Isabel Teixeira

An Action Research Report on supporting Project-Based Learning at Centro Interescolar de Linguas (CIL)

Action research for me is a way to bring action and theory together towards a deep and relevant change in education. It is a powerful tool to reflect on teaching practice as well as a way to implement effective actions to improve teaching and learning.
The Research
This experience is part of my Master’s Degree research in the Applied Linguistic Program of Universidade de Brasília. Also, it is the result of my participation in the learning circle group on Action Research lead by Dr. Margaret Riel, which aims to help iEARN teachers to implement Action Research.

The main objective of this research is to help EFL teachers to implement Project-Based Learning in their teaching as a mean to promote meaningful learning.

The specific objectives are:

  • To help teachers implement Project-Based Learning effectively in a EFL context;
  • To help teachers reflect on their own teaching and be able to investigate their classroom work in a more structured way.
  • To increase teachers’ confidence in designing new learning environments
The Research Question:

If I work with EFL teachers to implement Project-Based learning, how will this effect their ability to promote more meaningful learning in their classrooms?

The Participants and the Setting
Two EFL teachers are participating in the research. Both teach a foreign language (Japanese and English) at a Centro Interescolar de Línguas (CIL) and have very little experience with Project-Based Learning.

Centro Interescolares de Línguas: 

The Centro Interescolares de Línguas (CIL) are public language centers where students from public schools can learn a foreign language (English, Spanish, French, Japanese or German). They usually met twice a week for 1 hour and 30 minutes every class. The foreign language is taught in different levels and in a semester system. CILs are only found in the Federal District. Right now, there are 11 CILs in different cities. Some CILs have more than 4,000 students.
Cycle 1: 
Cycle 2: 
Cycle 3:
Actions: Two teachers have engaged in action research with me to improve their teaching and to learn more about the way in which teachers' actions influences the learning environment.   

Outcomes: After cycle 1, I observed that planning became more flexible as activities that provided more opportunity for students to speak about current issues like the presidential elections, which are not in the textbook, were introduced in class. Also, the assessment started to be understood as a process rather than a product when the teachers reflected that formal exams were not the only source to reveal what students knew about the foreign language. The teachers reported that they became more aware that they should not be providers of information, but a facilitator that helps students to learn because the main goal of a project is to promote student´s autonomy. Finally, they recognized the power of cooperation as well due to the fact that group work is a major aspect of Project-Based Learning.

Reflection: I clearly saw some important step towards change in the sense that cycle 1 provided a lot of self-reflection about the teachers´ approach to teaching a foreign language. They could see that teaching a foreign language could be much broader and offer students much more opportunities to be active in the learning process. My role was to support those reflections and guide the implemention of the project. Thus,  I learned to patient and respectful of teachers´ background and their efforts to change their instuctional practices.
Actions: In the second cycle, the teachers worked with a project that is part of the school curriculum called “ International Festival” in which each class is in charge of presenting the cultural aspects of a different country. Our goal was to increase the students´ autonomy when working with a project. My objective was to help teachers become more confident when implementing a project.

Outcomes: I observed a number of changes. First, teaching a foreign language was now seen as a mean to help students express themselves as they had to use the foreign language to talk about themselves. Second, students responded really well to project-based learning being able to understand that learning a foreign language is more than just learning grammar. Besides that, the planning was more relevant and connected to reality as classes now started with facts from real life that were later connected to the content of the textbook. Also, teachers reported that, while being challenging, working with projects helped them to create a more meaningful learning environment for their students because they were studying about relevant topics chosen by themselves and not indicated by the teacher.  A last finding was that teachers came to see the importance of investigating their practice as a way to develop professionally. This reflection encouraged more reading which in turn help them to innovate their teaching practice.

Reflection: Cycle 2 represented a moment to put into practice what was learned in cycle 1 as well as go into deep reflection about what learning a foreign language really means. In this way, the teachers got a broader perspective of  being a teacher as a professional that thinks about his/her own practice and continuously renews it.  As a researcher, I had to learn how to be on the side and let the teachers take control over the situation.
Actions: In Cycle three, I helped the teachers take on more responsibility for the project-based learning and I was able to take more of a background supporting role.

Outcomes: After cycle 3, it was clear that teaching a foreign language was a means to change the school community as the projects had the clear intention to achieve not only the class , but other students and teachers. The planning improved and became more contextualized as classes were prepared in advance and counted on the students´ reality more than on the textbook content.  Teachers described that they saw themselves as mediators that listened to their students and negotiated the best way to learn when deciding the topic of the projects and how to implement them. Also, the teachers recognized the importance of cooperating with their peers to improve professionally as they started to share what they have learned in the  three different cycles.

Reflection: It was the time for autonomy. As I was not so present in the implementation of the projects, teachers had to count on what they had learned in the previous cycles. They had a clearer view of what it meant to be a teacher in a project- based learning environment as of a facilitator that reflected more about planning and giving more space to students to decide what to learn and how to learn it. It brought a sense of Independence that led to a feeling of professional growth.  My role as more of a consultant who was proud to see their growth and support their new choices.
  1. Managing Director
My Reflections
Improving one’s practice is really important in any profession, but
especially in teaching.  Change is not always easy.  Often making
changes requires one to move out of his or her comfort  zone and
take on new tasks or responsibilities. I found that it demanded
maturity, courage and a lot of thoughtful reflection.
Collaborative Action Research and Project-Based Learning can be
useful tools to help teachers reflect on their own teaching
and provide good opportunities to make learning a foreign
language a meaningful experience.
For me learning to support teachers through a process of change
was enlightening as I could see that cooperation is a key
factor in professional development. Listening to others and
building up collective solutions to problems are rich sources for
teachers to be aware of how important it is to keep on
studying and improving professionally.
In fact, a graduate degree does not guarantee a person is
going to become a good teacher. A teacher is not born, but
built up from many experiences, readings, exchanges,
reflections. Teaching effectively is a long-life project that needs
to be open to the new, to other people´s eyes and voices. It
should bring the feeling that one is constantly growing as he
or she is also allowing others to grow.