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Teachers, researchers … and teacher researchers

Ken Jones

Call it what you like – practitioner enquiry, classroom-based research, reflective analysis, clinical practice, evidence-informed leadership – the need for teachers and school leaders to look critically at their own work and, through this, to improve teaching and learning in their schools, has become a central strand of professional learning. To do this it is helpful if not essential for teachers to be able to access, interpret, critique and use education research. The BERA / RSA report on Research and the Teaching Profession (BERA, 2014, https://www.bera.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/BERA-RSA-Research-Teaching-Profession-FULL-REPORT-for-web.pdf.) makes a strong case for schools and colleges to become research-rich environments and for teachers to be research literate. The report calls on ‘policymakers’ to follow the Scottish model where research is embedded within career long professional learning and for universities and others to reach out and support those who are engaging in practitioner research to inform strategic improvement.

There is a long way to go. The PISA fallout in Wales and the ideologically-driven policy momentum in England have produced increasingly performative cultures which inhibit criticality; policy prevarication in Northern Ireland arguably has fragmented and inhibited change. When the teacher on the Shetland equivalent of the Clapham Omnibus embeds research into his or her practice we will know that policy in Scotland is working. The Professional Update arrangements in Scotland, cleverly built in to the new CLPL processes, may well assist in making this a reality.

So what can ‘the profession’ (rather than ‘the policymakers’) do to make research-rich schools the norm rather than the exception? Research-rich schools are not the same as data-rich schools and researchers themselves hold different views (“leave research to the academics, John Hattie tells teachers”[1]). The BERA/RSA report acknowledges that currently there are separate and often competing universes, but they are separated by a continuum which gives us confidence in being able to support the movement of institutions and individuals up the sliding scales of research engagement. Some of the hurdles to this movement are:

  •  Language: The first thing we do with new Masters students is to wean them away from the language of the classroom and move them into ‘academic writing’. The ‘research community’ has its own technical language (seen in its extreme form in statistically –based research). Academic journals must, of necessity, make appropriate language a criterion for acceptance of research-based articles but this may well restrict access to teachers. Researchers are becoming more savvy using social media and this will need to be a key strategy in future.
  • Standards: Research police must be more tolerant of emerging teacher researchers, especially those who have invested professional and personal time in formalising their evidence.
  • Conflict: Leat, Reid and Lofthouse (2015)[2] provide an excellent summary of the ways in which ‘engaging in research invites complication’ (p279). To expect teachers to look critically at the learning environments in their schools is a big ask (but not impossible) unless they have supportive and encouraging middle and senior leaders. We must start with school leadership if we want to create research-informed cultures.
  • Models: In the 1990’s it was felt that Teacher Education departments were out of touch with classrooms. Recent and relevant school experience was prioritised over research experience in making new appointments. So where are the credible professionals who are able to mentor teacher researchers? Pools of mentors with a wide variety of educational experience were developing partnerships with new teachers in the MTL in England and the MEP in Wales, before they cut the funding …..
  • Sponsorship: We know that governments use research selectively. Teachers must look critically at the funding source of the research on which they base their practice.
  • Faddism: research findings are, and should be, contested, but tell this to a teacher who has built a pedagogy based on learning styles and who now finds their research-based practice questioned.
  • Ethics … In this post-Saville society we must not downplay the need for our work to conform explicitly to professional ethical criteria. Initially it was sufficient for teachers to acknowledge the BERA guidelines when engaging in classroom enquiry; now there are university committees scrutinising every proposal from professionals working in their own classrooms. Is the tail beginning to wag the dog?
  • Embedding: The ‘C’ in CPLD is ‘Continuing’. Research-based practice is more than the gathering of evidence to inform one-off school development priorities.
  • Space, time and interaction: teachers need space and time to be creative practitioners. A flame needs air if it is to burn brightly. They also need to engage with other professionals from their own and other schools. Research-focused policy must honour these professional commitments.

[1] See https://www.tes.co.uk/news/school-news/breaking-news/leave-research-academics-john-hattie-tells-teachers

[2] Leat, D., Reid, A. and Lofthouse, R. (2015) Teachers’ experiences of engagement with and in educational research: what can be learned from teachers’ views? Oxford Review of Education Published on line March 2015.

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