‘How can I help to promote

educational sustainability at our AR Centre and beyond?’

A draft interim-report by Dr. Moira Laidlaw, December 2004.

China’s Experimental Centre for Educational Action Research in Foreign Languages Teaching, Guyuan Teachers College, Guyuan 756000, Ningxia Province, P.R. China.


Preface: In previous papers (Laidlaw, 2001, 2002, 2003a, 2003b, 2004a, 2004b[1]) I have written extensively about my reasons for being here in Guyuan as a VSO volunteer, the aims of that organization and my own interpretation of them, as well as how I perceive the promotion of educational sustainable development to comprise my main function in Guyuan. I perceive the level of sustainability to be partially apparent in the living educational theories, which my colleagues - and students in the future - create for themselves in their living educative relationships and accounts of their teaching and learning.


In addition, I perceive any account of my work necessitating an emphasis on the pursuit of communicating our collaborative living educational theories with Chinese characteristics, about which I will say more later. I will feel most satisfied when the focus of future writings I am involved in move from ‘I’ to ‘we’.  I am not yet ready to ask the question: ‘How can I-We promote educational sustainability at our AR Centre and beyond?’ – which is the next logical step – because I am not yet working sufficiently collaboratively with colleagues and students to make this a true question. I will come back to this crucial point at the end of the paper.


In addition, for the sake of present readers and colleagues unfamiliar with my other papers, and as a way of embracing a Chinese approach to grounding my knowledge, I am going to start this paper with some details of my family background, because I want to acknowledge the influence of my own family’s values in laying the foundation of my future life. I want to show you what I mean in terms of my own life and learning and passion for education, through a story of my own family relationships through which I have generated my own passion for education.


In the Introduction I will also outline details about my organization and my educational aims, so that this paper might be more comprehensible. In the Advanced AR Group this term, we have been discussing what is relevant for a researcher to include in an introduction for an AR report. Therefore I am extending that aspect of my paper as an illustration, not to be emulated, but to give researchers an example of what might be appropriate detail in their own forthcoming reports.



Personal Background: I come from a white, middle class, educated British family, in which a work-ethic and a sense of purpose and achievement were taken for granted from an early age. My father was a research-scientist, who placed a huge value on scholarship, knowledge and personal achievement. An early memory was of being six years old, on a winter’s night, standing and watching the stars with him at his request, and asking him where it all began. When he replied that he didn’t know, I was dumbfounded. This was my brilliant father. Of course he knew. He said, after a long pause, that he didn’t know where the universe started and ended, but perhaps one day I would. He said I might find out something no one else knew and that anything was possible! This thrilled my young mind and made me believe not only could I achieve something, but anything in my life might happen. Perhaps this has led to a spirit of adventure in me. My mother was a home-maker. She was always the domestic security for her three children. This was a fairly traditional set-up in the fifties and we took it for granted. From an early age I passionately wanted to become a teacher, and would set up toys in strict classrooms, and instruct them in the finer points of sitting in rows! From my teens, I found that I had a flair with younger children, and would love to play with them and teach them. I began to discover then, as I believe now, that love was more important in teaching than methodology, as it seemed to me that procedures made me less happy than loving and being loved - and that seemed to be true of the children I ‘taught’ as well.


My brother:

My brother was born when I was ten years old and for the first five years of his life, he didn’t speak. He was taken to consultant and specialist after consultant and specialist and the general consensus seemed to be that he was probably autistic. This was not a well-researched condition at the time, and treatments varied between doctors. This meant he was pushed between pillar and post from an early age, and I used to watch him leaving the house with my mother for an appointment and hear him straining against her and bellowing with fear and rage! It seemed that although he wasn’t communicating with the world, he knew what was going on. My parents cared a great deal about his education and his prospects and they took the advice of specialists, because that’s what you do when you’re middle-class and educated in England: you take responsibility for helping through money and effort. They paid for private education and they got him every treatment that money could buy. Alastair (my brother) was tremendously musical (which is often a feature of the autistic child) and I knew he was intelligent, although the adults around me seemed to associate his condition with stupidity. When he looked in your direction, he never looked into your eyes. He really seemed to live somewhere very strange, very lonely, and mostly very quiet! From the ages of three to five, he became my special pupil! I would treat him as a normal child. We would play together – as well as you can play with a child who won’t look at you and won’t speak to you.


During the late summer days we would walk for miles and collect blackberries in a basket. There was one incident, which will always stay in my mind. When he was nearly five years old, in September, I took him up to the fields that surrounded our house, where there were many blackberry bushes. We collected them, stickying our fingers in blackberry juice and making our mouths purple with the crushed fruit. And then he threw a blackberry at me. I was shocked, because this wasn’t his normal behaviour: he didn’t usually make any kind of contact with me, or initiate any kind of communication. I realized he was playing with me. It was a magic moment. I threw a bunch of fruit back at him and the war was on! We chased each other around the field in the way children have been doing for thousands of years, squealing in delight and throwing blackberries at each other. By the time we’d finished we were covered in dark purple stains and bits of fruit and laughing at our silly game. For the first time, he had made real contact with me. I knew he was reachable. I knew something was going to happen and that he would be all right. I trusted him.


He showed me that it was only speech that terrified him. I would play the piano to him and he would listen, sitting at the base, little body tucked in under the keyboard, singing along with the harmonies. He would work the complex record-player (without ever having been taught) and listen to Beethoven, Mozart and Bach for hours at a time. He would sit in a corner, rocking backwards and forwards, somewhere, lonely, in a dark world of his own. At night I would read him bedtime stories and ask him questions, to which, of course, he never replied. But one night, when he was five and I was fifteen, about a month after our game, I asked him – in the course of reading him a fairy-story – who was married to the king. ‘Queen!’ he announced - staring at me full in the face - as if he had been speaking all his life and there was nothing frightening in my face. He grinned at me. I will never forget the incredible sense of achievement at that moment: my brother could talk and I had had something to do with it. I knew it wasn’t just because of me, but I realized it was most definitely with me (He, 2004[2]). I wanted that feeling again. It struck me as infinitely powerful and good – to be able to influence someone in a way that would improve their whole life. I think it was at that moment that my childish interest in becoming a teacher really became a concentrated aim.


All I know was, even at that time I was more fixed on relationships rather than cognitive processes. I experienced the truth that love was more powerful than methodology. I knew nothing cognitive about teaching an autistic child to speak, but I knew, because I loved him, that he needed love because in that sense we are all human beings: we are all equal. I think my ‘methodology’ worked because I loved him. I believe he learnt to speak partly because I knew he could and showed that in the time I spent with him, treating him as normal. He needed to feel secure and safe with me before he would take the risk of speaking to me. It seemed that he was afraid all the time. He lived in a different world from the rest of us, and in his world everything seemed to be dangerous, so he surrounded himself with music and safe things, like routines and habits. If his routines were interrupted, he became violent and passionately upset! He wouldn’t just cry, he would sob, rocking backward and forward, or rolling in grief on the ground, great wracking sobs that galvanised his body and tortured the air around him, tears dripping off his face. I found myself unable to ignore him when I wasn’t at school or studying. I would be reading a book or playing the piano and would feel his presence in the house, as he sat, rocked, or hummed his little life away. So I learnt to respect his boundaries and to enter his world on his terms, something that was going to become very important to me later on in my educational life. My own boundaries and respecting the boundaries of others, are key-points for me in educational relationships. I knew if I pushed him too far, he would retreat from the world. I needed to show him I could see a bridge between this world and wherever it was he was living. More than that, I needed to show him that coming across the bridge was possible for him and that I would welcome him, but not ever try to make him.


With my brother, I was aware that all around him were experts on autism and speech-therapy. He’d been going to them for years with little apparent improvement. He would come home after an appointment, go up to his room, put on his record player and rock backwards and forwards. This became a moral conflict for me: I had to do something! He often seemed lost and alone. And it was that, which inspired me to act with love. I don’t know how I knew it would work, I just knew it would work. I knew that he was asking a question of the world: ‘How can I communicate with you?’ And I knew the answer was: ‘through love!’ Without rationalizing it, I realized that theoretical analysis wasn’t helping the situation at all. My parents were very concerned about him, they tried everything they could in getting him some expensive help. They worried about him. My mother cried over him, and they loved him very much, but at the end of the day, they felt a responsibility to resolve his ‘abnormality’. To me he just seemed like a lonely little boy, who couldn’t help himself and wherever it was he was living wasn’t a happy place. I didn’t have my parents’ sense of responsibility or understanding of the world outside. However, I had the advantage of not knowing the theories. I could just be with him and let things develop. If isolation was the problem, it seemed to me then that no strategy was going to work. Only love was the answer, not learned theories about isolation applied from outside by experts who were paid to treat him! Perhaps that was to become a major aspect of my own educational philosophy later on: I found it deeply disturbing that powerful people should do their research on powerless people. Every time they did a battery of tests on Alastair and his behaviour, I felt he was demeaned. I felt they were looking at a set of symptoms and not at a human being. It was as if he were a collection of inabilities, rather than someone who could do special things sometimes. For example, I once played him a Schubert symphony on the record-player and after one playing, he sang it back to me. Note for note, each of the four movements, one after the other. Surely, only a genius could do that! So, I felt angry and demeaned on his behalf at the ways others often treated him as if he were stupid. I felt he needed a relationship with someone who didn’t put his abnormality first and treat him like some symptom or controlled-experiment in biology, but who admired what it was he could do. So I spent a lot of time with him in his bedroom, listening to his music, singing with him, and just being with him in his space. I sensed that this was what he needed. I did that for two years, every moment I could. And it wasn’t a chore. It wasn’t a valiant act. I loved him. What else could I, with my insights about him, do differently?


I wanted a relationship with him built on mutual trust and respect, built on shared meaningful experiences. I was conscious of what I was doing, but not conscious of what it meant to know! If you research on someone, you are not necessarily respecting their ability to make sense of their own lives. Alastair was a human being, even though he was unable to act in ways expected of him. I worked a kind of therapy of love with him, and I feel that’s why it worked. I had a growing sense that time was marching relentlessly on and if I couldn’t find a way to reach him, he might be stuck in his lonely little world forever. Discriminating against his weakness by treating him as an object of study and not as a beloved human being might forever prevent him from becoming whole: the treatment might actually become the very problem we were seeking to solve. Thus, perhaps, I learnt my most important lesson about education: individuals’ own sense of themselves matters and it is our job to help them if they need help. Individuals have a unique life and sense-making capacity, which must be respected if it does not harm anyone. I also realized that tacit knowledge and instinctual responses to situations were very much my ‘style’. I would seek answers through love and encouragement, not through theories applied to practice. I wasn’t to know then, however, that Action Research would enable me both to love and to research the significance of such an emotion in my own educational development (Laidlaw, 1996[3]). By using Action Research I have been able to enhance the quality of love in my relationships in education and to explain it to others At least, I hope so! Perhaps in the rest of this paper, you will see some links between the information above and my subsequent educational decisions. I am not saying there are causal links between my behaviour then and my behaviour now, but I am saying that the past has influenced my actions in the present and enabled me to understand something of the significance of what I am doing. In the same way I think my actions exert an influence on students and colleagues, rather than causing their behaviour.


My Organization: To me it seems wholly logical (see Laidlaw, 2004a[4]) that I came to China in 2001. After a privileged set of educational experiences in which I was sponsored for my Bachelor’s, Master’s and doctoral degrees, and after I had with great enjoyment taught English, German and Psychology in lovely state secondary schools, I came to the conclusion that I needed to give more back. The steadying influence of my mother’s nurturing over a long time, the legacy of my father’s emphasis on education, the stable working and friendship-relationships I enjoyed, together with my growing understanding of an imbalance in human relationships between poor and rich, between ethnicities, between educated and non-educated and between those with opportunities for transformation and self-determination and those without – all of these ‘conspired’ to help me see that I wasn’t fulfilling my own sense of what was right. I wasn’t discovering my full potential in the way my father had suggested, let alone aiding anyone else’s in the way I had influenced my brother’s. I felt my life was not fulfilling its own trends: from an early age I had felt that we are all connected somehow, that as human-beings there are indissoluble ties of responsibility and meaning. The moment when my brother spoke felt like the fulfillment of a wholly good purpose. What was that purpose? To enable the growth of oneself and others to live full and rich and meaningful lives and to try to work against those elements of existence, which prevented such freedom.


Thus if it was wrong in my mind for some to be rich and some to be poor, if it was wrong in my mind for some to have education and some to have none, then it was always wrong, regardless of whether it was convenient for me to do anything about it. And if not I, then who? If, with all my advantages I couldn’t do something about these injustices as I perceived them, then how could I say I had fulfilled my own life’s purpose as I saw it? (I am talking about my own logic – see Laidlaw, 2004a, and not commenting on the conclusions drawn by others about their own lives. I think we all have to find our own ways of dealing with the world.)


So, I joined VSO, an organization devoted to helping equalize opportunities in developing countries. I signed up for two years and will stay for at least five, because the longer I have stayed here, the more purpose I see in remaining. VSO is committed to what it calls sustainable development, which means the nurturing of processes, which eventually enable the indigenous population to transform their own processes for themselves. Initially, international workers like myself come here. We share skills and then, when appropriate, the international teacher leaves, with negotiated systemic adaptations left behind to enable growth.


Sustainable Educational Development: I wholeheartedly endorse VSO’s aim of enabling sustainable development. I think it’s the only way for progress to happen healthily in a culture. The world has seen too many instances of interference from one culture on another (the British colonisation of India, Britain’s/America’s invasion of Iraq, the wholesale wiping out of native Americans tribes by white America, or the Christian missionaries’ incursions into the south-sea Islands for example) and the disastrous consequences of such impositions. Even though at times certain initiatives may not have had sinister intentions or stemmed from colonialist/imperialistic desires, nevertheless in my opinion, interference in another culture can be both hazardous and always remains morally dubious. VSO seeks to promote sustainable development in ways that may avoid such dangers. The process I have been advocating – Living Theory approaches to Educational Action Research – has become, amongst other things, a search for AR with Chinese characteristics. My colleagues and I have discussed what these Chinese characteristics might mean, and without wanting to preempt or close down other ways of seeing this, our consensus appears to be constituted by a concern for one’s own family and the family as a unit. Another aspect is the individuals’ and groups’ common desire to help China’s development programme. Yet another is a sense of community-spirit – that an individual achievement belongs to the group and that there needs to be a balance between the needs of individuals and those of a group.


I wonder now, as I write this, whether my father’s early exhortation for me to discover answers for myself in my own way, has led to my desire for others to discover their own answers in their own way, and has given me a sense of respect for the otherness of others. My learning with Alastair may also partly account for my desire to enable others to grow in their self-chosen ways without being demeaned in the process. I think there may be a link, but it’s not, I believe, a simple, causal one. I also believe that my desire to encourage the pursuit of AR with Chinese characteristics might alleviate the unconscious damage which one culture can inadvertently perpetrate on another. I want to encourage my colleagues and students to be free to discover their own meanings without feeling restricted by my own presumptions. In order to promote educational sustainable development, therefore, I need to move from ‘I’ to ‘we’. More later.


Background to the AR Centre:

In 2003, Dean Tian Fengjun presided over the opening of our AR Centre (see website for pictures from 10th December), which has the brief of improving educational provision for all children in China! Practically at the moment, we take that to mean helping education-students and experienced teachers to improve their critical thinking skills, their methodology, their understanding of the New Curriculum for the teaching of English in China, and their understanding of the significance of learning as opposed to methodology in raising standards. Currently about 20 teachers are engaged in their own AR enquiries here and 12 at Haiyuan Middle School. Individuals like Fang Fang (see website) and Helen King in Gansu are conducting AR enquiries, all of which are concerned with improving methodology in teaching English. In October 2004, CECEARFLT held its first international conference. It aims to make this an annual event, at which we can share our ideas, achievements, failures and challenges for the future.


What have I done this term to promote educational sustainability at the centre? My work this term has been concerned with building and consolidating capacity in students and colleagues, through meetings, teaching of theory to students and colleagues, classroom-observations, methodology-teaching, free-talks with students and colleagues, close liaison with Dean Tian, writing papers, networking (through the internet), visits to other Middle schools and encouraging collaborative activities. (For a detailed description of last term’s work, please see Laidlaw, 2004b.) This paper will concern itself with those aspects of sustainable educational development, which I focus on in my work on a daily basis.


Standards of judgement for my work:

I would like to put forward the following standards of judgement by which I am evaluating my own attainment of educational sustainable development. This does not mean I may create all the criteria by which my work can be judged. Of course not, because my work involves other people. Therefore, I believe my standards of judgement should include collaborative resources (Winter, 1989[5]). I also want to be clear here that I am not saying that I am educating anyone. Like Whitehead (2004[6]), I believe that my work has an educational influence, but that individuals educate themselves. In his paper, Whitehead writes:


The theses and dissertations in the living theory section of action research.net provide the evidence that shows how I have pedagogised living educational theories in the Academy. This evidence does not show that I have educated anyone other than myself. It shows that whatever I do in my educational relationships must be mediated by the originality of mind and critical judgement of the other, as they create their own living educational theories, for me to recognize the relationship as an educational relationship. One of the most inspiring mediations was that of James Finnegan (2000) in his question, 'How can love enable justice to see rightly?' because of his commitment to bring love into his enquiry and his willingness to hold himself accountable to living love in his educational relationships. I am associating such values as the values that carry hope for the future of humanity. My claim to be contributing to the education of social formations is grounded in the evidence that shows my educational influence in the processes of validating and legitimating in the Academy the living and communicable epistemological standards of judgement that are grounded in ontological values that carry this hope.


I perceive colleagues and students as individuals who have a high level of choice in what they do and how they do it. Thus if a colleague or student freely integrates some of my ideas into their own work, thinking and rationale, I see this as evidence of my influence, rather than evidence that I have educated them. Their own creativity and originality of mind come into play and those are the educative forces. My mediation is focused on liberating individuals’ special abilities to enhance their own professional development. For my work to be deemed educationally successful, however, I believe I should be able to show that I have:


Š      helped individuals and groups to understand and promote their own educational and professional development;

Š      to work alongside (Pound, 2003) others in the creation and testing of their own individual and collaborative living educational theories;

Š      enabled a greater independence in learning of individuals and groups;

Š      seen reflected back to me some of my deepest educational values in the processes, statements and evaluations of others.


This last one is problematic. What if my values are wrong? What if my deepest values are not the ones others want? Does this not suggest some form of coercion? What if such a reflection is merely a repetition, and an ill-judged one at that? How can I ensure that I am not simply forcing my educational values on others? And what are my deepest values?


The Value of Love

In response to that question, I don’t want to create a list like a shopping tally of items because I think this falsifies the developmental nature of human values (Laidlaw, 1996[7]). However, I can point to how I have tried to nurture independence in others, enabling self- and peer-evaluation, encouraging joy in learning, and valuing rigour (Winter, 1989) and trustworthiness (Kincheloe, 1991[8]) in the research-process all by demonstrating these qualities myself. I point to these values because in my own educational development I have recognized their potential to transform my own life and other lives for the better. Most significantly, though, in terms of the values I want to develop in my practice is the power of love, which I see as going beyond methodology and reaching into and influencing spirit. I want to take this opportunity as well to define what I am meaning as love in my practice because I think this is a heavily contested and differently-viewed value by researchers and I want to make my own meaning clear.


In my practice I perceive love as the motivating source that enables me to try my best for the other. It is not a self-seeking or possessive emotion: in fact I believe it to be the opposite. The love I seek to bring more fully into my practice is characterised by a desire for myself and the other to grow in directions, which enable us to become stronger, more self-determining, and more capable of independence and critical thinking. I feel love for all my colleagues and students, yet there is a sense in which the love is not personal. Let me explain. When I am with the other I feel a sense of dedication to that person’s reality, which Buber[9] called the I-You relationship, a desire to listen and to understand the other. I feel a commitment to enabling the other to express his/her deepest educational values. In the course of the actions promoted by this feeling, I subordinate my own sense of what is necessary in an enquiry to the sense of priority the other has about her/his own professional development (Buber, 2002, op. cit.). This feeling is my emotional response to my belief in them as special individuals, but it isn’t necessarily a response to them as personal friends. In other words, my love is borne out of a sense of their possible futures, rather than closely associating myself with them in the present. It is a sense of being delighted in our shared humanity and the potentials of being human. I believe the love I feel promotes healthy educative relationships as well because I see my colleagues and students’ achievements as belonging to them and not in any part to me. I recognize that I influence my colleagues and students to differing degrees, but I do not own their responses. This determination not to own their achievements also, I believe, contributes to their ability to gain independence and govern their own progress. Thus I believe love enables me to act wisely with colleagues, or as Finnegan (2000[10]) asks in his doctoral thesis: How can love enable justice to see rightly? I think love helps me to negotiate with others a higher quality of freedom of choice, independence and making of meanings (D’Arcy, 1998[11]).


Just as I believe that the way I showed my love for my brother influenced him to learn courage, I believe my desire to work ‘alongside’ others (Pound, 2003[12]) in Guyuan offers a powerful encouragement to them. This being so, I see colleagues loving their students in order to encourage their growth as a positive outcome of any educational influence I might have had in their educational development. I am NOT saying that the love they show is a result of my endorsement. How could it be? I am saying, however, that I will deem such a feeling as an educational advantage and that I have encouraged this quality in my colleagues. I take no credit for their achievements and insights. I do, however, believe I have influenced them in encouraging such methods and outlook.


The right to claim particular values:

I am not claiming that my educational values are ‘the right ones’, but I am claiming that I have a right to develop them if they can be shown to be educational. I have researched my practice for over fourteen years, thus I have some grounds for my faith that my evolving values influence the educational development of others. One of my chief educational values is nurturing the other’s educational development. By educational development here, I am meaning that quality of improvement, which enables life-affirming choices to be made by individuals and groups without coercion and in a spirit of enquiry. I look, for example, at the way in which love impacts on practice. I look for people opening up opportunities for responsible freedom. Thus to have those developmental values reflected back to me in the practices of others where educational improvements are being made, might suggest that these values are themselves truly educational. Of course, each case needs to be judged on its merits.


In the account you are about to read, I will tell you about building capacity in my work leading to educational sustainable development – or not! These consist of:


Š      Teaching Grade Three students Teaching Methodology;

Š      Working with colleagues on their Action Research;

Š      Building networks and advertising for our Centre, which includes extending our influence and our publications;


Building Capacity and Potential:

1) Teaching Methodology with Students:

Twice a week I teach a group of three Grade Three classes – about eighty students in each class. I thought this might be a good way of enabling students to see that class-size shouldn’t be an inevitable obstacle to communicative methodologies. The aim of my teaching is threefold:


Š      To enable the students to know something about the processes of Action Planning;

Š      To help them understand the gist of the New Curriculum and how it impacts on their future methodologies;

Š      To enable them to evaluate the educational quality of their own and others’ work.


As Gong Lixia pointed out at a meeting (1.12.04.) the wording of my Action Research question: How can I use my classroom methodologies to help my many students use appropriate techniques themselves in their own teaching of English in the future? (See Appendix One) means it will be difficult for me to find evidence, because I won’t be able to trace their progress ‘in the future’. In this paper therefore, and for the remainder of this term and year, restricting my evaluation of my own educational effectiveness in this course to the preponderance of students’ critical thinking capacities. In other words, can they think for themselves? Can they evaluate what they and others are doing? Can they reflect back to me in their actions, some of my own deepest-held values as well as a sense of their own growing competence in this area?


I would like to concentrate in this paper (for reasons of length) on three students – Zhang Jiangwei, Tian Fang and Wang Wenyan. I have chosen these students for different reasons. Zhang Jiangwei because of the way in which he has consistently reflected back to me a growing awareness of particular values in education; Tian Fang because of her initial problems with the course, by which I mean her reluctance to take any active role in the class; and Wang Wenyan because of his poor pronunciation and generally-low language-acquisition, but his gradual increase in taking personal responsibility for his own learning.


Zhang Jiangwei:

I think Zhang Jiangwei is exceptional. His command of English is professional and impressive. His attendance at class is perfect. He sits at the front and listens carefully, writing notes and asking and answering questions. He is clever and sensitive and very talented in the classroom (see Appendix Two, Lesson description, Laidlaw, 2004). However, it isn’t all this, which impresses me the most. It is his consideration for others, his empathy and his determination to be the best student in whatever situation he finds himself. This doesn’t mean that he’s competitive. Zhang Jiangwei seems to see co-operation as a goal of his studies. How do I know this? Dozens of examples. When I ask for questions, he looks round to see who is raising their hand. If no one raises their hand, then he speaks. When I compliment him, he passes back the compliment to his fellow-students. He finds ways of collaborating, whatever I ask him to do. He performed the best micro-teaching class I have ever seen in my life. (By ‘best’, I mean most communicative, most enthralling, interesting, logical and tenderly-executed.) His first comments on his self-evaluation after his micro-teaching were to compliment his classmates for helping him, and saying how crucial it is for students to co-operate with their fellows. A further reason I use this student as evidence that one student in my Grade Three class has been influenced educationally by my teaching, comes from a response he made to a question on 15th November 2004. I asked all the students: What do you think you have learnt from me this term and where is your evidence?


Zhang Jiangwei stood up and said:


This term I have learnt that passion in education is the most important thing with students, because teaching is about learning and passion comes from love of people. I have realised that if you care about people then you care about education. It is a way to help people.


I couldn’t have put it better myself! But it got even better. He then asked others to stand up and say whether they agreed that he had really learnt this, or was he just saying it in theory? Several students then stood as witnesses to what he had done in the lesson I referred to before. They mentioned his enthusiasm for teaching, his smiling face, his confidence, his delight when a student got something right. And by his questioning of them, those students were providing me evidence of my own educational influence – they were able to evaluate him. This was a proud moment for me.


I am learning something from Zhang Jiangwei. His desire always to include the group rather than focus on his own individual needs as he learns is something I rarely came across in England during my teaching experience. It has taken me several years here to grasp the significance of his actions. In England we encourage individual learning goals and achievements. I am learning that in China a successful student, a successful learner, may be someone who offers his own insights back to the group as part of the process of learning. I would cite our relationship (between Zhang Jiangwei and myself) as a truly educative one because it is mutually beneficial. As I help him to understand more about methodology, he is helping me to learn more about alternative ways of valuing knowledge and process. I believe his insights will be important to me in becoming more collaborative in my working relationships in the future.


Tian Fang: At the beginning of the course, Tian Fang worried me. A note from my journal:


September, 2004. TF always keeps silent. She seems really afraid of me and of being noticed. When I make eye-contact with her, she always looks down and blushes. I wonder what I can do about this. I need to encourage her, to praise her, to smile at her. I need to let her know that I value her…


So, I often smiled at her, said goodbye at the door when she left a class, making sure always that she knew I saw her. On 15th October, during Dr. Whitehead’s visit to the class, I pushed her a little harder than usual and she stood up and answered a question. I was so pleased and on her way out, I asked her to remain behind so that I could congratulate her properly. I told her that she had achieved a great thing in the class, and that she would never have to be nervous again. I decided then that I would ask her to take a class for the micro-teaching part of the lesson. However, I would leave it for a few weeks and allow her to talk more in class and get used to it. In subsequent classes, she spoke once in every class. On 26th November I encouraged her to take a class on 10th December. She accepted the challenge. Here are some of the notes I made from her class:


You drew a lovely picture on the blackboard featuring a tree with two people, asking the students: What can you see? They answer, ‘there are two people and a tree.’ Then you erase the people and say ‘What can you see?’ ‘There is a tree. There were two people!’ And that leads you into the lesson on the past tense. What a clever idea…You are smiling all the time at the class. I know you are nervous but you are hiding your feeling. You encourage them a lot… You let them know that they matter by walking around and talking to them and making contact with them during their preparation in group-work…


In her self-evaluation she said:


I tried to remember to avoid all the mistakes, which other students have made before, and I avoided some of them. I walked around the class. I noticed all the students. I gave them a time-limit for their group work. But I forgot to look at all the students when I was standing at the blackboard. I was worried about my writing and I forgot the students standing on my left… but I did it! I did it! I am so happy!


Everyone clapped, as well they might! Then they evaluated her strengths and weaknesses:


‘She was kind to us;’ ‘she remembered all her students;’ ‘she gave us good examples’.


‘She should have given better instructions before the group-work;’ ‘she needed to let the students evaluate their performances.’


I spoke to her after her class. She thanked me for encouraging her, and I reminded her that she had done it, not me. I never saw her smile so freely at me as she did when she left the classroom that day. In her progress I see so many of the educational values I believe in being reflected back to me. I see that, in Liu Xia’s words (Liu 2004):


‘encouragement and respect can turn a coward into a hero,’


and I believe that the world is a better place with people acting willingly towards their own positive goals, rather than being coerced by others. In her progress I also see that one needs to experience the value of experience itself. Thinking and theorising about her potential will not necessarily help her achieve it. Doing becomes vital in such a practical art as teaching. Zhang Juanjuan, one of Tian Fang’s classmates commented on Tian Fang’s performance in a recent essay, designed to find out from students what they had learnt from the course this term. They were free to write about whatever aspect they felt was important. Zhang Juanjuan wrote:


In my experience as a student I have suffered a lot because at school some teachers didn’t treat us equally. In that situation students were ignored if they were not ‘excellent’ students. Tian Fang is a good example here. I knew she could do the teaching in the lessons. I know her well – we are classmates and in the same dormitory. And it proved to be true because she did a good job in our micro-teaching part. Usually she is not noticed by the teacher because she is so shy, but in our methodology course, Dr. Laidlaw really cared about her. And when she taught a class I was so proud of her. And she was so happy. I think confidence is important and I think teachers can help students to become confident.


Wang Wenyan: He touches my heart. When I first saw him, tucked at back of the room, keeping his head low, often in a book (and not my Methodology Handbook either!), avoiding my eyes and turning away from me at the door on his way out, I found myself wanting to communicate with him (shades of my brother, perhaps?). It didn’t seem right to me that a student was so remote from the teacher. I sensed fear in him and this couldn’t be allowed to continue. As with Tian Fang I started to notice him overtly and praised him whenever I had the opportunity. I once caught him reading another course’s book during class, and although that had to stop, it didn’t strike me as the act of a wilful or disobedient student: it struck me, because of his demeanour and attitude generally, to be the act of someone who had given up on the course, who had effectively given up on himself. I couldn’t allow that to continue either. Although I feel strongly that students are responsible for themselves, I also know that people get confused, that they start exploring blind-avenues and become disorientated. I couldn’t stand idly by and let that happen because he seemed distressed. Again, I can see the influence of my formative years with my brother, when I felt responsible for his pain and compelled to act, but there are times, I believe, when intervention to prevent students going down blind-alleys and suffering are indeed a part of my responsibility as a teacher.


Let me be clear here. There are times when I don’t intervene, when I feel that the progress relies on the individual student’s capacity to make decisions for him/herself. However, that decision-making capacity can be damaged for all sorts of reasons. The decision when to intervene and when to allow the student to come to their own conclusions is a difficult one, and I tend to follow the motto: each case should be judged on its merits. It seemed to me that Wang Wenyan was acting in ways, which I felt would damage him and that he genuinely might not find his own way out of the maze. The prospects for these young people are not rosy. Many of them will find it hard to get jobs. Even the best students might fail. At this time many Grade Three students are disillusioned and sad about their futures. By not involving himself fully in the lesson, he would possibly damage his chances for employment, but also importantly he could damage his own self-esteem. If he tried nothing, he would gain nothing. If he gained nothing, then he might feel useless and surely as a teacher, I don’t want my students to feel useless, if they can feel otherwise, and if helping them to feel otherwise doesn’t take away their capacity and right to make decisions for themselves in the future. I felt this was the spiral he was in and I felt I needed to reach him, and then he could make up his own mind.


So what did I do? I told him to close his book, and then quietly, I told him to make a choice. He could leave the class and I would not report him, or be angry with him (which would be a typical reaction by a teacher) or he could stay, close the book and take part in the class. I said I would be sorry if he left, but that the choice was freely his. He stayed. Then, during the next class, when he was sitting at the back, but eyes riveted to the front now and to my face, I asked him directly if he would teach a lesson. His spoken English is relatively poor (by which I mean that he expresses himself less clearly than many students on the course) and he clearly lacks confidence.


I can’t do it! I can’t. My English poor. They laugh at me. I can’t!


He started to shake. I wanted to give him a hug, but contented myself with saying I believed in him. They wouldn’t laugh. They would help him. He really should do it because the first time is the most difficult and he would be so proud of himself if he could. He bent his head for a long moment, looked up, smiled at me, and said he would! His two deskmates clapped him on the back in support.


On 13th December, he came to the front and taught a class. He was shaking. At those moments in my teaching I find it incredibly difficult not to intervene and to save the student from his pain, but know that my job is to believe in his ability to cope with the situation, not to support him so that he can’t support himself. This is actually a profound comment on my core-belief in the capacity of individuals to take care of themselves. He tremblingly held up a picture of a cat, asked what it was, and the lesson began. And slowly, he began to show his humanity. He laughed with the students. They laughed back. He started to enjoy himself. I say that because of his body-language and the critical feedback from students, who said they realised he liked teaching them. Touchingly he had prepared something to say for his self-evaluation before the lesson, which of course, isn’t pedagogically sound. I was pleased in a way, though, because it showed his huge desire to succeed. He read the following, which in fact had been what he did:


I tried to see all the students. I drew some pictures. I walked around the class. I asked questions and many students answered. I did some group-work and pair-work with them. I prepared a lot, but my drawings not good. I will try harder next time. I want to be a good teacher!


I am not claiming that his lesson was marvellous: it wasn’t. I am, however, claiming that I influenced him to find the courage in himself to reach beyond his previous aspirations. Just as I think I helped my brother to recognise he could function in the world, I think I have helped Wang Wenyan to stand up for himself. I am delighted with his achievement, because I believe (perhaps because of my past experience) that such experiences lead to growth, strength and happiness. In my delight, though, I fully recognise Wang Wenyan’s ownership of his own actions and his responsibility for them. I am happy for him.


Liu Hui’s Evaluation of the Methodology Course: Liu Hui, a colleague-member of the Advanced AR group has been coming to the Monday evening sessions for most of this term. On 9th December I asked her about her impressions of what the students are achieving. I chose to speak to her not only because she has attended my class regularly, but because she speaks truth to power. She will say exactly what she thinks, without censoring her opinions, and I needed to encourage such an openness to improve the rigour of my own practice and this report. We spoke about students’ motivation and she said:


I think about ninety percent of your students are highly motivated. I thought at first it was because you are a foreign teacher and therefore they would listen more carefully, but actually this has continued throughout the course. However, sometimes the students at the back are not as willing to speak. I think they are listening, because when we work in groups they can talk freely about the topic, but sometimes, they don’t want to answer in the whole class. I have noticed you don’t force them to speak. In groups they are active.


I asked her about her opinion of the students’ critical faculties. She said:


I am impressed that the students can become like Junior One students and yet many of them still take notes about the methodology of the student-teacher. They also use evaluation and self-evaluation. In Ma Xiaoyan’s class, I think her ideas went beyond mine in her self-evaluation. Some of the students noticed that she didn’t show the picture round to everyone and they reminded her of that… Another student pointed out that perhaps it isn’t easy for Junior One students to learn vocabulary in the way she was suggesting because she has been a tutor herself and that method hadn’t worked! This is good because it is reflection on a real situation and not an imagined one.


She went on to say, however:


I don’t like it that some students never talk in your class.


We then had a discussion about responsibility. I said I find it difficult to take responsibility for adults, and that in my opinion would-be teachers need to become responsible for their own learning. She reminded me that in China, relationships between teachers and students are different – that teachers expect to push and students expect to be pushed. Thus I feel that there are aspects of my methodology teaching that haven’t worked, because I have failed to help some of my students understand the necessity for self-motivation and responsibility. This is an area I must work on next term. It is similar to a problem I had with some colleagues last term when I refused to push them and they stopped attending the meetings. In my evaluation with Dean Tian last term he suggested I push them and I countered with the idea that I should explain how this process of taking responsibility in AR works. I was adamant that I didn’t want to force volunteerism!


In the lesson on 13th December, Liu Hui spent some time on her own initiative asking for the students’ evaluation of my teaching in order to square her own ideas (above) with the students’ opinions. Again, I find this a reflection back to me of a central educational value I hold: she is checking her own reflections with those of others, which is how in AR we come to understand more about our insights. It is a part of the triangulation process, which is one of the things I have discussed at meetings this term.


2) Working with Colleagues on their Action Research.

General points about the AR Groups:

In working with the Advanced and Beginners Groups this term, I am mindful of the evaluation I had with Dean Tian at the end of last term, in which he said he hoped I might exert more influence on the younger members of staff to be involved in our AR work. I am pleased that many more young members of staff are freely inviting me to their classes and showing signs of improving their learning. (See Laidlaw, 2004 data archive material on colleagues’ lessons.) I have been concerned this term with being more approachable with colleagues, particularly the younger ones, who tend to be nervous with me. I believe the fact that I have been asked to far more lessons this term is some proof that I am becoming more approachable. And at the Beginners Group on 7th December, I counted 16 teachers, which is a record! I am aware, however, that Dean Tian is most active in encouraging his younger colleagues and I can take no credit for those colleagues who have been convinced through his efforts to see the meetings and processes of AR as educationally useful. I think the truth is that we (Dean Tian and I) work extremely well together in realising a learning environment here in the department.


I want to note that this term I have given my colleagues copies of the revised ‘Handbook for Methodology and the New Curriculum’ (CECEARFLT 2004), as well as a Guide to AR by Dean Tian and myself, which teachers are saying are useful, but I have yet to find evidence that the latter is being actively used in any research processes.


In collaboration with Li Hongyan, my VSO Programme Officer, Dean Tian and Li Peidong, I have been determined this term to help build capacity in my colleagues and feel a particular responsibility to help with the initiation into the profession, the newest members of staff. We have recently lost Tao Rui, Ma Jianfu and Cao Yong to other institutions and Zhao Xiaohong to another department, and they constituted a senior strand of our advanced AR group. This term we have had regular attendance in addition to Ma Hong, Liu Hui, Wang Shuqin and Li Peidong, and Jiang Hongxia, Ma Xiaoxia, Lv Yingping and Liu Xia (from the Beginners Group).




Liu Xia:

It is Liu Xia’s work in the Advanced Group that I would like to give details from for this paper. I choose her, first because her work appeals to me! Her values and mine seem similar. Her first paper on AR was about how she could help her students to learn through respect and encouragement (Liu 2004). However, choosing for such a reason isn’t rigorous. I also choose her work because she has made profound progress in her teacher-research and I think some of this is probably due to my educational influence. I also have a lot of evidence to support my claim that she has made profound progress.


I usually pop into the office at the morning break so that I can see people and they can talk to me about their research if they want. Liu Xia often tells me what she’s doing. In other words, she makes opportunities and her research seems to be an integral part of her working day. I visit colleagues’ lessons on request only, and e-mail the comments to them and always as well to Dean Tian and Li Peidong. The dean is collating the critiques written by members of staff about colleagues, which enables individuals to see what is happening in the AR enquiries in the department. Here are some extracts of my comments on a lesson Liu Xia asked me to visit. The class is a Grade One class, and her new AR question is: How can I help my students to become autonomous learners?


4.12.04. In this class I want to look for evidence that the students are able to think for themselves and that they are willing to try new ways. Very often autonomy is characterised by students taking risks and also taking the initiative in a situation. Several students have already demonstrated their ability to take some initiative in approaching me without me approaching them first. Good. I will also be looking for student-centred teaching by you, because autonomy is also most encouraged through student-centred methodologies. I think your original research question: How can I help the students to learn through respect and encouragement? will have been a good foundation for your present research…


I am really impressed by the way, by a student behind me (male). He invites a student-visitor to the class to join his group. This kind of inclusionality is quite rare and I am delighted to see this happening in your class, because it suggests to me that students in your class feel that education is for everyone and that everyone should be included. This is great…


In my feedback I write in two ways: first I point out methodological weaknesses and strengths as I perceive them. Secondly I align my comments to the development of the teacher’s own AR enquiry. In my notes on her lesson that day I wrote:


AR Notes: I hope that your report will show us something about how you have engendered (created) this kind of atmosphere in your class. It is rare to find this anywhere and certainly rare in a culture, which has traditional methodology. You will need to describe – and explain – the ways in which you have made this appear natural for your students. How have you done it? How long did it take? What were the methods you used in this new way of teaching and learning? Did the students hesitate at first? Are all the students happy with this new way of work? Why? Why not? Where is your evidence and so on? I think you have something to teach other teachers about student-centred learning. It doesn’t surprise me that you can do this – your character lends itself to this kind of way – but for people who find this difficult I think you have a responsibility to help them…


I go on to say about methodology:


They trust, respect and like you – I suspect that’s because you trust, respect and like them! It almost always works both ways in the classroom, as in life. Your first AR report showed this facet very clearly. Now I can see you building on it. Your classroom practice seems more assured to me. More confident. More cogent. You seem to have a much more fluent approach to the content and the process. You ask the students after they are ready, if they have any questions.  The student behind me (the one who made the visitor-student welcome) stood up and asked a question, showing exactly where the difficulty he was having, came from. This precision is impressive. And then he doesn’t ask you, he asks a student. She stands up and answers and speaks fluent English. He thanks her warmly. This is most encouraging. The bell goes, but the students don’t want to stop. They carry on talking and discussing the question. I think this is marvellous. It shows real commitment. And then another student stands up. Wow, now this is fantastic, Liu Xia. What amazing students! But they are fantastic students because it’s normal for them to be, because you have made it normal for them to be marvellous. It is always something to do with the teacher, because you are the one with the power in the classroom.


On December 16th we had a discussion about our work together.


ML: How do you think I have influenced you educationally?


LX: It has been a great effect. First was in 2002. We met in Dean Tian’s office and he had something else to do so we talked. I said my English was poor. You said it wasn’t because you understood everything I said. I was greatly encouraged by your words. You made me feel good about my English first. I realised then that encouragement is very important. Perhaps this idea was already in me but was sleeping. You awakened my insight about encouragement – to feel encouraged and to show encouragement. You love your students. You love your colleagues. I’ve been a teacher for eleven years, and I love my students, but from your actions I recognised the importance of loving attitudes and actions. I tried my best to show love to my students. That came from you. You showed me respect and encouragement so I started to be conscious about its effect on me. So I started to show the students respect and encouragement[13][she talked a little then about her background and school experience with some students who didn’t have encouragement from the teacher]. I didn’t see before that those students failed because the teacher hadn’t encouraged them. I just didn’t realise it. You gave me a way to think about my teaching and my own experience.


The second way was with my AR report. The first report was four pages. You really made me proud because you praised it a lot and then gave me so many suggestions about how I could improve it. I then wrote twenty pages.


ML: But I don’t think I educated you.


LX: But you influenced me a lot. You showed me a zealous pursuit of your own educational values. You put your heart into teaching. I had never had such feedback before. Before 2002, when I was asked to evaluate something, it was just saying if I had done a task or not. I didn’t have to think about if it was good or not. You showed me that evaluation really helps the learning and the teaching. And so I started to work hard to see what the quality of my work here is. And then I decided I needed to help my students to do that as well.


ML: I think that’s my point. All I did was recognise your special talent as a teacher, Liu Xia. Your creativity and originality did the rest.




I recognise that I find Liu Xia very easy to work with because as she says, she already had the instincts about particular values in education. She gravitated naturally towards a caring approach to her students and a sense that they could work well. All I had to do was encourage her to see that her ways were significant educationally. Her own ability to engage creatively with formulated ideas is what, it seems to me, she has managed to educate herself about this term. My influence has been in helping her to cloth her natural abilities in a structure, which helps her augment her own professional development.


From here I would like to go on to discuss the AR advanced group meetings, in which Liu Xia plays an increasingly active role.


Evaluation for Advanced Meetings this term.

At a meeting on 9th December, we talked about how we might improve the meetings. Dean Tian said that perhaps we should have a meeting in two parts: the first for worries and concerns arising from our AR and the second for new theories and ideas we might need to bear in mind. He also suggested that a suggestion-box in the teachers’ office might really help us to keep in touch with the group-members’ needs on a weekly basis and he would set this up. Wang Shuqin suggested that more time should be given to colleagues’ own AR processes. She said that we need the theories but there needs to be a balance. Liu Hui suggested that an agenda for meetings would help us to prepare in advance. She mentioned that papers given too near the meetings didn’t help us to understand the ideas sufficiently. Li Peidong said he would organise this. Li Peidong suggested that he collate ideas and prepare an agenda in advance. The last meeting this term would set out an agenda for next term’s meetings.


I also want to mention that at this group, when Wang Shuqin talked us through her AR so far this term, Li Peidong asked the question: And what are your imagined standards of judgement for your research? To my knowledge this is the first time that such a question has been asked by a Chinese colleague in the department rather than by me. We then had a lively discussion about how we could reduce bias (Winter, 1989[14]) and improve rigour in our research. I see this as significant because it shows something of sustainable development: colleagues were adopting methods, which in AR are shown to enhance the professional and educational potential of the research.


From the Beginners’ Group: Hao Cailing

I also want to write about Hao Cailing, a new colleague, who joined us this term after graduating from Ningda (Ningxia University). She joined the Beginners Group at the beginning of term, and her AR question is: How can I help the students build their vocabulary? Her students are first year non-major students, which means their first subject is not English. When I first went to her class I gave her some encouragement about what I was witnessing, but I also wrote this:


Remember that if some students haven’t finished, why not ask them in pairs to help each other? This way everyone is active all the time. Otherwise some students are simply waiting for the others to finish and they are wasting time…


The New Curriculum talks about learning vocabulary in context. It’s difficult to do this, I know, but I think that getting students to list words may not be the best way of conducting this part of the lesson. I think that students learn more when they use the words in context. I think you should try to devise a context for the language to be used in, rather than just recited. The New Curriculum says that students should move from competence to performance. This means that knowing isn’t as important as using. I wonder, for example, whether you could ask the students to work in pairs to make sentences using three or four of the new words. That may be difficult, but if they work in pairs (or groups) I think they might be able to do it. Give it a try. Getting them to do it as a class (recitation) starts to break down with difficult words like ‘communicate’. Maybe getting some of them, like pairs together, or a row together, is a better way as well because otherwise if the whole class recites, you can’t hear the mistakes…


You have told the students to say no when they haven’t finished and yet when you ask and they say they haven’t finished, your voice sounds a little angry. I think this is a living contradiction (Whitehead, 1989)[15]. This needs to be better understood in the process of your work. You want to encourage your students, but you may be acting in ways, which deny this desire. Let’s discuss this. Be careful. This is likely to make your students feel afraid of you…And what about smiling at them? I really think you should smile more because again research shows (mostly conducted in America) that students really respond better to teachers who smile, because they feel the smile as encouragement and love. They think that perhaps the teacher really likes them. If you don’t smile at them, it might be interpreted that you don’t really like them very much and that you are not enjoying being with them.


I went to the same class again at her invitation on 7th December 2004 and wrote the following:


You get the students to respond, but don’t let them shout. Well done! You choose an individual…This is better than last time…


You bargain with them and say you will do some music now and then [they can] teach after the break! The monitor says all the students can do it. He’s a good monitor! I am impressed by his attitude. You tell them to relax and imagine how they will do their teaching task after the break. It’s a nice way. You negotiate with them and quite often this works really well because the students will feel they are equal with you in humanity. You have superior knowledge about much of the course, but you are equal in humanity. That’s a lovely message to give students. Congratulations. Many teachers are not confident enough to manage this kind of relationship with their students because they feel that they will lose control. Actually, the control usually improves after such revelations. Students respond warmly to being loved…


The monitor is the next teacher. He says they understand their book already and therefore let’s close our books. He then scratches his head and explains he hasn’t had a chance to wash his hair recently! He asks them when the Great Wall was built. The student (you) answers the question and writes some words on the board. I answer incorrectly and he deals with it really well. He struggles with the difficult vocabulary but he still makes his meanings clear. This is really impressive, because with limited vocabulary, he is really doing a good job. He manages to make some historical points extremely clearly. What a clever and brave student he is! I am so impressed, not only with him, but with you for giving him a chance! He talks about the first emperor with some insight and some humour. He draws a line on the blackboard and what an amazing teacher he will be, because this is a perfect way to describe his meaning, even though he’s having difficulty expressing himself exactly. I am so moved by this young man! When you try to answer, he prevents you because he knows you can do it. He encourages another student to answer. I suggest thousand and thousands and thousands. He says no when he writes a thousand million on the blackboard – 1000,000,000! It is, of course, too many. It is one million people and he explains why it took so many. He has clearly researched this. He writes a few words and checks that the students understand. This just gets better and better. I don’t think I have ever seen such a performance by a student, whose English level is relatively poor, but whose confidence is so high! What he lacks in English accuracy, he makes up for by his unbounding confidence and self-belief…


AR Notes: I am wondering whether it is possible for all students to do this. I think if you can show in the future that all students are really capable of attempting something like this, then you can show us something really special in education. This is not normal, Hao Cailing. It’s especially good! If you can encourage all your students in the way you are encouraging him, then others will be able to make such a brave attempt too. Honestly, this is rare. I think your AR could show other teachers how on earth you have managed to make such a thing possible in your class. I don’t think I have ever managed to do something as impressive as this with such a student. You method really needs explaining to others. I hope your AR report will give us some details about how you have organised your teaching methods, your classroom and the students’ learning, which have resulted in one young man’s incredible bravery and courage. Surely we want all our students to be able to do this. And another point, this shows us that it is confidence, which helps people to learn, rather than just knowledge…


Hao Cailing said (10th December) about her own teaching:


I want to involve the monitor in my teaching-methods because he is the monitor and can encourage the students more easily sometimes than me. (I had gone on to say in my notes, that perhaps by paying attention so much to the monitor she might give the wrong message to the other students about her level of care for them.) I think I need to have him to work with me because the other students really respect him a lot and they see that he sets an example. When I ask the students to do something, he will support this and tell them it is for their benefit. I think it works in this class with these students. I am also not sure that I should let the students work in pairs to improve their pronunciation. You said in your notes, they should perhaps. I tried it once and it didn’t work, so I think they are not ready for this method yet. Actually when they tried this, their pronunciation was worse. I want to find other ways, but this one doesn’t work in my class.


I am delighted by the level of critical thinking in Hao Cailing’s responses to my comments and to her own sense of what she needs to do. She is taking responsibility for her own learning as she tries to find effective methods in helping her students to improve their learning. I also have to say that in China it is quite unusual to find this level of disagreement from a young colleague. I find this a very positive reflection back to me of the value I hold of freedom of speech and personal responsibility. I don’t want teachers to try to teach like me or in the ways I say. I want teachers to be free to find the methods, which suit them and their students. Hao Cailing is a professional teacher, who already thinks for herself and I believe this quality will enhance her teaching ability in the future. She has only been teaching for one term. What she has learnt already is phenomenal. I hope her future AR report will enable others to see something of her open-mindedness and ability to make decisions.


3) Extending the Centre’s influence:

As Advisor to the Centre, it seems to me that one of my chief responsibilities must be - in addition to consolidating our base - networking and supporting administration that develops our capacities, reputation and aims for the future.


1) The October Conference. In partnership with VSO, in October 2004 China’s Experimental Centre for Educational Action Research in Foreign Languages Teaching (CECEARFLT) held its first international conference. Li Hongyan (VSO Programme Officer) felt after Dean Tian’s and my meeting with her and her colleagues in July 2003, that there was scope for amalgamating the VSO regional conference and our AR one. After the conference, she put together an evaluation, partly based on the comments we had gained from delegates. Here are some extracts from her report:


During the one year after the establishment of the Centre, significant progress has been made by the members in improving the quality of English teaching and learning through Action Research. A number of articles by the action researchers of the College have been published in national educational journals, and some have been adopted at international educational conferences for exchange and discussion purposes. Examples of their case studies and action research reports can be found at the website: http://www.actionresearch.net/moira.shtml where you will see how they have already created their own living educational theories. All of these enquiries are relevant to the implementation of the New Curriculum for the teaching of English, which can be broadly understood as necessitating new ways of teaching and learning, ‘moving students from competence to performance’…


Comments and Recommendations from VSO China Programme Office

The conference achieved its purpose to a large extent, and has inspired and engendered a higher level of awareness, interest and enthusiasm in educational development through action research. Meanwhile, challenging questions were raised and constructive feedbacks were collected through the conference, which will help improve the quality of and stimulate thinking in the future work for both Guyuan EAR Centre and VSO.


The fact that Guyuan EAR Centre and Guyuan TC took the lead in organizing the conference also symbolizes a significant progress in VSO’s agenda in pushing for partner ownership and capacity building.


Perhaps the most importance significance for VSO is that, the conference has substantiated the potentiality for VSO to support overall sustainable educational development through promoting action research. As it has been realized by the action researchers at Guyuan, action research has the potential in improving quality of teaching in all subjects, not just English. As a general methodology, there is no reason why action research cannot also be used to improve the quality of educational management. With its ELT programme ending in 2009, VSO China might find another niche to continue supporting educational development in China beyond 2009.


2) Jack Whitehead’s Visit:

Jack came for a week in October and was a keynote speaker at our first international conference. His visit was a great encouragement to colleagues, because of his sustained interest in their educational development over the last three years. His interest helps to dispel the myth of Guyuan’s inadequacies, which I wrote about in previous papers (see website). As an international academic, Jack can go anywhere. He chose to come here. This has really touched my colleagues and students. Dean Tian said about his ‘teaching’ style:


I notice when someone talks, Jack listens to them. Whoever they are. A junior teacher, a student, a president. He listens. I think this is his special way. He lets them say whatever they want and then he helps them to clarify their thoughts. It’s a great way. It also encourages the person a lot.


As a result of his visit we are hoping to produce some visual-aid teaching materials (see later). Jack’s visit helped us to put an international face on our Centre. Jean McNiff’s visit exactly a year ago started this process and both visits have given us a sense that we can attract international guests, who will find something of interest here in Guyuan.


3) Book Publication:

Dean Tian and I have submitted our book, ‘Action Research and the New Curriculum in China’ for publication by the Beijing Foreign Languages Research Press. If that is not successful, Dean Tian wants to see if the ‘110 Best Educational Books’ Group in China will publish it. We feel this book could be a major contribution to New Curriculum (NC) education in China, and that its publication is timely. The NC will become law in September, 2005.


4) Other Publications:

a) Jean McNiff has written a book, Action Research for Teachers [16] and three case-studies from our department are included – by Ma Hong, Gong Lixia and myself. In our case-studies we write about how we have tried to improve education in the department and offer evidence of our educational influence.


b) Li Peidong and I have now finished our joint article called: 'How can we facilitate a process of educational change?' We have documented our educative relationship from the points of view of two very different scholars and explain how we have come to constrained disagreement (MacIntyre, 1992) and consensus. We both feel that this article represents a new voice in collaborative living educational theory and are seeking publication with both the internet journal AR Expeditions and also an international AR hard-copy journal. We had a conversation about how we came to change our minds and work more closely together, which we recorded in the paper thus:


Moira Laidlaw: Yes, instead of knowing the answers, I realised that I had to let go of certain set beliefs about process and outcome that I had come to China with. That for this process of educational development to flourish, it had to flourish in its own image. Although there is something in this new idea that doesn't at all contradict an original value I hold and that's about not exerting undue influence on the people around me and diminishing their power to make decisions about aspects of life, which directly concern them.

Li Peidong: So AR might develop here in new ways. This individually-oriented form might change into more collaborative forms of AR. We might have, for example, people researching together in pairs: one an experienced teacher, and the other a novice. This mentoring might help us support a Chinese structure. Although the enquiries we are conducting here are useful, I do wonder sometimes about the emphasis on the individual. I think there are ways for us to work in which we create a new synthesis out of our understandings.

Moira Laidlaw: What I see as significant too, from the point of view as a volunteer here, is that in developing Chinese characteristics in this process, we might render the process sustainable. It seems to work all round. We want educational improvements. We want durability. We want the process to fit. We want people to be motivated. We want something new, to make this AR Centre distinctive, to enable it to offer something valuable.

Li Peidong: And it will focus colleagues in working together to build something powerful for China. Yes, this New Curriculum and the work we're doing on its implementation may be one facet of Chinese characteristics.

Moira Laidlaw: You might be right. But it seems to me that an action research with Chinese characteristics is a synergetic and creative response to the differences between us all. That in doing this, I am saying it is not about my insights. Only you can do this. I can't know what makes something Chinese and how that Chineseness can be harnessed educationally. It devolves my power in the situation.

Li Peidong: And talking about it with our colleagues is the only way forward.


If nothing else, this extract shows something of the quality of educative relationship I share with Li Peidong in which both of us are learning something of value as we try to promote sustainable educational development in the department and beyond.


5) Internet publications:

For the Saturday BERA seminar in Bath, Jack Whitehead asked us to put together our abstracts so that he might refer to them. Dean Tian and I both felt that this was a good opportunity for free publicity and would offer colleagues a focus for their writing.


The latest accounts of their writings can be found at: http://www.bath.ac.uk/moira.shtml and more reports will be available on the web within the next few weeks.


6) Haiyuan: We have made two visits to Haiyuan this term. I think it’s not really enough, but there is always so much going on. In November I made some notes about the teacher’s enquiries:


1) Gao Qin: How can I help my students to improve the interest and motivation in English learning? His principle method of data-collection is through his students’ comments and observations of his teaching. He has little data at the moment, and realises that he needs to collect data specifically on his question. He is finding that following the advice of his students is the most helpful in improving his methodology for their benefit. In the midterm examinations, he found that quite a few students had made progress and not just the best students either. He attributes this to the more student-centred learning methods adopted by his students and his ability to be more responsive to their needs.


He commented that before AR he tended to concentrate simply on the better students in order to boost their examination results. He now concentrates on all his students, and particularly the poorer ones, who, he feels, are helping him understand more about teaching and learning styles than before.


2) Teacher Two: How can I help my students to improve their reading? (Senior three) He is concerned about his students’ learning because in this poor area they have a low basis from which to begin. He has been reading AR books as this is helping him to be more alert to the teaching and learning needs in his classroom. He has been conducting an experiment with two parallel classes to see whether he can help the students to improve their learning. In getting the students to improve he is using a questioning technique and finding that the students’ problems are even in forming questions about the texts they are reading. So he is helping them with their questioning techniques. After a while he gave them a test and found that many students had learnt better ways to interrogate a text and their results were improved. They were shy, though, and this continues to be a problem. He recognises that making mistakes is a way to improve learning, however, and encourages his students to try. He has also enabled situations in which better students help the less able, a method, which seems to be bearing fruit. Students are also encouraged to write about their learning methods, so that he can find out more information about how to help them. The subjects of his research (two students) could only finish half the amount, but he was quite satisfied with this. He is going to concentrate on helping the students to build their self-confidence in learning.


3) Teacher Three: How can I help the students to improve their learning? (senior one) He was finding a lot of mistakes in the students’ writing, and so gave them the advice to practise writing two new sentences a day for a set-period. This seemed to improve the overall writing ability of individuals within his class. However, with some persistent mistakes he had to find new methods. There was a grammatical problem, which he asked a Chinese teacher to solve in the Chinese class, so that the students could transfer the knowledge from the other class to his. This was successful and a good example of collaboration in AR! He also asked them to write a diary and this helped with the composition part of the Units of Work.


4) Teacher Four: How can I help the students to make correct sentences in their writing? (senior class) He did an enquiry, which had the students forming sentences using four identical initialled words. It seemed to help for a while. This colleague’s AR has stopped, however, because he found that bigger problems were arising during the course of his enquiry into writing. We discussed this at length and the new question became: How can I help the students improve the logic of their writing in English?


5) Ma Yangui: How can I help the students to improve their writing? One way was to encourage students to make 2-5 minute duty report, in which they can recite a poem, or short story of their choosing. They need to be using reading and speaking as well to improve their writing, and also they made their own diaries. Teacher read through and corrected mistakes and took suggestions for teaching. Every fortnight gave the students a writing task. He divided term into two parts. First part for practising letter-writing; second part for writing a short passage – an essay or another article form. According to their mistakes, he asked them about his methods and they gave feedback. He has tried to create a more authentic English-learning environment for his students. There has been some progress in their writing and also in their motivation, probably because of his research. Dean Tian and I suggested that the other students could help in the evaluation of the duty-reports, for example, and thus be more active during that part of the lesson. He agreed.


6) Mr. Li: How can I help the students to improve their listening? He gained information from their test papers and decided that their listening was problematic. He has been helping his students to improve their general vocabulary and this has resulted in students being more able to understand the questions he’s raising in class. He wonders if his students are lazy. We discussed the fact that there can be many reasons for laziness. Sometimes it’s a lack of confidence. Sometimes, the work is too easy or two difficult. Sometimes it is because the student doesn’t understand the purpose of a task. He’s asked students to prepare a short article each and to recite them as listening comprehensions for other students. This sounds very promising!


One of the main issues that arose in our visit was the contested area from the New Curriculum about teaching the textbook or using the textbook. Many teachers follow textbooks slavishly[17] and one of the things we are trying to encourage through AR is the ability of teachers to design those activities themselves that suit their students’ learning needs. This is a huge area for development, and next term, we will be continuing our work with them. We need to encourage them to write about their knowledge, because case-studies by Middle School teachers will be impressive to other teachers trying to implement the New Curriculum.


7) Multi-media project:

This term, after the October Conference, Li Hongyan (VSO) has been encouraging GTC amongst others, to start producing pedagogical materials for teaching and learning. If we are to have another conference in 2005, it is important to be able to show that we have developed in the intervening time. And of course, we need to develop the Centre’s capacity to offer inservice and pre-service education. With these aims in mind, I wrote the following document about what materials we might produce. I wrote it bearing in mind the most common problems I have found occur in methodology, action planning and implementing the New Curriculum in China.


Aim: to illustrate links between Action Planning and the New Curriculum in order to improve teaching and learning.


N.B. ‘Visuals’ refers to the visual recordings of actions; ‘Literature’ refers to the text both on each visual recording (as headlines) and in essays/descriptions/rationales etc.


Six disks are being planned, each of which shows planning, action and outcomes.


Disk One:

Making an Action Plan.

Literature: Simplified version of Dean Tian/Moira Laidlaw book introduction about the links between NC and AR in general and the significance of material in the rest of the pack. Notes on the aims of the NC, with particular problems highlighted for MS teachers of English.

Visuals: Helen’s presentation at the 2004 Conference, with accompanying notes on action planning from Guide and/or Handbook.


Disk Two:

Skills Help.

Literature: links with above to the NC, plus action plans by teachers wanting to improve their skills in the following areas and some follow-up – i.e. what happened? Notes from Handbook. Action Plan: How can I help my students to gain as much as possible from my visual materials?

Visuals: looking at blackboard skills, using teaching visual aids, how to get feedback, how to begin a class, how to end a class, how to give instructions, how to mark homework, how to ask a range of questions to get more information.


Disk Three:

Student-Centred Learning

Literature: What is it? Who does it? When do you do it? How can you do it? How does it fit with the NC? Action Plan: How can I help my students become more responsible for their own learning?

Visuals: Classroom with Liu Xia, Li Jun showing students taking responsibility, using text freely, teaching each other, using flexible communication-methods.


Disk Four:

Promoting Oral Work: Pair-work/Group-work.

Visuals from classroom with Liu Hui, Ma Hong before, during and after group/pair-work, encouraging oral work. Footage of students talking freely in groups and pairs.

Literature: linking group-work to the NC’s requirements and aims. Notes from Handbook, which explain methods and purpose. Action Plan How can I help my students have the confidence to speak in my English classes?


Disk Five:

Using the Text not Teaching the Text!

Literature: Action Plan on reading to adhere to NC requirements. Excerpt from textbook being used in visuals. (Need to check copyright-laws.) Tips on how to use a text in the classroom to avoid reading it slavishly. Action Plan: How can I help my students to build their vocabulary through reading?

Visuals: example of teachers teaching text in an innovatory way: using the textbook, not teaching the textbook and showing students’ responses. (Teachers in mind – Liu Xia, Hao Cailing, Li Jun with their Action Plans.)


Disk Six:

Evaluating Students’ Learning:

Literature: What constitutes evaluation? Formative and summative examples. How can teachers evaluate according to the New Curriculum? Why is formative evaluation so important? How can teachers learn from students’ responses? Action Plan: How can I help my students to evaluate their own learning in order to improve their study-skills?

Visuals: class-feedback; teacher listening to students in pairs/groups; students answering questions; students asking questions; teacher monitoring through homework, through testing.


Dean Tian informs me that the college has the digital camcorder equipment and the necessary technology and expertise to make these VCDs[18] in-house. We believe this will exponentially improve our pre-service and in-service provision. Next term, the department will have 58 adult-students who are returning to education to become teachers. It is a two-year programme, and during the first year their English skills will be focused on and enhanced. During the second year they will be facilitated in AR processes as preparation for the methodological aspects of the course. Thus the teaching materials we are making should serve them well. I will be writing about this initiative in future papers.


8) Personal Publicity this term: This term I have been the object of a lot of national interest. In September I was awarded a State Friendship Award by Premier Wen Jiabao. You can see the pictures of this event at: http://www.actionresearch.net/moira.shtml I know that Dean Tian worked very hard behind the scenes to promote me for this award, which is the most prestigious China offers to foreigners. It’s a huge honour! In addition, a television company called ‘Youth Volunteers of China’ came to Guyuan for a few days to make a twenty-minute TV programme about my life here. I don’t like publicity, but I recognized the potential of such events to enhance the reputation of the work we are doing here. I was also enormously grateful to Dean Tian and others who worked so hard on my behalf. I have heard many people in cities say they have never heard of Guyuan, and that it must be a very backward place! This reputation needs to be dispelled, in order for the wonderful work my colleagues are doing, to be given its rightful place in the national educational scene. Therefore, having such prominence seemed to me a necessary price to pay. When I was introduced to Premier Wen Jiabao, my name, place of residence and work were announced, which made me feel very proud! Subsequently, I have been recognized by people in the streets, and have even received letters from the public. This, however, can only help the publicity for our Centre and also for Guyuan itself. There have also been several newspaper articles about my work in ‘Guyuan Daily’, ‘Ningxia Daily’ and ‘China Daily’. I see this as a positive way of encouraging good insights about Guyuan and what work we are engaged in. In the television programme, the little girl I am so fond of – He Xiao Hua – was interviewed too about our friendship, and her family was so delighted with her new-found ‘fame’. The three children (He Xiao Hua and her older sisters) as well as their mother, came to my flat to watch the VCD copy I was given by the television company, and I realized that one spin-off had really helped a little girl and her family feel good about themselves.


Evaluation of my work with Dean Tian:

On 15th December I had an interview with Dean Tian specifically to get some feedback from him about my work this term. We talk in his office about three times a week, and I am aware that he seems very satisfied with what I am doing. He often praises me and encourages my ideas and creative input. However, this time, I wanted a more critical appraisal that might allow me to improve what I am doing here. He started by saying how well he thinks I collaborate with all the staff, and then made the following five suggestions about how I might improve my work:


Š      After visiting younger colleagues’ classrooms, could I meet with several of them at once and go through some common problems and issues, as well as helping them to connect their methodology with their research? I have done some of this informally already, but Dean Tian would like me to do this more formally and have appointments with the colleagues written on a timetable in the office.

Š      He would like me to spend more time going through the formal aspects of writing AR reports with both AR groups.

Š      He would like me to give the Beginners more help with their AR processes in meetings.

Š      Could members of the Advanced Group with me do some presentations for other departments about AR?

Š      We need to be more structured in our visits to Haiyuan, so that people will ask for what they need in advance and we can respond as well as instigate various programmes of work.


He showed me his talent for evaluation because he couched his comments as suggestions and affirmations of how much he wants me to extend my influence. I was delighted by the constructive nature of the evaluation and feel it is the first time, Dean Tian has really told me what he wants from me in the future based on what I am already doing. We do work well together (I think that’s simply a fact!) but this is a new stage in our professional relationship. I look forward to working with him and colleagues next term as we help each other to improve our practice.



This paper, like my life here, reflects a diversity of experience and it is difficult for me to conclude when so much is still in flux. However, I am finding evidence of individuals’ initiative about our AR work, which last term was not as clear. For example:


Š      Dean Tian’s evaluation of my work is more forthright and constructive than last time;

Š      Individual colleagues are more vocal about their learning needs to me and each other;

Š      Li Peidong in particular, and Gong Lixia (Beginners’ Group leader) are taking more control of their groups and relying less on me to make decisions;

Š      There is more evidence this term of student-centred teaching amongst AR colleagues;

Š      Colleagues are asking help of Chinese colleagues rather than me all the time;

Š      There is a closer working relationship between the department and VSO Beijing, which enables us to keep in touch about educational sustainable development.


In preparing this paper I sent a draft to Jack, and he responded with the following:


…I think you could … stress that the development of a distinctive contribution from the Centre could depend upon having a new kind of question whose genesis could be clearly located in the creative work from the Centre. You could say that the idea of 'we-i' means that each individual's humanity is connected to the humanity of others…’ (e-mail 16th December)


I said at the beginning of the paper that I was not ready to do that yet and now, at this paper’s conclusion I want to say why that is the case. I think Jack’s idea is a good one and will work towards that in the future. However, at the moment I am still learning about a balance between the group and the individual (we-I). I believe I have got to the point of understanding, not only theoretically, but also in my practice, that our humanity is interconnected. I think that understanding is embodied by my carrying out my choice to come to Guyuan in the first place and staying here whilst attempting to improve my educational practice. However, I have yet to learn how ‘I’ becomes ‘we’ in terms of answering the question: ‘How can we improve our practice?’ I believe a stumbling block in my educational development might arise from my unconscious colonialism. It might also be that in not yet speaking the language well (although God knows, I’m trying!) I miss nuances I need to catch. It might also stem from my present lack of integration into this community. However, I believe the insights (ours I mean, not just mine) are developing, just as I believe the attendant value of love in my practice is evolving. I think love will influence me to find ways with my colleagues about evolving ‘I’ to ‘we’. My practice isn’t there yet. I believe it will develop over time in relationship and as we face new challenges at the Centre.


I want to finish this paper with an anecdote about people, because at the end of the day, the whole purpose of my being here, and in education, is about loving people. He Xiao Hua was interviewed about our friendship by the camera crew. The clip starts with her rolling down a frog-face umbrella I gave her as a present last year. She replies to the question of What is it? with ‘it’s a frog!’


And who gave you the frog?


And who is Moira?

Moira is my good friend!


There she stands, on national television, speaking out, proud and strong and articulate. She’s seven years old. And for me the proudest moment in the whole programme was when she said we were friends! I’ve come halfway across the world and here I am, accepted absolutely for the person I am, with my fetish about frogs and intense passions about this and that, and this little girl just accepts me. We reach across each other’s differences, and simply love each other. And at the end of the day, that’s what I feel will promote sustainable educational development here. Through loving educative relationships, I believe we make progress and create more the kind of world we want to live in.


It seems to me that reaching people, is what I’m about in education. Giving them a sense of their own potential and reflecting back to them how lovely I think they are. And I truly do. There is no artifice in that process for me. Reaching children comes naturally to me, perhaps because I fully believe that children are simply wonderful! Reaching adults takes a little longer and isn’t always successful perhaps because I find the wonderful in adults less self-explanatory. I think that might be a blindness in me. Anyway, the point is, that as I seek to work more closely with people that they might be able to work without me in the future, I am learning more about how to love and how that love influences me to influence others and be influenced myself.


And the rest, as Hamlet said, is silence…










Appendix One:


Action Plan for Moira Laidlaw Grade Three, October, 2004


What do I want to improve? How can I use my classroom methodologies to help my many students use appropriate techniques themselves in their own teaching of English in the future?


Why am I concerned? I teach two groups of over eighty students at a time and next year they will be teachers themselves. The large number could present the problem in the individual communication between us, although the methods I use might show them that large class-size doesn’t always necessitate didactic methodology. Differentiation is a problem with such a large group and I want each student to feel noticed and respected, because I believe this is the way to enhance the learning process for them. Our time is limited (two hours a week per group) and there is a lot of content to cover. Aside from the pedagogical content is the context of teaching and learning – rural China in a critical stage of development, with English as a key subject with its own New Curriculum.


How can I improve it? I can constantly reveal my own processes to the students and give them frequent opportunities to practice micro-teaching. I can help to create a non-threatening atmosphere in which they like to learn and to ask questions. I can introduce action planning as a method of improving processes. I can promote discussions in and out of class (English Corner is a good way outside the class). I can give them my methodology handbook as a starter for their own ideas. I can ask them for feedback as to how they perceive the class is going. I can initiate processes which rely upon them taking responsibility for their own learning – i.e. learning partnerships; validation meetings; micro-teaching slots for each students with peer-evaluation; homework, which demands critical thinking abilities and originality. I can ask colleagues to attend my lessons and ask for feedback during the process. I can open my practice to my colleagues at AR meetings.


Who can help me and how? My students can help me by giving feedback, attending class diligently, completing homework and raising and answering questions. My colleagues can help me by giving feedback from lessons, from students’ comments and from their own ideas. The AR groups at the Centre here in Guyuan can help me by increasing rigour and accountability for my actions. My AR group in Bath can help me by focusing my attention on missed points and inconsistencies of logic.


How will I know the work has improved? Students will demonstrate confidence and competence in a variety of appropriate forms of methodology in their own teaching practice as well as in discussions and free-talks. They will have high motivation for teaching and understand its significance in the development of China, especially as it relates to rural areas. They will show an ability to think critically and to question accepted wisdoms. They will recognise that the aim of teaching is learning, rather than clever methodology.









Appendix Two: A Letter to England. Zhang Jiangwei


Hello! I am writing to you about a student, Zhang Jiangwei, who taught a class for twenty-five minutes last night (1st November, 2004) during our weekly Methodology session. I wouldn’t normally write in this way about one student, and I am aware that there are many truly excellent students in Grade Three this year. I can honestly say that this is the most able group of students I have worked with since coming to the college in September, 2001. I am proud to work with them all. Many of the students’ level of English, their commitment to education, their determination to catch every chance – these aspects are the evidence of my impression that they are doing better and better every year. I am sure that the calibre of the students reflects directly on the educational influence of our colleagues in their own professional development. Forgive me for pointing out one student above others, but there are aspects of his ability, which I really think we can all learn something from. In addition, I want formally to be on record as endorsing the capabilities of this student. I believe he has something special to give back to the department that has nurtured him so well. I offer this piece of writing as a testament of my faith in the department, in the other students and in him.


A little background on my Methodology class for those readers who haven’t seen them in action! The students are Grade Three students, about 21 years old. I teach a group of eighty students once a week for two hours. This comprises half a year-group. The other class I teach at another time during the week. Last night’s class, is, if one can say such a thing, more active and creative than their counterparts. For the first part of the term we have been studying action planning, the New Curriculum and various methodologies. I have been trying to get them to think critically, which I know is something that many colleagues like Dean Tian, Li Peidong and others are doing all the time as well. The difference between this methodology class and other methodology classes, as far as I can ascertain (and I may be wrong, so forgive me if I am) is that I base it on the logic of living educational theorising. Students are expected to think critically and reflectively about their own student-ship as the centre of their learning progress. They evaluate as a standard technique connected to improvement, and are expected to criticise me actively as well, constructively to enable free-opinions to be shared and enhanced. The logic of the class is gradually, it seems to me, to becoming one of AR, but there is a still a way to go in terms of their full understanding of what it means to mould their own learning and practice.


For the last couple of weeks, I have been expecting students to take a class for twenty-five minutes, with their peers playing the part of Junior One students (about fourteen years old). Some students will have been learning English before, but the standard will be elementary and their listening and speaking skills would be hesitant and flawed at best. Their lesson was to deal with some appropriate aspect of grammar: conjugation of verbs; prepositions; tenses; ordinal and cardinal numbers; word-order, plural forms and so on. I haven’t been telling the students who will teach and when, but each student has to prepare a careful and logical lesson plan in advance of the lesson, in case they are picked, or volunteer to teach. In addition to this, they had to teach in ways relevant and appropriate to the New Curriculum (of which they all have copies and are learning about in Li Peidong’s and other people’s lessons). This means a greater emphasis on student-centred teaching, task-based learning strategies, using the language instead of simply understanding it.


During the break after the first hour last night, the student who was going to do it had to leave, so Zhang Jiangwei asked if he could volunteer. His lesson was about the present continuous tense. We set it up as like a real lesson as possible. He entered the classroom and the students had to stand up. So, first he had already shown the qualities of enthusiasm and courage, characteristics so important to a good teacher in my opinion.


He then went to the door slowly and asked the students to tell him what he was doing in Chinese. They did. He asked individuals, rather than allowing them to shout out (a common problem here). He made a joke of it, nearly stumbling. They were already eating out of his hand and he hadn’t been teaching for ten seconds.


Then he went to the blackboard and wrote the question in English, what are you doing? Under the title, ‘Present Continuous’. And then asked the students to read the title and the sentence and repeat them, which they did. And then, looking at them and grinning, he walked up the aisle and gestured the students to ask the question what are you doing? He replied in Chinese, I am walking. And then the next time they asked him the question in English, he replied I am writing on the blackboard, which he was – that sentence in fact.


Gradually, he built up the knowledge in this way, writing down the information on the blackboard bit by bit, but now asking the students to do the actions, after showing them a picture he had prepared. And this really caught the students’ imagination. When he asked two students to come to the front and clean the classroom (he asked two boys!) there was general mirth and a sense of delight. The boys did it carelessly very much in the manner of naughty junior school boys, and he made a joke of it, saying they are cleaning the floor – BADLY! Which made everyone laugh. And then a student was moved to say: they are not being good students! I wish you could have seen that moment! It was masterly. And I can honestly say that I believe that Junior One students would have responded in the same way. This was real language being used in a real way, which is precisely what the New Curriculum looks for.


Then, referring to the writing on the blackboard, he asked the students to get into groups of not fewer than three and no more than five, and asked them to work through the examples on the blackboard and then create their own sentences with actions. He explained how they ought to do this, in other words giving them parameters for their work, instead of just telling them to get into groups as if they know exactly what to do. Junior students tend not to know this, and need training in these aspects, I’ve found. At first I wondered why not pair work, but of course he was right, because doing it this way enabled them to use the personal pronouns of ‘I’, ‘you’, ‘she’, ‘he’, ‘we’ and ‘they’ and the appropriate form of the verb. He told them to have someone (or a pair), different each time, doing an action and another, different each time, to ask what is he/she/ are they/we doing etc.? Fantastic. The students had real fun doing it, in the way that is so common here. They throw themselves into whatever they are asked to do. Zhang Jianwei went around the whole time, chivvying, encouraging, joking, correcting, really being present with his class. And all the time I sensed an incredibly gifted young man operating on so many levels. He was funny, he was clever, he was kind and committed and joyous with his students. He exuded love and passion and delight. I’ve rarely seen such passion in my life for the process of teaching. It brings tears to my eyes to recollect it. I felt privileged. I know I was in the presence of genius at moments last night.


Then he settled them down and after a short feedback session (which was as long as it needed to be educationally) he asked the students to get into pairs and work out the rules for presenting the present continuous. He drew their attention to the writing on the blackboard again, going through each sentence carefully, but not boringly at all. He was smiling and exuding this special spirit. His whole body was teaching. His whole soul was alive in the classroom. What talent! And this was the part of the whole class that really impressed me the most in terms of the content-knowledge he wanted to teach them. Inferential logic isn’t easy to manage, but as I looked at the sentences on the blackboard, the way he asked them to work out the rules, it was as if the students couldn’t fail. He suggested it was obvious, his eyes smiled his delight at them. God, you’d think that this person lived for nothing but being with those students in that place at that time. They had to know he absolutely identified with them. There was no role-play here. This was reality. And I looked around at them. This wasn’t role-play with them either. They were galvanised by him. Eyes shining. A couple of students looked at each other as if to share the delight and then it was eyes-forward again and the serious business of the pair-work began.


He walked round, again being available. And that’s one of his secrets. He was available all the time. He noticed the individuals in his class. He saw the student who needed eye-contact to get him back on line again. He touched the shoulder of a lad who had given a poor answer, but tried when he was walking around. This lesson wasn’t about his performance (although it was one of the best I have ever seen anywhere at any time) it was all about them. About their success. And he got such a big kick out of their knowledge and abilities. My God, if he’s this good with peers, I can only dream about what he might do with younger kids.


And then students began, appropriately in Chinese, to build the rules of making the present continuous. He wrote what they said on the board and then asked for comments, clarifications, amendments. Talk about student-centred. One student had a question, why is the present continuous not formed with the verb to do? (perhaps not a J1 question, but in a sense that doesn’t matter because he had to deal with it in the moment). He found that difficult to answer well (as well he might) but even though his knowledge was flustered, he wasn’t at all. He just smiled and grinned and made light of his stumbling answer. The students laughed. An awkward moment passed.


And then we came to his homework after a few funny moments created through the finalising of the structure. He suggested for homework that the students ask people who could speak English what are you doing? And what are they doing? And so on and record the dialogues. They should check their writing with their deskmates. This also captured the students’ imaginations, and they laughed in delight. His lesson was over and he bowed to the class and set about clearing up his desk.


And that’s not all. Because at that stage, I ask the students to evaluate themselves. I believe that this is a way of helping them to focus on forward planning and to see how they might carry their learning from one time to another. It helps them to enhance their action plans as well. I am constantly trying to find varied ways to encourage them to become reflective practitioners. I ask them to make comments on their advantages and disadvantages. He smiled and said that he thought his classroom atmosphere was friendly and educationally sound. We all agreed. In fact people agreed so much they clapped him spontaneously at that point. He mentioned some of the things I’ve said above, but seemed to give himself little credit for the logic of his class, which was flawless. He also said, which I loved, that he wanted more than anything to share his passion about English and learning. That to see students’ delighted and insightful responses thrilled him. That motivation he has cannot be taught, and I wonder if it can be learnt. This lad is so utterly gifted. His spiritual insight is second to none in any student-teacher I have met. I have actually scarcely met anyone quite like him. He seems to me to be ontologically gifted with a sense of the meaningfulness of life. It seeps out of his actions, like a pearl from an oyster. To be taught by him in the future, will be to experience something of the magic of life itself. This young lad has a gift, which I have rarely seen. I wish more than ever I had been able to videotape this lesson. I would have used it as a demonstration class for just about anything I wanted to show: logic, educative relationships, passion for education, student-centredness, humour, fairness and equality of treatment of students and so on and so on.


I have been talking to other teachers about him this morning to gather some general information about him, and I find that everyone speaks highly of him. Hardly surprising, but it’s lovely to know he’s so well thought of. And personally I find him so polite, courteous, gentle and with an enquiring and interesting character.


Then I invited other students to give him some feedback and he assiduously listened and wrote notes. They made some minor comments of what he could adjust next time (notes about intonation and pronunciation) but in general people seemed to come to a consensus that they had witnessed something extraordinary. And I can honestly say that if this were the only thing I loved about being in Guyuan (and as you know it’s one of millions of things!) it would be enough. To be in his class and to witness this was to watch a miracle unfold.


Lucky me. Lucky students. And I believe in the future, lucky China!


What a marvellous place this Guyuan is! So full of promise, of spirit, great colleagues and leaders, and students to die for!


Love from, Moira xxx




[1] Papers at: http://www.actionresearch.net/moira.shtml

[2] Please have a look at He Lena, (2004), ‘How can I help my students’ motivation in speaking?’ at: www.actionresearch.net/moira.shtml

[3] Laidlaw, M., (1996), ‘How can I creat my own living educational theory as I offer an account of my own educational development?’ doctoral thesis at: http://www.actionresearch.net

[4] Laidlaw, M., (2004a), ‘A description of my logic’, paper given at an AR seminar at Bath University, February. To be found at: http://www.actionresearch.net/moira.shtml

[5] Winter, R., ‘Learning from Experience’, Falmer Press, London, New York.

[6] Whitehead, J., (2004), ‘Do the values and living logics I express in my educational relationships carry the hope of Ubuntu for the future of humanity? Paper presented at the British Educational Research Association Annual Conference, University of Manchester, 16-18 September 2004 Retrieved 15 December 2004 from


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

[8] Kincheloe, J., (1991), ‘Teachers as Researchers: Qualitative Enquiry as a Path to Empowerment’, Falmer Press, London, New York.

[9] Buber, M., (2002), ‘Between Man and Man’, Routledge, London. New edition.

[10] Finnegan, J., (2000), ‘How do I create my own educational theory in my educative relations as an action researcher and as a teacher?’ doctoral thesis at http://www.actionresearch.net

[11] D’Arcy, P., (1998), ‘The Whole Story’, doctoral thesis at: http://www.actionresearch.net

[12] Pound, R., (2003), ‘How can I improve my health-visiting support of parenting? The creation of an alongside epistemology through action enquiry.’ Doctoral thesis at: http://www.actionresearch.net

[13] See Liu Xia’s AR report: ‘How can I help my students to learn through using respect and encouragement?’ paper at: http://www.actionresearch.net/moira.shtml

[14] Winter, R., ‘Six Principles of Rigour in an Action Research Enquiry’, in ‘Learning from Experience’, Falmer, London.

[15] Living Contradiction: This is the name given to two types of situation in practice. The first is an internal living contradiction. The other is an external one. In the internal living contradiction, a practitioner denies his/her own inner values in action. For example, s/he might want to improve students’ speaking, but then speaks all the time, thus preventing the students from improving their own speaking. In the external living contradiction, a teacher might want to improve the students’ self-study, but the conditions for this to happen in their dormitories, for example, might prevent the students from improving their self-study. They are both living contradictions, because they exist in real situations in real people in real places in real time, and like people, these contradictions can change and develop and grow and get better! IN your AR you want the students to build their vocabulary, but sometimes you use methods that may not really help them. In addition, you want to encourage them, but your voice and some of your body-language aren’t going to make them feel confident. Do you see?


[16] McNiff, J., (2005), ‘Action Research for Teachers’, Routledge, in press.

[17] Chen Xiaotang (NC co-ordinator, Beijing) said at a meeting in Yinchuan in November 2002: ‘Teachers should use the textbooks not teach the textbooks’, because, as he said: ‘Teachers tend to use the books slavishly.’

[18] VCDs are the Chinese equivalents of CDs and DVDs. They don’t hold as much information as a DVD, for example, but they are cheap to make and are more frequently used than DVDs, which require more sophisticated equipment.