Developing Some Appropriate Standards of Judgement

for our Action Research Enquiries in China:

The Second Lecture for The Longdong Institute, Gansu Province,

March, 2004.

Dr. Moira Laidlaw,

China’s Experimental Centre for Educational Action Research in Foreign Languages Teaching’, Guyuan Teachers College.

 

In this lecture, I want to bring up the subject of judgements in AR. If we are to do educational research of any high quality, then it is logical that we must have standards to judge the work. We must know what high quality is and we must endeavour to embed those values in our work in order to improve its educational quality. Standards of judgement are agreed values within particular social groupings. In AR, quite often the focus of our very research is on seeing how we can negotiate what counts as valid with our social groupings. This is an enormously complex process. All the time we are asking ourselves ‘Whose values am I/are we using here?’ ‘Whose standards are being used to shape this research?’ ‘Who controls the knowledge?’ For the way in which we judge knowledge has something to do with the creation of the knowledge itself. More later.

 

The aim of the lecture this evening is to look at one set of standards that are widely used in the West and then consider them as appropriate or not for China. Of course, in the final analysis, you will have to make up your own minds, and indeed, that is the whole point. If AR is anything, it is a way of making up your own minds. This is why it is so closely linked to sustainable development. This is why it has such a rich potential to succeed here in China.

 

So, as we were saying, one of the mainstays of an AR enquiry, is that the researchers develop their own standards. Let’s look first, then at a set of standards, which have been widely used in the West – in England, America, Australia, New Zealand and parts of Europe. You might be interested in looking at a Masters degree dissertation by a Chinese-speaking woman, Peggy Leong from Singapore, who undertook her degree at the University of Bath in 1991, and who concluded that although the standards of judgement were useful references, they could not entirely describe or explain her own educational development. Her dissertation: The Art of an Educational Inquirer is available on the website given to you in the last lecture[1]. The standards we are about to study are by Professor Richard Winter, of Anglia Polytechnic University in Cambridge, Britain.

 

Principles for AR Enquiries, by Professor Richard Winter[2]

Winter writes (1989, 1996) that there are six main ways of judging how we do our action research, and that the following should help us to link values, practice and theorising. These may not be suitable for you, however, but some principles are necessary in order to ensure educational conduct. Please feel free during this, or any, part of the lecture to ask questions if I am not explaining anything clearly enough. I often think dialogue is more fun than monologue!

 

It might be useful for you to look at each standard and think about how you are applying it or not to your own work in AR.(Go through each one carefully and field questions.)

 

1) Reflexive Critique

        The process of becoming aware of our own biases.

        In other words, opening our ideas, feelings, thoughts, processes, conclusions, assumptions etc. to public scrutiny and to self-reflection.

 

2) Dialectic critique

        Understanding the relationships between all the parts that make up our workplace.

        In other words, seeing how everything in our professional lives fits together and how it/they function(s).

 

3) Collaboration

        The view of everyone in the situation is taken into consideration as a way of understanding the situation better.

        In other words, the ARer’s view is NOT seen as the only way of seeing or interpreting.

 

4) Risking disturbance

        An understanding of our own assumed processes and willingness to submit them to critique.

        In other words, we must be prepared as ARers to open our assumptions to criticism, and perhaps feel vulnerable in the process.

 

5) Creating Plural Structures

        This involves developing various accounts and critiques, rather than a single authoritative interpretation.

        In other words, using triangulation in both data-collection and in accounts of the research itself.

 

6) Theory and Practice Internalised

        Theory and practice are interdependent and complementary phases of the change process.

        In other words, theory and practice are happening together, creating each other and seeing ‘both’ that way is necessary to the process of improvement.

 

In the last lecture, I talked to you about the links between a living theory approach to AR and Teaching Methodology. I pointed out the ways in which you might conduct your own research and mentioned some examples of Living Theory AR going on at Guyuan, Haiyuan and in your own establishment under the visionary leadership of Dean Xi Xingfa.

 

What I would now like to do in this lecture is talk to you about why I believe it is important for you to devise your own ways of working, evaluating and promoting your work in AR. I do not wish at all to say that the previous standards we have been looking at are wrong, or anything like that. I am simply saying they might not be the most suitable or appropriate ones for you. These standards were made in a Western country, and usually served Westerners, or students/practitioners attempting to have their work validated by Western establishments.

 

As we all know, China has a long and wonderful history of endeavour, of events, of people, of cultures. It is a marvelously rich culture, embedded in its languages, its writing and calligraphy, its art and music, Beijing Opera being a splendid example of this distinctiveness. Furthermore many ethnic groups are living together and gaining from the diversity. For many, many centuries, China has led the world in preserving its many cultures from outside invasion. It has fought to maintain its own character and distinctiveness. This seems to me, a foreigner living in your culture, to be a very precious thing. I come from a culture, which is the result of many incursions, and which has made many of those invasions of other countries over the centuries. Older than America, but younger than China is my country and I love it!

 

However, I have seen the way that some of the old values have been eroded and spoilt by modernization. It is one of the paradoxes of development work, that what is developed is changed, sometimes out of all recognition and not always for the better. And in that changing, something precious, something beautiful, is lost. I want to argue this evening for a preservation of the good things in China. The preservation of those standards, which, as human beings, we care about – family, good work, love, prosperity. But some other values, like distinctiveness, uniqueness and immutability. Those qualities might be lost if we engage in work that copies standards in education not made by those living in China and working for China. I am arguing this evening for AR with Chinese characteristics.

 

When I heard that I had a chance to come to China, I was thrilled. I had always wanted to come here. I read books about China. I watched the television. I talked to people who had come here. I made some Chinese friends. When I arrived, I was aware that people took me as the ‘foreign expert’, a status I found and still find, very difficult to accept. I was perceived as ‘the expert’ not just on Methodology, but on the whole of the English language – its etymologies, semantics, linguistics, and also the country’s culture, history, politics, religions, geography, arts and sciences, sociology, indeed everything remotely connected with England and English ways. Of course I am not able to do all this. I come from Scotland anyway – and we do things differently up there!

 

This mantle of the expert is an assumption I have worked hard to dispel amongst my colleagues to differing degrees of success. I mean, in one sense, it’s nice to be seen as an expert. Everyone likes to be admired for their abilities. In addition, I have never found such freedom in my professional life as I have enjoyed in China. People here trust me professionally and that’s a wonderful feeling. It makes me try harder. However, it also makes me realise the importance of showing this respect to the people I work with, people like you. I come here as the ‘expert’ in your eyes, but to me there is so much you know that I don’t! Chinese for one, as you could tell from the last lecture! Being respected has taught me the value of showing respect to others. It is a maxim which Liu Xia at Guyuan has written so movingly about in her AR report.

 

Every time I encounter the expectation of my ‘expertise’, I feel both gratified and scared. You see, this ‘expert’ status has a spin-off effect, that I believe, is damaging to the learning processes between us and I’d like to explore that this evening, if I may.

 

My work here this term is as a full-time ARer, helping others to build capacity in their educational development. However, this is not a one-way process. I am learning as I am seeing. I am gaining as I am giving. I think that’s a fundamental truth about deep learning. Deep learning happens in relationship over time.

 

As we talked about last time, the work being done here in Qingyang is contributing to one of the greatest educational innovations in this area: China’s Experimental Centre for Educational Action Research in Foreign Languages Teaching. Individuals and groups in three locations – a teacher’s college, an Institute and a Middle School are breaking new ground in education in the northwest of China. It is a momentous undertaking. We are now gathering evidence about how teachers are improving their methodologies[3] and how students, including even school-students, are improving their learning about English. Beyond this, we are beginning to find evidence of the ways in which this new of research is changing people’s minds not only about their professional lives but about their human values as well.[4]

 

I spend my time going into classrooms, watching colleagues teach, helping them turn methodology into research and into their own living theory, organizing and facilitating meetings, reading and writing papers, co-authoring, advising on strategic moves for the Centre, and building international networks. It is early days for me, but I admit to having one fear so far. The fear, is that this Chinese AR centre will turn into a western out-reach centre for western AR thinking. I believe this would be a limitation, not only for this centre, but for all AR across the world. You see I believe this Centre has something unique to contribute.

 

I believe contributing to the social good, to the learning processes is educational in itself. I think, as I explained in the last lecture, AR can help us to do this. We can gain knowledge and write about it for others, so that they might find hope in it. If I might tell you a personal story about my own educational development to illustrate what I am trying to explain here tonight.

 

When I was in England, for the last eight years I taught, amongst other things, English Literature with 12 year old students[5]. We studied a lot of poetry, which was difficult for them. I realised that I wasn’t just teaching poetry, but also helping the students relate to it and work on it for themselves. Literature lends itself to open and student-centred teaching methodologies. I wanted the students to have a sense of achievement in their understanding, because I knew that this would motivate them to try harder. And so I asked them to make some presentations related to the poetry, entirely of their own creation. And then to perform them for their classmates. They were highly motivated. And then I asked them to make up some unique standards of judgement, by which their classmates and they themselves, could judge their work. This stems from a belief that if you control some of the evaluation of your work, then you are more likely to enjoy it, and moreover, to understand it deeply. My Ph.D thesis is actually about this process of the evolution of developmental standards of judgement in education[6]. It shows quite clearly that not only did the students’ motivation increase, but their knowledge and ownership of the knowledge, as well as the knowledge itself, also increased. This led me to realise the significance of people making their own standards of judgement about the work they are doing.

 

Let’s stop a moment and consider this. People making their own standards of judgement about the work they are doing. How can this be? How can we do that and still produce work, which is recognised to be of value in the wider society? This is the great challenge of our work today, in my opinion. Let’s look at how it might function and indeed, that it might look like in AR.

 

At the moment, some of you are conducting your own enquiries into your educational practices and coming up with new ideas, with new knowledge. If you write this up rigorously, with contextualisation in the appropriate literature, then you are creating your own living educational theory. It will be living, because it is not finished yet. It is in a process of development. It stretches beyond the boundaries of the disciplines approaches to educational research. The disciplines of education are usually seen as: the sociology, philosophy, psychology and history of education. The Living Theory approach to educational research puts your living practices at the centre of your theorizing. And what we are talking about here, this evening, is taking that Living form to its logical extension and giving it the means by which it can develop. Human beings grow. They change. They develop. You started as a baby. So did I. So did we all. Once, your hands were this big (hold up a small object) and now they’re, well, bigger! The greatest human beings started as you and I started – as babies. As beginners, so to speak. But we have grown and matured, changed in appearance, in our habits and needs, in our abilities and potentials. AR is like that. We start as baby researchers. And then we grow up. We change. We differ in some things from our brothers and sisters, from our aunts and uncles, from our cousins, from our parents and grandparents. And that’s just in one family.

 

Let’s take it outside the family. Look at your neighbour. Look at him/her closely. Look at their eyes, their hair length, texture, colour. Look at the shape of their face. Look at their clothes, their shoes, their bags, papers, pens and mobile phones! Listen to the accent in their voices. Are their voices low or high, sweet or strict? And then we could find out about their likes and dislikes. Are they wrong to like something different from you? Of course not! But they do.

 

AR is a little like that. Each researcher finds out something new not only because it is a big world out there, but because the question s/he is asking is his or her unique question, therefore it has different values underpinning it, and therefore, it comes to different conclusions.

 

It’s not all separate, though. Our enquiries are based in this society, and this society has a right to judge some of what we do. What I am arguing for this evening, however, is that we, as groups and individuals also have to decide what it is that is of unique value to our own enquiries, and use that as one of the standards of judgement for the research.

 

This means, that the Longdong Institute may come up with some different validating standards for its work than Guyuan Teachers College, or indeed the Hui Middle School in Haiyuan where similar work is being done.

 

But hang on, you might say! This isn’t scientific! You can’t have loads of different kinds of standards operating. Who will know what is right? A good question. This takes us into the areas of generalisability and validity, and although I cannot do justice to those huge concepts in a single lecture, let me say just a few things about them.

 

Generalisability: this is the quality, usually highly prized in the hard sciences, by which research is tested to see whether its results can be true under all conditions and at all times. This is a quality which the educational world in the West has given up trying to aspire to, because it believes it to be inappropriate for research into and with people. People are not generalisable. As we saw earlier in the lecture, your neighbours are different from you in so many ways. Your family-members are also different from you. Of course, we have huge things in common – our genes, our early context, some of our hopes and dreams, but essentially, we are different people. AR in particularly no longer tries to meet this criterion, because it is not suitable. It doesn’t work in education sufficiently to make the effort of trying to get it worthwhile. It might work in huge number-sampling, and this information might feed into an AR enquiry, but in such an AR enquiry, we make conclusions from our context, not from the context of others. So, in a Living Theory Approach to AR, we try instead to think about how we might communicate the values informing our enquiries, so that others might learn something from them – about methods, about human values, about theorizing, about sharing. Generalisability doesn’t work in educational research when dealing with people.

 

Validity: this is the quality, which decides if what you are researching is of value. This is a very important standard in AR. Validity in AR can reply on many different factors. We talked about some of them at the beginning of this lecture. However, what is valid to you, might not be valid to me.

 

Let’s consider this situation. Carl Jung, an influential and brilliant psychologist and student of Freud, once said that: ‘the maturation process is characterized by becoming independent of one’s parents.’[7] Well, clearly, he wasn’t speaking about Chinese people. One of the strengths as I see it, of Chinese society, is the family’s sense of itself as a single unit. And yet here is this scientist saying that maturity is a matter of becoming independent of one’s parents. Is he wrong? Are you wrong? Is he right for some people and not for others? This idea of what constitutes maturity seems to me a very western one, and one which fits well with individualism.

 

What I am saying is that different cultures evolve different standards of judgement. Just as I cannot say that I think Jung is wrong, I don’t think Chinese attitudes to family are wrong either! It’s difficult being a relativist! What I am trying to say, is that I hope that in doing your AR to help your students learn better, to help this country become even greater, that you will look to yourselves and your own, abilities, to your own cultures, hopes and dreams, norms and exceptions, to help you develop the kind of standards you want your educational work to be judged by.

 

That’s my hope. Why? Because one of my deepest standards of judgement is concerned with promoting the freedom for people to explore their lives in the name of education, society and humanity.

 

Thank you and good night!

 

 

 

 

 



[1] Kok, P., (1991), ‘The Art of an Educational Inquirer’, Masters dissertation, University of Bath, at: http://www.actionresearch.net

[2] This is a précis of an article by Richard Winter, from Some Principles and Procedures for the Conduct of Action Research, in ed. Zuber-Skerritt, ‘New Directions in Action Research,’ Falmer Press, London.

[3] See www.actionresearch.net/otherpages.shtml  or www.actionresearch.net/otherpages.shtml

[4] Please see Liu Xia’s first draft AR report, in which she writes movingly about her work not only with college students, but also young relatives whom she is trying to motivate to improve their English. Her conclusions reveal that her research is seeping through into her whole life and not being restricted to the workplace.

[5] See previous website addresses for further details of this work.

[6] Laidlaw, M., (1996), ‘How can I create my own living educational theory as I account for my educational development?’ thesis at: http://www.actionresearch.net

[7] Carl Jung, 1926, ‘Memories, Dreams, Reflections’, Falmer Press, New York.