Educational action research seems wonderful on paper, where teachers actively participate in developing themselves, learning from each other and trying to improve classrooms, schools, and education systems. However, in reality, the use of action research in education can be a daunting task, and depending on the education policy direction underlying its use in an education system can be anything but a wonderful experience.
Context and Background: Singapore’s education system
This essay discusses some teething issues in carrying out action research in a high school in Singapore. Beyond that, the essay critically examines the premises upon which action research has been introduced into the Singapore education system. Although the school-based project I present may seem initially straight-forward, evidence from the project indicates that it was not; my analysis reveals underlying dynamics associated with Ministry of Education policy and school-site action research implementation that challenged and troubled the effort from the start.
Singapore is a very pragmatic country. It is a very small country with very limited resources. However, Singapore has achieved first world status in a span of 50 years and is currently the most competitive economy in the world (Subhani, 2020). With limited resources, Singapore must make careful choices and meritocracy and pragmatism are considered the key pillars for Singapore’s success (Mahbubani, 2015). Singapore students have consistently topped the chart in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) (MOE Press Release, 2020) and its educational attainment standing in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) (OECD, 2020), a testament of its impressive education system. Many have attributed its success to didactic teaching, rote memorization and drill and frequent high stakes testing (Dimmock and Goh, 2011). Behind these attributes, however, systematic planning in its education system based on a cost-and-benefit analysis is a crucial feature of Singaporean education. In this regard, the benefit is to produce excellent results in TIMSS and PISA and the cost is reliance on didactic teaching, rote memorization and drilling for examination.
An important feature of the systemic planning is support for teacher professional development. The Academy of Singapore Teachers (AST) was set up in 2010 by the Ministry of Education of Singapore (MOE) to spearhead the professional development of teachers (Hairon, 2017). This was to be an academy “for teachers by teachers.” Its role was to build a teaching fraternity that pursues teacher-led professional development and learning in support of school and students’ outcomes. AST supports teachers who are engaged in action research or lesson study with the necessary skills and tools. At present, the school discussed in this essay is collaborating with AST to train some of the teachers who are engaging in action research. We called each small team participating in this action research a “learning team.”
Three years ago my school started to embark on this action research journey. We are a relatively large International Baccalaureate (IB) school which also offers the Singapore GCE-O-Level examination. The school has about 2000 students from grades 7 to 12 and about 195 teachers. Initially, there was a discussion among school leaders on whether to make “learning teams” compulsory for every teacher or to leave it to voluntary participation. School leaders were also considering whether action research should be part of a teacher’s performance ranking. Included in this consideration was a concern regarding not wanting to add stress on the teachers. So, the first step taken by the Director of Learning (DoL) of the school in the first year of the project was to present to the heads of every department the rationale for doing action research. Then the heads of departments conveyed the message to the teachers within their department that the school would be embarking on an action research journey and asked for volunteers. The target set was that every department must form at least one learning team.
Within the context described above, a three year process of action research was initiated within the school. Several learning teams were formed to study the effectiveness of certain existing school initiatives, such as “the effectiveness of journal club in equipping students for research,” “power of feedback in Chemistry Lab Reports,” “aligning secondary school Mathematics to the IB Mathematics,” and others. There were no specific research questions or themes to follow. However, each learning teams’ ultimate objective was to improve students’ learning. Data collected could either be qualitative or quantitative. For myself, I led a learning team for the Chemistry Department, and I also took this opportunity to interview school leaders on the process of getting as many teachers as possible onboard for the overall action research project and on what lessons might be learned from such a project. I also interviewed several teachers as the process of action research unfolded in the school. The interviews provided a bigger picture of how school leaders try to drive change and upskill teachers and how these efforts are experienced by classroom teachers.
The analysis that follows looks critically at key elements of each of the project’s three years.
Getting Started: Year One
Initially, the take-up response rate of the school staff to adding action research (AR) as professional development was not very enthusiastic. Only 33 teachers out of 190 participated in the AR project. However, according to the DoL the introduction of the rationale for conducting action research was considered a success because it represented the beginning of a change of a culture in the school. As one school official stated, “Of course, things will not be perfect in this infancy, but at least it gets started. We wanted to build a culture of research, where teachers made informed decision [sic] based on data and not mere common sense. And to change or build a culture, it takes time. So, we aim to start small.” The administrator felt that they had a responsibility to push for AR to be implemented and believed that AR was the way forward for the professional development of teachers and for overall school improvement.
On the other hand, many teachers felt that AR would be an additional workload item pushed forward by the school administrator. This ‘struggle’ between teachers and administrator is often seen as inevitable in school settings. At our school, teachers came to accept that they might have to take part in AR regardless of whether they participated willingly and enthusiastically although many felt pushed to be involved. In this sense, the mindsets of teachers were an important issue from the start of the project. Hairon (2017) attributed teacher’s mindset as one of the hurdles in implementing AR in schools. He stated that a negative experience and teacher belief would only discourage teachers from engaging in AR, or would lead to engagement in AR just to satisfy ‘outward appearance’. In the present project, all of the 7 teachers I interviewed did not have a positive experience with action research.
In getting started with the project, part of the negative experience of teachers involved the issue of knowledge and skills associated with conducting action research. Conversations with school leaders and feedback from the teachers indicated that teachers saw themselves as not equipped with the right tools to carry out action research. Teachers anticipated having difficulties acquiring the needed knowledge and skills on top of their day-to-day teaching duties. To them, the action research process seemed like a job description for a full-time researcher. Teacher concern included the possible suggestion that if they lacked knowledge and skills for action research, then they lacked “competence” as teachers. To address this, at one point I suggested that perhaps the school could look into relieving teachers of their teaching duties for a few months so that they could embark on an action research project. Besides a concern that having a relief teacher for a few months would disrupt teaching and learning in the classes, the difficulty of obtaining funds to hire relief teachers was a major barrier. In addition, some teachers simply did not have a passion for research. Although these first year issues did not put a stop to the process of moving forward with action research in the school, they cast a shadow that continued to be evident in the next two years.
In the second year, the school launched a ‘learning festival’, where our school’s learning teams presented their findings in the larger school community. There were 15 teams who participated in this learning festival, and we also invited other schools to listen to our sharing. It can be considered a success because overall the learning teams had evolved into a rather meaningful project which could benefit others in the teaching fraternity. The school continued then to push for learning teams, and starting from the next year, learning teams would become a part of staff’s evaluation. My chemistry team did not participate in the learning festival as we were just about to form a team, had only begun to read some literatures, and were scanning for ‘doable’ action research. The IB chemistry teachers in my school were relatively new that year and some of the teachers were just trying to find their footing in a new environment.
Participation in a learning team was added as one of the criteria for staff appraisal, and this was communicated to all teachers at the beginning of the year. “A teacher who participated or led a learning team is assessed to be a teacher leader and have [sic] shown interest in professional development. Hence these groups of teachers would fare better in their appraisal than those who do not,” said the DoL. However, the school acknowledged that learning teams were not the only avenue for teachers to show their ability to lead or develop professionally. Other avenues such as collaboration with other schools to start certain projects, finding time to attend professional courses, or presenting at conferences also were considered to be part of the appraisal system.
My team started an action research on Internal Assessment (IA) for higher level IB Chemistry as this component posed the most challenges for both the teachers and the students. Students were having challenges writing a decent lab report while teachers found it difficult to ‘teach’ students how to do so. Thus, we examined how feedback given by teachers in a sustainable manner can help to improve the ability of students writing a lab report. We also examined the effects of students’ self-assessment and peer-assessment of such reports.
What I Found
The findings from the Chemistry Department action research suggest that feedback certainly helps in improving student ability to write scientific lab reports. Students’ grades improved after feedback, the style of writing improved and students demonstrated that they were clearer on what to write in completing a scientific lab report. Students had reported initially that they did not know what to write. However, when provided with exemplars and written feedback from teachers, students indicated that they then knew what to expect of a lab report assignment. At this level the action research seems intuitive and reflects ‘common sense’ that feedback will improve students’ performance. However, the question that teachers raised was “is the AR trying to prove or improve a practice?” In other words, many teachers did not find the activity meaningful and to a certain extent, were rather frustrated by the entire process. This led to a great deal of questioning. Some teachers reported they were doing the project simply for the sake of doing it. One teacher questioned that if the written feedback did not seem to improve students’ performance, it could be that the students did not even bother reading the feedback. The question also was raised as to whether the data collection was biased in a way that we are already convinced that feedback will help students do better and we are simply trying to justify that. We are trying to prove our claim rather than disprove it, so to speak. Was our research question “flawed in the first place?” some teachers asked. Yet, some teachers pointed out, if we were to set up a research project that would be ‘more meaningful’, we worried about whether we would have been able to complete the data collection and analysis in a timely manner.
These were key discussion points during a preliminary reconnaissance session for the project. The discussion also focused on how best to give student feedback, since teacher’s feedback differed. From this discussion the learning that took place was how teachers can provide ‘quality’ feedback to enhance classroom teaching and learning in relation to writing a scientific lab report. Teachers were assigned to read ‘The Power of Feedback’ by Hattie and Timperly (2007), to synthesize what ‘good’ feedback should be. We then discussed the Hattie and Timperly model of feedback to enhance learning. However, the follow up issue on this discussion was that such ‘detailed feedback’ was not practical and sustainable as each teacher had 60 feedbacks to give over a period of two weeks. This again brought to the surface the frustration among teachers regarding the disconnectedness between theoretical research and practice. From the teacher interviews I conducted in the third year of implementation of Learning Teams, all seven teachers agreed that action research/learning teams are good as they can help in school improvement. However, the many challenges in implementation of action research and learning teams pose difficult barriers to overcome.
Overall, in the present project, school administrators tried their best to start small, spent a great deal of time trying to convince certain groups of teachers to take up action research as a collaborative platform for teachers to learn together and worked with AST to equip teachers with research skills. Although school leaders considered many factors before a decision was made regarding the use of action research, the overall project showed that unless resolved some critical issues become major barriers for the effective implementation of action research as part of changing a culture in a school. Traditionally, when a school-site policy decision is made and it does not go to the liking of teachers, teachers usually complain and shed a negative light on the school leaders, citing them to be unreasonable, having lost touch with teaching, not considering the feelings and workload of ‘normal’ teachers, becoming arrogant, power crazy, etc. To be fair to the school leaders in the present project, they tried to keep the best intentions of teachers, students, parents and stakeholder at heart. They knew that they needed to maintain high quality education in the school and they accepted the fact that they could not please every party. In short,they had some tough calls to make. The vice-principal shared that whatever decision was made must have the right intention. For example, “to put AR as one of the criteria to grade teachers defeats all the purpose of learning and collaboration, although that method could probably ensure everyone is ‘forced’ into doing an AR. However, we are trying to convince teachers to do AR because it is a form of collaboration, to convince them that learning together could be more enjoyable than learning alone.” To drive action research as a whole school approach requires a change in school culture. As the DoL and Vice-Principal revealed, we had to start small and win more teachers on board each year. In other words, we did not need to have all teachers embarking on AR at the same time. For example, teachers could be rotated every year to take on AR. In addition, not all teachers had to embark on AR as professional development as there were other modes of learning that could be chosen. On the whole, school leaders attempted to hit the ‘pragmatic sweet spot’ where teachers would experience growth and benefits in doing AR without compromising their day-to-day professional lives. In the present project, the barriers discussed above may have presented too great of a gap between the best intentions of the school leadership and the daily practices of the school’s teachers to allow for the good intentions to come through in changing school culture.
I also found that another challenge of action research is the working dynamics of an action research team. In the present project, the assumption made by the school administrators and supported in the literature is that action research is a collaborative experience and teachers thrive by learning and working together. However, in reality, there can be friction and disagreement between teachers during an action research project and such a dynamic does not always end well. In the present project, one particular teacher did not agree with the action research that was being carried out, which involved self-assessment and peer assessment. The teacher mentioned that “as a professional teacher, we should not delegate our marking to students. How can a novice learner who barely grasp[ed] the content knowledge [be] asked to assess another student’s work? I would be very angry if my son’s work is commented [on] by his classmates. We should demand more from the teacher.” Although the remarks were strongly disagreed with by many teachers, the whole conversation was made more stressful because the teacher who made the comment is a key personnel in the school. There was a politics and power involved in this conversation, as other teachers felt ‘threatened’ by the recognition that a key personnel in the school had formed a negative impression about the teachers, thinking that they were unprofessional or too lazy to assess students’ work. Such a dynamic can deeply affect the working relationships among school staff. In the present project, the conflict did not bring about a good feeling among participating teachers, and these teachers may be unlikely to engage in action research in the future.
Conclusions and Reflection
Applying a cost-benefit perspective, the benefit for embarking on action research is the teacher’s own professional development. The cost involves the time away from lesson planning, lesson preparation, marking, other non-teaching tasks, and work-life harmony. It is also expected that teachers produce ‘decent’ national examination results. The IB results in my school are on average 40.0 points out of 45.0 every year, which is considered to be one of the best results in the world. Therefore, in a school context where time and other resources are scarce and with an expectation to deliver results, there is a need to strive towards using minimum input to obtain maximum output. Based on my interviews with teachers, all of them acknowledged that time is the main challenge in taking on action research. When faced with a mandate to engage in action research teachers want to do a good and meaningful project, but they simply do not have the time to do so. Teachers most often are bogged down with standard teaching and non-teaching responsibilities. In addition, with policy shifts, new responsibilities are added that take further time. For example, with the recent announcement of Blended Learning by MOE, teachers are learning to upskill themselves in e-pedagogy and grappling with online teaching.
As with all successful governance in public service in Singapore, there must be a careful balance in professional development between coercion and consent (Worthington, 2003). While the school enforces that every teacher must develop themselves professionally (a form of coercion), teachers are however free to choose the direction or scope of their learning that will benefit the students or school (a form of consent). Thus, teachers are free to choose between action research or a master’s programme or some leadership courses or IB workshops. In other words, AR is not the only mode for professional development in Singapore. However, in the present project it was the school’s intention to develop collaboration among teachers, and AR seemed like the perfect model for promoting teachers working collaboratively and learning together. This is unlike other professional development options where teachers mainly learn independently. In other words, my school has pushed AR to encourage teamwork among teachers, while also trying to be accepting of other options.
Though action research seemed that it would be beneficial to the teachers and the school, the execution of the action research project proved to be quite challenging on many levels. This essay hopes to encourage more teachers to embark on a research journey and detail their experience, as their findings can be helpful to the larger teaching community and can provide examples of data-driven decision making. At the same time, the essay’s acknowledgement that no research is perfect and each action research project has its share of challenges is intended as a call for very careful planning and open dialogue among all relevant stakeholders before embarking on an AR journey.
For teachers, it can be crucial to carefully consider if investing in action research will take away time and energy that will directly impact student’s academic achievement. Teachers should also be encouraged to consider their own ‘benefit’ if they take up action research. Will they be promoted faster or draw a better salary if they do an action research? Professional development in the abstract cannot be the only incentive for teachers to embark on action research. Practical and pragmatic considerations often triumph over emancipatory educational thinking, searches for the ‘truth’ in education practice, or explorations of epistemological understandings. Such considerations can lead to a disconnection between action research and teacher’s day-to-day classroom teaching experience (Hairon, 2017). In the present project, an English teacher mentioned that the term teacher-researcher is an oxymoron; in this teacher’s view one cannot be an expert teacher and researcher at the same time. In this sense, action research is sometimes heavily criticized as a ‘contradiction of terms’ (Hammersley, 2004). What I hope this report shows are some of the pathways to navigate in seeking to resolve the contradiction.
 The Singapore-Cambridge General Certificate of Education Ordinary Level (GCE O-Level) examination is an annual national examination that is taken by school and private candidates in Singapore.
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To cite this work, please use the following reference:
Teoh, Y. C. (2022, February 4). A journey in action research. Social Publishers Foundation. https://www.socialpublishersfoundation.org/knowledge_base/a-journey-in-action-research/