Divya Madhavan has taught in various cultural and educational contexts. She is an EAP Lecturer at Ecole Centrale Paris and is doing a Doctorate in Education at the University of Exeter. Teaching is something that has resonated with her for as long as she can remember. Divya’s main research interest is the practitioner voice in education.
Interview with Divya Madhavan
D.M. – Divya Madhavan
A.C. – Alexandra Chistyakova
A.C. : Hello Divya! Let me first thank you for your inspirational and practical presentation at iSTEK this April! I enjoyed it a lot and borrowed a lot of useful and stimulating ideas from it! Thank you for sharing them with us!
Divya, your presentation title was “Understanding Learner Perceptions Through Action Research.” Could you please explain what Action Research is?
D.M. : Research is, for me, a method of finding out more about something in a way that is systematic and meaningful. We find out more by reflecting on it, comparing it to neighbouring ideas and then gathering and presenting these thoughts in an intellectually responsible and respectful way.
Action Research is a little special because its goal isn’t just to find out more or describe or analyse something, its goal is to change that something but to approach this change from, again, a systematic and meaningful way.
A.C. : At your presentation you said that “Research is not the intellectual property of academics.” Why do you think practitioners might need to do their own action research and how can they benefit from it?
D.M. : The reason I made that comment (I’ve written more about this here) was because I see practitioners feeling excluded from the formalized side to academic discourse and practice, just like I see conference organizers within ELT openly saying that they don’t want theoretical or academic presentations at their events.
I feel that this ‘us and them’ mentality could do with a reset from the inside (i.e. the teachers and the classrooms) because there’s no valid reason in my opinion for either side rejecting the other, it’s just a matter of learning the rules to each other’s discourse.
A.C. : Divya, what was your first action research? What situation in or outside your classroom made you realize you need it? What experience did you gain as the result of your research?
D.M. : The first Action Research project I did was in 2004 for my Masters. I was struggling with a classroom that had got off to a clumsy start, and I felt like I needed to change something in my practice but I wasn’t very clear as to what, which is where the idea of documenting it and listening to the process step by step came. It helped me calm down and not try and solve everything at once. It also helped me take a step back from trying this or that tool when what I needed for my confidence as a teacher was a wider perspective.
I learnt and then read a lot about the complexities of classroom (and human) dynamics. It didn’t magically get everything under control but some of the changes I made did impact my practice positively. More importantly I discovered how much I enjoyed stepping outside my immediate personal response to the situation and working with data and drawing upon theory to inform my practice.
A.C. : What are the researchable problems in classroom? Could you give a couple of examples, please?
D.M. : I think we need to step back from thinking of it in terms of problems. A lot of people describe Action Research in problem-solving terms and I feel this is very limiting because it implies that something has to go wrong in order to want to change the way you do things, and so sometimes we change the way we do things just because we grow as teachers.
How to identify what is action researchable? Well I’d say think about change and think about what you’d like to change and then start working through how you’d like to change it.
A.C. : Could you please explain what the concept of problematization is?
D.M. : Sure, just like I wouldn’t recommend thinking about Action Research as a problem-solving mode of practice, I think it’s also important to understand why we need to problematize something. The purpose of probelmatizing something is to create the necessary mental framework within which to analyse it. It’s not quite as linear as describing a problem in detail. It involves some reading, some thinking, some stepping back and taking some responsibility in how we talk about it.
For me this ‘responsibility’ is what the essence of an academic voice is and this is also what is often perceived and the overly formal side to academia. A responsible voice is one that takes into account the different elements of a situation and speaks with an awareness of these different elements, away from judgements and uninformed or misinformed generalizations. It’s easy to get lost in (and with) formal language when one does this but I really believe in its larger purpose.
A.C. : What further practical literature on action research would you recommend?
D.M. : To be honest, rather than a book, I think Anne Burns’ website is the best place to start (professoranneburns.com) she’s a wonderful academic and her website has lots of videos and further references.
A.C. : How can reflective thinking on teaching help teachers to develop professionally and improve their teaching? Isn’t it a bit too abstract and time-consuming? Wouldn’t it better to learn and polish some practical teaching techniques?
D.M. : I think this really depends on your personality as a teacher and what you’re interested in and how you’re interested in developing professionally. I really don’t think that everyone needs to engage on reflective practice or action research. I think if it’s right for you it’ll feel meaningful and if it doesn’t feel meaningful, something else will be right for you.
As for ‘abstract’ and ‘time consuming’, I think doing anything that doesn’t resonate with what you’re like as a professional would be like that. For example, I find working with course books very abstract and time consuming and avoid them as much as I can. It’s often too much of a struggle for me to link them in a meaningful way to the people in the room. It’s not at all because course books are an inefficient teaching tool but because they just don’t quite suit my personality as a teacher or context I teach in.
A.C. : What do you like most about teaching?
D.M. : That you never really give the same lesson twice.
A.C. : Divya, thank you so much for your answers and the time you spent on them! I’m looking forward to hearing about your new research results and your other projects too! Thank you!
D.M. : Thank you so much for getting in touch Sasha, I’m currently involved in research on English as a Medium of Instruction in Higher Education and will be participating in a policy working group organised by the British Council in Spain in November. I’ll be doing an early morning session on ‘How to reflect on research talks at the conference’ at IATEFL.