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Blog post Part of special issue: Action research: Research into action

The action research gardener: How doing action research restores my emotional energy

Cathy Clarkson, Teacher Education (PSET) Lecturer (ESOL and Literacy Lead) at Bradford College

A central question to my action research (AR) asks how a teacher-educator can improve her practice to support trainee-teacher learning during teaching practice (TP). My research was prompted by the introduction of synchronous text-chat, using Yammer (see figure 1) or TEAMs, during TP on the Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (CELTA). This seed of my research – the use of a piece of technology – raised questions about observation for learning and learning to observe. When trainees and a tutor are observing another trainee deliver their TP to an English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) class, how can I best make use of this virtual space to support my trainees learning to teach?

This is a short story of how this seed is growing, of enjoying the early blossoms and wrestling with the thorns. Mason (2001) argues for the power of metaphor in education and research: the gardening metaphor suggesting one of nurturing, growth and change. Just as I find spending time in my garden therapeutic, so too is my AR.

Figure 1: Text-chat transcript

The garden and the gardener

What about the plant that the seed fell from? Here, the metaphor falls apart a little when I consider myself as an action researcher. Am I the gardener, do I plant the seed, feed it, replant it, trim off the weak shoots? Or am I a part of the seed, part of its DNA, what it has potential to become? It seems that the garden and the gardener are intertwined, inseparable. As it is with AR, that blurring between my roles as a teacher, as a researcher and as a doctoral student. Which leads me to why AR is so important to me. As a teacher educator I want to be a role model for my trainees, to show that learning (to teach) never stops. Trying new things has been central to my professional learning, undertaking various practitioner-research throughout my (more than) 20 years in further education. By researching my own practice, I am rewarded with professional insights; this gives me energy and makes my practice still more rewarding.

Early blossoms and sticky thorns

Action research is messy (Cook, 2009). I feel this. I live this. The beautiful wrangling between practice and research, of being the seed while tending to the seed. My AR focuses on the text-chat and the multiple purposes of this. First, it is the stimulus that is driving the exploration of my practice; by taking a self-study AR approach I want to understand and enhance my own practice. Second, the text-chat has created an environment for discussion while observing. I am not aware of any studies exploring synchronous text-based discussions while observing peers’ live teaching. Video technologies have created opportunities for synchronous face-to-face discussion of live teaching (Marsh & Mitchell, 2014), and asynchronous text-based discussions of recorded lessons (Liu, 2012).

Overwhelmingly, my trainees tell me that the tutor prompts and questions in the text-chat are helpful. It keeps them focused, clarifies their thoughts, and helps them know what to look for when observing, because in the beginning they are unsure about the salient features of an ESOL classroom. But the text-chat is not uniformly loved by all trainees. Some find it overwhelming, with too many things going on. Observing the lesson; reading the comments in the text-chat; thinking about what to write and then writing it, while being mindful of the audience they are writing for. Their peer will read the comments, just as they themselves get to read the transcript from the text-chat of others when they have delivered their TP. There is the added complication that some weeks the trainees are observing a peer’s TP just before their own TP, whereas some weeks they are not teaching at all, just observing. This influences how they observe the lesson, what they see, think and say in the text-chat.

I am excited by these issues, complications and wrangling. I am excited about my AR and how it is helping me develop as a teacher as well as a researcher, as I experienced the ‘confusing messes’ of the ‘swampy lowlands’ (Schön, 1983, p. 42). What’s happening in this virtual space? What is happening during a classroom observation? What do the trainees see? think? say? How is this influenced by what the others see, think and say? How do these change as the course progresses, and how can I best make use of this environment to support their learning? It is returning to these questions, considering the best ways to be able to answer them, taking a student-centred approach to my research, that values the different opinions and experiences of my trainees, that exhilarates me as a teacher and as an action researcher. Tending to my seedling as it grows, enjoying the blossom and even appreciating the thorns, because I am part of that seedling, and you can’t have one without the other; so I have to find joy in all of it.


Cook, T. (2009). The purpose of mess in action research: Building rigour though a messy turn. Educational Action Research, 17(2), 277–291. 

Liu, M-H. (2012). Discussing teaching videocases online: Perspectives of preservice and inservice EFL teachers in Taiwan. Computers & Education, 59(1), 120–133. 

Marsh, B., & Mitchell, N. (2014). The role of video in teacher professional development, Teacher Development, 18(3), 403–417.

Mason, J. (2001). Researching your own practice: The discipline of noticing. Routledge.

Schön, D. A. (1983). The reflective practitioner. Routledge.