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From tiny acorns: Co-produced research between Chinese and UK practitioners

Elizabeth Hidson, Senior Lecturer at University of Sunderland

Those of us involved in initial teacher education (ITE) inhabit two worlds: one is the world of the school, where teachers and pupils are focused on outcomes that enhance pupils’ lives. ITE academics teach, support and mentor trainee teachers in schools. The other world is that of higher education, where we support teachers with higher degrees and professional learning, usually focused around impact in school, and often while they are in post.

School leaders are governmentally mandated to engage with research evidence, and to implement promising findings into their plans, especially in terms of addressing educational disadvantage. This world is geared towards developing an evidence-rich and self-improving educational system predicated on the capacity for teachers to engage with research.

In higher education, academics are expected to be research active. ITE academics’ experience both as practitioners and as researchers gives us the ability to straddle the two worlds to do this work. Many of us identify ourselves as practitioner researchers to reflect that, for us, research that contributes to the school world, that is close to practice, holds particular significance for us.

Credit: Geeba_Images

Practitioner research ‘under the radar’

However, and this is quite a big ‘however’, the Rapid Evidence Assessment (REA) undertaken for the 2018 BERA Close-to-Practice (CtP) report highlighted an absence of high-quality studies that reported on CtP research done by teacher educators. Despite ITE academics being in a symbiotic relationship with schools, and despite initiating, supervising and assessing school-based research assignments on undergraduate, postgraduate taught and postgraduate research courses, this uniquely positioned group of practitioner researchers does not typically produce CtP outputs that are recognised in terms of national or international reach and significance. Their innovations are ‘below the radar’ when it comes to connecting research and teacher education (see Welsh Government, 2017).

‘Despite ITE academics being in a symbiotic relationship with schools … this uniquely positioned group of practitioner researchers does not typically produce close to practice outputs that are recognised in terms of national or international reach and significance.’

Reflecting on this, sometimes the issue can be that addressing problems tends to remain internal to the school. Perhaps this is an echo of schools being seen historically as closed systems (Griffin & Barnes, 1984), but in this case it highlights not disseminating CtP impact widely enough rather than external research findings not finding their way into schools.

What may be helpful to change this situation is a shift in practice so that more ITE academics and teacher researchers collaborate on practitioner-led research that influences practice and creates impact in schools. By building in ways to capture and disseminate impact happening at the micro (classroom), meso (institutional) and macro (school group/regional) level, both worlds can benefit.

A school/HE research collaboration

One such project took place between UK-based ITE academics and an international school in Shanghai. The idea stemmed from the professionally curious iGCSE science teachers’ frustration that assessment of these native Chinese-speaking pupils’ scientific capability depended solely on their English skills. The teachers wanted to know the extent to which developing bespoke translanguaging resources could support science subject competency in English. Inspired by Littlewood’s (2007) communicative framework, they trialled an ‘English for Science’ intervention to support content processing between Mandarin and English, with promising assessment results. Working with the ITE academics, the teachers designed an action research project. Rather than just fixing one problem for one group of pupils, the academics, like Hordern (2021), were conscious of the potential to demonstrate impact beyond the initial intervention, so a wider scope was established where practice could be shared initially within and later beyond this school to a wider group of affiliated schools.

What next for school-based practitioner research?

In this project, the best of both worlds was possible. That you are reading this blog post shows that, from this tiny acorn, something has begun to grow. The tiny pilot is now just the first phase in a larger umbrella project asking to what extent research co-created between schools and higher education can demonstrate impact at the micro, meso and macro levels. The question is whether this model of collaboration can result in high-quality CtP research: whether practitioner researchers, both in schools and in HE, can gain recognition for the work they do?

Elizabeth Hidson received the BERA Annual Conference 2023 Practitioner Research SIG award for her paper, ‘From tiny acorns: A co-produced research project between Chinese teacher researchers and UK-based international initial teacher training academics’.  A recording of Elizabeth’s presentation is available on the BERA website.


Griffin, G. A., & Barnes, S. (1984). School change: A craft-derived and research-based strategy. Teachers College Record, 86(1), 103–123.

Hordern, J. (2021). Why close to practice is not enough: Neglecting practice in educational research. British Educational Research Journal, 47(6), 1451–1465.

Littlewood, W. (2007). Communicative and task­based language teaching in East Asian classrooms. Language Teaching, 40(3), 243–249.

Welsh Government. (2017). Connecting research and teacher education: Quality enhancement for ITE partnerships.