Sunday, 16 July 2017

Teachers as Active Researchers...


Yesterday at the Chartered College's #ThirdSpace event there was a lively debate around the motion of 'teachers should also be active researchers'. The panel debated key principles, problems and the potential impact of practitioner research. The audience were also engaged asking challenging questions and raising pertinent points. For my part, I tried to moderate a parallel Twitter debate through #debatED. Again, there were some excellent contributions from tweeters with opinion being broadly split down the middle. I didn't get the chance to join in either of the debates so I thought I'd share my thoughts here...

Within education, there appears to be a growing sense that teachers should be engaged with research and their classroom practice should be informed by 'what works'. However, this needs to be approached with a degree of caution. Just because the EEF toolkit suggests that feedback can result in eight months progress is not to say that children will make these gains if you suddenly overhaul how you respond to pupils' work. As was noted on numerous occasions yesterday, context is very important in educational research - what works, where and for whom is a better maxim to adopt. Nonetheless, the majority of teachers I speak to see real value in engaging with research. However, there does appear to be somewhat less of a consensus over whether or not teachers should be active researchers (yesterday's poll was split 57% to 43% in favour). Personally, I'm broadly in favour, however, with a few caveats...

Training/ Qualifications:

I didn't properly engage with educational research until I began my MA back in 2013. Sure, I'd been involved in numerous working parties looking at areas of the curriculum, behaviour etc., but didn't really grapple with research theory and methodology until doing a postgrad degree 8 years into my teaching career.  My MA was fully-funded by the Local Authority with the school having to commit to releasing me for 3 study days per year. Unfortunately this scheme has now been scrapped which seems to be the norm across the country. I heard several people yesterday talking of how they've self-funded their postgrad research. I think every teacher should have the chance to study for a fully-funded MA though I appreciate this isn't going to happen during these times of budget cuts, pay caps and CEO salaries. Notwithstanding, given the rise of MOOCs and mayhem it can't be too difficult to create an online course (FutureLearn) covering some of the research basics. 
I think this could also create further opportunities for Higher Education Institutions to work closely with schools and teachers in providing training. I've heard of one university that puts on research-focused free sessions for teachers where researchers share their expertise and cake is provided. Yes, free cake. Below is by no means  an exhaustive list but does cover some of the areas I found most useful when starting out in educational research:

Philosophical assumptions - epistemology, ontology, axiology 

Interpretative frameworks - positivism, postmodernism, feminist theory etc. 
Methodologies - case studies, action research, grounded theory etc. 
Research methods - surveys, interviews, observations etc. 
Interpreting and analysing data
Ethics (more on that below)

Ethical frameworks:

If schools are going to embed a research culture with teachers becoming active researchers then they must have a robust ethical framework in place which cover and address fundamental areas such as informed consent, choice, risk/ harm and confidentiality. I actually believe that this should be the starting point for any school on a 'research journey'. The importance of ethical considerations when conducting research with children cannot be overstated. I would suggest consulting BERA's ethical guidelines as a useful starting point.   

Access to Literature:


Teachers already have access to Google Scholar, ResearchGate and Academia where they are able to download some research papers. While other teachers might have access to academic papers through university courses many others do not. This is one of the reasons why the Chartered College of Teaching (CCoT) offers such great value for members. Joining the CCoT gives teachers access to full text journals, ebooks and other research materials which is great value for money given than one journal article can set you back more than the annual membership fee alone. 


Additionally, there needs to be some support in developing teachers' critical reading of research; who conducted the research? Why was it done in that way? What questions were the researchers trying to answer? How might it have been done differently? Were there any sponsors? How might this research impact on professional practice? All of these questions require a critical approach when reviewing research literature. 


Dissemination of Findings:


I gather some schools who are currently involved with practitioner research already provide opportunities for their staff to disseminate findings to their colleagues. Which is great. Though I think sharing across schools would be far more powerful. I like the idea of having #TeachResMeets (maybe even doing a few #BrewEd specials) where teachers are able to share their research and also answer questions/ feedback from other attendees. Teachers should also be given support in getting their research published whether that be in a peer-reviewed journal or alternative online publication/ platform. 

Research Leads:

Every school should have a designated Research Lead. This should be a specified role with responsibility for promoting and supporting staff with understanding/ conducting research in schools. It also needs to be fulfilled by someone with an understanding of research and passion for research. This can't just be added on to someone's already demanding TLR as this will probably amount to little more than tokenism. 


Time:

This is an obvious one. So obvious I'm going to say it anyway. If teachers are to conduct meaningful research, analyse data and present findings then they need to be given time to do this. It can't be another thing that's added on to an already burdensome workload. If so, it  will be met with justified resentment. Finding time may involve spending money which is difficult during these turbulent economic times and for that have no real solution other than the government needs to fund schools adequately and equitably. Now. 

Optional:

I'm finishing with this as I think it's the most important. My major reservation about teachers becoming active researchers is that they will be forced to do so. If research becomes another measure of teacher performativity then it almost becomes worthless. Especially if it is connected to performance management and/ or pay. I believe all teachers should be given opportunities and support to carry out research projects that interest/ drive them. To enforce a draconian and compulsory practitioner research policy will no doubt create an environment of skewed data and unreliable findings. If the aim is to support teachers in becoming active researchers then it's definitely worth doing properly.

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