Pupils as action researchers
WeÂ (Marica Zovko & Branko Bognar)Â submittedÂ a paper "Pupils as action researchers: improving something important in our lives" for publishing in theÂ first issue of EJOLTS.Â We invite you to help usÂ improve thisÂ account which is very important in our lives by your critical and friendly suggestions.
Dear Marica and Branko. I am delighted to be chosen to make this review of your paper.
In making this response to your paper I am aware that at EJOLTS we are still working out the best ways in which to represent and evaluate the effectiveness of what we are doing in the name of education. I like an open reviewing system, which enables others to see clearly what it is we are aiming to do - without excluding others, and at the same time being prepared to go immediately on public record with our views. Being accountable isn't easy, but I hope it will help new and creative forms to arise as we seek to improve what it is we are doing.
To help other readers understand the context of my review of this paper: I have known and admired Branko's and Marica's work since the first time I saw a video of the classroom http://www.vimeo.com/1415387 on 7th July 2005, the day of the London Bombings. I was travelling down to London at the time and we were diverted and listened for the rest of our fractured journeys to the latest news over tannoy systems at railway stations. Slowly news filtered through of what was happening, and I finally arrived at my destination, Bath (UK) to see Jack Whitehead. Jack showed me the video of the work Branko and Marica were doing with Marica's students, and to say I was spellbound is an understatement. I was bowled over! This was what education meant for me. This is why it was worth devoting a life to education - to be able to aspire to what was going on in those classrooms. I felt my own shortcomings when I viewed the video, but rather than these at all worrying me, I was excited at the thought of what else might be possible in the world if this were possible: children speaking for themselves about issues which concerned them, as Foucault might have said! I had striven all my educational life to live out values of freedom and love, but here on this video, I saw my own aspirations for the world vindicated. In the morning of July 7th 2005 I sawÂ the bombings, in the afternoon this video. It reminded me of twenty years previously, having seen Theresienstadt concentration camp in the morning and then the same evening going to a concert of German classical music. And that isÂ a dayÂ I will never forget either!
So it was with delight, Branko, when you asked me if I would be a reader for the paper as it was developing. This enabled me, over the course of a few weeks, to become very familiar with the text. Does it make me biased as a reviewer? Absolutely. Is this is a bad thing? I doubt it. I believe passionately in what I saw in those videos and such values haveÂ influenced me since to develop a greater understanding of what is meant by quality in education (see my work in China until 2007 at: www.bath.ac.uk/~edsajw/moira.shtml). Working with you over three years, Branko,Â has helped me to understand how important it isÂ to value rigour in the ways Winter (1989) means it.
Now down to the paper directly.
It begins in a way that surprised me when I first read it. I wasn't expecting such a concentrated level of philosophy as an introduction to an action research enquiry text. Yet as I read it several times over the period of its construction, I began to realise how important it is that we know what we stand for. In Marica and Branko's paper there is a very clear sense of where the inspiration for particular values comes from. Freedom above all! And in these pages both authors express very lucidly what is constituted by true freedom - the path of self-responsibility (rather than licence). In addition, and in a way I haven't seen described anywhere else, they elucidate how it is that creativity and a fundamental humanity are linked. In a very powerful statement they write:
Only in the act of creativity is there no separation of artistry, theory, acting, and epistemology.
This is the core, it seems to me, of their research paper and their educational research. In this indivisibility of artistry, theory, acting and epistemology, the children in their care demonstrate very high levels of cognitive, emotional, philosophical and procedural competence, which in turn, they claim, enables the students to become more creative.
If people, so their argument goes, are encouraged to develop their ideas in a free and yet also structured environment, in which the principal value is creative freedom, thenÂ they will develop not only unique creative artefacts or processes of their own, but will furthermore develop their capacities as human beings. Indeed, such processes, the authors claim, are the creation of humanity itself. This is a large statement, but one I find vindicated in the paper. Let me expand on that. They state at the end of the introduction:
This paper is a short story of a life-long struggle for a creative approach to action research which was/is grounded in our shared sense of freedom as the most important value... [T]his is a living form of philosophy.
If this is the case I would expect to find ample evidence of a seamlessness, running through the core of the paper. If this is 'living philosophy', which is another claim, then there should be no qualitative difference between description and explanation, between intepretation and narrative. And such I find it to be.
Marica and Branko outline their own contexts, through a description of their respective schools and places of work. The contexts are also defined through their values, and how they each developed a sense of freedom as the most important value. So far, they are accounting for themselves and for their own educational development, which I believe is an important aspect of any submission toÂ this journal.Â
They then take us through rich descriptions of how they came to the conclusion that the children Marica was teaching, needed to control more than simply the processes of the improvements they wanted to make, but something of their own contexts as well. If students were truly to flourish creatively -Â which, according to the authors they needed to do in order for what they were doing to be in the name of creativity and thus in the name of humanity - they needed to be able to use the tools of research as would be expected, for example, for adult action researchers: theyÂ had to be able to conduct questionnaires, interviews and the like. The illustrations of these processes are then included in the text in such ways that I believe that these processes were indeed taken. They are not reduced to indices, but as an integral part of the texts, and thus this seamlessness that I am looking for, begins to be apparent.
The process of Marica's research with the childen necessitated her support by Branko through the internet as well as visits, and these are clearly described and illustrated, again, integrally within the text. However, it is the embedding in the text of the various videos that remains for me the most convincing data and evidence of their claims about how a dialectic between freedom and creativity is educational, and how it contributes to the learners' humanity. To see the children confronting problems head-on with creative responses, and clearly enjoying what they're doing is a pleasure to witness. The children speak, apparently without fear, and I am particularly impressed with the lads who, in one clip we seeÂ choosing not to do action research, being treated with the same respect as those who did opt for itÂ Not to choose is a significant freedom, and Branko and Marica make it quite clear in their paper that children have the right to make choices about those aspects of life that only affect them. The classrooms we see are places of enquiry, of trust (it appears to me) and enjoyment. The classrooms in which the children speak for themselves are carrying out research in ways I envy. I want to be in those classrooms. I want to talk to those children. I want to be a child in that classroom, for Heaven's sake!
Towards the end of the article, Marica and Branko show us tables headed Child Centred School and Traditional School and then show us the difference between the two. I've read this kind of thing before in Rogers work, or deschooling literature by Holt etc. This is, however, the first time I've read it as one of the core conclusions by living philosophers and educators (in the sense of this paper representing living philosophy) and I find it most convincing. They them go on to expand on these ideas and show us evidence of their actualisation of their theories, which are also philosophies.Â
They make a compelling case for enabling greater freedom to learn more than simply from a traditional curriculum. Again, this idea isn't new in itself (I'm thinking of A.S. Neill or Dewey, both of whom recognised the potential of people to create their own parameters, rather than be restricted to others, whose aims may not always be purely philanthropic) but it isn't usual to find these philosophical conclusions embedded within a text with evidence of their efficacy. For each claim, the authors back up their arguments. I particularly liked the way in which neither author claims 100% success for their work, but shows some of theÂ shortcomings that occured during the processes. This, for me, adds verisimilitude.
The paper finishes with an interviewÂ between the authors and two of the main students from the research programme. The students'Â apparent easeÂ and confidenceÂ affirmed what I had suspected throughout the paper and that is that the students themselves clearly saw the value of what they had done and wereÂ happy to voiceÂ their opinions.
There is an aesthetic in the paper too, which I'd like to remark on before I finish. I find the claim that this is living philosophy to be sound - although I might have called it something else, but that doesn't matter. I also find, in the processes they researched and the peopleÂ they worked with, a validity in the idea that within our creativity dwells our freedom and our humanity. The introduction of video material at key moments in the text also strengthens this sense of a wholeness and an integrity about this paper, all of which satisfy me aesthetically.
Finally I would just like to say that I really enjoyed this paper. I find it one of the most compelling educational texts of my life, perhaps partly because of the circumstances in which my working and friendship with Branko - and later Marica - began, but mostly, I feel, because of the compelling synthesis between philosophy, educational processes and theorising. Thank you.
My recommendation is that this paper should be published as it stands.
Although we talk pretty much about this paper and you was involved from the beginning in its creating, I've again learned something new. Namely, you wrote:
I think that an aesthetic criterion is one of the most important and in the same time pretty neglected in academic circles. I do not believe that something could motivate other people if it does not satisfy them aesthetically. In my opinion, the only power in genuine education which could motivate other people to be involved in any creative process is a power of beauty, and this is that makes us distinctive to other species in the world:
If "laws of beauty" makes us distinctive to other living creatures, then why it would not be one of the most important criterion in any field, thereby in educational research too? I think that you are the person who could elaborate this idea in the best way and apply it in action research. I would like to participate in this venture too.
Thank you once more time for the beautiful review and great friendship.
Here are the main points I made.
I enjoyed your paper. I think it is a highly original and significant contribution to the living educational theories of action researchers. My main reason for saying this is that you have explained your educational influences in your own learning and with each other in a way that shows your receptive responsiveness to your pupils. You have shown how pupils can become action researchers in researching something important in their lives in a relationally dynamic process in which a teacher is supporting her pupils while being supported herself by an external action researcher.
I like very much the focus on encouraging the pupils to articulate their understandings of an action research process together with the concern for strengthening the validity of the accounts.
For years I have felt that a weakness of educational action research focused on the lack of evidence of educational influences between teachers and pupils and between teachers in higher education and teachers in primary and secondary schools. You have shown how this evidence can be provided in a way that connects with the educational values that for me carry hope for the future of humanity.
I also like the way you draw insights from the ideas of others, for example, the work of Rogers, in the developing and sharing of your own meanings.
The video-clips are particularly important to me because of the way they can show the importance of the expression of a flow of life-affirming energy with the values that you use to give meaning and purpose to your lives in education. I am thinking here of the flows of energy and values you use as explanatory principles in your explanations of educational influence in learning.
I can recommend your paper for publication as it stands with the minor typographical corrections I have sent on separately.
I am honored that you consider our paper and practice as
I've translated your response to Marica and she was thrilled with them. She has sent a word that such responses always have positive influence on her and she is only disappointed with the fact that she can not start with new action research project immediately due to holidays . However, we intend to continue dealing with this topic but with new understanding which we gained through the action reserch project which was described and explained in our shared account.
I am happy that Marica's and my paper fits in our shared values and contribute their filfilment. Certainly, this is a first part of our story which will be continued!
I've read in detail your and Maricaâ€™s text and I would like firstly to congratulate you on a valuable and interesting account. Although I do not think it will change the world, I think that it has found a way of representating the topic and many other aspects in an original manner, and thereby it makes s huge contribution to pedagogy. In the same way, your pedagogical approach is without any doubt noteworthy. I have to confess that before reading this text I was not particularly thrilled by the idea that children were to be carrying out action research (or that would need to be called thus even with children), but after reading the aqrticle I like this idea much more. I think 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.
According to a theoretical approach it is sound that you represented the development of the idea through a longer period, but at the same time you gave contemporary views on this phenomenon. In that part it is not necessary to quote yourself. You can simply retell your viewpoints and put them in brackets (see about this in Bognar etc.). It certainly does not refer to quotations from the discussion which you had during the realisation of the project since it shows the dynamic of changes you wrote about. 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 Rogerâ€™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.
The part of the text which was written by Marica in which she represented phases of her development, fears and dilemmas is very well written and seems well documented. I think that it uncovers the whole complex nature of the process of development and struggling with onself in the process of changes. Certainly, you had, as the leader of the project, a distinctive role in the empowerment of people who started with change and that much is obvious from Maricaâ€™s text. However, from your text it is not visible which changes you experienced and how you learned together and discovered new possibilities. I think that you could modify this part of the text and represent your fears, dilemmas, crises and how you managed them and what surprises you experienced. Although they are scarcely noticeable, the details about talking about ongoing change, how you arrived at new ideas or gave up something you started would be precious, since these are essential characteristics of action research.
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
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 childrenâ€™s babble during the group activities. In this video the part with the music and the series of photos is cute. It should start earlier, though and the video should be shorter because the recording is pretty poor. That also applies to the video in which you conducted the conversation with pupils in which it is obvious that it lasts too long for the children and they were bored. I think that part of the transcript which you included with the video should not be repeated since a careful reader could have the feeling that some things are being unnecessarily repeated. A decision should be made what is better to be represented on the video or in a text. The idea that a group of pupils visits Vesnaâ€™s school to represent their research is an excellent one and it was obviously a real adventure for the guests as well as for the hosts. But this video should be shorter to represent the essence. The part in which you and Marica intervened to move on to the questions in this situation was necessary, but to readers it is not as important as the questions of the children). Maybe those videos should not be longer then 5 minutes and they should be better crafted and edited to show what is important. 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.
According to the visual arrangement of the text at the Internet I think that separation of quotation in specially coloured boxes is acceptable, but it hinders reading a bit. If you have to separate chunks of a text all the time, then a reader would think those parts could be read separately, and if they were part of the text then they should not be separated. My suggestion is to separate only those quotations or some other supplements that could stand alone and those that have some special meaning for your work. Otherwise when there are too many boxes than the text becomes difficult to read, which was not the aim.
I think you represented the general circumstances in which everything occurred well, and that this represents something about how social changes happens. A valuable part of the text is when you write how to â€śreconcileâ€ť this approach with traditional approaches to the curriculum. This is without any doubt a new topic, and it is important that you noticed that.Finally I would like to congratulate you, Marica, and you, Branko on an exceptional text, and extraordinary achievements in your practice.
Dear Professor Bognar.
First, I want to say how much I enjoyed reading your review of Branko's work. IÂ feel itÂ 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 IÂ go onÂ 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 knowÂ to beÂ 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. AndÂ 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, whenÂ 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 inÂ Europe and so on. I can't say such learning has stood me in good stead for adding up, or travelling around in Europe!
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 puttingÂ 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 detersÂ 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 outÂ certain parts of the reviewÂ to smooth the edges of what they did, IÂ wouldn'tÂ agree withÂ 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.
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 Rogerâ€™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 inÂ 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 childrenâ€™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)Â - or withÂ 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 beÂ 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 yourÂ disagreement with this part)Â 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? -Â 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 beÂ 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 toÂ promote theÂ freedom to learn for themselves and their students (as Rogers advocated) or are they simply pretending? It's a reasonable question.
I believe their probityÂ 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 inclusionsÂ give the rest of their video, and by extensionÂ Branko and Marica'sÂ paper,Â verisimilitude. That they have chosen to show these momentsÂ 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 IÂ 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 sheÂ had knownÂ 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 forÂ freedom and respect for individualsÂ in that example and in the two above, I feel disposed to believe in their stories. Without such footage, IÂ think their case would be weaker.
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