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Book Review:

Practitioner Research and Professional Development in Education


Campbell, A., McNamara, O. and Gilroy, P. (2004) London, Paul Chapman

I came across this book at the Conference for the American Educational Research Association in San Diego April 2004. Having attended an excellent seminar by Anne Campbell and Olwen McNamara at the University of Bath in 2003 and being well aware of the authors' well earned reputation in relation to supporting Teacher Education in Britain, I knew I was sure to be in for a good read! Although I feel that this is a text more suited to teachers studying for a Master's Degree in Methods of Educational Enquiry than for those considering undertaking a small classroom based research project ab initio, I do thoroughly recommend that you read this.

The opening section about research paradigms is informative and useful, but I believe that rather than trying to situate your research methodology within a particular paradigm your main concern should be to identify the most suitable methodology for the nature of your investigation. If this means you need to engage with paradigms fair enough but these can be fraught with territorial tensions and action research is still held in suspicion by bastions of traditional 'scientific' research as you will find!

I do like this summary at the end of the first chapter and rather wonder why it does not come at the beginning:

'... our book is intended to provide the understanding and tools which will help you to improve your reflective practice by allowing you to see how you might ... critically reflect on your ... reflections. In so doing you will ... be behaving as a teacher researcher.' Page 11

The format of the book is helpful, with a concise over view of each chapter under each chapter heading and Chapter 2 provides an insightful perspective on the theory and practice of professional development for teachers with subheadings usefully phrased a questions which include:

Why has professional development become e a major focus of government policy?
What constitutes professional development? (I am not sure why this isn't first)
What roles do autonomy and self-determination play?

This book is designed to be of use to schoolteachers as well as those who support teachers' development . It is a theoretical summary of teacher research as well as being a guide book with practical tips for active teacher researchers. I have no doubt it will be very useful for university tutors and research mentors. By the end of Chapter 2, I am beginning to understand that the authors are advocating a strong role for higher education in teacher research activity:

'if we are to retain and sustain teachers in the profession in the future then providing them with a voice and empowering them through active participation in research which allows them to investigate and shape the knowledge base of their teaching may be a key factor in defining their professionalism and underwriting their commitment to education.' page 26

Why such apparent hesitancy here? What is this qualification 'may be a key factor'?

Chapter 3 and I suddenly become much more attracted by this text! I very much like the opening quotation from Maclure about identity being something that people 'use to justify, explain and make sense of themselves in relation to other people and to the contexts in which they operate.'

I sense a valuing of teachers undertaking research in the way this chapter is constructed, it is theoretical but essentially practical too with 'exercises to undertake in writing, thinking and talking.' (page 29)However, I am somewhat astounded that the pioneering work by jack Whitehead in relation to enabling teacher research growing from an understanding of the values that underpin their practice is not even mentioned in this section ...

Chapter 4 is based on a discussion held by the authors of the book as they attempted to discover a topic they could research. This makes fascinating reading for me - but then I have been a lecturer in higher education for ten years. I think if I were a school teacher I wouldn't find this particularly helpful in enabling me to understand how to define and refine high quality research question in a short time. As a research mentor, I find that this is the most difficult challenge for busy schoolteacher researchers with whom I work and they say research mentoring is essential. Without this they tend to identify a Ph.D. size question and need close assistance to narrow this down to something of immediate relevance in school. I do, however, endorse the observation on page 63 that mentoring is a key thing to a lot of the models of CPD that are around at the moment.' and the next comment could have drawn out a distinction between communal researching and research mentoring.

In my opinion, Chapter 5 is likely to be of use to all those considering undertaking a literature review - be it schoolteachers or those assisting them. This is timely reminder about how to undertake a good quality review and how to represent it in a textual account of one's enquiry ... but I am astounded to see that the use of multimedia in teacher research (and there is no mention of using scanning devices - pens and larger equipment - as aids to speeding up the process of collecting sections of text as a basis for review - without such time saving devices I would be very hard pressed! In fact the use of multi media is a loud omission in this book and 'video' is too scant a mention ...

Chapter 6 is once again an excellent starting point for anyone undertaking a master's level unit about research techniques - and the simple format of tables and bullet points provides a quick route into identifying some of the main questions to ask in about the relationship of theory and practice. I particularly like sections entitled Learning Aid: writing a biography or telling a teacher story(P. 92) and Learning Aid: fictionalising data (P. 93) I would find these very useful indeed in my wok as a research mentor - and wish I had been able to use them with early BPRS winners!

Some of the Learning Aid sections seems to be more about how to undertake research where others are a concise guide to doing research activity. The introductory sections to the Learning Aids are informative to some extent but also can be constraining - I have the feeling the authors have pre-determined which kinds of research methodology are likely to be useful to practitioner researchers and I very much want to see new and more original possibilities for researching practice engaged with as schoolteachers undertake their own systematic and validated classroom based enquiries.

Chapter 7 and Chapter 3 seem to have a different and more accessible style from the others, somehow. perhaps they have been written by the same author? Chapter 7 is a rich vein of useful and practical know-how waiting to be mined! I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and felt immediately 'at home' with the style and content. I strongly recommend this book on the basis of these two chapters, even if nothing else appeals to practitioner readers. The references to literature about teacher enquiry and the URLS of websites including CARN and BERA as well as government agencies appeal ...

I am very much impressed by the straightforward guidance offered for starting a critical friendship - and understanding how to sustain it. The illustrations are well chosen and careful written to be relevant o teacher researcher s and to those who are supporting them - there is a wide range of case study drawn across primary schools and special schools but why not secondary and subject teaching? I would have thought this would be useful for a book obviously designed to attract a wide readership across phases - and in my experience in working with Wiltshire LEA as we offer funding for small scale enquiries, most of the research IS currently undertaken by secondary school teachers rather than primary - though I very much hope that this situation will soon adjust to amore unilateral cross section. I wonder too if there wouldn't have been a case for including research undertaken by LEA advisors - the research project into addressing underachievement in Torfaen LEA in conjunction with the University of Bath which will shortly be represented on this website would make a useful inclusion to demonstrate possibilities for partnerships in research.

My favourite section in this book is undoubtedly the one entitled "Mentors as support for Research' - perhaps not surprisingly! Just listen to this:

Campbell and Kane identify a strong relationship between mentoring and teachers' professional development in the areas of improved observational skills; developing new ideas and practices; and evaluating and appraising practice' (page 123) What a wonderful endorsement!

At last there is a mention of Jean McNiff and Jack Whitehead's work in supporting action research - in the 'Further Reading' section. What a shame this website doesn't appear to have attracted the authors' attention as a potential resource to support and promote practitioner research!

Chapters 8 and 9 provide useful overviews into employing qualitative and quantitative research approaches to investigation and they could usefully act as an introduction to more detailed and thoroughgoing handbooks such as the old favourite of researchers, written by Cohen and Manion. I personally found Chapter 10 devoted to Writing Up, Reporting and Publishing Your Research useful but a fraction disappointing too ... I wanted to see an opportunity grasped for promoting multimedia forms of representation of knowledge created by practitioners - I wanted a celebration! Instead I found a very thorough if concise overview of really quite traditional approaches to research techniques that I have engaged with before. The 'Writing for publication' section should explain the refereeing process and offer some case studies relating to 'prestige journals' As a researcher, I am aware of a pecking order but also that good quality research is often overlooked when it doesn't appear in them.

I would urge practitioner researchers to look for the 'house style' that strongly appeals to them - and try to persuade LEAs to support teacher researchers by promoting local journals of education like Wiltshire's, linked to more local research funding. Writing for publication IS challenging and all the more so with the advent of the Research Assessment Exercise - which needs to be mentioned. I am quite critical of Chapter 10 because I feel it does not go far enough in promoting websites as form of publishing - and where is the mention of on-line journals - these would provide an excellent focus for teachers' research. I would also suggest that writing to Talk2learn on the NCSL site and for Becta on the ICTRN site could be included in the suggestions for 'reporting your research, not to mention explaining that teachers' research needs first and foremost to be shared with colleagues in one's own workplace - perhaps by way of a school based consortium research website? Tips for how to write for on-line publication in a book published in 2004 would make a fresh and welcome addition to other research handbooks.

I find there is a cross over in focus between Chapters 10 and 11 relating to publishing and disseminating practitioners' research. The recommendation to evaluate your research thoroughly does not quite cover the need to validate your research at regular intervals. Asking "Am I doing what I set out to do in a thorough and systematic way?" is different from asking "How do I see the value of my research evidence?" and there should be a clearer distinction in this book about how data is synthesised into evidence to support claims to be improving practice.

I recommend a process of systematic validation AND evaluation over the course of a research project always allowing for a sudden creative insight to allow the research to take a new turn or to move away from a predetermined path should this become less productive in pursuing an enquiry. The wonderful (if sometimes annoying!) feature of action research is that you CANNOT and should not determine every step you will take but can and should engage in critical creativity at every opportunity to maximise your chance of addressing your research question fully.

Sections are cross referenced for example on page 192, we find a reference to Chapter 5 about undertaking a literature review - but I would like to see closer cross referencing to particular pages if (and where) it is necessary to repeat advice about undertaking practitioner research.

Overall, this book is useful and I would recommend it but not as a core text for engaging in teacher research. I think it tries to cover too much ground though I thoroughly endorse the value of some chapters - as I have indicated in my critique in this Review of the Month. Somehow the concluding remarks don't quite hot the mark for me -I want to feel inspired to undertake and support practitioner research. I want to feel that these authors are also practitioner researchers who are inviting me to join them in co-enquiry to improve professional practice in schools.

Instead I am left with the words ' rather than to ossify into a kind of unthinking, unreflective behaviour which, over time, will lose whatever force it once had' (page 198) yes - I am glad I read this book! yes - I do know I will use it and recommend it.

 

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