Champion Teachers: Stories of Exploratory Action Research is a volume in the TeachingEnglish series, offered as a free downloadable resource via the British Council’s English Agenda website that focuses on the Continuing Professional Development of English language teaching (ELT) practitioners and professionals. This book, which given its brevity reads more like a succinct report on the project, brings together the stories of nine Chilean English language teachers who, for a year, engaged in systematically looking at an area of their practice in order to improve their students’ learning using an Exploratory Action Research (Smith 2015) framework. Though deceptively brief and naïve looking (given the many illustrations, photos, diagrams, and speech and thought bubbles), we find in its pages an engaging narrative of powerful, contextually relevant, and situated professional development. This project, called The Champion Teachers Project, was sponsored by the British Council in Chile and supported the professional development of over 100 English language teachers in collaboration with the English Opens Doors Program of the Chilean Ministry of Education (Smith, Connelly, and Rebolledo 2014). According to the authors, the teachers who participated in this project can be characterized as ‘champions’ because their work conditions systematically ‘conspire against dedicated planning, personalized assessment, creativity and reflection’ (p. 5) and yet, they were able to make significant personal investments that resulted in their steady professional growth and the enhancement of their students’ learning. The working conditions of the participating teachers are not unlike those of many professionals working in state-funded education around the world: overpopulated classes, scarcity of resources, a general lack of motivation on the part of students, and forms of professional development which are untimely and unsuitable to their day-to-day struggles. Hence, the book has immediate appeal to anyone who works in similar conditions and is in need of ideas in order to move forward in their professionalism. Moreover, given the wide distribution of this material, the Exploratory Action Research (EAR) framework presented here has the potential to significantly influence how CPD can be implemented from a bottom-up perspective. The book starts with a foreword by Tom Connelly, who originally inspired, and subsequently managed the project for the British Council in Chile. It then offers an Introduction that presents a framework for Exploratory Action Research (Smith op.cit.), which is finally illustrated by nine teacher-researcher stories. The teacher-researchers whose stories are presented in the volume come from all over Chile, thus attesting to the relevance of this project to the work of ELT professionals in that country. In the Introduction, the authors state that the goal of the book is to provide an example of how teachers, as professionals, can have a voice in, and take action towards their own professional learning and development. This is offered as an alternative to the ubiquitous provision of professional development activities that leave teachers out of the decision-making process and rely on a top-down, ‘teachers-need-to-be-fixed’ approach (Diaz Maggioli 2012). To the authors, the framework of EAR gives teachers a space where autonomy, reflection, and empowerment to delve into their teaching can aid their understanding of their context and reality so that they can better serve their students. This focus on professional development for student learning is not new. However, few professional development programmes seem to have succeeded in actually achieving the goals of teacher autonomy and empowerment. The Introduction also provides a historical timeline of the project, which is now in its fourth consecutive edition. The spirit of flexibility and mutual empowerment through collaborative decision-making permeates the narrative and provides instances of how the project has evolved in response to the needs of its participants. In this sense, readers can see how the project conveners did not just pay lip service to an original design, but adapted it to suit the evolving and emerging understandings of the participants. This should be one of the main tenets of the Action Research movement, in any of its incarnations, one that has oftentimes been thwarted by the rigidity with which some researchers have implemented this method. In this respect, the inclusion of the term ‘exploratory’ in the name of the project emerged out of the goal to provide teachers with opportunities to enhance their ‘understanding’ of their reality and the conundrums it entails. The authors suggest starting with an exploratory phase during which teachers probe their reality with the purpose of understanding it in depth, and also, as a prerequisite to the formulation of a research question and even in order to open up further exploratory cycles without necessarily having to commit to an intervention right away. The nine stories that illustrate the approach come from teacher-researchers who participated in the first cohort of the programme in 2013. Their narratives, given in third person and illustrated in innovative ways for a research publication (through photos, icons, drawings, and diagrams) give testimony to the effectiveness of the project. Its success can be judged twofold: firstly, by the evidence of teacher learning leading to ongoing development (presented through findings and teacher-researchers’ further action plans), and secondly, through the testimonies of students and their learning. Topics explored by the nine teacher-researchers bridge diverse, though frequent, challenges in ELT. They range from how to wrap up a lesson (Story 1), through issues of participation and inclusion (Stories 2 and 3), the development of oracy skills (Stories 4, 5, and 8), or the use of English as a means of communication in the classroom (Stories 6 and 7), to the development of writing skills (Story 9). Each story is prefaced by a short bio of the teacher-researcher, followed by a description of their context, the exploratory questions posed, the data gathering instruments and procedures, the findings and, finally, a reflection on what has been achieved. Additionally, each story concludes with a quotation by the teacher showcased in the chapter, which effectively, and at times touchingly, summarizes the passion with which these nine professionals undertook their development. It is noteworthy that all stories track the transition undergone by the teacher-researchers between concerns about their teaching to concerns about students’ learning. The authors specifically sought to work within an experiential framework that had teachers doing research with and for students, and not to students. Given the many testimonies present in the stories, we can say that the authors have succeeded in this respect. Readers can clearly see how the teacher-researchers’ concerns evolved and how students’ voices, among others, were heeded at the time of determining the courses of action that might lead to overcoming a particular challenge. Additionally, other voices attest to the results, including those of critical friends, colleagues, and other members of the school communities. As a reader, and from the vantage point of a teacher educator, I was left wanting for more. More in terms of how the project was actually implemented, how participants moved from being ‘just teachers’ to becoming teacher-researchers, and—given the evidence of success—how I could incorporate this framework into my own teaching and learning. Fortunately, a companion volume is currently being developed (Smith and Rebolledo forthcoming (2018)) that will present resources for the training of teachers to embrace this perspective. In reading the Introduction, I could not help but find reminiscences of the Exploratory Practice (EP) movement spearheaded by Dick Allwright (see Allwright 2006 for a comprehensive account of this perspective). However, after finishing reading all the stories, I conclude that the framework presented here is different. Though both EP and EAR focus on empowering teachers to enhance their own and their students’ learning, the Champion Teachers project has validated, mostly for Chilean audiences, the worth of teachers in state-funded schools who, given the right conditions, can help their students succeed. Additionally, the project provides a model that is both contextually relevant, and intuitively appealing to teachers, both veteran and novice. In this sense, we can say that it is a truly innovative endeavour, one that should be communicated more extensively. Gabriel Diaz Maggioli is a teacher who applies the lessons learnt in the classroom to his roles as teacher educator, educational administrator, researcher, and author. He is currently Professor of TESOL Methods at the National Teacher Education Institute in Uruguay. Prior to this position, he was University Director of Language Learning and Teaching at The New School, a progressive university in New York, USA, where he also directed the MA in TESOL Program. He is also a consultant for international education-related projects sponsored by the European Union, UNICEF, UNESCO, and other international organizations. References Allwright, D. 2006. ‘ Six promising directions in applied linguistics’ in S. Gieve and I. K. Miller (eds.). Understanding the Language Classroom . Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Diaz Maggioli, G. 2012. Teaching Language Teachers: Scaffolding Professional Learning . Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Education. Smith, R. 2015. ‘ Exploratory action research: why, what, and where from?’ in K. Dikilitaş, R. Smith, and W. Trotman (eds.). Teacher-researchers in Action . Faversham, UK: IATEFL. Smith, R., Connelly T., and Rebolledo P.. 2014. ‘ Teacher research as continuing professional development: a project with Chilean secondary school teachers’ in D. Hayes (ed.). Innovations in the Continuing Professional Development of English Language Teachers . London: British Council. Smith, R. and Rebolledo P.. Forthcoming (2018). A Handbook for Exploratory Action Research . London: The British Council. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press; all rights reserved.
ELT Journal – Oxford University Press
Published: Jan 1, 2018
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