and generally increase the educational value of their experience as a learning community.


In her AR report ( Ling Yiwen wrote:


To be honest, I gave up my first AR halfway through. My first AR was begun in September 2002 with the help of Dr. Moira Laidlaw. My understanding of AR at that time was just of a method, which could encourage me to improve my teaching method. I thought I had done some AR before; however, I hadn't taken any notes. My concern had been: "How could I help my students to make spontaneous conversation?" I thought I had made some progress on my AR from my diaries and personal reflections and observations, but in actual fact I didn't know how to provide the evidence to support that claim. At last, I realized I only had subjective accounts, and it was very difficult to provide evidence. Could I actually do something about this issue? Had I brought about some changes? Was I out of my depth? Was I clear about what I meant by a spontaneous conversation? I became puzzled. I gave it up and I did nothing about my AR during my further studying in Xi'an from March to July 2003.


Later she wrote:


In my time, I have tried a variety of teaching methods, such as the Communicative Teaching Approach, and the Situational Language Teaching method to break the students 'silence' in classroom activities. Those methods did work and made me excited now and then. But I just did the work in a random and unstructured way not systematically, so I just got some fragmentary experience in my teaching.


I began with my AR again this term after the conference held in November 2003. I learned more about AR. What struck me most is that:


"Action researchers have the social intent of improving the quality of life for themselves and others, and this is deeply value-laden." (McNiff, Lomax and Whitehead)


I also learned from the above book, "You and Your Action Research Project", that AR is a way of working that helps us to identify the things we believe in and then work systematically and collaboratively, one step at a time, to make them come true. Stenhouse (1978, 1979) had already made a strong case for teachers becoming researchers because it was a means through which they could bring about improvements in their teaching#


I became aware that my students had been controlled by teacher-centered methods for many years. They couldn't understand what they were supposed to do in the activities when it came to expressing themselves. I told my students that I believed I could learn a lot from their speeches, such as new knowledge, new teaching methods, how to treat people and so on. I listened very carefully to their presentations, which would show them that:


"Education refers to the experience of the interaction between people which leads to further learning." (McNiff, 2002).


As it says in New Curriculum: Teaching is not merely a process of teacher's monologue, but is a process of breeding knowledge with students together. It becomes an interesting process when they can understand it#


I remember one day when a group finished their explanations, Bai Li who was one of the group asked: "Do you have any question?" Nobody answered her. She repeated it again a little angrily and impatiently. Later, I discussed it with them because I think the students have the right not to answer a teacher What a teacher should do is to guide them in a proper way, to inspire the student's interest to answer. Sometimes my students wanted me to answer instead. When they couldn't answer others' questions in class, I would often say: "There is no Miss Ling here". I wanted them to know how to solve a problem independently. The way of dealing with the situation was encouraged by Dr. Moira Laidlaw. She said in her comments on my class:


※It's also so wonderful that you simply won't answer for them and force them to find their own solutions. This is such advanced method of teaching. I have seen many teachers all over the world (America, Singapore, New Zealand, England, Germany) and sometimes they too are afraid to let students not know. They think they must fill every gap with their own expertise. No! Students must learn to fill the gap by their own hard work, responsibility and good attitude. You are also showing confidence in their ability to find their own solutions. Quite often, if the teacher always answers the question, then the students won't develop the ability to search for themselves. Although it may appear at first that your method decreases confidence (because the students expect the teacher to provide the answers and become worried when you won't) your confidence in their ability to find out the truth really makes them study hard and therefore they succeed most of the time. They gradually learn that they can find solution for themselves and this increases their confidence to do it later on. You are showing the students a new way here, in which content and learning processes are completely fused. It is a sophisticated pedagogy you are developing here#§


I want to translate not only the methodology but also the new teaching ideas I have gained from doing Action Research, as well as those embodied in the New Curriculum to my students. It is easy to read and gain theoretical knowledge. It really is difficult to carry it out in teaching, learning, and one's own life. I think it will be a really great contribution to education and to my country if I can extend this kind of methodology. I am already imagining with delight the things, which my students' students will be able to do!#


What I see reflected back to me in the report and in her classroom are many of my own educational values. I do not mean I have a monopoly on them, or that it is only because of me that Ling Yiwen teaches in this way. Not at all! I give her full credit for her brilliant creativity and imaginative scope as well as admiring the courage of her students. However, I do believe that I have facilitated a way of thinking and acting in the department, which are educational. And I note that she freely acknowledges my influence in her teaching and learning. She perceives the road she has travelled and her reflections have enabled her students to enjoy greater empowerment in the learning process. I can certainly vouch for that!


Ma Hong:

Ma Hong is a junior teacher in the department with nearly two years' teaching experience. She joined us as a graduate from Ningda (Ningxia University). She had previously been a student at GTC. At the time of my observations she was in the Beginners' AR group. I went to two of her two-hour classes in the last week of February, in which she was teaching a class, majoring in Chinese. I wrote this:


Right away at the beginning you organized them into groups and asked them to review and you went round listening to them and helping them where necessary. Your manner was professional and helpful, courteous and kind. The students appeared very willing to ask for your help and at no time during this activity did I feel they felt constrained or that they were losing face. I asked permission to walk around to see what they were all doing, and all of the students were open and answered simple questions in English. During their group-work you wrote some sentences on the blackboard with some mistakes so that later the groups could review and point out the errors. This was a good idea.


I also wrote that she needed to be:


             explaining the importance in the learning process of making mistakes: without mistakes we can't learn something new;

             praising the whole class sometimes and telling them that they are doing a good job and that you believe they can succeed in the future;

             explaining to them why it is the students who must practise, rather than the teacher;

             showing them the methods you are using, mentioning them in passing, letting the students know there is an educational reason for every action in the classroom (and if there isn't, then the action probably isn't worthwhile). This would seem to be particularly important for any of the students who might want to be teachers in the future. It also shows all of them that you know what you're doing.

             asking the students for suggestions about your class, for feedback 每 evaluation in other words.


In her report she wrote this:


I am a teacher of two years' experience. For more than ten years I was exposed to a teacher-centered formula. I was brainwashed to believe that a good teacher is one who can make use of every minute of the class to explain to the students every important language-point. I had thought teacher should be a skilful speaker, s/he can make students into good listeners, so they could do what I said, in order to learn what I knew. In order to help students learn well the correct answers are considered very important. I did the very job just like Diane Larsen-Freeman (2003) said in her book:


"If students make errors or do not know an answer, the teacher supplies them with the correct answer."


I kept this thought and behaviour as my teaching belief till I myself became a teacher, but in putting the belief into practice, I found it didn't work well. After each class, I was tired out. And my students were, no better than I was. Till that time teaching methods were some vague and distant concepts for me. With Dr. Moira Laidlaw's help I got a little idea about AR, but taking it as some unpractical theories that could not be applied to teaching, I paid little attention to it. Also because the constant change of the classes, which I took as AR subjects, I became less and less confident with it. This kind of feeling remained until I learned about Tao Rui and other colleagues' achievements in their teaching. I was inspired by what they had done as well as by Dr. Moira Laidlaw's constant encouragement. From the first semester of 2003 I started with a class that I would teach for two years. All these made me decide to have another try#


A way I used to build students' courage was to make them aware that making mistakes can be a learning experience. I wrote the sentences such as, "Making mistakes doesn't mean we are stupid, but that we are learning," on the blackboard, and then asked them to bear those thoughts in mind when they lacked courage to put up their hands and answer my questions. And when we later had a group competition I showed my gratitude to the students who'd voluntarily done the exercise in front of others. I told my students that it is the courage of those groups of students who are not afraid of losing face that has helped us to find out more problems with our learning. It took a long time for students to believe that I really just wanted to help them to improve through practice and not make them embarrassed or lose face in front of the whole class#


And later she makes a key-point:


In my teaching I reorganized some of the teaching context according to the students' learning needs#


According teaching processes and materials to students' learning needs is not a typical methodology here in China. Ma Hong's inventiveness and openness to her students' learning needs is, I believe, testament to her growth as a professional educator. She concludes thus:


Moral teaching. If a teacher can only teach students knowledge, I think it is a great loss. 'One of the ultimate goals of teaching [is] to create better citizens for the society,' (Laidlaw, 2004[24]). In my teaching I have found that to make the students aware of the value of hard work, to help each other, and to create a good and a harmonious learning atmosphere, is to help the students become aware of something to do with the morality of being human. Being unselfish can make them more active in helping others and do more work for others. Being honest can make them be more realistic about the work they've done. During the teaching, I gave them topics such as "What will you do if you were done wrong? ", "What is real friendship?", "What is real beauty?" to talk about as oral practice but more importantly as a chance to teach them the value of being in the world, the relationship with others and so on. The New Curriculum (2004) also requires that teaching should also take students' emotional development into consideration when devising learning programmes#


AR is helpful. AR is not easy, and it takes a lot of time and devotion. AR needs creativity and imagination, it needs you to take your teaching to heart, to care about each problem. AR needs sincerity. In the procedure of doing Action Research teaching became clearer and clearer for me because I became concerned about the educational purpose of each teaching period.


Just like life itself, we will encounter troubles and difficulties but also times of happiness and surprises. Just as life is worth living, AR is worth doing. When I tried the new ways, and kept on trying, I found that my teaching became wiser, more systematic and more enjoyable. If I compared my role in my former teaching to a speaker, or a dancer who dominated the stage myself with my students as the audience who appreciates or dislikes my performance but have little chance to express themselves, now I have changed to become an organizer, a director who helps the 'audience' to be actors and actresses themselves. They do most of the work themselves, and I have more time to reflect on, and record, what happens in the class and make an instant evaluation of my teaching. Though I work less during the class period in speaking, in explaining, after class I now have a more focused role in making preparations for my class. What do I want my students to learn next time? Which way would be better for them to learn? How can I help them to learn?# And after class I believe there should be an evaluation of the methods used and the learning need in the class as a whole.


Another thing I have learned in doing AR is that as teachers we should be creative and imaginative. We should think out various ways and try them out in teaching, as it will help to make the class more interesting and create more chances for us to improve the teaching.


Her report gives ample evidence of the above claims, in which she argues that her new approaches to teaching and learning enable deeper learning achievements with her students. I would also point to her confidence as a professional educator when she offers others advice about teaching:


And after class I believe there should be an evaluation of the methods used and the learning need in the class as a whole.


We should be creative and imaginative. We should think out various ways and try them out in teaching, as it will help to make the class more interesting and create more chances for us to improve our teaching.


It is in the following sentiment that I find reflected back to me so clearly, my own sense of what AR is about:


AR is helpful. AR is not easy, and it takes a lot of time and devotion. AR needs creativity and imagination, it needs you to take your teaching to heart, to care about each problem. AR needs sincerity.


Ma Hong's living educational theory seems to me, like Ling Yiwen's robust and singular. Ling Yiwen writes in her conclusion:


I learnt that I should treat a student as a "whole person" not only as a language learner. It is easy to express, even to understand, but it is really difficult to realize in your teaching and in students' learning. This is all related to freedom. What is this freedom? How do we understand the centrality of the idea of freedom, which is related to each human-being's innate character? I know from this research, we shouldn't bind it up, shackle this freedom to our insights. In this way, creativity, interests, initiative and imagination are stymied which results in hindering the improvement of learning, the development of society, and the development of human beings. The only thing we can do is to make full use of this human creativity and enable it to benefit human beings#


This is powerful writing! It becomes more powerful in the light of the journey Ling Yiwen has made in her research, and how she has opened her insights to the scrutiny of her students in a democratic way and showed this in action in her report. She has used dialogue as a central aid to learning, and reveals the links between the sharing of power in a classroom and its effect on learning. Again, I am not claiming that her achievement is mine. What I am suggesting is that there is a link between my own preoccupations in education[25] and the ways in which I have exerted an educational influence in my colleagues' research. I can honestly say that in each research report, and in each classroom I have visited I am seeing an increasing use of communicative methodology and insights on the part of the teachers about what this means.


AR with Chinese Characteristics:

And it is to meaning that I turn now, in an exploration of the possible distinctiveness of our enquiries in Guyuan. This term, Dean Tian, Li Peidong and I have been in discussions about how we might encourage the development of AR with Chinese characteristics. This followed from two insights. First, that our distinctiveness would be a necessary condition of our Centre. It's another visibility issue. It seemed to me that AR in China was often based on models, which studied other people's practice.[26] Secondly, I knew that our Living Theory approach was distinctive in China, but I also felt that encouraging a carbon copy of a research paradigm, which had grown organically out of another culture, time and circumstances, would be a cultural and epistemological imposition. I wanted to avoid this all costs. Let me be clear. I am a proponent of living educational theory approaches to AR. I have worked through such an approach myself for my Ph.D. I have seen, experienced and watched how this approach has liberated learners and expanded horizons. However, I am Western, middle class and white. My colleagues are not. Thus I believe I should not try to develop a form of AR that subordinates their unique culture, characters, and political and social needs. I am biased, of course, because I am human. I am using LT approaches to AR, but one of the ethical precepts of my work is that I mustn't arbitrarily trample on the existential, ontological and epistemological rights of my colleagues. So I have pushed AR with Chinese characteristics at every possible opportunity without having a clue what it might look like, simply believing in the creativity and rights of my colleagues to develop themselves in their own images and not as adjuncts of Western imperialism.


And very soon after our exploratory discussions, I read an AR report by Liu Xia, which had the effect of making me shout: 'Yes, this is it!' Here is her abstract:


How Can I develop students' self-confidence through respect and encouragement? This paper shows the educational development in some students, members of my own family and myself through my action research enquiry into how I can promote learning through respect and encouragement. It follows one class of Medical Major students, whose English level is perceived by the college as poor, as they develop confidence in learning. I show how I help them to believe in themselves as learners and how I take this new pedagogical knowledge into my family to help my nephews and my own son in their English learning. I find some contradictions in this process of encouragement, and recognise the necessity of making constructively critical comments to students. My new educational knowledge enables me to make recommendations about conditions for teaching and learning a foreign language (my present emphases).


I was so excited to receive this paper, because I had never seen such an attempt to cross the border between family and state education before in an official paper. This felt different to me, yet it also felt Chinese. In short, as an outsider, I have developed, I believe, certain radar about Chineseness. Preoccupation with family, and a desire to meld family and society seem a rural Chinese precept[27] to me. I feel it around me daily. Formal banquets or concerts, restaurants and halls, with children scampering around without being constrained (and actually behaving very well) are daily experiences for me here. Family life is not so demarcated as in Britain, thus to find this enquiry was both a shock and familiar. AR with Chinese characteristics? I began to think so. I later heard Dean Tian mention that this report might be the beginning of something new.


As the reports for the book started to come in, I noticed that more and more of them were dealing with issues similar to Liu Xia's above. Motivation, confidence, self-esteem 每 these seemed to be the parameters of the enquiries. The heart of them seemed to be Liu Xia's insight that:


'Encouragement can turn a coward into a hero,'


and many researchers here are looking to see how they might enable their students to become the heroes of their own learning processes. Consider the following titles for the enquiries (


Cao Yong: How can I Improve the Pronunciation and Intonation of the first-year English Majors to meet the demands of the New English Curriculum?

Gong Lixia:How Can I Improve Two Young English Majors' Confidence In English Learning?

Li Jun: How can I help the non-English students improve their reading ability?

Li Peidong: How can I improve my students' self-confidence in their class work?

Ling Yiwen: How Can I Improve the Students' Self-Confidence in our Classroom Activities in order to enhance their learning?

Liu Binyou: How Can I Cultivate My Non-English Students' Interest in English?

Liu Fengyun: How can I create constructive and developmental activities in my English  Listening Teaching in order to help my students learn more effectively?

Liu Hui: How can I encourage my students to become more active in class?

Liu Xia: How can I help my students improve their learning through respect and encouragement?

Lu Yingping: How can I understand the links between AR and the New Curriculum?

Ma Hong: How can I help students who are comparatively poor at learning English?

Ma Xia: How Can I help students improve their vocabulary learning? An English Vocabulary Teaching Strategy for College students.

Ma Xiaoxia: How can I combine an improvement in motivation with students taking more responsibility for their own learning in grade two, class one?

Tao Rui: How can I improve my students' motivation so they can improve their learning? A case study of Action Research into the Integrated Skills of English.

Tian Fengjun (Dean of Department): How can I manage a process of educational innovation so that the professionality of colleagues and the learning of students are enhanced?

Wang Shuqin: 'How can I Help the Students Improve their Speaking Ability in the Speaking and Listening Part in the Class of Integrated Skills of English?'

Wang Ying: How can I improve the students' learning by increasing their interest and confidence in learning English?

Yu Lili: How can I help my students to be more active in speaking?

Zhang Lina: How can I help my non-major students have more confidence in learning English?

Zhao Xiaohong: How can I help my students take more responsibility for their own learning?


The majority of the processes of learning appears to be characterized by the teachers' and students' development of courage in their educational processes 每 learning to accept mistakes as part of their learning, becoming critical thinkers, and learning to take responsibility for their own development. Speaking, as a newly required aspect of classroom learning, has engendered, it would seem, insecurity on the part of teachers and students[28]. In addition, the old curriculum put almost all the onus for classroom-activity on the teacher. S/he stood at the front of the class and talked at the students, who took notes and hardly spoke English at all. The New Curriculum demands more activity in this line from the students, which has, in my observations, intimidated both teacher and students. Teachers have often followed the rules of socially-accepted 'experts' in whatever fields, rather than adapt and create methodologies suitable for their own students' learning[29]. The AR accounts show us how a teacher and her/his students have learned to work together to solve educational problems, and how these enquiries have led to greater empowerment for both teacher and students, as well as improved forms of learning for both. AR with Chinese characteristics appears to be grounding its epistemology in the living contradictions inherent in an adherence to the old ways whilst trying to adopt the new, which holds onto firm foundations in terms of the links between harmonious family-relationships and a good social order[30]. Accounts are peppered with comments about students' lack of confidence, as well as the teachers' misgivings about their methodology.


Time will tell in terms of what is growing at the Centre, but I sense there is now something educational, transformational and generative[31] about our work here, whose distinctiveness is a source of pleasure for ourselves and may contribute to the flow of life-affirming energy and the creative spirit of others.



Publicity is important here, specifically for reasons I gave earlier in terms of the special circumstances of Guyuan's invisibility. One of my principle aims has been to encourage others to take notice of us and perceive us as an achieving department. Please don't mistake my meaning here. I am not suggesting I confer achievement on the department, but because of my international links, as I said earlier, I may be in a better position to publicise our work and generate interest in it.


BERA Conference: This term I have kept in close touch with Bath University's AR Group. This has been augmented by the BERA conference held on 19th June in the department of education at Bath University. Jack offered it as a focus for our group to produce their case-studies, so that they could be referred to during the day. At the time of writing, the significance of the links between the conference and our work is not fully known.  However, as our list of reports was shown to the Conference on the internet at it was announced that Sarah Fletcher had expressed a willingness to respond to the reports and we will post her responses on the web-site as soon as they are received.


VSO Beijing: This July, Dean Tian and I have been invited to Beijing to talk to VSO programme officers about our work. We are hoping that this will deepen our links, and enable us to work more closely with VSO in terms of sustainable educational development. Dean Tian and I discussed what we wanted to say at this meeting (see Appendix Two). Again, at the time of writing, this meeting and its ramifications lie in the future. However, I would also like at this point to offer my sincere thanks to VSO for its encouraging and practical support for our Centre's work this term!


Zhang Lianzhong: He is Beijing Normal University's chief foreign language research officer. He has just been made a consultant with VSO for educational matters in China. I wrote to him at the instigation of Joe McMartin (a PO with VSO), and this is his reply:


Dear Moira Laidlaw
I was away for international conference, so the response is delayed. I am reading your paper [here he is referring to Li Peidong's paper, which I enclosed in my initial letter] and will respond later. I must say I have great respect for you for your work and contributions to English teaching and teacher development in China. I am working for the Ministry of Education for more teacher development projects and programmes, particularly for the western part of China, and I think what you and your colleagues have achieved has a special significance. I hope we can keep in touch and find opportunities to cooperate in the area. I don't know your plan for the next academic year. Is there any possibility that you come to work in Beijing  and play a bigger role in teacher education by working for a different institution? Of course, not in contradiction to your arrangement with VSO or other arrangements. Thank you for writing to me and please keep in touch.


In turning down his incredibly generous offer of employment I drew attention to my belief that in staying in Guyuan at the Centre I could serve two functions: the first to keep my promise to my colleagues as an avowal of my belief in our work, and secondly, that this might show the world that Guyuan, a poor city in China's developing northwest, has something special to offer in its new ways of working and that I was in a better position here to facilitate change and see it through. I will be sending him a copy of this report when it has been finally validated and pointing him to the dramatic extension of our website-reports.


Articles with colleagues: One of the ways this department can flourish academically and practically, is through the writing of articles, which are subsequently published in international journals. This term I have been working in particular with Zhao Xiaohong[32] and Li Peidong[33] in two joint articles in a bid to do just that. Recently I suggested to Zhao Xiaohong that she take over the writing of our joint article in her own name, and use my contribution as evidence in her own enquiry about her own research learning. She has agreed to this. I felt that this would be a greater contribution to sustainable educational development for two reasons. First, in writing this article herself, she would gain greater credibility within an expanding academic environment. Secondly, it would register that Chinese teachers can do this developmental work and perhaps encourage others to do likewise. Li Peidong and I will continue to write together about the ways in which we have changed our minds as we have come to terms with some issues within teaching and learning in the Centre. He suggested that the epistemology of the article necessitated joint authorship. I agreed.


Jack Whitehead's visit: Jack is visiting us in October 2004, which we believe will enhance the international credibility of our work, as well as giving individual researchers a necessary international perspective and encouragement. I would like to take this opportunity to thank Jack publicly for his kindness. Jean's visit last December created and marked a new departure for us in the department, and turned people outwards in a way unprecedented in Guyuan. We are hoping as well, that Jack's visit will consolidate this growth in perspective. In particular we would like to enhance our contribution to the knowledge-base of the self-study of teaching and teacher education practices. In his chapter[34] on what counts as evidence in self-studies of teacher education practices Jack has drawn attention to our work in Guyuan and our publications on Action Research with Chinese Characteristics should contribute to this international knowledge-base.


Fang Fang: this term a postgraduate student has visited us from Ningda (Ningxia University), currently doing a degree in educational research. She heard about our innovations in the department, and wanted to come and learn about AR from us. She was welcomed by Dean Tian (a typical example of his open-mindedness) and has attended meetings, and even been given the chance to teach a class and undertake a small AR enquiry as a part of her Masters dissertation. She has, with colleagues' help, composed a questionnaire for her students and colleagues, which I think is a testament to her clear thinking and determination to make the most of her time here. I see her visit as the first of many in our growing place in Ningxia's education system. In a recent letter to me, she wrote this about her work in Guyuan:

  # I reflect on what I have done after class and my enquiry is "How could I cultivate my ss' learning motivation through gradual improvement of their interests?"  I choose this because I find that most students in my class lack their interest in learning English, let alone motivation. What do you think of my enquiry? However, my research period is not long enough to complete this AR enquiry. After several weeks' research on my subjects, I find that my students' interest in English is increased, but I am not able to prove that their motivation has been cultivated as well. I believe this can only be achieved after introducing activities that lead to cultivate their motivation. Therefore, I am afraid I am not able to present a qualified AR report at present. However, your guidance, the discussion with my colleagues and my teaching experience equip me with much valuable experience in conducting another AR next term. The problem is I might identify another problem in a different teaching context, which means I have to conducting a new cycle of AR instead of continuing the one I am doing. Fortunately, I can keep in contact with you and ask for help. I'll miss you! Best wishes! Fang Fang
I wrote back to Fang Fang to suggest that we look at what evidence she has of improvement and that she write that up. I'll post any developments on the web!

Teachers from the Montessori School in Ningxia:

Recently we had a surprise visit from six teachers at the local Montessori school. They had heard that we are developing a new form of teaching methodology here and wanted to come and talk to colleagues. At this meeting, He Lina (a junior colleague), Ma Hong and Ling Yiwen spoke eloquently about their classroom teaching and how AR has changed their minds and hearts about education. Although Ma Hong expressed doubts afterwards about how well she had coped with the situation, in my opinion she spoke with insight and fluency about her own research.



Working at the AR Centre this term puts me in mind of Dewey's[35] notion about medieval cathedral building, the analogy that the plans for the cathedral (the Centre) developed as the cathedral itself grew in stature. At the beginning of this term, as I have related, I felt insecure and worried about quite what it was I was expected to do here. There seemed to be no precedents in my life or in the lives of others that I could look to for guidance, and I so wanted this project to work. As things have started moving here, as colleagues have invited me to their classrooms, and written their reports, and through meetings and changes and developments in the ways in which we are relating to each other, have come a sense of what this Centre stands for.


Next term I hope to help to consolidate our learning through the following ways:


             close ties with outside universities and people of influence;

             financial and institutional backing to enable some colleagues to study for their Masters degree from a British University (hopefully Bath);

             enjoy the benefits of a visit by Dr. Jack Whitehead;

             closer practical links with VSO;

             invitations to others to join us here and see what we're doing;


I believe we are doing something unique in the world. As far as I know there is no other Centre for educational action research, which is concentrating on the enhancement of foreign language teaching. In our Centre we are building a base for future educational innovation in this province and beyond. We are learning what it means to experiment with our research in the hopes of creating a distinctively new AR with Chinese characteristics. We are diversifying our teaching methods and learning capabilities. As the Centre's Advisor[36], I believe my job to be to enhance the teaching and learning possibilities not only for my colleagues but for as wide a public as possible and to render them increasingly sustainable. In addition, I agree with Jean McNiff, who on her visit, said to me that she believed we are doing far more than teaching particular educational disciplines, but are, in fact, changing lives. I hope this is true. It is certainly my higher goal. For me, advising this Centre has something to do with equalising opportunities in the world, something I started researching in 1991, and which became particularly significant to me in my dealings with Sally[37] (see and in my subsequent research. In the paper[38] I wrote before coming to China I wrote:


I perceive my decision to go on VSO to China as a natural outcome of my educational development, during which the value of responsibility has grown as I have grown, and helped me to put into perspective the value of a single life amongst the world entire. I am still galvanised by the words I heard from my VSO trainer, Cath in February 2001 at a training weekend: 'Be the changes that you want to see in the world!'# The nature of educational action research is necessarily open-ended, and this paper leaves you at the point when I am now committed to my future, without a firm sense at all about what I will be doing and what it will be like to do it. However, I realise that my developing value of responsibility enables me to contemplate my own future with a sense of purpose and resolve, a sense that there is so much to learn and experience and do. My future seems more bound to myself and others than ever before, and I feel this process will continue.


I can still relate to that sense that I am going somewhere I don't really know how to see yet, and yet I am full of hope for the future. So much has been achieved in these last three years. In the next two years and beyond my time here, our work will develop and grow and nurture ourselves and others. I also hope it will play a role in Ningxia and beyond, and this will restore, I trust, some natural human balance and justice in terms of the hope we all deserve as human beings working together for a better future.



This term I would particularly like to thank the following people:


Zhang Lianzhong in Beijing for his encouragement for the work we are doing here.



President Chen Shuangla for his continued support of our work at the Centre, both politically and strategically.


Dean Tian Fengjun for his continuing support of educational innovation and his openness to new and conflicting ideas. He has given me enormous freedom this term, without any proof that I would succeed in promoting our aims for the Centre. His trust in me has given me an enormous sense of both gratification and obligation. Working with him is a constant source of energy and delight.


Li Peidong for our ongoing conversations in which he alerts me to problems in my facilitation and challenges some of my assumptions. Working with him is a joy!


Ling Yiwen for her creativity, courage, inventiveness and for allowing me to learn from her.


Ma Hong whose industry and achievements are a source of inspiration.


Liu Xia for her courage in charting new territory in AR.


Tao Rui and Ma Jianfu for their friendship and encouragement, and to wish them well in their new careers in September.


Zhao Xiaohong for her analytical acumen, her friendship, and her continuing determination to encourage AR principles in all aspects of her work.


Teresita Azurin: for your continuing support of my work personally and professionally.


Gong Lixia for her management of the Beginners' Group.


Shi Xing Li: my Chinese teacher, whose patience and encouragement have enabled me to develop a love of learning the language this term. I am profoundly grateful.


To All My Colleagues experienced and new, I want to thank you for your commitment to education, your inspirational drive and your many kindnesses to me, a friend of China.


At VSO Beijing:

All Colleagues for your practical commitment to educational development and sustainability. Thank you.


At Haiyuan Hui Middle School:

Colleagues in the English department for their perseverance in creating a new future for their students.


The Longdong Institute:

Members of the English Department for our possible further collaboration in the future.


Bath University Action Research Group and Associates:

             Dr. Jack Whitehead and Professor Jean McNiff for their friendship and continued support of our work here.

             Dr. Pat D'Arcy for her friendship and ability to bear me in mind and to take my writings and my concerns so seriously;

             Dr. Robyn Pound for her continuing interest in process-management and alongsideness;

             Dr. Pip Bruce-Ferguson for her friendship and perspectives about equality and opportunity;

             Members of the Monday-night Group, who continue to include me in their research processes and interests.

Appendix One:

New Curriculum Guidelines: Changes and Challenges:

What challenges are there for future teachers?

The initial challenge for new teachers will be to understand the new curriculum, especially the new standards. They will have to update their views on language and language education and adopt new approaches to language teaching, including the task-based teaching approach and its practice.


Most will have to improve their own professional competence in language proficiency, cross-cultural competence, pedagogical competence, and the adoption of new learning strategies training methods. They will have to change the teacher's role from that of knowledge distributor to facilitator, organiser, participant and advisor, 'using the textbook rather than teaching the textbook.'


How can pre-service training prepare students for the challenges?

Colleges will need to incorporate the introduction of the new curriculum into their syllabus and course design, especially the language-teaching methodology course. In addition, they will need to convince the students of the need for innovation and make them believe they CAN do it.


The implementation of the new curriculum needs contributions from, and co-operation among many groups of people including: teachers, teacher trainers, educational administrators, educational researchers, community, parents and employers.


What's new?

The new rationale: The aims of learning a foreign language are not to be limited to mastery of knowledge and skills in the foreign language. Like other school subjects such as Maths, Music, Art and P.E., 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 thinking skills. Language learning is most effective when students' interest, motivation an 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.


New Curriculum Targets:

             Language skills: listening, speaking, reading and writing (critical thinking skills and interpersonal skills emphasised for senior high school);

             Language knowledge: pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar, function and topics;

             Motivation, interest, confidence, co-operation, patriotism and world vision;

             Learning strategies: cognitive, planning, communicative and resourcing strategies;

             Cultural awareness: cultural knowledge, cross-cultural competence.


New methods of target specification:

Students can:

             understand and follow instructions;

             identify the change in meaning in intonation;

             provide personal information and describe personal experience;

             comprehend simple stories and grasp the gist.


New learning and teaching approaches:

The New Curriculum advocates process-oriented language learning and teaching approaches, such as experiential learning and co-operative learning: students are encouraged to experience the language, learn the language by self-discovery, participate in discussion and negotiation activities. It emphasises the role of positive affective states on the part of the students. It advocates the task-based approach to language learning and teaching; learning by doing and by using the language. It incorporates learning strategy development into the classroom instruction.


New evaluation system:

The New Curriculum recognises the role the students themselves play in the process of evaluation, e.g., self-assessment. It combines summative assessment with formative assessment. It adopts multiple, flexible evaluation methods and techniques. It emphasises the evaluation of language performance rather than language competence.


New Textbooks:

With the New Curriculum come new approaches to textbook design.





























Appendix Two: Meeting with VSO Beijing

Action Research in Guyuan:A discussion document for the meeting on 2nd July 2004 between VSO Beijing, and Dean Tian Fengjun and Dr. Moira Laidlaw


There seem to be four areas we are interested in:


Why we're doing this project:


Processes of AR:


Achievements so far:


Future plans. We would like to:








[1] Yamamoto, K., (1991), 'To Watch Life grow: the art of mentoring', in Theory into Practice', vol. 3, no 2.

[2] Laidlaw, M., (1996), 'How can I create my own living educational theory as I account for my educational development?' Ph.D. thesis,

[3] Journal notes, 1995 每 2004.

[4] My own journal notes over two years have registered many comments from colleagues and outsiders, who presume that we are less worthy in terms of innovation and existential and educational quality because of our geographical location.

[5] Letters from delegates and members of our own department were written to me and Dean Tian to say how much the conference had clarified thinking about AR.

[6] Laidlaw, M., (2004a), How can we use AR as a bridge between teaching methodology and the New Curriculum? Paper for China Daily newspaper, February, 2004.

[7] Laidlaw, M., (2004b), Papers for the Longdong Institute, Qingyang, March, 2004. Papers can be found at:

[8] VSO, (2004), Newsletter.

[9] A key point made by Chen Xiaotang at a seminar in Yinchuan (capital of Ningxia) given by VSO for educational volunteers and their Chinese partners. Chen Xiaotang is a key figure in Beijing Normal University's think-tank for the New Curriculum.

[10] Laidlaw, M., (2002), How can I promote sustainable development in my work at GTC?

[11] The New Curriculum, (2002), Huazhong Teachers' College Press.

[12] I have been reading a lot this term about the ways in which Chinese and Western people tend to organize their time. If we are monochromic (in the sense we organize tasks linearly), Chinese people are polychronic (handling multiple tasks as they arise and not necessarily paying close attention to time-limits).

[13] Gong Lixia, (2004), 'How can I improve two young non-major students' confidence in English learning?'

[14] Li Peidong is a senior colleague in the department and a respected methodologist.

[15] Winter, R., (1989), 'Learning from Experience', Falmer Press. This book contains the six principles of rigour necessary for an AR enquiry. I have introduced these to my colleagues together with Peggy Leong's M.Ed. dissertation (see website), which gives a detailed description and explanation pf the applicability of these principles in her own enquiry.

[16] Li Peidong, (2004), 'How can I help my students become more confident in their class work?'

[17] Liu Binyou, (2004), 'How Can I Cultivate My Non-English Students' Interest in English?'

[18] Liu Hui, (2004), How can I can I help my students become more active in class?

[19] Liu Xia, (2004), 'How can I help my students learn English through respect and encouragement?'

[20] Ma Hong, (2004), 'How can I help students who are comparatively poor at English?'

[21] Zhang Lina, (2004), 'How can I help my non-major students have more confidence in learning English?'

[22] MacIntyre, A., (1991), 'Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry', ***

[23] See website, Ma Hong's paper.

[24] This was said at an Advanced AR meeting.

[25] Laidlaw, M., (1994), 'The democratising potential of dialogical focus in an action research enquiry', in Action Research: an international journal, vol. 2, no.3.

[26] Wang Qiang, (2003), Action Research in Teacher Development, Beijing Normal University Press.

[27] Confucius conceived the close relationship between family members to be the necessary foundation of a society.

[28] My observations of Middle School and college teachers over three years would support this view.

[29] As evidence of this I would cite my own employment in Guyuan. I am implying NO disrespect to my colleagues and China's administration systems. Their open-mindedness is to be encouraged, I believe. I have found in my colleagues and others, an enormous desire to learn from outsiders, which I perceive as wholly educational in intention. However, it can open the doors as well for dependency, and a belief, in my opinion, that the 'foreign expert' 'knows all the answers'! It can lead the way to a disavowal of personal agency in personal and organisational development. Much of my work is characterized, therefore, by articulating the processes of development and practical ways in which my Chinese colleagues can learn to do it by and for themselves.

[30] By this I am not only referring to the kind of social order propounded by Whitehead and McNiff in their writings, but to that form of social order, which is encouraged through Zhang Zemin's political leadership, in which China's development is seen to be promulgated through healthy family and organizational relationships.

[31] McNiff, J., (2002), 'Action Research: Principles and Practice', RoutledgeFalmer, London.

[32] 'Mutual learning in an action research enquiry,' by Zhao Xiaohong (in process).

[33] 'Changing minds in an educational development process: an action research enquiry by two colleagues at China's experimental Centre for educational action research in foreign languages teaching,' by Li Peidong and Dr. Moira Laidlaw (in process).

[34] Whitehead, J. (2004) What counts as evidence in self-studies of teacher education practices. In Loughran, J. J., Hamilton, M.L., LaBoskey, V.K. & Russell, T. (2004) International Handbook of Self-Study of Teaching and Teacher Education Practices. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, p.899.


[35] Dewey, J., (1916), 'Democracy and Education', Jossey Bass Publishers, USA.

[36] This is my designated title with VSO: Advisor to China's Experimental Centre for Educational Action Research in Foreign Languages Teaching.

[37] Laidlaw, M., (1996),'In Loco Parentis with Sally: a matter of fairness and love

[38] Laidlaw, M., (2001), 'What has the Holocaust got to do with education anyway?' Accounting for my value of 'responsibility' as a developmental standard of judgement in the process of helping to improve the quality of my educational influence with students over thirteen years.