Ongoing Research – Divya

An Action Researcher’s Checklist
– Divya Madhavan

Divya Madhavan

  • Not all research needs statistics.
  • Not all research needs to be generalised to other populations.
  • Not all research data needs numbers or sophisticated tools.
  • All research needs a clear (and clearly articulated) agenda.
  • All research demands responsible documenting of the data collection process.
  • All researchers need to stay close to their reason for doing the research from start to end.

I’ve blogged regularly about research, about the uncomfortable way we hedge claims by saying ‘Research says…’, about research not being the intellectual property of academics and about how we might de-code research talks.

In this post, I’d like to zoom into the specifics of how we approach Action Research, with a series of questions. Hopefully I’ll frame the questions well enough to make your answer-seeking journey a little more lucid. To my mind, this is what research is all about: the act of seeking answers, and the road that ends up revealing itself as you do so.

This post isn’t a summary of centuries of scholarship – there’s a lot more to read on Action Research, so please don’t stop here if you are really interested in doing it.

Here’s the checklist:

 1.  Do you have four stages set out?
Action Research works on the principle of Plan-Act-Observe-Reflect (and then Plan-Act-Observe-Reflect again, and again – depending on how long you want to carry on). Aim for real clarity with your thinking, writing and reporting around this.

2.  What is your research question?
Is there a specific purpose to doing this research? Has that purpose been clearly articulated? Action Research is not a research method where you go in not knowing why you’re going in. There are other methods for this kind of inquiry. Action Research is much more of the ‘crystal clear’ type where there’s a real purpose to the research, usually one that is directly related to the researcher’s practice (i.e. your classroom).

3.  What’s the plan?
You don’t need a hypothesis. You need a plan. Some people associate Action Research with hypothesis-testing. Again, there are other methods for this kind of inquiry, where you start with a hypothesis. This doesn’t mean that you can’t ever have a hypothesis in Action Research, but it shouldn’t be where your thinking starts. Your thinking starts with an issue that you problematize, before planning how you’ll engage with the issue as an action researcher.

4.  How are you going to document the ‘action’ and ‘observation’ phases of your research?
This is when you test drive your plan. Where I’ve slipped up very easily in the past is being so busy driving that I forget to write down little details about my observations, participant comments and even little mood shifts in the process along the way. Even though things seem ‘normal’ at the time, the more disciplined I am with the recording, the more I am able to analyse the process when I’m done.

5.  Do you have specific reflection time at the end?
I think ‘reflection’ is rapidly becoming one of the most overused words in our industry. What I mean by ‘reflection time’ is that stage four is as important as the first three. Even though we think about things the whole way through, specific thinking-analysis time at the end is very precious and will help build a more robust second phase where there’s a further plan that is then put into action.

6.  Do you feel comfortable with ‘going public’ with what you’ve done? 
Even if you’ve made mistakes along the way, or left some things out in the process, do you explain why – and do you outline what you expect to do differently next time?


Don’t we already plan, act, observe and reflect in our everyday lives as teachers?

Of course we do.

What’s the difference?

I think the difference is the rigour that we impose on our thinking, documenting and analysis of what we see before us. With that comes the responsibility to examine our practice intelligently, rather than just responding to a situation emotionally, which often comes more easily to us all in a very normal, human way. And the difference is also in using the right vocabulary to say all of these things.

If you feel excited about Action Research, try and ask yourself :

What are the social changes or the individual changes you hope to deal with in your research?

How are you trying to reform your practice?

“Action research is concerned equally with changing individuals, on the one hand, and, on the other, the culture of the groups, institutions, and societies to which they belong. The culture of a group can be defined in terms of the characteristic substance and forms of the language and discourses, activities and practices, and social relationships and organisation which constitute the interactions of the group.” (Kemmis and McTaggart, 1992:16)

If I had to recommend one book it would be:

Carr, W. and Kemmis, S. (1986) Becoming Critical. Education, knowledge and action research, Lewes: Falmer Press.


Happy researching, reflecting and resonating…


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The Assessment Issue – Divya

Divya Madhavan

Taking the Tension Out of Test Time
– Divya Madhavan

I only give one tenth of my students’ oral exam grades. Their peers give the other nine tenths.

Does this work?


Does this work better?

I certainly think so 😉

Do they enjoy working this way?

Very much

Is it ethical?

I explain it all to them at the beginning and if anyone doesn’t want to (which does happen occasionally), we don’t do it. I only use this model of assessment if I get 100% consent from the people in the room.

Is it efficient?

Well, if you remember the kick you got out of marking stuff with a red pen when you played ‘teacher’ as a child, you might agree that students tend to put heart and soul into the process…

But… can second language learners assess each other? I mean…don’t we need a ‘proper’ teacher to pronounce the final judgment? Perhaps even a native speaker because it’s oral assessment?

Yes they can, no we don’t, and OMG native speaker supremacy? Do we really wanna open this can of worms?

What I do:

I pick a class where the assessment is low stakes, i.e. no external to prepare them for, just your average classroom with a group of people who want to boost their English and move onto the next step in their studies/jobs/lives.

I decide at the beginning how I will systematically note down information about oral skills (in my case it’s usually a little black book I write in) and make it clear that we will co-construct the assessment and most importantly, make sure everyone’s ok with this.

I write in my ’can do’ journal (what they can do in spoken English quite simply) throughout the course to give me ideas come assessment time. I devote one lesson about three quarters of the way through to writing the rubrics for assessment.

I create the assessment questions and marking scheme based on my journal and the general emergent content of the course, keeping an ear out for my ’can do’ perceptions and their ’want to do’ expectations.

We examine each student as a panel. Yes, this takes time but it’s been three years going and it’s often the most energizing moment in the course.

Why I do it:

I believe that oral assessment, when unnecessarily administered, creates huge imbalances in the human dynamics of a classroom. The teacher’s role gets inflated to the level of examiner and the student is diagnosed as the examinee, with ensuing rigmarole and protocol.

In classes where there is no real justification for assessment apart from fueling the generalizing juggernaut of accountability, outcomes and box-ticking, participatory assessment of this kind is a wonderful opportunity to empower student voices and, thus teacher voices as well by bringing course objectives back into the organic sphere of the classroom and assessing from the people up and not the system down.

Who this really works for:

Students who are bored of English classes and the malady of Cambridge past papers.

Students who hate being tested, find it causes a lot of stress in their otherwise busy and fulfillable lives.

Students who like calling teachers by their first names.

Times when it failed:

When I didn’t make it clear what we were doing at the beginning.

When I wasn’t systematic about keeping a journal and thus panicking myself when I had to assess them.

When the learners didn’t quite have the vocabulary to handle the writing of assessment rubrics, coming to an agreement in the discussions of the areas to be tested and so forth.

(By the way, I draw on as many of the languages I can function in when I teach, I don’t believe in the stoicism of an English-only law in classrooms)

Why I’ll carry on doing it:

Because I strive to be a cuddly old Freirean one day?

I saw a poster in Paris today with a picture of a bicycle and the tag was: the solution to reducing congestion and conquering obesity is rusting in your garage. It’s nice keeping things simple.

Join the conversation:

Box-ticking or mind-mapping? Questions about ELT professional knowledge – Divya Madhavan and Willy Cardoso

IATEFL Harrogate 2014, April 2nd, 5.15pm


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Classroom Management – Divya

The Science Teacher Who Wanted to Teach in English 
– Divya Madhavan

Divya Madhavan
I have a story to tell you. It’s about a science teacher- we’ll call him Roberto. Roberto’s school decided that it would become more international and use English to teach other subjects. It would be good for the local students to be exposed to more English and it wouldn’t hurt to attract more international students.

Let me give you a bit more information; Roberto is in his late fifties. He started learning English in school when he was 12, stopped after university. He’s taken the odd refresher course- nothing formal. He has never lived in an English speaking country. Most of his students share his L1.

Although he has always taught science in his L1, Roberto was very enthusiastic about making the change and being one of the first ones at the school to do it. Roberto loves speaking English by the way, he makes the occasional mistake and misses the odd joke but he is very positive about being an English speaker.

Roberto conscientiously spent a lot of time with his English-language teacher friends to help him work out the things he wanted to say. He spent even more time looking up collocations that were specific to his field and ironing out translation details. All in all he was feeling pleased with his preparation at show time at the start of his new science course in English.

Now, I’ve built up the story enough for you to guess that something went wrong but I’m going to give you three choices as to what and I’d love to know whether your intuitive guess as a language teacher matches up with what happened in the end:

a) Roberto got nervous once he started teaching in English and ended up skipping some of the important material because he was so worried about speaking English well.

b) Roberto spoke perfectly confidently and said everything he wanted to say but got a lot of negative feedback from his students on the quality of his accent.

c) Roberto started teaching in English but because most of his students shared his L1, they all slipped into the L1 when it came to discussion and interaction. This made it difficult for him to stick to English later.

(Decide now if you’re going with a, b or c 🙂

Roberto uses English as a Medium of Instruction (EMI). It’s a little different to CLIL because the goal was not to teach two things at once- science and English. Roberto only had to worry about communicating the content of his science lesson and measuring how much of the science his students learnt, there’s no explicit language learning goals in EMI apart from general exposure. The snapshot I’ve just given you of his life and language-learning history is a fairly typical one in Europe, especially for teachers of Roberto’s generation

EMI has had its highs and lows as an area of concern around the world. Some have argued that it steers a slow and steady demise of other languages in science and academia while others have said that it’s the inevitable way forward and we may as well learn to play the EMI game.

These viewpoints aside, EMI raises very real and immediate concerns of expectation management in the classroom when a teacher’s L1 is taken away from them, because guess what? The answer to Roberto’s story is b). He did a great job and to his total surprise his students thought his accent wasn’t up to standard and they claimed it ruined the content for them.

His English teacher friends had told him “don’t worry if you don’t sound British or American, we understand you perfectly”…. ” and besides even in ELT we talk about English as a Lingua Franca these days and being positive about getting the message across, not sounding like a native speaker”…. “The science is very clear and that (is) the main reason your students are there”.

But the question is what standard are Roberto’s students referring to here? Ben Goldstein dug a little deeper into this very question in his talk “No Listen the Ask” which I saw at the IH Barcelona Conference, where he discussed the problems with conceptions of language that are based on standard varieties.

Now, I’ve been trying to work out how Roberto’s hard work might have worked out differently ever since I met him. I haven’t and I doubt I will. His is just one story, and I hope you’ll agree with me that it might have had a, b or c as possible endings. I also wouldn’t dream of generalising from this one story.

Sometimes it’s good to just let stories sit and think about the questions they ask and not the answers we want them to give. So here are my three questions on managing student expectations in the EMI classroom;

  • How does a teacher manage student expectations when he/she loses the tool of mother tongue mastery in their specialised subject?
  • Is it fair that students are critical a teacher’s accent in English when the content of the lesson is understandable? (Is it fair when it happens the other way round?)
  • How can a school manage its EMI policy in terms of student expectations? It is something that policy can even manage or is it something that’s too deeply embedded in culture and society?


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The Professionalism Issue – Divya

On Getting It Right & Getting It Out There – Divya Madhavan

Divya Madhavan

I work in Academia. The land whose billboards sometimes carry clever maxims like “publish or perish” or, as I’ve argued elsewhere “research says…”

Publish or perish is a fairly hollow cluster of words. It reduces professional culture to its most mechanical state; ticking the survival box. It emphasises, or rather downsizes, professional growth in terms of hard and fast cut-off points and recognition more through rules and less through ideas. Every game has its rules of course, but it’s the ideas that flourish within these rules that ultimately make us want to remain a part of the play.

I was recently asked why I wanted to write a thesis, why I didn’t consider publishing articles and then compiling them into a thesis, that way I’d establish a bibliographic train to my graduation gown. What’s intriguing here isn’t so much the different routes to getting a doctorate, but that this suggestion of a publication route was perceived as ‘getting the job done’ (and thus perhaps lowering my odds of perishing?).

I make these statements about norms and thresholds not because I am an academic who hasn’t published much (ahem…yet 😉 ) I say this because I believe in bringing down barriers to good ideas. Just like I don’t believe that research is only valid if done by a PhD holder, I don’t think publication in this or that journal is what makes an academic great. Surely the standard of greatness doesn’t just belong journal editors. Academics also lecture, mentor, supervise and look after students…and are on a very profound level, teachers.

My reason for blogging about the publication barrier here is because I see so many people struggle within my practice. From senior colleagues who forcefully wedge themselves into co-authoring spaces to junior colleagues who sweat over writing in languages they haven’t mastered for the sake of this or that journal, publication grade, impact factor, and so on… I’m not alone in expressing my worry regarding such banes of careerism. But what I’d like to do here is share some thoughts on how these rules of the game shape professional identity

For me there are two ways of collocating ‘professional’ and ‘identity’:

  • our professional identity is the one that faces outwards, the profile picture, the careful wording we put into our bios, the time and energy we spend on our presentations, our online presence, as well as our qualifications, affiliations and reputations.
  • our identity as professionals is the one that faces inwards, our personal investment into ourselves as academics, the ethical responsibility we have to our field, the language we use to express this awareness and also the deeper senses of self and persona that we build within ourselves, that make us grow as professionals as well. Why make the distinction? Because I wonder how much of our professional culture actually affords a development of the latter set of ideas.

What does the latter do?

It  obliges us to get it right before getting it out there. To read, to understand, to trial, to admit error, to reframe thoughts and to accept the deeper importance of criticality.

What does the former do?

It makes us accountable.

One of my educational heroes, Gert Biesta talks about a “culture of accountability” within education. This accountability isn’t just technical, managerial or financial, it’s also pretty emotional. And this very important. I am greatly reassured by the fact that my own supervisor has the title ‘Dr.’ before his name for instance, and feel he will do a marvellous job of overseeing my doctorate because he already has one.  But just like the outward facing makes us accountable, the inward facing makes us responsible. Accountable and responsible of course aren’t mutually exclusive qualities but I feel the distinction is worth making as they aren’t quite the same things on an ethical level.

Accountability has to do with the ‘face’ and as Biesta argues, creates economic relationships between people, where we do things for specific gain and advancement, including our professional portrayals. This economic bind might actually make the democracy of ideas more difficult to establish because it will naturally push us towards the box we want to tick.

Why would this be a problem?

Because it can formalize our professional dynamics away from the people who lie at the heart of education, namely teachers and students.

What is the use in my separating these ideas into the inward facing responsibility and the outward facing accountability?

To tease out the locus of control that we all have when it comes to our identities and our professions and that it is the balance of the face that looks out and the face that looks in that creates an identity that is integral and ethical.

Professional ethics isn’t a buzzword. Nor an academic formality, nor a tool or fix that will make us better teachers. It’s just something that concerns us all, that’s a little under-represented in today’s landscape of professional development. It’s something that lies at the heart of practice as the face in the mirror that we look at before looking out to our peers.

Biesta, G. (2010) Good education in an Age of Measurement: Ethics, Politics and Democracy. Paradigm Publishers


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iTDi Research Issue – Divya

Researching, reflecting and resonatingDivya Brochier

I almost feel like I should write a poem instead of a blog post. Poetry power-packs words in a very unique way doesn’t it? It forces us to step back from how ideas are represented in our minds and our daily discourse and creates an internal dialogue, an entirely exquisite one, whose ripples stay with us for some time.

For me, this internal dialogue is shaped by who I am, the imprints that my life experiences have left upon me within the lenses and modes through which I am able to understand things. I love the way in which the source of good poetry is somewhere between a heightened awareness of the cadences a language holds and a brute intuition of the most powerful kind. You can perhaps see what I’m getting at…

Research is not, for me, a nebulous source of authority that gauges the soundness of an idea. Nor is it an abstract crunching and spewing of statistics that disjoint theory from practice. It is not a process of referencing at an n+1 level with the goal of writing with clout or supra-validity.  Research shouldn’t be something that we shy away from for fear of non-admittance to the ivory tower of ranks and publications. Research simply should not, cannot and does not belong to academics alone.

So, in the true spirit of iTDi, I give you some of the voices of our community which, extracted from the transcripts and read in succession like this, resonate so many of the issues around research in the ELT industry today, so much better than I can:

There is an increasing teacher-as-researcher movement linked with the idea of reflection on classroom practice, and as the field professionalises this will become more important…. where they want to develop deeper understanding through their own explorations, and to develop their personal theories of what works well in their local contexts.

Anne Burns, Professor in Language Education, Aston University, United Kingdom and Honorary Professor at the University of Sydney, Australia.

There’s a big gap between research and practice…and I often see myself, because I do a lot of conferences and teacher training, as helping to close these gaps between the academics on one side, who have their conferences and have their journals and their 5000-word articles, and some of the real specialists in-company who have never even heard of sociolinguistics or pragmatics and who are doing a great job and how both sides can learn from each other….

Evan Frendo, Freelance Trainer, Teacher Trainer and Author, Germany 

The best kind of research is the kind that teachers do every day…

Research is often done by people who are not in full-time teaching, and so teachers quite naturally reply with, ‘yeah, but come to my reality and then see if you can put stuff into practice with all the teenagers and a full timetable…etc etc’. The best research is not ‘handed down’, or indeed handed up. It should be some kind (to continue the metaphor) of handshake. 

Being challenged, irritated, angered by what some people say about what we do is/should be the start (always) of an enquiry about whether what we do, what we’ve always done still feels good. That kind of constant inquiry keeps teachers young and interested 

Jeremy Harmer, ELT consultant, Author, Speaker, United Kingdom

…there’s a full scoring system depending on whether you’re single-authored or co-authored, so there’s a real hierarchy and a demand for publishing… I don’t know how much gets to the front line teachers, the idea that I can do things and make my practice better, I don’t know if that’s on people’s minds…. 

Steven Herder, Assistant Professor, International Studies, Doshisha Women’s College of Liberal Arts and Program Director, iTDi, Japan

We do read a lot, carry out research and then in our classrooms we do something different and very often the theory actually has no practical value-we cannot just ‘use’ the theory – we have to modify it to our own life and experience

Anna Musielak-Kubecka, Freelance Teacher and Teacher Trainer, Poland

It takes time and effort to apply the outcome of research in every day practice and very often there seems to be a long distance between these two. Front line teaching frequently differs from research conditions 

Dimitris Primalis, Teacher, Materials Designer, President of TESOL Greece

For me, there were some questions that remain unanswered, I read a lot of books and articles for understanding the topics in depth…I felt the need to look at them from a different perspective, the useful things I learnt were from my experience, but… 

Beyza Yilmaz, Teacher Trainer at Pilgrims, UK and EFL instructor at Özyeğin University, Turkey 

The best thing about it was the empowerment, to read, to research, to go back again and read…

…empowerment is extremely important for professional development, but many teachers don’t have the time to do due to busy schedules and lesson preparation…

Last semester, a teacher who holds a PhD, took part in our teacher selection program. He said that there was a big difference between what happened at university and what happened in private language institutions…. a huge gap between theory and practice.

Eduardo Santos, Director of Studies at Cultura Inglésa, Brazil

I suppose the first time I actually did research in connection with language teaching was because I was angry about somethings…in relation to the sort of teaching I was doing… 

It involved reading about things and thinking about things, not just collecting data I do think that a very good reason to do research is to try to change things

Richard Smith, Associate Professor of Applied Linguistics at the University of Warwick and Co-ordinator of the IATEFL Research SIG, United Kingdom

Thank you Anne, Evan, Jeremy, Steven, Ania, Dimitris, Beyza, Eduardo and Richard for working with me to shape this.