How can I balance my methodologies in the class
in order to promote the learners' autonomy?
by Ma Xiaoxia,
Ningxia Teachers University, CECEARFLT, June 2006.
Having worked for six years as an English teacher in a small, remote town of China, I've never given up the conviction, as does Jean McNiff (reference to our meeting on 12th May 2006) that good education creates a strong nation and thus a better world, and this ambition must be focused on by qualified and creative educators.
Furthermore, and for the most reason why I have been involved in Action Research later in my life, I have been frustrated for a long time that I wasn't a real educator, because as far as I am concerned, a real educator is not only an instructor but a potential researcher who can involve his/her own educational values in the teaching and mix them together and facilitate each other. In my life, it's very common that teaching and research have always gone their two separate ways. For teachers in China, research has always been such a mysterious and remote thing, belonging only to great minds and prominent figures, and we, the common people, have not written any paper without referring to them, so it is not strange that 'copy' is such a popular phenomenon. Thirdly, I was brought up through our traditional Chinese educational philosophy that proposes the teacher and book as masters, and I didn't have much opportunity to counter them. As the result I became slow in critical thinking and lazy in authentic research. The reason I say so is that I seldom doubted what was printed in a book or what I was told by teachers, and I obeyed them without hesitation; I seldom thought critically about the Masters. Thus authentic research as far as I'm concerned needed a lot of critical thinking and rigorous evidence, because there were glaring contradictions or paradoxes between the lack of critical thinking and carrying out what I saw as authentic research. Therefore I often wondered why almost all the great philosophical Chinese ideas, like Confucianism and Daoism, appeared thousands of years ago: does that mean our ancestors were more intelligent than modern people? Yet how could that be, when in that remote history the living conditions and communications were incredibly poor?
Furthermore I used to work very hard to keep up with traditional research methodologies, and I've tried writing some papers and occasionally got a few published (Ma, 2005). According to my experience, most research was theory-based trials, and empirical research happened in a fictional world: that is to say traditionalists always conducted research on other people, and tried to prove our imagined solutions matching the others' theories, citing an immense number of names and claims of those great theorists (called 'sandbagging', Bassey, 1998). In addition I've found that once we set out to do research, we have to prove beforehand that the answer is already certain and suitable for unwavering abstract interpretation and closure. However, life is unpredictable and problems occur so unexpectedly, I believe we are in need of a very practical way to enquire into life itself, and create a bridge between life and theories. Since education takes up a great part of life, there is also a gap between educational life and theories. Therefore I am reasoning that if I can harmonize them, it would be more educational, because, I believe, harmony brings peace and progress in life. In this sense, I am in urgent need of getting control of my teaching methodologies and trying to make them more meaningful.
Bearing all the above in mind, I tried to find out a way that suited my situation. That was also what made coming across educational action research so significant, but I must offer sincere and specific thanks to my dear colleague, Dr. Moira Laidlaw who introduced me to AR and helped me a lot in the procedure.
Now I'm going to outline one of my Action Research cases and what I've achieved from it, or how I have improved my teaching and the students' learning. In addition I'm trying to point to the evidence of my learning from Action Research to show that it is really practical and valid (Kincheloe, 1991).
My Frustration and Doubts
I feel lucky to enquire into my own teaching life and be able to work hard as a teacher researcher. But as many people already have, I met some frustration during the procedure. It made me feel pain, doubt, and sometimes I wanted to give it up. I was wondering why I should follow suit, since everyone can do their AR in a conscious or unconscious way in their daily lives, which seemed to me to contaminate the glories of traditional research so much.. In addition, the ideas and the values in Action Research (McNiff, 1993; Whitehead, 1993; Lohr, 2006) seemed so subjective to me that they appeared to lack empirical evidence or power, thus might be less able to persuade the public of their validity. Most of all, I was so frustrated that I could never see the end or any instant achievements. Action Research for me seemed just like an endless sea voyage requiring strong perseverance and great patience, so it was really hard to bear for someone like me.
What's more, some of my colleagues used to tell me their preconceptions that Action Research was nothing more than a written description of the psychology of daily teaching trifles. That it was not real research, because the traditional usually works out very influential theories with conclusive achievements, and it is considered as science that can promulgate human progress. Doing Action Research seemed, therefore, something very new but exhausting.
But the wonder is that I gradually began to gain a kind of painful pleasure from doing Action Research, and I found doing it painfully enjoyable and importantly meaningful. This painful enjoyment also arose, I believe, from a biased view about what knowledge is in different contexts. According to the traditional Chinese ways of thinking, knowledge is static; it contains the heritage of thousands of years of history, culture, ideology, political truths and literature. Meanwhile, Action Research considers knowledge as more procedural (Whitehead and McNiff, 2006), than static, which requires much more attention on dynamic change and the generation of principles about its changes. As Dr. Laidlaw says (Ma, 2006), these two differing views of knowledge may appear to have the relationship of oil to water that cannot always mix, but it is perhaps fruitful to try. And I get most of my pleasure out of my inner struggle over the contradictions, as the more I understand, the better I feel, and I can learn more from the research.
Action Research in my Context
I am now going to outline my case study of what happened in the winter term of 2005, through which I am going to clarify the benefit of doing Action Research.
What do I want to improve?
I want to improve my students' learning autonomy, so my question is: How can I balance my methodologies in the class in order to promote the learners' autonomy?
What are the students like?
Before talking about the reasons why I chose the question, I'd like to write something about my students. To me they are truly lovely and full of potential; they have their ideas and can be very creative after class, very eloquent with quick minds if they can freely express themselves in Chinese. However, when they have English, they look completely different or seem dull in speaking and slow in thinking, which has made me sometimes puzzle about their level of intelligence.
Let me give some examples to clarify this claim. Yuan Guoping is a boy in my class; he is very thoughtful, talkative and hard working, which is clear to all (Ma, 2006). He has very clever ideas in Chinese about current issues, about education. I remember during one class，when we were talking about how to behave after careful consideration for a student，he said " 在这个物欲横流的社会，思考成了一件很奢侈的战利品' （in this materialistically-deluged society，what a precious trophy reflection is.）And he always said something wise like this in Chinese after our English class. Yet he was only one of the clever students. When he had Advanced English class, he was usually quiet. And I remember once I asked him a very open question: ''What is your idea over the issue to abolish the bombardment monument in Hiroshima?'' I thought he would have great ideas about this topic, but he just kept saying: "Sorry, I can't", with his head bowed. I was wondered how I could make him and the other students express themselves as freely as they did in Chinese, and help them to behave consistently in and out of class. After class, I asked the reason for this apparent difference, but most of them found it difficult to express in English, or they simply didn't know.
Thus I concluded that my students wouldn't answer the questions actively or voluntarily: the reason was not that they were stupid or slow minded, nor that they could not speak English because they had learnt it over a decade - the reason was. As expressed by one of the students, whose comment is representative of many others':
"I am just not sure about the definite right answer, and I dare not to speak before you and the class. Sometimes I want to answer your question, but I'm not sure of my idea.' (Liu Huirong)
I therefore imagined the solution for my AR that the best way to encourage them to speak would be to avoid saying what the right answer was, that they need not find only the right one, but should try to express their ideas or their thinking for themselves, because I was assuming learning is for using. If they had learnt English over years but could not speak or think, then what was the use of learning it? And it meant the language they were learning was not living. I believe, like the New Curriculum (NC, 2005), that language is a living process, not a dead object.
Why am I concerned about it?
Influenced deeply by the traditional Chinese instruction-centered teaching methodology (New Curriculum Guidelines, 2005), I used to think and teach mostly this way. I liked to talk all the time and tried to inform the students of everything I knew and all I'd prepared for the class in advance. In the process of teaching I took up most of the time to cram them with the book-knowledge (Li, 2004). It seemed that I was the master and the dictator of the whole class. There are countless examples of other colleagues here in the department who have had the same experiences. One of the newcomers once told me:
"I carefully prepare the lesson, and make the full use of the class to inform them, and when the class is over I always felt exhausted, but they always reward me with tired eyesight."
Of course my initial purpose is to facilitate their learning. If a student knows how to learn, he has obtained the key to knowledge of all, because he knows how to get what he/she wants. Meanwhile students are becoming passive in the class, just sitting, listening reading, writing and following my instructions. Yet the aim of teaching is learning and it's more than knowledge. It's something to do with educational values and personal development as well as national development. The teachers should learn how to help the students discover the knowledge for themselves and draw conclusions from it, through which the students and we can move from competence to performance (Laidlaw, 2004). Accordingly, I believe competence to be the person's internalized grammar of a language，while the performance is the application of the knowledge or the strategies to produce and understand the knowledge (Chomsky, 1965). This is why I chose this Action Research enquiry.
How can I improve it?
á Setting up critical partnerships
I have found that critical ideas and suggestions from a critical partner can save us a lot of time in making rapid progress and remind me how to pay more attention to my action, values and mood etc. which seems more valid and efficient than my own descriptive evidence. And I consulted Dr. Laidlaw to be my critical partner, because she is very well informed and sincere.
On October 18th, 2005, Dr. Laidlaw visited my class and gave me back some feedback notes, I'm going to quote some of the critical ideas to show how I improved my reflection and action with considering her idea. I mean that, due to my ignorance, carelessness and habitual teaching, I usually incline to teacher-centered manner and take some of them for granted. For example: the following cases may happen very normally to me, and I won't think they are the problems if without her suggestion, and I need to improve them in order to get the access to the real students' autonomous learning. Let me take two examples from my critical partner to see how effective her suggestion for my improvement.
' ...you then ask the students to talk about their knowledge about Hiroshima, but you call on their numbers. Why don't you call on one's name?''
It reminds me that I should not think it all the same to call on the students' numbers instead of one's name, because calling on the name shows my great respect and concern about my students.
''...shouting out is NOT an educational method because it doesn't promote critical thinking....shouting out and you controlling the answer is a way for you to keep control, and this has little to do with critical thinking or promoting learning - development.''
This challenges me whether shouting out really means the students' understand and are participating. When they shout out the answer, they aren't necessarily saying anything clear and I can't catch any but my own; this is also my control over them. So I should let the students involve in discussion, then take turn to answer the question.
All of these have showed that I've improved in some aspects, and that setting up the critical partnership is one effective way to help my progress and enhance insights about teaching details, because in this way I can learn that some ways are typically teacher-dominated methods, and are in contradiction to my espoused values (Whitehead, 1989). Otherwise I take them for granted and never know that they are obstructing me.
á From teacher- centred to student-centred
Actually, I think teacher-centered presumptions are too knowledge-privileged or master-privileged, if the students always think what the teacher thinks and wait for the right answer, they can never know what they need or how to get it ,or they may not able to think by themselves because the teacher has already thought and prepared for them. Meanwhile, the student-centered means the masters are the students themselves, they can manage their learning and master the learning, since they are involving in the whole procedure; they are clear about how to learn and what for learning. And I believe there exists here empirical evidence that students who are given the freedom to explore areas based on their personal interests, and who are accompanied in their learning by a supportive, understanding facilitator, not only achieve superior academic results but also develop socially and grow personally (Motsching-Pitrik, 2002).
In this sense, I began to doubt my teaching methods, and I first tried to reorganize the time-distribution, that is, I gave more time for the students' activities, and more opportunities to them to raise and solve problems, which might stimulate them to be responsible for, and autonomous in, their own learning. This would also be appropriate for task-based learning which is advocated by the New Curriculum (NC Guidelines, VSO, 2004). Secondly, I applied some games in the class to motivate the students' autonomy, such as pair-work, group-work, role-play, debate and circle work. Thirdly, I tried to change my facial expressions, from serious dull to warmly enthusiastic, because I think a teacher's high spirit must benefit the students a lot and make them feel greater ease and confidence. I believed it would also be useful for them in becoming independent learners.
This value influences me as well as my class. On 25th October, 2005, Moira Laidlaw observed my class again and in her written notes she highlighted that my students had improved a lot in terms of their autonomous learning in that I had changed from teacher-centered to student-centered concerns, through which the students are given the freedom to explore areas based on their personal interests, and learn more autonomously by involving themselves in pair-work, group-work, role-play, debate and circle work etc. and what she says in the following illustrates my improvement in preferring student-centered ways with some correspondent reforms.
Moira said: "I think this lesson so far shows just how far the students are capable of doing things more independently from you. This represents moving from competence to performance in their learning and in your teaching. I think if such a change in your teaching style renders such responses so quickly, it means that the students are reedy for change and you have taught them well to prepare for more responsibility. Your AR is showing something about how students' learning methods change their view of knowledge. In last lesson the students were passive and were not accepting challenges. They knowledge was just you knowledge. This lesson, the students are more active in discovering the knowledge for themselves and draw conclusions from it. You are offering more opportunities for pair work and group work and for self-study, which are really important in the learning-process. I think your AR report can tell us something about you are moving from competence to performance in your own teaching methods as you help the students move from competence to performance in their learning."
á From passive training to experimental participation
Traditionally students are trained to master as much knowledge or as many skills as they can, and those students with high academic grades are highly rewarded in my country, because we think such knowledge is our future and our way out of poverty. In China there are a large number of farmers and their children who live on a small proportion of poor farmland (something like 800 million people in China live in rural areas), and some of them cannot even afford food and daily necessities, so they have to find a job to equip themselves for the future. Traditionally the children are sent to school to learn some sills and certain knowledge to find a job or the 'iron bowl' (to earn a basic living). And there goes a very old saying in Chinese that 学而优则仕, 仕而学则优 (you try hard to be the top one in learning in order to be an official or a VIP, but if you wants to be an exceptional official, you have to take up lifelong learning). So from ancient to modern times, students have worked very hard to grasp certain knowledge in order to realize their dreams. Again it has something to do with the traditional philosophy that the teacher and book are the masters. But language learning, as with Math or Art, is not only involved with competence but also with the performance, an idea, which is at the heart our New English Curriculum (VSO, 2004). And language embodies and explains the whole society, history, ideology, economy, and interpersonal relationships (Vygotsky, 1962). It is universal, as the Chinese saying goes: 学海无崖，苦坐舟: learning is a lifelong career, which seems reminiscent to me of some of Chomsky's ideas (Chomsky, 1988).
In this way, I encouraged the students to participate more in the teaching-learning procedure. For example, before the class, they were time-due to read through the text, and then raised their questions they were puzzled about, and then discussed them to try to solve them beforehand and communicate the answers in front of the whole class or talking in circles, during which I would walk around and facilitate them. Sometimes, I deliberately set up obstructions with some relevant culture or academic questions in order to challenge the students and deepen their critical thinking. For example, "What was the situation when Hiroshima was bombed?" or "If you were you the writer, what could you see from the face of the elder fisherman in the hospital?" and "Can you imagine what is the literate effect is by using so many onomatopoeic words in the passage?" or something like them?
According to these ways, they became more autonomous in learning, as Yuan Guoping said:
Sitting and listening to the teacher, I am feeling very hard to learn. But when I am involving in it I just feel time flies and the class is more relaxing. And I become more responsible for the learning in that I want to think and show myself in front of the whole class."
Another student, whose name I have forgotten, once said to me:
"Miss Ma, I think I like your Class very much, and I feel easy in it, I am not afraid to make mistakes, I like working on those tasks that made me think and active, otherwise I always stayed at the corner to make notes."
Of course, as I observed by myself, my students were more active in the tasks or class activities; they seemed to like to be independent in learning and to have their own ideas, because they behaved very clumsily when being trained but active and smart when they participated in the learning activities and tasks.
á From being pre-determined to becoming more flexible
Traditionally I had armed myself with the necessary book-knowledge that I had to distribute to the students, and prepared some class activities or strategies to tackle the unpredictable situations. But the problem was that no matter how well my preparation was completed, the situation would fall out of my hands. Moreover, although the pre-determined knowledge was able to be finished on schedule, the whole class seemed very dull, the students were passively and appeared tired. They were not able to do anything autonomously nor could they have any opportunity to think or to participate in the activities. The only 'activities' they seemed capable of were simply to follow my orders or my will. They did everything I told them but think for themselves!
Since a class is so unpredictable I couldn't keep meeting the same problems with the same methods. I had to be open to every thing in the class, and try to bring democracy to the class (Dewey, 1916) because that might help them learn more and learn more deeply. I wanted to give the freedom to the students' to make speeches and to reflect. Since there are different accesses to the destination, I'd like mine admirable. And I want to say: give the students space, they could create a splendid world.
For example, when I gave the lesson Mark Twain to the students, I didn't finish teaching my prepared knowledge - the grammar, the translation, the interpretation, the analysis of genre, style and themes. I did not teach the students using all of these. On the contrary, I assigned all of these to the students: they worked the tasks I gave them, working out the grammar, the translation, the interpretation and the theme that they need to know, in the whole procedure I just behaved as the facilitator and the organizer.
Let me show what my validation partner Gong Lixia said in her observation (the similar comment used to appear in Moira's feedback of my class for me):
I like the way you assign the tasks to the students, which activates them so much that they don't have any time to idle away. I find you ask the students to read first, and then give them time to raise questions, inclusive of the questions of grammar, translation, paraphrase or the questions of understanding the meaning. And before you help them, they have to work in groups for their own interpretation .So if we give them time, they could do a lot that was done usually by us teachers.
á Setting up Cooperation
I mean the cooperation of teacher-students cooperation, students' mutual cooperation, on-line cooperation, the material - methods cooperation, which means I will apply the different methods to different materials, they also need to cooperate and consolidate. What's more what is the collaboration between the teacher and critical friends, between the teacher and the validation group?
For instance, I extended the collaboration between me and my students from the inside class to the outside, they will be assigned some tasks to consult after class, if they can not find the answers or if they still have problems, they will work on the computer net or they need to work in groups, asking aids from whoever or whatever. Finally, they need to E-mail the answers to me.
Moreover, I'd like to collaborate with my colleagues, telling them my AR question and my desire for their help clearly, inviting them to my class, and collecting the data as the feedback, or requesting their advice for my problem, and trying to improve and perfect my teaching, so as to help the students' learning.
á Setting up evaluation:
This is the most important of all, the self-assessment, inclusive of summative assessment and formative one emphasizes the evaluation of language performance rather than language competence (VSO, 2004). And students will be the most important judges to show me the evidence that they have really improved or enjoyed the autonomous learning, thus I can know what I have achieved and what else I should improve.
Since evaluation is such an important step for both me and the students, and it directly influences the efficiency of teaching and learning (McNiff, & Whitehead, 2006), I paid special attention to it. And the evaluation contains different activities, like that the students' comment on the other's performance, or that I gave them the quizzes or the tests, or homework in order to check the validity of my teaching and their learning.
á Setting up the Validation Group
The periodic meeting with the validation group could inspire me with new ideas and ways, thus build up my teaching values. What's more, since my validation group completely knows my AR question, their advice will be more reliable to check the validity of my research. As Dr. Laidlaw suggests:
The more they know about my research, the more able they are to give rigorous feedback. My doctoral thesis explores this idea and in Action Research, such knowledge by the students/observers is seen as a distinct advantage (Laidlaw, 2006).
On 14th November 2005, my colleagues, Liu Xia, Yu Lili, Chu Na and Hai Xia visited my class (the Advanced English), and after that they gave me their comments on my teaching and talked for long.
Liu Hui who teaches the same course with me, said: I think if you give the students the most of the time to practice, then how can you finish the lesson on schedule? And in my class, I instruct the content without a moment stop, but it is still tense in time (Liu, 2006).
This seems very critical, and it is true that the student-centered way consumes such a lot of time that I frequently could not finish the scheduled teaching objects. Yet I still can't agree with her, the reason is still that my teaching purpose is to help the students' learning; if my students can participate actively in the class, it means they enjoy the learning; they are thinking, discussing and solving the problems. Also, when they are giving the ideas or discussing the problems, they perform very well. And I think I have hit the point of autonomous learning, because the students' comprehensive performance is far more important than my performance, they are creatively thinking and involving themselves in their own learning.
Yu Lili said: I like the students in your class, because they are very active in the group work and discussion, and they dare to answer any questions regardless of making mistakes.
Hai Xia said: your students are so challenging that I am shocked.
From them I can find the evidence that my class is moving from teacher-centered to the student-centered, from competence to performance.
á My evaluation
My observation (also from some of my colleagues' feedback as I cited before): I could not say that my students are completely autonomous in their learning, since there are still a lot of problems existing in the class, for example, I found in the process a few students were still reluctant to adopt autonomous learning, no matter how hard or by what means I encouraged them; and there were still a few students always keeping themselves away from the class activities, looking very quiet, and these used to be not the questions for me before I had started this. And another example, when they met the questions beyond their capacity, they got lost, that's to say, they were just not very persistent in the self-learning, which showed that they need more practice, devotion and learning strategies. But I believe that most of them were able through this process to grasp certain skills for self-learning. Most of all, they gradually became involved in thinking by themselves and being responsible for their own learning. This is most notably demonstrated by my own observations (Ma, 2006) and my colleagues 'feedback.
From my observations I've found that: first, most students have become braver than before in terms of answering questions; they were not afraid of making mistakes or losing face in front of the class, they were willing to express themselves no matter how good or poor their English was. For instance, Ma Huilin was poor at her major, but every time she was very active in asking and answering questions, sometimes I even found she ignored those who laughed at her poor English, heading towards her target. And there also came the examples like Zhan Yuan and Liu Jiang Secondly, they seem more responsible for their own learning than before, as I have found when the students were being assigned the tasks, they could discuss with their partners warmly, working in groups or pairs, even go on working after class. Or they'd seek help from different accesses, consulting dictionaries, talking to those with even quicker minds, consulting the internet and so on. I've cited MAJIA as an example, she used to be very passive in learning and always waited for the teacher's right answer, but she was a good student anyway, working very hard on her major. But now she has changed a lot, as she said in her own words: "I think I've changed, I won't wait your answer any longer, and now if I think I can get what I want, I'll try my best to find it. Also, I've found it a pity that I'm an English major, but my oral and writing are so poor that I feel overwhelmed. So now I'd like to seize every chance to express myself, and I can communicate better now. And I like the relaxing way." Thirdly, they can communicate more with me or among themselves than before, asking questions or seeking for help. Some students like talking with me or with their classmates through the internet, and E-mail their homework and puzzles to me.
From the self-observation above, I can judge that my students have been involved in an autonomous learning process; they begin to think and work out the answers by themselves. They no longer simply learn the grammar or vocabulary, but try to show their ability of using the English language; they are no longer just waiting for my distribution, they are trying hard to seek the answers by themselves. This is a real change from competence to performance.
An Interview with the Students:
The purpose why I have chosen the following assenting and dissenting viewpoints is that I want to strengthen the validity and rigour (Winter, 1989) of my research and to deepen my investigation through the students to reduce bias and to improve learning-teaching by both voices. As far as I'm concerned, the students are the best commentators, as the old saying goes:亲身体验胜过老师教导(Wit bought is better than wit taught) .There are precedents for this kind of analysis, shown in Kincheloe (1991); Lomax, (1994). Also I think that this is becoming my philosophy: that to give the students freedom enough, they will produce a better world.
Yuan Guoping: (with a clear command of English): I feel great appreciation for you, because you gave us a lot of time to discuss, working in groups to seek the problems as well as the answers. I like your courage us to express ourselves. I like the relaxing class in which I am just like a fish in a pond swimming freely.
Yuan Guoping highlights the importance of students' participation. That I have given him the freedom to voice this opinion is highly significant pedagogically (in terms of teaching methods and epistemology – Dewey, 1916). His comment also shows me something about my educational and personal values: that if you want the truth to speak, give it the freedom to do so.
Ma Jia: (an ordinary student with an average attainment level in English): In the past, I didn't care who taught me, because I thought they were the same: as soon as they walking into the class, they began to blah, they worked very hard without a moment stop....we learned very hard, trying to catch all what he/she taught- the only difference was they taught different courses. ... But after you taught us the Advanced English, I began to enjoy learning...and could think by myself...
It seems that my value has influenced hers, she could have benefited from mine. This reminds me a lot of humanitarianism in education: that learning isn't always just about the subject, but it's learning about how to be a responsible person or a better person. Once the student cares, s/he would mind his or her behaviour and values or think hard to improve them autonomously.
Ma Huilin: (her English is poor in terms of ability to use): I think you are the best teacher than I ever met before, your English is so good an example for me, and your teaching methods are very flexible.... My English is bad, but I still want to involve in the discussion and answer the questions, I know they are laughing at me, but I don't care...
Miss Ma is poor at English, but she has the most optimistic attitude towards learning, which is so significant in a person's ability to learn. And my teaching values seem to have facilitated her to develop this positive personality and engendered her noble virtue. So from this I can say that education is not always teaching the subject but cultivating a useful person for life and society. It is helpful when a student ignores his or her weaknesses and behaves confidently or optimistically. In this way my teaching value doses make sense: in other words it is logical for this context.
Yuan Guoping: ... but to be honest, you sometimes still make me timid, because you sometimes behave unsteadily... and you are not very patient, or if you feel not good of your mood...er, of yourself, you just speak a lot by yourself, show great impatience with us, and we become quite again...
During conversations between Moira and myself, we discussed that the space I grant my students to disagree with me is in complete contradiction to my earlier educational processes with students. Freedom to learn (Rogers, 1983) can sometimes mean freedom to disagree. Rogers' philosophy affirms my earlier worries about my classroom manner, yet his ideas suggest a greater freedom now than before.
Ma Jia: I think it would be better if you and the class could continue consistently and harmoniously...And if there be more and better ways that really could facilitate us to the way of autonomous learner...
This student appears to have understood the value of autonomous learning processes in her studies. What's more, she has shown me one of my personal weaknesses: that I have lacked the kind of perseverance to maintain the developmental processes of teaching. Actually, it is true that a responsible teacher should not be negatively emotional; it is unfair to the students otherwise.
Ma Huilin: I agree you are not really democratic enough to us, you sometimes very arrogant, very bully.... and. If I find you strict sometimes, I dare not to ask any problems I have, I just pretend that I understand all....
The presentation of this comment seems to Moira that there is great integrity in my desire as a teacher-researcher to render the research valid through honesty, rigor and reliability (Kok, 1991). I believe it is not easy to hear or read such comments about myself, but I know I have to show both sides in this enquiry: what worked well and what didn't work well because of me.
From these interviews, as well as my own reflections, I've found that class management is really difficult, that as you are thinking out the ways to solve this problem, new problems are waiting just outside the door. Being flexible to these new possibilities may engender sustainable procedures that require lifelong devotion to education. Specifically, management of a classroom is an ever-developing domain, but to raise the status of learning about practical management and educational development to theory should surely be one of the purposes of educational research (Laidlaw, 2006; Schon, 1987).
Conclusion and claims:
By the time to end my AR case study, I have two points to claim here. Firstly, I want to say that AR is from life; it will come to life and serve life. I mean that both my students and I have been involved in this enquiry- into our own teaching life, we both have gained something from doing this research, building significant learning and teaching experiences or values. In addition, I believe these milestones will guide our way to a bright future. As I've found that we have changed and improved from this enquiry, the students have gradually become aware that learning isn't always equivalent to the static book knowledge; the value doesn't lie in the book itself but in the learning process in which the students are completely involved in thinking, creating and discovering the knowledge. As I have said before, knowledge is more procedural than static. Thus, English learning for them now is not only grammar or vocabulary, nor waiting for the right answers, but it is the processing of knowledge and developing appropriate learning strategies to equip teachers and students with the ability to become pro-active.
Secondly, I'm sticking to the point that Action Research is a form of experimental research. To our great honor, in December 2003, the first Action Research Experimental Center was set up in Guyuan in China. We tried to collaborate with the other universities on the basis of our colleagues' mutual collaboration, in the procedure of which I have nurtured my self-awareness and self-evaluation for educational effect, and I've tried hard to improve my teaching performance so that it might have a good influence on my students' learning. Since I have changed my role from the knowledge-distributor to a class-facilitator, in which the students will have freedom to fulfill their learning tasks and think creatively, thus being responsible for their own learning. As result of this they can possess the skills for lifelong learning. This original idea of mine is related to some work of Bath University's Action Research group facilitated by Whitehead through Masters and Doctoral Programmes (see www.bath.ac.uk/~edsajw/theses) as well as the current work undertaken by Professor Jean McNiff in St. Mary's University College (Surrey University) (McNiff, 2006) with her past experience in action research in Ireland (ed. McNiff et al, 2000).
On the contrary, I found student-centered teaching requires more patience and a higher spirit from the teacher, and consumes more time for students' activities, we teachers sometimes find it difficult not to stress the importance of finishing the teaching targets on schedule, thus we sometimes may consciously fall into the traditional routine of cramming the students' minds with pre-set knowledge. So in the process of solving this present research enquiry, I've also met a different problem. This is concerned with humanitarianism. Moira said (June, 2006):
John Dewey wrote about humanitarianism in education in 1916, in a book called Education and Democracy, in which he extolled the virtues of humanizing the teaching processes in order to improve the quality of learning with students. He said that learning wasn't always just about the subject, but it's learning about how to be a better person for oneself and one's society (Laidlaw and Ma in conversation, May 2006).
I find myself concerned about the degree of humanizing influence of my educational processes with my students, and therefore my next AR question is: How can I humanize the factors in class so as to facilitate the students' autonomous learning to move more steadily?
Knowledge is learnt rather than taught; since it is a lifelong developmental process, we can't behave like a computer to store information and it is impossible to obtain all the existing knowledge. What's more, knowledge is not only a kind of master- distribution but is also dynamic, and it can develop according to the people who are engaged with it. Most of all, the stereotyped knowledge proves to us that if we are always waiting for the answers or following the masters, the knowledge would be gradually fossilized and people would be led to rigid thinking. Meanwhile, in terms of different views of knowledge:
Knowledge isn't only acquired, it is mutually, collaboratively and sometimes individually developed. This form of knowledge is referred to as dialectical knowledge, which has a two-thousand year history in the West, stemming from Plato and Socrates, for example, Plato's 'Republic' and 'The Phaedrus' in which he outlines Socrates' ideas that there is a form of knowledge arrived at through question and answer. By question it means enquiry-learning and by answer it means conclusions and knowledge derived from an enquiry process. Neither one is necessarily right or wrong, but their differences lead to different views of the world (Moira Laidlaw with Ma Xiaoxia in conversation, June, 2006).
Since I am still not willing to deny our traditional knowledge and values, because they are of value and part of my culture, I have been battling between these two values of knowledge and between what can stereotypically be called Western and Eastern educational values. This battle continues.
Finally I think I should try to get rid of the biased parts of each, which don't contribute to a practical truth, and mingle them to achieve a more ideal as well as practical way. And the New Curriculum in China, in making performance more important than competence, shows a respect for this dialectical form of knowledge, because it accords students as well as teachers the right to find different ways of understanding the world. In this sense, I think I should not deny the value of static knowledge, because no matter whether we are in the west or in China, students are taught by teachers and knowledge accelerates through history, thus pupils on the whole globally have to develop their own thinking and ability on the basis of the master-distribution. And the most important dilemma, to my mind, in matters of educational values is whether people are enlightened with, or entitled to, certain freedoms to think and behave. As for static knowledge and dynamic knowledge, they are actually not completely in contradiction to each other, and thus can collaborate with each other. That is, students should be enlightened with manifold freedoms to develop their own thinking patterns, and given the right and the responsibility to speak and create opportunities for mutual collaboration.
We should nurture the rebirth of humanitarianism to realize our educational paradise.
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