Published papers

Pupils as action researchers

Picture of Moira Laidlaw
Re: Pupils as action researchers
by Moira Laidlaw - Sunday, 10 August 2008, 3:16 PM

Dear Professor Bognar.

First, I want to say how much I enjoyed reading your review of Branko's work. I feel it is important to respond to the ideas you put forward. As I said to Branko this morning using Skype, how glad I was to read a dissenting voice (to an extent, I mean) to Branko's and Marica's paper, when Jack's and my responses are almost entirely agreeing with what they wrote. And this doesn't promote discussion, does it?

I did like the scope of your response, as it engaged the authors on wide philosophical grounds and also on some technical issues you felt you wanted to see change. May I first write about those aspects of your response which I particularly liked, before I go on to comment on what I want to take issue with?

As you said, I think Marica and Branko have made a huge contribution to pedagogy. The idea that children can become full action researchers is something I know to be trememdously difficult to facilitate. In my teaching in secondary schools in England, when I was doing my Ph.D. and subsequently, I managed to engage children in action learning processes, in which they were able to talk eloquently about their own learning, but they were not able to theorise from their learning to any useful extent. So, I also admire their paper from the perspective of showing how teachers are able to set up, support and help to evaluate a process of action enquiry with young students who then really became action researchers. When I first saw the Validation video I could hardly believe my eyes. So yes, I want to join you in congratulating them on their huge achievement.

I really liked it when you wrote:

...that the particular value of this text is that it is theoretically well-founded, and at the same time it represents the development and realisation of this idea in practice.

Yes, absolutely. I was really struck by the philosophical theorising at the beginning of the paper. I did not expect them to begin the paper with the theory of the values they were trying to bring more fully into the world, and when I first read this part of the paper I was puzzled. However, after working with Branko over months in the development of their paper, I came to see the value of this theorising and contextualising of their work together. Finding a philosophical context from which to work is a creative and constructive response to a sense of living contradictions (Whitehead, 1989) in the workplace and in the world at large.

I would also like to stand by what you wrote:

The realisation of action research with pupils that Marica managed, is achieved excellently and I would like to pay tribute to her courage, but also her inventiveness about how she approached different problematic situations (for example, when all of them did not want to do it or they did not have a positive attitude to it). It is excellent that a teacher, who works in a school in which her word is the law, reacted so democratically and opened some new opportunities, and challenges about freedom. It is significant that during the interview with her two ex-pupils Marica laughed happily when one of them told her that in the beginning it seemed to her to be rubbish and meaningless. It seems to me particularly important that everything started from the values that were important to pupils and that their action research enquiries were relevant for their living circumstances and personal development too, which you nicely emphasised in the interpretation section.

There are so many points in the above that resonate for me. Marica's courage in the light of her political context is indeed a point that needs to be stressed. And clearly, Marica found creative and constructive ways to get round the obstacles in her way in order to enable the students to learn things of value. She was also confident and happy, as you remarked, when one of the students said she intially thought the idea of this action research was rubbish! I also love the way you pick out the importance of everything emanating from the students' values and contexts. I believe strongly, that for something to be educational, it has to feel of some use to the students. I remember at school learning things by rote - things like the first 20 prime numbers, or the number of cities in Europe and so on. I can't say such learning has stood me in good stead for adding up, or travelling around in Europe!

You wrote:

Did you realise that the same pupils appearing all the time could produce the impression that other did not participate? In any case, my suggestion is to reconsider the visual additions and refine them because that would considerably improve their value.

I have to say I had not considered that particular children occuring all the time might lead to an accusation of bias for and against some pupils. I believe this is a very significant point. Perhaps you might think about putting a comment in the paper explaining why your particular choice of students developed in the way it did. I don't think it necessarily matters that the same children appear over time and others are more in the background, but perhaps it needs to be explained, so that it deters any accusation of bias one way or another.

Where I am tentative in my response to your review is when you say they should:

reconsider the visual additions and refine them because that would considerably improve their value.

If this means cutting out certain parts of the review to smooth the edges of what they did, I wouldn't agree with that because that would, in my opinion, reduce the educational value of their claims to have improved something in their practice and in the learning of themselves and their students.

You say:

I think it is important that you gave an excellent theoretical elaboration of this phenomenon that you were enquiring into and this is probably the most valuable part of the text: it seems to me as especially sharp to use Roger’s assumptions as leading ideas for your exposition, but you did not simply stay with citations but theoretically elaborated those assumptions. It was done in an impressive way and I think that Rogers would be satisfied.

I am not trying to quibble, but I think there is an important issue here in your idea (however playfully written) that Rogers should be satisfied. Perhaps he would be, but I don't think that matters at all (much as I admire Rogers too, honestly!). As I see it, Marica's and Branko's use of Rogers was done in order to illuminate the values of their practice, for example to show the measure of freedom, creativity, respect for individuals, and so on, that existed in their practice. I would imagine that the important critierion for the success of what they did would be felt by themselves and by their students. The issue is whether they are satisfied.

You also wrote this:

Although visual supplements make this text on the Internet distinctively different from the text in a common journal, I think that they are the poorest part of the account. I think that many unnecessary things need to be reedited. I am particularly thinking of the photos of children with their hands up, photos of the hallway and school environment, and the video in which nothing can be distinguished from the children’s babble during the group activities (my underlining).

I disagree that they are the poorest part of the account, because they add flavour, dimension and, I would contend, something of the truth of the situation as well. I think the photos work well in the sense that they give someone perhaps not familiar with classrooms in Croatia (as I am not) - or with teaching methods, or with the number of children in a classroom for example - a chance to see how things are in the author's context. We would both agree, I think, that a school environment has an enormous impact on the learning of the child and although a few pictures here and there might not give us much detail about the context, I do think that judiciously-chosen photographs can help us to picture the scene in the rest of the paper. A lot can be seen in a single photograph that cannot necessarily be conveyed in words.

I also disagree with the idea that the video-footage of children talking all together so that individual's utterances can't be distinguished (which I imagine is your disagreement with this part) is problematic. I think an observer can gain a lot from watching just such groups , because of the expressions on their faces (mostly delight it seems to me), the ways they respond to the teacher - is it with fear, trepidation, enquiry, openness, liking? - and so on. In my experience such moments can reveal a great deal. Indeed, I would go further and say that such moments cannot easily be lies, because something will give them away if they are. I believe in this gestalt idea that the whole can be inferred from its parts. For me the un-rehearsed (I assume) clips of the children simply carrying out their enquiries, is of crucial importance to me as a reader of this text. From it I gain a great deal of understanding about the authors' intentions. After all they chose what to show us, and this is always highly significant to the design of the project and the values involved. The question is: do Branko and Marica really want to promote the freedom to learn for themselves and their students (as Rogers advocated) or are they simply pretending? It's a reasonable question.

I believe their probity can be seen in the fact that they choose to keep in their video footage two distinct moments, when:

1) The children are being prompted to ask questions after Anica's Action Research report. In other words, Anica wasn't made capable through the processes up to this point, of helping her classmates to ask her questions.

2) Some of the children are looking rather bored at the proceedings. They yawn and turn around and fidget.

To me, these inclusions give the rest of their video, and by extension Branko and Marica's paper, verisimilitude. That they have chosen to show these moments reveals their essential trustworthiness (Kincheloe, 1990) as narrators. As we know, education is a messy process at the best of times, and if they showed us only the editied highlights, showing everything being successful and marvellous and shiny, then I might wonder where the negative was, because it's always there somewhere. Victory narratives seem to me to have little place in our modern contexts. In our accounts, I believe we need to show the whole lot - warts and all! In other words, the good and the unsuccessful, because it is often from the latter, that we learn.

Another small point here, is that the teacher's intervention to motivate the children to ask questions was necessary, and precisely what a good teacher should do, in my opinion. She intervenes at those crucial moments when there is otherwise a stalemate. It may be possible that in future student enquiries, Marica has learnt how to facilitate children facilitating questions! This is an educational goal, but outside the scope of the paper because of time, and children leaving her class and going to another teacher. Perhaps there might have been something even more admirable in Anica's learning if she had known how to motivate her peer-group to ask more questions, but again, the visibility of this situation through the video simply strengthens the case the authors make for being learners themselves too. They show us what we need to see to make a judgement. As Branko said this morning, they weren't making a film, they were making footage to reveal educational development and from that perspective, I believe their videos should stand as they are.

Showing these clips is in accordance with one of what I consider to be the greatest moments in all the videos and that's when Branko asks the boys who did not engage with action research for their reasons. He asked them respectfully. These boys, in his and Marica's view, had the right not to participate. In showing such a concern for freedom and respect for individuals in that example and in the two above, I feel disposed to believe in their stories. Without such footage, I think their case would be weaker.

You write:

In any case, my suggestion is to reconsider the visual additions and refine them because that would considerably improve their value.

I think 'refining' might strip them of their educational potential as evidence of what was really going on in Marica's classroom. This isn't simply a technological situation, it's an epistemological one, in my opinion. I'd like to know whether you consider this refinement to be merely technological or whether it has epistemological connotations for you as well.

Anyway, I think I'll stop there! I do want to thank you again for making such a heartfelt and detailed response to Marica's and Branko's paper. The more such responses we can encourage for this journal, the higher the educational quality of EJOLTS. And that's something I think we can all agree on.

Very warmest regards, Moira Laidlaw