Review: Collaborative Action Research for English Language Teaching – Anne Burns

Over the past month or so, I have been preparing for my Nile MAPDLE core module assignments which pretty much all include action research. This preparation has consisted of many things, but one of the most useful has been reading Anne Burns’ Collaborative Action Research for English Language Teachers. In this review, I’ll aim to share with you all my major takeaways, some things I liked and didn’t like about the book, and some suggestions regarding who would find this book useful.

“Collaborative research offers opportunities for informal individual thinking to be transposed into more systematic and collective problem-solving. It has the added advantage of involving teachers in actively constructing workable theories of teaching in relation to their specific teaching contexts.”

Burns, 1999, p.214

Three-sentence summary

Anne Burns’ Collaborative Action Research for English Language Teachers is designed to introduce action research to the reader and show why action research should be collaborative, i.e. done with peers. Burns introduces the reader to the ‘theory’ of research and how this translates to action research, and she uses real examples of action research projects that have been carried out to highlight her points. This informative book is full of plenty of non-prescriptive advice and tips that will help the uninitiated be prepared to take on their first action research project, and helped even the more experienced refine their approach.

Three take-aways

“The phases outlined here are based n the collaborative action research experiences of language teachers in the Australian context. It is important to note that they should not be seen as prescriptive steps which must be carried out in a fixed sequence, but rather a suggestive of various points in the research process.”

Burns, 1999, p.43
  • Action research is ‘messy’: Anyone who has conducted any type of research probably knows this, but Burns tries to make it very clear to the reader throughout the book numerous times that action research is very messy at times as there really is no prescriptive ‘model’ or set of steps that need to be taken. Now, for someone looking to take on an action research project for the first time, this may sound daunting; however, Burns provides the reader with an overview of possible steps involved in action research whilst stressing that the steps can be done in any number of ways and can even be skipped or gone back to numerous times (e.g. after intervening and observing, some new data may push the research group to try a different intervention, which would mean completing the intervening and observing phases again). The steps she puts forward are:
    • Phase 1 – Exploring: In essence, this is where teachers get together and identify and agree upon a topics of interest for research. This will generally start with a general question such as: “Our students don’t listen well to classroom instructions. Why is this happening and what teaching strategies can be developed to improve listening skills?” (Burns, 1999, p.37).
    • Phase 2 – Identifying: This phase focuses on getting ‘facts’ about the research context through certain observation techniques (e.g. participant observation, recording lessons, etc.). From here, this xtra information can help the group refine their research focus. For example, if we follow on from the question in phase 1, perhaps one of the ‘facts’ that is brought to light is that while many learners do understand the instructions, those who don’t are not active in seeking clarification.
    • Phase 3 – Planning: This phase is pretty much what it says it is – planning. But the planning takes into account the refined research topic and looks to provide a clear plan of action for “gathering data, and considering and selecting a range of appropriate research methods” (Burns, 1999, p.37).
    • Phase 4 – Collecting data: From here the plan that was created is put into action, with teachers collecting data using the research methods stated.
    • Phase 5 – Analysing/Reflecting: Burns writes that analysis and reflection are two separate processes but go hand in hand. In this phase, the collected data needs to be analysed systematically and then reflected on.
    • Phase 6 – Hypothesising/Speculating: From the data that has been collected, teachers “may be in a position to draw out hypotheses or predictions about what is likely to occur” (Burns, 1999, p.39). These hypotheses may then stimulate additional research to ‘test them out’.
    • Phase 7 – Intervening: After we have our hypotheses, we can then make changes to classroom practices. This is where we might try out a new technique, method, approach, interaction pattern, etc.
    • Phase 8 – Observing: This phase is, in essence, observing “the outcomes of the intervention and reflecting on its effectiveness” (Burns, 1999, p.40).
    • Phase 9 – Reporting: In this phase, the research group makes explicit the results of the research. Basically, this is a verbal account of what has happened so far and what results have been found.
    • Phase 10 – Writing: This summative phase is where the research procedure, activities, results, etc. are written up into a report or article.
    • Phase 11 – Presenting: This phase is where the teacher research groups presents their findings to a local or wider audience. It could take the form of a formal presentation (e.g. at IATEFL or some other research conference) or something less formal like a staff meeting.

Action research, then, relies on exploratory and interpretive methods, which, for a number of reasons are likely to be more appealing to the classroom teacher. These methods allow teachers to explore the realities of practical circumstances without the requirement to control the variables of their classroom context or to set up and allocate subjects randomly to experimental or control groups.”

Burns, 1999, p.78
  • There are loads of ways to collect data: This may seem like a no-brainer, but I think Burns wants teachers to know that data can be collected in many, many different ways (and provides us with a list of such techniques (see below)). One important thing that Burns mentions, however, is that in order to ensure the highest possible reliability and validity, data should be triangulated; that is, more than two (usually three) sources of data points should be used. Now, going back to data collection methods, Burns breaks these down into two categories: Observational and Non-observational.
    • Observational data collection techniques: Observation (both participant (i.e. being the teacher of the class and the observer) and non-participant (i.e. being a true observer and not taking part in the lesson in any way, shape or form), field notes, teacher diaries and journals, audio/video recordings, photographs and charts (e.g. of interaction patterns).
    • Non-observational data collection techniques: Interviews (structured (i.e. interview with pre-planned questions and very little room for deviation), semi-structured (i.e. interview with some guidelines about where the discussion should go – this is much more flexible than a structure interview) and unstructured (i.e. a discussion about the research topic with no pre-planned questions or guidelines)), surveys and questionnaires, life and career histories, documents and work produced by learners and teachers, metaphor development and group discussions.

“Data analysis in action research involves moving away from the ‘action’ components of the cycle, where the main focus is on planning and acting, to the ‘research’ aspects, where the focus changes to more systematic observing and reflecting. Data analysis is the point where statements or assertions about what the research shows are produced.”

Burns, 1999, p.153
  • Data analysis can be made ‘easier’ by following a simple framework: Burns opens chapter 6 in her book by stating that writing about action research data analysis is difficult as it is “an area of action research which is the least well defined and still the most open to development” (Burns, 1999, p.152). Within this chapter she talks about the importance of ‘reflexivity’, which means going back and forth between data collection and data analysis (and to further research where necessary) – highlighting the interrelatedness of the collaborative action research and analysis processes. The framework she recommends can be seen in the image below. Using this framework, we can collect and analyse data and then use our findings to feed ‘recommendations’ back into our teaching practice.
Data collection and analysis cycle (Burns, 1999, p.155)

Thee things I liked

  • Action research should be collaborative: The title says it all, but I really liked how the collaborative-ness of action research was stressed. As a teacher, I felt that I would feel more supported and safer by doing it with others. As a trainer, I can see the benefits of doing this in a group, especially for those with less experience carrying out action research. This is not to say that action research cannot be done by a teacher on their own; rather, I feel that Burns wants to highlight that we all need critical friends and other perspectives to keep us in line. Plus, having others there ensures that we are more likely to continue and actually finish the research project.
  • Action research is framed as something for more than just the classroom: Burns constantly returns to points that are larger than the classroom in my mind. She shows the power that action research can provide to teachers who want to see changes in their school’s curriculum, and emphasises that action research can have an emancipatory effect on teachers. Whilst I don’t feel that I currently have any issues with the syllabi we are following, I can see how action research carried out by teachers can support teachers when they bring forward suggestions for change (and as a manager I feel that it would be a massive oversight to not take this into consideration!).
  • Loads of real-life examples: Burns uses real action research projects, teacher vignettes, etc. all the way throughout the book. I found a lot of these really important for understanding and conceptualising clearly the points she was presenting. It was also really interesting to see how teacher-researcher groups went about the whole process, from start to finish. Of course, these contexts are most likely going to be different to yours or mine; however, I felt that having a description of how other teachers have gone about it was extremely useful.
  • Plenty of tips: So, you’ve probably gathered that there are quite a few models, frameworks, etc. presented in the book. All of these are really useful and, if I am honest, necessary. I particularly liked the section on choosing a research question/topic. Here are some of the pieces of advice Burns (1999, p.55-56) puts forward:
    • Avoid ‘questions’ you can do nothing about (e.g. many questions related to macro-factors such as the socioeconomic context)
    • Limit the scope and duration of the research
    • Try to focus on one issue at a time
    • Choose focuses that have a direct relevance to you and your teaching (and your learners!)
    • Link questions to broader changes taking place or professional development priorities
  • Burns acknowledges the ‘informal-ness’ of action research whilst pushing teachers to strive for ‘academic-ness’ in their research: I think one of my misconceptions of action research before reading this book (and doing it!) was that action research means posing a question, collecting some data and then looking for answers to the questions so that your teaching practice improves. In essence, I suppose that is what action research is, but I feel this ‘overview’ is missing one important element: academic validity. Action research has been criticised for being many things, one being its ‘lack of validity’ as it is not done by ‘academic specialists’ (Burns, 2005). This being said, Burns writes that such qualitative approaches to research do have their place in ELT – and issues of validity and reliability can be taken into account! I was very happily surprised as I read Burn’s recommendations regarding triangulation and other methods of increasing trustworthiness, as well as her overview of different types of validity within an action research context:
    • Democratic validity, i.e. how collaborative and democratic is the research – does everyone actually get their say?
    • Outcome validity, i.e. “actions leading to outcomes that are successful within the research context” (and are reasonable) (Burns, 1999, p.162)
    • Process validity, i.e. how dependent and competent is the research process?
    • Catalytic validity, i.e. “to what extend does the research allow participants to deepen their knowledge of context and how they can make changes in it” (Burns, 1999, p.162).
    • Dialogic validity, i.e. the action research ‘peer review; critical dialogue with other practitioners and ‘critical friends’ who can act as the ‘devil’s advocate’.
  • Loads of discussion questions: I read this book on my own, but the book comes with plenty of discussion questions at the end of each chapter. I think this is excellent as it highlights that this book could be read by a group of teachers who then come together to discuss what they have read and use this co-constructed understanding to help them start their action research project.

What I didn’t like

To be honest, there was not too much that I didn’t like. I didn’t go into this book expecting to come out an expert on research or action research (and I’m not) – but I did want to come away with a much clearer understanding of how I could carry out action research in my context both as a teacher and as a trainer working with teachers. I feel that the book has done this. Of course, this book was written in 1999, so I imagine that over the course of 2o years of so, there have been some (or perhaps many!) developments surrounding action research. I look forward to learning about these in future books πŸ™‚

Applying to practice

Ok, the fun part for me. I have just finished all my ‘input’ on the core module of the MAPDLE. This means that I am moving into the assignments and, as mentioned, they all involve action research. This book has certainly provided some insights into how I can better approach these assignments. Here are a few:

  • Semi-structured interviews: I plan to carry out semi-structured interviews with a learner group after administering a questionnaire to collect data. The information in this book has given a good ‘overview’ of what I should be doing (e.g. creating a set of guide questions but ensuring that these allow for open-ended discussion).
  • Emphasis on clear coding: So, one issue that is presented in the book is coding data, and how important it is to code the data as clearly as possible. With quantitative data this is usually fairly easy, but with qualitative data it can be a lot harder as there may be quite a lot. If I am to carry out semi-structured interviews, I am going to need to be able to code the data I collect so that it can be analysed and interpreted. In chapter 6, Burns provides plenty of information on developing coding categories, and I know I’ll be going back to it again over the next few months.

Another area that I feel this book will play a major role in my practice is the undertaking of action research as an academy (more specifically, helping me ‘put it all together’). I would really love to engage in action research in term 3 this year or term 2 next year with the groups of teachers I work with in the academy. I have a number of reasons for this:

  • We certainly have ‘local’ issues that would benefit from action research.
  • Action research is a way to encourage teachers to see themselves as part of a team and not a ‘solitary figure’ – I want my team to be a team.
  • I feel that by carrying out research and then having something to write about, I can help teachers who would perhaps not normally take the chance get published in magazine or language teaching journal.
  • I feel that all of these aforementioned reasons also help with teacher retention. If I can help show teachers that the development programme is made based on their needs and that there are other career-important ‘perks’ that come along with it, I feel that we can keep teacher retention high.

Who should read this book?

  • Teachers looking to do action research: If you are a teaching that is looking for a methodology book with ideas on how to best do something, I don’t think this one if for you. However, if you are a teacher who really is thinking about looking closer at your own teaching and seeing what can be done to improve your practice, then, yes, I think you’ll like this book. Burn’s book is very much directed at those looking to get started in action research and anything ‘technical’ is introduced in a way that is understandable and made clear with examples.
  • Delta/DipTESOL candidates: All my diploma-level people out there will definitely find value in this book. If you are short on time, I’d recommend reading chapters 4, 5 and 6 as these will give a good overview of action research and how data can be collected. A lot of the information in this book will help with Delta Module 2 (and to a degree 3) and DipTESOL Module 2.
  • Teacher trainers and managers: If you are looking to lead a group of teachers through an action research project, then I think this book is a must. There is plenty of information around how projects can be set up and Burns also includes a timetable for a group project that took place (all of the ‘sessions that happened from start to finish). I certainly recommend taking a look at the discussion questions at the end of each chapter as these will help solidify your understanding of the content and may even help you when presenting the idea to teachers.
  • MA students: Ok, well you all know I’m doing my MA and am applying what I’ve learnt so far. If your MA asks you to carry out research, then this is a good introduction. Well worth the read.

Final notes

Burns’ Collaborative Action Research for English Language Teachers may be dated, but I feel that this book provides plenty of insights into action research and is highly relevant to today’s teaching climate (especially with everything that is going on and the move to online/hybrid teaching). I think it’s a fairly easy read, but will take time to ‘process’ – and that is why I would definitely recommend reading it with another teacher, if you can. If you do read it, I would love to know your thoughts. Perhaps you have the same take-aways as I do, or maybe they are different. Either way, let me know πŸ™‚

Book information

Book title: Collaborative Action Research for English Language Teachers

Author: Anne Burns

Pages: 259

ISBN: 0521 638 95X

References

Burns, A. (1999). Collaborative Action Research for English Language Teachers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Burns, A. (2005). Action research: an evolving paradigm? Language Teaching, 38, 57–74.

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