The growing demand for teachers to be engaged with and in research seemed daunting at first. In terms of the educational research out there I was unsure whether I would be able to access it, understand it and apply it. And as for conducting my own practitioner research… Visions of large scale projects with complicated control groups and statistical analysis of reams of data to offset the many variables filled my mind and I don’t think I am the only person to hold this misconception. “Research” spoke of EEF-scale projects and analytical and data skills I don’t possess. Over the last two years I’ve learned to be much more realistic about what practitioner research can achieve and how to use it to have tremendous impact upon my teaching.
BERA (2014) concluded that “a research literate and research engaged profession” would positively support student progress but warned about the risk of this becoming a demand or “burden” placed on teachers. 2 of the main ways they identified it as supporting teachers included:
- Equipping them to be discerning consumers of research
- Equipping them to conduct their own research.
I’ve found both to be true for me.
Accessing and Using Educational Research
The first thing I learned was that there are very rarely simple answers yielded by research into education. As I’ve become more engaged myself I’ve learned to be increasingly sceptical of anyone who glibly insists that “Research says…”. A more ‘discerning consumer’, if you will. Despite claims to the contrary most research raises more questions than answers and, even when conclusions are reasonably clear-cut, that doesn’t mean that they apply to every context and every sub-set of students. As we’ve worked on assessment this year, I read some fascinating material on an iterative feedback loop by Barker and Pinard (2014); essentially showing how powerful a redrafting process can be in building students’ understanding. Although this focused on students in higher education it seemed to offer a lot for me as a secondary teacher. Until I spoke to students. They find redrafting “boring” and this was a tremendous, but not insuperable, block to impact.
Our starting point has been to identify an ‘issue’ or area of pedagogy we’d like to develop or learn more about. With the support and guidance of the Dr Katharine Burn from the Oxford Deanery we have been helped to identify relevant research and reading. This has been hugely important for us as working teachers, in order to pinpoint the best articles and original research to access without a lot of wasted time. I recommend any teacher or school engaging in practitioner research to build a good relationship with their local university and take advantage of their expertise and support.
Having read some original research, I found I was in a better position to engage with the active and exciting online community to trawl for ideas and suggestions that might have impact. Never has it been more important for teachers to be critical consumers; there are so many ‘solutions’ on offer, how do you select the best ones for your students. The reading gave me some context and basis for evaluating and sorting ideas and picking ones that might work.
Conducting My Own Research
Nonetheless still faced the daunting prospect of engaging in actual ‘research’; trying something out and measuring the impact. Once again, the Oxford Deanery was the greatest support I found. The best advice I received was two-fold:
- Plan how you’re going to assess impact before you start – this helps keep you objective when assessing the intervention you’ve planned and carefully nurtured into the classroom.
- This (literally) isn’t rocket science– you do this every day in every lesson as a teacher and know how to assess impact, it is just a slightly more formal process for capturing your reflection.
One project involved looking at teacher workload. There are various ways to measure this, some more scientific than others: having them keep detailed logs of their work before and after the intervention would be one measure. However to achieve this would only drive up the very workload we were trying to control! In the end, we just asked teachers to report how they felt; after all, “workload” is in many ways quite subjective. Few teachers literally count the hours, and I’ve yet to meet one who isn’t willing to go the extra mile for something they feel is valuable for their students. “Workload” is a catch-all term that relates to how teachers feel about their working week, as much as a measure of hours and so their self-reported judgement was measure enough.
Student voice is another tremendously powerful tool for assessing interventions. Of course, like any data this can be interpreted in different ways. My students’ views that redrafting is “boring” and that they particularly don’t want to do it in history when they only have a few lessons a fortnight could be interpreted to support a range of next-steps. It could mean that I need to better explain the value, or that I need to find new, more time-effective ways to do it. It could mean that I should reduce the frequency, or that it is a task better suited to homework than classwork. But it has still yielded a valuable response that helps me understand the impact of the intervention and their reaction to it.
Sometimes cross-referencing this with other data (whether assessment results or behavioural) is also powerful, or reviewing students work for key ideas and evidence of progress… But at this point I am probably teaching you to suck eggs. Because that is exactly the point; small-scale teacher-led research turned out to be neither as scary nor as daunting as I first thought. In fact, it mostly involved thinking about a lot of things that I reflect on anyway as a teacher; did that lesson work, did they enjoy it, did they ‘get it’, how do I feel, how do they feel, what does the assessment show they understood or misconceived about the work, and so on.
Overall, the impact has been powerful. I do indeed feel better equipped to discern good advice from bad and to take a less ‘trial-and-error’ approach to teaching. I feel more confident evaluating my ideas and interventions and more willing to abandon those that are not working, however much I might like the idea or have invested in bringing it to fruition. At first practitioner research seemed scary. Right now, I don’t know how I ever taught without it.
The following questions have helped me reflect on research and how to use it to develop my teaching:
- What is the issue I’m trying to address or the area I’m trying to develop?
- What research exists and what specific questions would I like it to answer? Where can I access research on this? [For this, our university links have been hugely helpful.]
- What will I try now to move forward with this? Does that fit with what I learned from my reading?
- What will success look like here? Who will feel or behave differently and how? How will I check that this is working?
The full report can be accessed here:
BERA (2014), Research and the Teaching Profession: Building the Capacity For A Self-Improving Education System, https://www.thersa.org/globalassets/pdfs/bera-rsa-research-teaching-profession-full-report-for-web-2.pdf