Most teachers would not dream of giving a non-reader a text-heavy piece of comprehension with 20 or more questions to answer without some support or scaffolding, if at all. Neither would we ask teenagers sensitive questions about their learning without seriously considering group dynamics and creating a safe and supportive environment. Yet suddenly when undertaking activity labelled as research, a questionnaire seems the most appropriate way of talking to a group of four-years-olds about outdoor learning, and randomly assigning 16-year-olds to focus groups is a completely sensible means of finding out why they find a particular subject difficult. There is something about the concept and process of research that seems to override our sense of what is pedagogically appropriate. Why is this?
I suspect it is due to a combination of things. The current dominant language of research (for example, evaluation, intervention, impact and standardisation) privileges a scientific model of research and underplays, or even dismisses, other types of rich contextualised research. The university-based teaching of research methods is more wide-ranging, but orientated towards theoretical perspectives and ideas, unconnected to the practice of research or education (Nind & Lewthwaite, 2018). Additionally, and linked to both, there is a feeling that research is a set of expertise held by others who are a long way removed from teachers’ normal activity. Although we are predominantly a graduate profession, with increasing numbers of teachers holding masters qualifications or above, we feel significantly out of our comfort zone when undertaking a piece of research – and that means accepting rules and processes that we might otherwise question.
Yet teachers are increasingly encouraged to engage in and with research (Cordingley, 2015) as part of their professional learning. In Scotland, where I live and work, the new national model of professional learning has the concept of research engagement embedded within it, with a range of organisations and structures, formal and informal, aimed at supporting teachers to take forward their own research enquiries. Yet something happens in translation and, with the best of intentions, the research often becomes an add-on and the process of enquiry, rather than being a way to find out something useful, becomes meaningless to or disconnected from the practice it set out to explore. This is often because teachers accept a set of research assumptions that are wholly inappropriate for the context in which they work, and for practitioner enquiry more generally.
For me, practitioner enquiry is one of many lenses offered under the umbrella of social science research (Hall & Wall, 2019). Its strength, and also its challenge, is the close connection between practice and research, with the practitioner-researcher taking an embedded and influential position as part of what is under investigation. This means that scientific models of research are difficult, if not impossible, to implement. The ideal of a scientist in a white lab coat having minimal impact on the context and process under investigation is not easily transferable to the practitioner researcher. Rather than lament this lack of detachment, we should embrace the strengths of practitioner-researcher positioning: the unique insight and access to perspectives, evidence and experience that might otherwise not have been considered. We need to value and privilege our knowledge of the pedagogic process, of the context and the children and young people in our care, and to value our ‘insider’ knowledge.
Teachers can build a bridge that starts in pedagogy and connects to methodology (Wall, 2018). Here I see an opportunity to merge skillsets. Rather than seeing research as something additional, it can be something useful, integral and indeed essential to the repertoire of skills teachers utilise to address the needs of our students. We need to refocus on what research, when undertaken by a teacher to explore their practice, is trying to do. If the intent is inherently pedagogical then tools and processes should be evaluated against what is pedagogically appropriate in that setting.
‘We need to emphasise teachers’ expertise in finding out what children and young people know.’
So, we need to emphasise teachers’ expertise in finding out what children and young people know. We all have a constantly evolving repertoire of techniques and processes that elicit, scaffold, develop and cajole learners into demonstrating their thinking and understanding. We should be using this knowledge when undertaking research, rather than sidelining it in favour of half-learned research techniques that may or may not be appropriate for the context or intent we envisage.
Rather than starting with methodology, let’s start with good pedagogy. If you want to know what your class of four-year-olds thinks about outdoor learning, think pedagogically about how best to find this out – video, mapping, cocreation of floor books, drawing, and so on. If you want to ask your class of teenagers about their learning then think about how to get their honest reflections – examples might include manga cartoons, mind maps, vox pop videos and philosophical dialogue. Start with what you know about how to start a meaningful conversation with your young people and work from there. It doesn’t lessen the value of research – indeed, it increases the connectedness of the research to the context you want to explore.
I suggest that by prioritising what is pedagogically appropriate, we are contextualising research approaches within teaching and learning, and also providing a mechanism with which to draw on practitioner expertise about the appropriateness of both evidence and approach to answering their own questions about practice.
Cordingley, P. (2015). The contribution of research to teachers’ professional learning and development. Oxford Review of Education, 41(2), 234–252.
Hall, E. & Wall, K. (2019). Research Methods for Understanding Professional Learning. London: Bloomsbury.
Nind, M., & Lewthwaite, S. (2018). Methods that teach: Developing pedagogic research methods, developing pedagogy. International Journal of Research & Method in Education, 41(4): 398–410.
Wall, K. (2018). Building a bridge between pedagogy and methodology: Emergent thinking on notions of quality in practitioner enquiry. Scottish Educational Review, 50(2), 3–22.