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Research at work

Practitioner blogs: Three practitioners provide an insight into some of the challenges of balancing research with teaching and the benefits of being research-engaged.

Research at work HannaHannah is currently in her fifth year of teaching art in an 11-18 secondary school. She trained in Fine Art at Cardiff Metropolitan University, and recently completed the Masters in Educational Practice (MEP) at Cardiff University.

2015 was an interesting year for me, particularly during the summer holiday. Starbucks in Cardiff Bay became my second home. I made friends with the man who worked in the boat club and we’d take it in turns to get each others’ filter coffee refills, I had a seat which if someone else sat in, I’d be flustered for few minutes working out where else to sit, and I’d spend an unprecedented amount of time logging on and back off the internet, trying to get it to work as it was struggling with the pressure of the countless teachers and other MEP students using Starbucks’ wifi as their home office.

In this summer, I was pulling together the different sections of dissertation for my MEP and it was the hardest summer of my life. However, I’m sure that you’d also not be surprised to hear, that it was also the most rewarding.

In 2012, I enrolled on the MEP (Masters in Educational Practice) and the summer of 2015 was my final chance to write up the data I collected from a small scale research project as part of my dissertation.

Looking back over the three years, with a particular focus on my dissertation, there are three things that I’ve learnt, which are:

1. Try and separate your research and home life as much as possible

A work/life balance is so important and I think us teachers are pretty awful at it. Therefore, I think as much as you are able to, it is important to separate your research and home life. I tried to make sure that during school breaks, part of my routine was to wake up early and drive to Starbucks because that degree of separation helped me to switch off when I got back home. I also found that I really enjoyed writing up my research and talking about it (much to the dismay of my husband, I’m sure!) This made it harder to separate my time, therefore, if you are in a position to physically separate your time between different spaces, then I found it useful to do so.

2. Be prepared to give up holidays, knowing it’s short term

As mentioned, I became passionate about my research and would speak to anybody about it, and that passion meant that I wanted to put all of my energy into making sure that I did it to the best of my ability. That means that realistically, for a short term at least, school holidays became time dedicated to writing up, researching and organising my data. I found that it wasn’t something that I could just dip into on a weekend, but something that took real time and energy to make sense of. Whilst giving up holidays in the short term, the long term impact it has had on my teaching far outweighs this.

3. Talk through your project as much as you can when in school

When you’re in school, talk about your project with other practitioners as much as you can. You will be surprised at how interested they are, and I found that other staff became really invested in my project and would ask how it’s going. it can sometimes feel lonely spending large chunks of time writing but I found it comforting that my co-workers were interested too. I also found it useful to talk through my ideas and progress with them because it helped me to rationalise and make sense of my project when speaking it aloud and explaining it to someone else.

All in all, whilst the MEP is the most challenging thing I’ve done, ultimately I look back at it and feel a sense of pride and achievement, especially as I see the impact that the different knowledge and skills I’ve gained have had on my practice and therefore the learning of my pupils. I also made some excellent Starbucks friends.

AnneAnne has taught in a wide variety of adult education settings for the last ten years and is currently an Essential Skills Project Leader. From 2008 until 2010, she completed a postgraduate Master of Arts in Education degree with the Open University.

‘Research’ - sounds impressive doesn’t it? However the idea of carrying out a research project fills me simultaneously with excitement, fear and self-doubt. So many questions. How am I going to do this? How will I find the time? What if I’m not good enough? It is a tough task to rise to the challenge of undertaking research as a busy educational professional. Juggling work, study and family commitments is never easy, but I suppose that is the point. At least it is for me. Just as adventurers who push themselves to the limits of endurance to climb to the top of the mountain or into the depths of the Antarctic, I like to test my own boundaries and challenge myself.

We are constantly being told that education is not a research-based profession and that it would be far better if it was (Hargreaves, 2007). I can only vouch for my own experience. I strongly believe that undertaking research related to the way that I teach and evaluating the effectiveness of projects that I am involved with, is essential; stepping back from the everyday and allowing the opportunity for me to think. Surely, reflecting upon and regularly questioning my teaching practice should lead to a better experience for my learners.

I am fully aware that I am in my infancy as an educational researcher. The feedback I receive from my supervisors has really helped me, however, to improve my writing and question more analytically what I read. Now I will ask questions and take critical notes. How reliable is this article? How valid are these statistics?

Is there an inherent bias?

Starting out in my post-graduate research journey, I have come to the following three conclusions:

1. Choose a topic of real interest to you.

You are going to be spending a lot of time thinking, reading and writing about your research project. It will probably take over your life. If you’re just starting out, enjoy the opportunity to research a topic that is of particular interest to you. I have been informed that this may not be the case later on in your career, so enjoy the experience.

2. Be persistent and resilient

It’s a cliché, but it really is a marathon, not a sprint. There will be times when you feel like you can’t possibly look at your research and you question why you ever started. Sometimes the process of immersion in research can be addictive and sometimes it can be a slog. Personally I am very good at procrastination and avoidance. Suddenly have an urge to clean behind your fridge, rather than sit at the laptop and write? Been there and bought the T-shirt. There may well be set-backs along the way and I think that is part of the process.

3. Get support

Did I say this? It will probably take over your life. You will need the support of others. See if you can negotiate funding, time off or alter your working hours from your employer in order to undertake your research project. If you’re not that lucky (and even if you are), talk to your family and friends and make sure they understand you may not be as readily available as you were and sacrifices may need to be made. Undertaking a research project can be an isolating experience, so get involved and put yourself out there. Spend some time attending networking events, seminars and conferences, to share ideas. With the help of the internet, it has never been easier to find others in a similar situation or working in the same field as yourself.
Good luck with all your research endeavours!

References

Hargreaves, D. (2007), Teaching as a research-based profession: possibilities and prospects (the teacher training agency lecture 1996), in P. Hammersley, ed., ‘Educational Research and Evidence-Based Practice’, Published in Association with the Open University, Sage Publications: Los Angeles; London), chapter 1, pp. 3–17.

Research at work EmmaEmma is an English teacher and has taught in the South Wales valleys in a secondary school for the last five years. Emma was part of the first cohort of Masters in Educational Practice students and graduated in July 2016 with a Distinction.

My Decision

It was not a decision to be taken lightly. Some felt that it would be a mistake to undertake a rigorous qualification in an already busy first year of teaching, during an inspection term.

On the other hand, I was already concerned about the transition between the research, support and network-rich environment of my PGCE, to the world of professional work. I knew that I wanted to continue sharing innovative practice and had enjoyed doing so as part of a tightly-knit cohort of student teachers. Thus, the Masters would allow for open, confidential and non-judgemental conversations about pedagogical concerns.

I felt as if I owed it to my pupils to ensure that I made opportunities for myself to develop my pedagogy and this is what the Masters in Educational Practice promised.

Below, are five reasons why I wholeheartedly recommend research whilst teaching.

1. It Saves Time

One of the main misconceptions I had about embarking on educational research, whilst simultaneously beginning a teaching career, was that one would hinder the other. However, teachers are natural researchers. Paradoxically, teaching is research. With every plan, every lesson and every conversation shared in the staff room, you are researching what works best for your pupils and what enhances and catalyses their progress. Although the MEP may have been more formal and intensive then simply reflecting on your lessons when the bell rings at the end of the school day, the principle was the same. You have to actively engage in reflection to be an effective teacher.

For example, I strongly missed the experienced teacher sitting at the back of the room during my training, who would point out why certain things did not go as well as I had hoped and how I could improve. I had become used to having a ‘critical friend’ and had almost begun to depend on their feedback for both development and reassurance.

Research taught me that I could be my own critical friend. The qualification gave me the autonomy to systematically reflect on my lessons and problem-solve in a more confident, objective, efficient and ethical way. To exemplify this, during the first year of the MEP, I taught a pupil who could become disruptive during the transition between tasks. Knowing that I would be able to systematically work through potential solutions to this issue when I got home meant that I could maintain a calm, confident and positive outlook in my classroom.

I also fully believe that the more intensive the research, the more meaningful the findings are. For example, my action inquiry project (dissertation) was a sustained and focused study into a ‘professional itch.’ I wanted to know why my Year 8 class were not engaging with my written feedback in relation to spelling. Over a period of six months, I put the issue into context. I examined barriers to learning such as engagement, perceived importance and the teacher’s relationship with the class as well as a number of other factors. I collected control data, tried three strategies to improve engagement and empowered my pupils by making them complicit in my ethical research. We worked together to look at how they learn effectively. As a result, they learnt and continue to learn more effectively.

I am very glad that I took that decision because it quickly became clear that the false logic that research would be ‘too much work’ was actually tautological. Ironically, research saved me from doing unnecessary work.

2. Relevance

Another reason why I implore educational practitioners to undertake research is that the results are personalised to you. During my PGCE, I had become used to reading text books about ‘outstanding’ pedagogy which would often contradict each other or, in some cases, would seem ideal for the area I wished to examine. They would suddenly become less pertinent when I became aware that they were based on a different phase of education or even in a different country.

The research that I have carried out may not have broad, generalisable, repeatable conclusions that would stand up to rigorous statistical analysis across the world, but I think my results are of paramount significance and validity, because they illuminate something about my pupils.

Teacher research is unique in the way that the teacher inevitably and unavoidably has an influence over the results. Each child brings with them a unique set of circumstances and characteristics that may alter from day to day. However, perceiving my pupils as distinct beings rather than an experiment is what makes the research worthwhile and is far more important than proving a ‘one-size-fits-all’ hypothesis.

The research is also in accordance with the Welsh Government’s national priorities, namely improving standards in literacy, numeracy and closing the gap between poverty and attainment. It gave me a sense of great pride to be able to share my ideas on each of these areas in a departmental meeting, knowing I had already undertaken focused studies on each element within my employer school. I knew that I had tried and tested meaningful strategies that could be employed. One of my proudest achievements was being able to work closely with colleagues to edit and improve the cross-curricular whole-school marking policy. It now includes ‘Spelling Journals’ which I found significantly improved my pupils’ engagement with written feedback on spelling as previously mentioned.

3. Networking

I really valued the support of my fellow scholars on the MEP. Their practical and theoretical support continues to be invaluable in terms of reassurance and collaborative planning. I feel that I can be honest with them about inadequacies in my teaching because, unlike my employer school, they are not there to assess my performance. They are there to share excellent practice and alleviate concerns with in a confidential and constructive forum.

Additionally, educational research helps educationalists to see the larger picture when it comes to pupil progress. Schools run the risk of becoming insular and self-contained if links are not made between vested parties.

Through my experiences, I can see that education, like a child’s life, is a continuum which needs to be sustained during each milestone, no matter how small. For example, as a secondary teacher, I am fully aware that I am one piece of a puzzle which forms a child’s educational experience. I have a responsibility to find out what happens in feeder primary schools as well as the later phases of education. There is no better way to do that than to meet with teachers from different phases. Educational research forces you to liaise with practitioners in all areas, including support staff, parents and policy-makers, to ensure that a child’s needs are met at every stage and that stakeholders in education are in synchrony.

4. Confidence

A theme which underpins each of the aforementioned reasons is improved confidence. Undertaking and engaging with research has ultimately meant that both my own and my pupils’ confidence has grown. I am safe in the knowledge that I can reflect effectively on issues and problem-solve in a meaningful way.

This assured attitude transcends research outcomes and manifests itself in content pupils who make progress in each and every lesson, and a teacher who delivers lessons with self-belief and self-reliance. This filters right through to my results, which I now see as merely a by-product of my instilled confidence.

5. Pupil Progress

There are countless ways in which my development has helped my pupils to progress; the aforementioned practical examples are just a small sample.

Some might argue that I would have learnt all of these notions sooner or later and that may be true. However, I do wonder what sort of teacher I would be if I had not. This uncertainty makes me want to continue researching: to determine what type of teacher I could be with further study. I do not think that teacher researchers should be regarded as self-seeking. I completed the MEP to improve outcomes, opportunities and the progress of my pupils and undoubtedly, this has been achieved over the last four years. I intend to continue to research whilst teaching; they are synonymous concepts after all.

Overall, I am thoroughly grateful to the Welsh Government for funding such a worthwhile qualification which continues to enhance my professional practice. I cannot recommend research alongside teaching enough. Although it is undoubtedly hard work, it would be a false economy not to partake in it because your pupils reap the rewards tenfold.

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