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Caroline Daly - Teacher research: Questions that are worth asking?

Caroline DalyTeacher research is based on an uncompromising commitment to changing practice in classrooms, driven by teachers themselves. Based on the identification of learner needs, teacher researchers introduce a change aimed at increasing access to learning in their classroom and collect a range of evidence to critically evaluate the effectiveness of this change. There are strong arguments that more of this is needed - this was a finding from the BERA-RSA Inquiry (2014) into the relationship between teacher education and research. It is a strong theme in Donaldson’s report (2015) into developing teacher education in Wales. But what should teacher research look like if it is going to bring worthwhile improvements in learning and make a significant contribution to teacher development? How can teachers avoid the major pitfall of those self-confirming research projects which don’t really challenge very much about existing ways of doing things in schools?

Crucially, teacher research needs to be deeply self-aware and encourage critical questioning about practice - that usually means introducing an outsider perspective to the research, one which is not bound by school norms, power relations and everyday routines, and which can provoke teachers to ask fundamental questions that challenge existing practices and reject ready solutions to complex problems. This means establishing collective openness within the school system and among school leaders to the idea that teacher research is essentially disruptive. It is based on moral purpose (Fullan, 2001) and makes teachers confront their existing beliefs and review their values - it might mean questioning the way things are done in a fundamental way, rather than trying to modify a less than effective teaching approach. Teachers undertaking research need supportive contexts and networks therefore to enable them to ask brave questions of themselves and prevailing school practices.

These have been some of the challenges for teachers undertaking research as part of the Welsh Government’s Masters in Educational Practice (MEP), an accredited masters level programme in professional learning for new teachers in Wales. Here, the need for external perspectives was built into the programme. Teachers engage with existing research to help the development of a relevant focus for carrying out their own classroom enquiries. The process is supported by a professional network of ‘external mentors’, who have a vital role in supporting teachers to ask questions that are worth researching, to challenge ‘norms’ and to provide opportunities for teachers to carry out purposeful (and disruptive) research. Fundamental questions for teachers when choosing a topic to research are:

Does this research increase inclusion in my classroom/ curriculum area/ school?

Does this research increase my learning about how to teach more effectively?

Does this research increase my capacity to develop the curriculum for all?

Is this research carried out with the learners?

Is this ethical?

It can be difficult however for teachers to identify worthwhile questions for research. Suppose a teacher has identified a problem which is preventing effective learning - here is a typical one: ‘How can I improve the behaviour of pupils who are increasingly disrupting others in my Key Stage 4 art class and are frequently off-task?’ An immediate solution is potentially available to be ‘researched’: ‘Design a new rewards scheme based on reinforcing positive improvements in behaviour. Use the scheme to measure impact’. The teacher and the school would be very interested in such a scheme if it worked, naturally. Improving behaviour is a priority for many schools, and is frequently identified by Estyn as an area for development. The danger with the proposed research however is that it is based on a ‘solution-focused’ approach to a highly complex issue and the question has focused on ‘fixing’ pupils. There is a danger that a deficit analysis of pupils becomes the main focus of planned changes, and that behaviour modification has become a research goal, separated from practice development. A worthwhile question might focus instead on deep enquiry into how the pupils are learning the subject and experiencing art. The teacher-researcher could start by considering several questions which challenge the current organisation of learning in the class, such as ‘What do I really know about my pupils’ interests and experiences?’, ‘In what ways can my pupils be recognised as ‘expert’ already, in ways that can inform art lessons?’, ‘How can I find out more about these things?’, ‘How can I develop a new art topic/ approach based on what I find out?’, ‘What other ways are there of teaching this topic/ set of skills?’, ‘How can I increase challenge?’, ‘Can I alter my teacher-led style?’ In other words, teacher research is about the teacher as a learner and affects the values and understandings which underpin their teaching. John Hattie put it like this:

...the biggest effects on student learning occur when teachers become learners of their own teaching. (Hattie, 2009, 22)

Teacher research needs to look critically at how far existing practices support access, equity and inclusion for all pupils. Poor questions only tinker at the edges of the ways things are done in some classrooms and schools, things which need to change more fundamentally to enable more pupils to succeed. At worst, the important questions never get asked, because a possible ‘solution’ beckons which is easier to measure and accommodate within normal routines. It can be quite a struggle to resist setting out to ‘prove’ that a readily available solution is working. Schools can be intolerant of uncertainty about outcomes and the time it takes to implement deep and significant change in learning and teaching. This is why external perspectives are so important in teacher research, whether they emanate from university partners, mentors, or via peer-networks of teachers undertaking similar enquiries. Some time ago, Peter Strauss (1995) wrote in his famous reflections on becoming a teacher researcher that there were ‘no easy answers’. The times have become more pressing since then in seeking answers to teachers’ dilemmas, in high stakes contexts where the performance of pupils, teachers and schools is scrutinised. Worthwhile questions though, really don’t have ready answers. They might bring unexpected (and uncomfortable) findings. They will hopefully inject new ways of looking at an issue and provoke dialogue with colleagues around the topic. They will help ensure that teacher research is done with the learners, not to them. They won’t try to fix pupils, they’ll try to develop teachers.

So, it’s important right from the start to be clear about the disruptive purposes of teacher research and to develop questions that are about how pupils are learning, the need to enrich the curriculum and to extend inclusion. A programme like the MEP has invested considerable time in exploring this with participants, but this can be a challenge in contexts where access to external perspectives is not part of the learning process for teachers. This is something for consideration in the post-MEP context in Wales. For teachers to become learners of their own teaching, they need access to external voices, critical dialogue about their practice, time and space to take risks and really listen to their pupils. That’s just to develop worthwhile questions to get started...

BERA - RSA (2014) Research and the Teaching Profession. Building the capacity for a self-improving education system London: BERA - RSA

Donaldson, G. (2015) Successful Futures Independent Review of Curriculum and Assessment Arrangements in Wales Cardiff: Welsh Government

Fullan M. (2001) Leading in a Culture of Change San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Hattie, J. (2009) Hattie, J. (2009) Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. London: Routledge

Strauss, P. (1995) ‘No Easy Answers: the dilemmas and challenges of teacher research’ Educational Action Research 3(1) 29-40

Dr Caroline Daly is Honorary Visiting Professor at Cardiff University where she is Co-Director for the Masters in Educational Practice. She is a Reader in Education at University College London Institute of Education and Co-Director for Initial Teacher Education.