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Home >> Publications >> Latest

Action research revolutionises the classroom May 10 2005

A new national curriculum, to be adopted in September, will aim to enhance critical thinking and analytical skills in a bid to boost 'quality education.' This goes against the grain of traditional Chinese pedagogy, so many teachers will experience a difficult transition. But, in remote Guyuan, Ningxia Province, Matt Perrement found some teacher trainers who are ahead of the game.

'Don't open your books' implored teacher Hao. To some this might seem a superfluous instruction given the nature of the task - a group brainstorming exercise - but the habit of rote-learning remains difficult to break in this class of college students. Nevertheless, after ten minutes of preparation in small groups, the 19 and 20-year old first year music students in the Guyuan Teachers College tell us everything they know about Bill Gates, coming one by one to the front of the class to present their ideas in English with a smattering of Chinese. Clearly the reliance on text books to do brain-work is being eroded.

Later, in an adjacent building, students majoring in English make independently researched vocabulary presentations, with teacher Liu interjecting encouragement and comments to draw them out. Group work and further presentations are critically evaluated by peers, who offer feedback to their classmates. It is a genuinely interactive environment where the relationship between teacher and student has shifted from one-way knowledge transfer to two-way learning and mutual respect. Within the English department, which has 800 students and has been voted best department three times in the last two years, 80% of the classes follow a similar format, with the teacher at the periphery, rather than the centre.

Isolated, but not backward

In Beijing a friend who studies at the well-respected New Oriental School tells me that classes are delivered in lecture style with no active learner participation, despite fees starting at CHY 2500 for a 3-month course. Having myself spent four years teaching in China this comes as no surprise, but it does serve to put into perspective what teachers Liu, Hao and the rest of the Guyuan English Department are doing.

'Beijing takes no notice of us' complains one of the teachers, explaining this in terms of 'prejudice.' A simpler explanation is the college's isolation. Guyuan is 12-hours north-east of Xi'an by bus, through the dry Liupan Mountains to southern Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, one of China's most economically and socially deprived areas. A 2002 UNDP human development report ranks literacy as the 5th lowest in China and enrolment in tertiary education at just 17%, compared to a national average of 26%. The illiteracy rate among Hui people in the Region is twice that of the Han, at around 50%.

Nevertheless, Guyuan Teachers College is home to an 'Experimental Centre for Educational Action Research in Foreign Languages Training.' Registered with the Civil Affairs Bureau, the Centre's mission is to improve educational provision for all children. It is doing so with next to no financial backing. The only cash contribution so far has come from Ningxia Education Board, which is providing CNY 25,000 over 2 years.

Joint-venture cooperation

Guyuan's adoption of 'action research' as a teaching methodology was born out of discussions, in 2001, between Dean Tian Feng Jun, the centre leader, and a newly arrived Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO) volunteer, Dr. Moira Laidlaw. An experienced teacher who practiced action research for eight years in a girls' school in Bath, UK, she later wrote a doctoral thesis on the subject. 'I had no preconceived ideas of implementing action research [in Guyuan], It was really built on a strong relationship with Dean Tian,' says Laidlaw. She describes Tian as 'a brilliant manager who realised the potential of action research.' Tian describes his original interest in action research as 'practical', seeing a framework that was flexible, less mechanical and 'giving colleagues more rights to explore their teaching methods.'

If Laidlaw was the agent of change, the momentum was certainly provided by Tian, who had to overcome skepticism from staff to get the project moving. 'It was not easy to 'sell' the idea to colleagues,' he says. Many of them were fearful of the time implications of such a project, although it was perhaps helpful that the majority of the 52 staff were relatively young. There are now 28 core, action researchers in Guyuan alone, and more involved in outreach programmes that stretch as far as Tian's hometown of Haiyuan, some 120 km away.

So what role has Laidlaw, winner of a 2004 annual State Friendship Award for her work in Guyuan, played in the revolution that sees an entire department mobilised in the pursuit of better educational standards? Originally employed as a classroom teacher, teaching methodology and oral classes, Laidlaw has, since January 2004 had a free timetable that sees her in a full-time support role. She now spends her days observing classes, providing coaching support, facilitating group discussions and occasionally delivering lectures on action research and theories of learning. She also draws support from international contacts that include Bath University, which has sent action research experts, and VSO, which has sponsored workshops. The British Council will also be sponsoring professional exchanges for action research practitioners in Guyuan and Bath, and a school exchange that hopes to link a local middle-school and a counterpart in Wiltshire.

'Seeking truth from facts'

Action research departs from the questions: what do I want to improve?; why am I concerned by this?; and how and what can I do to solve the problem? The simplicity of the framework and the practicality of action research seem to be highly prized in Guyuan, turning the 'theory to practice' model on its head. Action research allows teachers to formulate theories out of practice, according to teacher Li, who recalls feeling frustrated by the inapplicability of abstract theories. Liu herself summarises this with Mao Zedong's famous slogan 'seeking truth from facts.'

Answers to the question 'How can I encourage my students to be more active?' are sought through the new practices, punctuated by critical reflection, to bring improvements to both teachers and students. Such improvements are manifest for anyone stepping inside an English language classroom in Guyuan, but the philosophical changes underpinning these are far more profound.

In the words of one Guyuan practitioner 'action research has helped me to become a qualified teacher.'

'Now I am more sensitive to problems in the classroom, whereas previously I just ignored them,' according to another, who sees a clear change in her role as a teacher.

Liu Xia -- previously a silent figure within the department according to Laidlaw -- is not only busily engaged in her second research topic (which asks 'How can I make my students become autonomous learners?' ) but is also applying action research to her everyday life. During the weekly meeting for advanced action research practitioners Liu talks confidently and at length about how she now allows her son the freedom to organise his own time, a revolutionary concept within Confucian society.

In addressing his own research theme ('How can I help my colleagues to be involved in collaborative work?'), Dean Tian sees a direct departure from traditional, Confucian modes of thought. He points to the new curriculum and examination reform, to be implemented in 2007, that will see the introduction of subjective elements to examinations in what appears to be a landmark shift away from the multiple-choice, right-wrong format of traditional exams. 'We will no longer be just feeding students with fish, but teaching them how to fish,' he says. His approach has been to encourage both older and younger colleagues to express their ideas freely.

Increased mutual respect between both students and colleagues is reported by many others and is perhaps the defining feature of the success of action research, which Tian summarises as 'trying to make individualism more effective for the collective.'

Consolidating and development

Legal status for the Centre provides a platform for development, following what Tian describes as 'three years of rapid progress and professionalisation of the [English] teachers' department.'

Laidlaw and Tian both believe the centre needs to carry on gaining experience, but increase the impact of its work both within and outside the college. Dean Tian says that a second workshop sponsored by VSO is planned for June and, he hopes, this will encourage other departments to get involved in action research. The centre also hopes to apply action research in primary and middle schools in eight counties. Later this year, Beijing Foreign Languages Press will also be publishing a book that compiles all the case-studies written by practitioners in Guyuan.

VSO is aware of the potential for promoting the Guyuan experience as a replicable model for VSO, but also aware of the challenges that this could bring. 'It brings to life some of the challenges of rolling out the new curriculum . . . [Action research] is good practice and will be promoted as such . . .but it depends on local dynamics,' commented China Representative, Michelle Brown, referring to the importance of good working relations.

In Guyuan the constraints appear to be more financial and Tian is hopeful that current funding from Ningxia Education Board can be matched with other sources to help fund research trips.

Laidlaw is also aware that her time at Guyuan should be limited, although it will be a wrench when she does leave, such is her love of education and feeling of attachment to the local area. 'I would love to stay for life' she says, 'but this is not VSO's philosophy.'

VSO places volunteers for two years in fields where local skills are in short supply, and seeks to share and transfer skills to local counterparts. It has been sending ELT teachers to China since 1981. The programme now only makes placements in western areas of China, and began placements in Guyuan in 1992.

In 2002, VSO announced that it would withdraw from ELT, with the last volunteers leaving in 2009. But, according to Brown, this does not necessarily mean the end of VSO's education programme in China. 'That question has yet to be answered' she remarked when quizzed on the possibility of placing technical experts (as opposed to teachers) to support education initiatives post-2009. Some answers may be provided by a review, planned for 2007, which will consider future strategic possibilities. In addition to education, HIV/AIDS and the promotion of national volunteering also possible contenders for future programmes.

The appeal of action research in Guyuan is undeniable and will doubtless outlast the presence of any individual. As teacher Li said: 'Action research is beyond education. It is about human beings and social development.' I always felt that, when analysing the differences in educational approaches, but have never seen it in action so clearly.

ก๖ New Zealander, David Strawbridge, who worked for six years as an Education Adviser on Save the Children UK's basic education programme in the Tibet Autonomous Region, also received a State Friendship award in 2004. The Tibet education programme has in recent years worked to introduce learner-centred teaching methodologies through in-service training of primary teachers, emphasising small group discussion, introduction of educational games, the use of real objects and simply made teaching aid, and the engagement of all five senses (not just the ears and the eyes) in the learning process.

Save the Children has promoted a similar approach as a key component of a five year Yunnan Minorities Basic Education Project, which started in one county of each of three prefectures. They Yunnan Education Bureau has since expanded the programme to thirteen counties, with ongoing technical support from Save the Children.

At the end of March, Save the Children and education authority partners held an international conference on ethnic minority education in Simao, Yunnan, drawing more than 200 participants, including two Departmental heads from the central Education Ministry.

ก๖ On April 27, the World Wide Fund for Nature formally launched the third phase of an Environmental Educators Initiative that began in 1997 and aims to turn middle school children into 'active environmental citizens.'

The programme started by establishing Environmental Education Centres in key teaching universities, drawing teacher training staff from a wide range of academic disciplines. These, 'master teachers' received international training and went on to train teachers from local, pilot schools. The methodology aims to foster independent, critical thinking among the school children, using action-research methods such as sending children out into their communities to research environmental problems and to adovcate for solutions - for example, by urging local restaurants not to use disposable chopsticks.

A distinctive feature of the programme is that it does not treat 'the environment' as a separate subject, but incorporates environmental education across the existing subject range. Teaching aids and textbooks have been published, giving lessons plans for introducing an environmental dimension into Maths, Chinese etc. The project also worked closely with the Ministry of Education to develop National Guidelines for Environmental Education.

A second phase saw expansion of the project to numerous other sites. The third phase will aim to 'mainstream' this approach to environmental education in schools across China.

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