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A culture of practitioner research: Growing teacher expertise

Written by: Kristen Tinsley
11 min read
Kirsten Tinsley, Teaching and Learning Research Lead, Windsor Academy Trust, UK

Developing a research-informed profession, in which teachers validate their decisions based on professional judgement combined with insights from academic studies, has been a long-term goal. As far back as the 1970s, Lawrence Stenhouse of BERA was promoting an active role for teachers in enquiry into their teaching practice, commenting that educational practice can be improved if teachers are actively engaged in the joint investigation of problems relating to students’ learning and in developing local solutions (Stenhouse, 1981). More recent and growing interest in evidence-informed practice (EIP) can be seen through initiatives such as the Teaching and Learning Research Programme 2000–2009, GTCE’s Research for Teachers resource bank, the ‘Extra Mile’ project, EEF projects and, of course, the evidence-informed practice focus of the Chartered College of Teaching.

The Department for Education (DfE) standard for teachers’ professional development (2016) states that all professional development should ‘be underpinned by robust evidence and expertise; Include collaboration and expert challenge’ (DfE, 2016, p. 8). Yet the OECD (2009) notes that while teachers believe that individual and collaborative research has the biggest impact as a form of CPD, a limited research culture in school settings can prevent teachers from taking action as a result of their insights (Bell at al., 2010). Some also, quite reasonably, see teacher research as potentially an unnecessary burden (Stewart, 2015). However, practitioner investigations conducted on a small scale are well placed to bridge the gap between academia and the classroom, by combining insights from literature with practical expertise to find context-specific solutions. As Dylan Wiliam (2014) argues, ‘almost everything works somewhere, nothing works everywhere’!

Practitioner research programme: A case study

There are a number of key areas to consider when developing a culture of evidence-informed practice, including solving issues of accessibility and relevance, employing collaboration, providing adequate time, and maintaining a leadership culture that values and facilitates research-informed practice. At Windsor Academy Trust, we have implemented EIP with an eye to each of these aspects within our ‘Pedagogy Champion’ practitioner research programme, which is now in its ninth year.

Our Pedagogy Champion programme rests on a belief that routine investigation of academic research provides a solid foundation on which to grow and develop pedagogy for all staff. Becoming evidence-informed is especially relevant to teachers when compared with other professions such as nursing, as teachers have more autonomy in deciding which strategies they use, and thus more capacity to trial and learn from experimentation (Bell et al., 2010; McIntyre, 2006; Hargreaves, 1996). This is thought to improve student outcomes: ‘Professional autonomy and, in particular, the central role of learners as the ultimate beneficiaries, was a strong driver in securing successful outcomes.’ (Bell et al., 2010, p. 52) Over the course of an academic year, Pedagogy Champions take part in our practitioner research programme to develop as both consumers and generators of research. The team engages with academic literature to provide a springboard for designing and testing new strategies, ready for these to be disseminated across our school communities.

Stage 1: Deciding on an area of research

At the start of each academic year, teaching staff are nominated to become practitioner researchers – ‘Pedagogy Champions’. We have 47 colleagues in our current cohort. In our secondary schools we aim for each faculty to be represented, and in primary schools, representation for each phase.

It is important that our practitioner research is rooted in our improvement priority of designing teaching and learning strategies that can be used to improve outcomes by the wider teaching team. The process of deciding on a research area involves identifying which lever (e.g. knowledge retrieval) is most relevant for each Pedagogy Champion’s faculty or phase. They then work to identify a ‘wicked problem’ in collaboration with their school leader of teaching and learning to ensure that there is a tangible need for improvement in their proposed area – for example, ‘improving use of academic vocabulary for disadvantaged learners within Key Stage 3 science’. This is identified through analysis of data from our quality assurance (QA) processes (e.g. learning walks or group attainment data) to spot aspects of pedagogy worthy of attention.

Conducting context-specific research is valuable given the challenges in finding academic research relevant to individual school and classroom contexts. There are difficulties in replicating successes of educational programmes from school to school, given differences in context (Berliner, 2002; Bell et al., 2010). The relevance of academic findings from previous decades can be of limited interest over time, as changes in social context make findings less relevant (Berliner, 2002), and issues also lie around transferability, given the ambitions of generalisability of academic research (McIntyre, 2006). The solution then is ensuring teachers are better informed so that they are able to take learning from research and adapt it to their contexts. This is put forward in the ‘moderate enlightenment model’ – which fits most closely with our practitioner research programme – in which academic research highlights issues for teachers rather than providing a holistic solution, giving teachers more opportunity to learn independently (Hammersley, 2002, cited in McIntyre, 2006; Hodkinson and Hodkinson, 2005).

Stage 2: Engaging with literature

Each practitioner research intervention trial begins with a theoretical insight from literature. Mindful of time pressures, we use our Google Classroom platform to provide themed research areas for the team, including links to seminal research pieces and texts. For example, within our themed area of ‘memory and retrieval’, we have 20 Pedagogy Champions linked on a Google Classroom where they can view and comment on introductory pieces such as ‘Strengthening the student toolkit’ (Dunlosky, 2013), and leading on to more specialised pieces such as Rohrer and Taylor’s work on cognitive science (Rohrer and Taylor, 2006).

Relevance and accessibility is an area on which we focus, as a range of literature refers to problems of accessibility and practical application in academic research (Goldacre, 2013; McIntyre, 2006; Walker et al., 2017), causing difficulties in transferability to the classroom. This can be damaging if strategies are implemented incorrectly (Hammersley, 2002, cited in McIntyre, 2006). Indeed, McIntyre identifies ‘two sharply contrasting kinds of knowledge’ (McIntyre, 2006, p. 358), arguing that the knowledge needed by teachers is different from that produced by academic research, which should be more directed to the practical issues faced in the classroom. Thus, curation, training and availability of literature must be planned to support teachers to become more research informed.

As such, all our Pedagogy Champions are members of the Chartered College of Teaching, and therefore have access to a wealth of curated and relevant research documents and Chartered College publications. Our term 1 CPD sessions consider how to effectively search for and engage with literature. The What Works Clearing House and Institute for Effective Education are great places to start searches for up-to-date literature, as is Bristol University Summary Service.

Stage 3: Research intervention

Our term 2 CPL session is focused on crafting a research question and project plan that considers ethical considerations and measurement of impact. Once the project plan is approved, the classroom research intervention takes place, usually over a 10-to-12-week period during February to April. Within this intervention stage, our next CPL session is around ‘critical evaluation’, during which robust conversations between the team are encouraged to share findings to date and probe research methodology: What have you discovered so far? Do you need additional measures? How might further qualitative measurements help you to understand reasons why particular changes have been identified?

At each stage, collaboration forms a vital part of this process. Face-to-face CPL sessions take place each half-term, during which time Pedagogy Champions share findings from the literature that they have read and their own individual classroom research plans. Digital tools such as Google Classroom and IRIS Connect are utilised to promote discussion and joint evaluation. Collaboration between teachers is crucial in determining what may be learned from research in a particular context; peer collaboration in trialling new techniques is the only common aspect of CPL reviewed as providing positive outcomes for students (OECD, 2016; Cordingley et al., 2015). Yet structured collaboration alone is not enough; it should be married with engagement with research pieces to avoid old practices being ‘recycled’. It is vital to provide space and structure to interrogate why an approach has worked or failed and to compare approaches to avoid the ‘hot stove effect’, in which teachers wrongly conclude a technique as not working because it has been implemented incorrectly (Marshall et al., 2017).

Available time is another aspect to consider when planning a practitioner research programme, in order to avoid overburdening teaching staff. To make the best use of time, Pedagogy Champion CPL sessions are planned to allow for project work to take place during the session. Allowing enough time to engage with research is essential – learner outcomes improve significantly with engagement in long-term programmes of professional development from two terms to over a year, by providing greater depth of expertise (Timperley et al., 2007; Cordingley et al., 2018). This is exemplified in Finland, where teachers spend less time in the classroom compared with UK teachers, with timetabled sessions for collaboration. Similarly, British Columbia’s Spiral of Enquiry approach provides timetabling flexibility to allow for collaboration, which is reflected in student outcomes (Hargreaves and Fullan, 2003; Jensen et al., 2016).

Stage 4: Celebrate and share!

‘Leading upwards’ is part of our grassroots innovation strategy. Celebration and dissemination of findings are important to growing our teacher research community. The importance of a transformative school leadership approach – creating a climate where becoming evidence-informed is valued and celebrated – is identified by Robinson (2007) as one of five key leadership activities linked to pupil achievement. School cultures that encourage experimentation or ‘risk’ alongside opportunities to engage with research are effective. However, this is not widespread in the UK; the 2017 EEF report found that teachers are more likely to generate strategies from their own practical experiences. Moreover, ‘84 percent said that CPD was based on information other than academic research’ (Walker et al., 2017, p. 4), demonstrating limits to research engagement in UK schools.

Thus, at the close of the academic year, we hold a Research Celebration Event, at which our Pedagogy Champion teams each host a research station to present and discuss learning gained from their research. The research reports are compiled into an online journal, including supporting resources and video clips of strategies in action. The event is a highlight of the year and our teaching staff leave the event ready to apply learning to their practice.

Longer term, practitioner-led research plays a significant role in the career development of practitioners, giving them an opportunity to lead change and inspire innovation within their departments and as members of the whole school community. Inspired to develop further as practitioner researchers, a number of our Pedagogy Champions go on to complete the Chartered Teacher Programme – nine colleagues since 2018 – or a Masters qualification in educational leadership through our links with the University of Birmingham.

For teachers or departments wishing to carry out research-informed investigations, the structure of the Pedagogy Champion year can provide a model. Start with a challenging area you wish to improve: use your class data and evidence from QA processes, such as learning walks and student work, to identify ongoing trends in your groups. Find an article or blog that discusses the area you wish to improve and look into the literature referenced to grow your knowledge. Use insights from your reading to create a research question that is time-bounded and specific, and include a control group/class for comparison. Enlist a colleague to act as a critical friend with whom to collaborate on planning and discuss your findings. It is all about making small gains based on sensible insights to enhance our practice and provide the best educational experience for the children in front of us.


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