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Book Review:

Burton, D, and Bartlett S. (2005) Practitioner Research for Teachers, London; Paul Chapman

‘Written for teachers involved in classroom-based research, such as those undertaken within networked learning communities, this book is also suitable for initial teacher trainees, classroom assistants studying education on foundation degreases and those doing masters courses’

Is it? Indeed it is! This write-up from the back cover assures me that this is the intended audience and certainly sections of the book – especially chapter 5- are admirably suited to support and inform teaching practitioners engaged in research, but I have doubts about the book as a whole being so. It IS well suited to action research mentors such as LEA advisors and in-school convenors of teacher research groups and as a publication that contextualises the BPRS (Best Practice Research Scholarships) scheme I find it fascinating. I am fascinated partly because of notable omissions as well as inclusions in the text but more of that later. The book is organised into 12 chapters which are well chosen to cover the area under review. There is a history of teacher research, case studies, how to do it sections and the concluding chapter sets out the authors’ vision for the future of practitioner research for teachers. But as a classroom practitioner balancing the demands of teaching with undertaking research, how accessible and useful would I find the ideas in the text?

I think the introductions needs to set out far more clearly where teachers-as-researchers can find practical ideas to support them and the summary ‘The remaining chapters examine the practicalities of designing a research project, accessing and reviewing literature and gathering and analysing data’ (p,3) does not do justice to the richness of the content. The first four chapters are more ‘academic’ in a theoretical study of teacher professionalism, current conceptions of education research, the growth of the teacher research movement a study of BPRS case studies. They may be of interest to experienced teachers who are undertaking a theoretical study of teacher research and they provide useful if rather skewed insights. Having worked with novice teachers undertaking action research to improve their practice to meet TTA standards for QTS, I have my doubts that they would be as appealing as the statement of intended audience suggests. Back to the subject of omissions – where are the web site reviews and advice to search the Internet for examples of high quality teacher research? I am obviously thinking about http://www.TeacherResearch.net but I am also considering Jack Whitehead’s website at http://www.ActionResearch.net. Whitehead is mentioned once in the book despite being one of the pioneers of practitioner research in the 1990’s. He is credited as having written a book with Jean McNiff and Jean’s work is later dismissed as being evangelical. I wouldn’t agree and these authors are entitled to give their honest opinion, as I am doing here – but to knowingly (I take it this is knowingly?) omit the work of Whitehead, not mention Pam Lomax and miss out Ruddock?

So what do I like about this book, despite its obvious shortcomings? I do like the discussion of positivist and interpretivist paradigms (though I think to suggest that teachers need to state which paradigm they belong to may be ill-advised as it cannot but reinforce the bitter archaic divides). I like the sections where the privileged position of teachers-as-researchers are celebrated (page 24) and I very much like the brief overviews provided for key texts in the ‘Further Reading’ sections. The overviews about action research are interesting though I am sorry to see that the diagram of McNiff’s original action research spiral is not dated – what does ‘original’ mean here and how clear is that Jean has adopted an action research approach through self study to develop her elaborated model of the action research process? I like the case studies but here again I find a glaring omission – is there any evidence that the authors are learning from teacher researchers?

When the focus moves to examine the BPRS initiative – I feel strongly that the view is warped and exclusive … where is Furlong et al’s report to BERA on the BPRS movement and the role of research mentoring? There seems to be a complete unawareness of LEA schemes like Wiltshire’s that promote and disseminate teacher research in community and the claim that ‘BPRS .. research has promoted largely restricted professional development’ (page 43) is patently untrue … if one looks at feedback from BPRS researchers on the NCSL website – I guess the authors were aware of this forum and joined in the Hot Seat discussion on teacher research…? Where the point is forwarded that ‘the importance of values, ideologies and perspectives cannot be ignored when designing and carrying out research’ (page 48), I think the real point is missed. Teachers as researchers usefully start from examining their values – the What matters to me …?’ though the statement ‘In order to be able to follow their interests, the teachers needed a different, more reflexive approach’ (Page 55) makes me think this is understood but not thought through …

I like the invitation (page 57) to explore practitioners’ understandings of the research processes’ but I feel that the authors have yet to realise that growing an understanding of how and why teachers’ research needs to be understood in terms of how it determines pedagogy in classrooms. I like the Chapter entitled ‘Getting Started’ and the sensitive awareness that MA ‘students often feel very lonely and isolated as each embarks upon their own personal project. A feeling of insecurity can be engendered by the research process when the researcher is conducting an individual and unique enquiry’ (page 70) which promotes the face to face meeting of practitioner researchers for support – but doesn’t mention the potential of video conferencing or emailing …

I very much like the advice in the Writing literature reviews’ section (page 77) which is solid and commonsensical and the outline plan for a project to investigate learning styles literature is excellent. The section devoted to interview and questionnaire techniques provides a useful if brief insight into the strengths and weakness of these approaches to data collection but the part devoted to Photographs and their Use in Research is thin – and doesn’t refer as it should to the seminal text by Prosser (20000) on the use of image in case study research nor to Weber and Mitchell’s (2000) excellent work on the subject. My main concern is that the authors fail to grasp that photography provides a way for teachers to represent their knowledge in a form that communicates their values, understandings and skills where text alone cannot – where is the section in this book relating to dissemination of practitioner research for teachers and other interested parties - by the teachers themselves – where is an exploration of the potential use of websites for dissemination?

Appropriately there is a section related to teachers’ stories, but again, where is the reference to the work of leaders in the UK field who are promoting this? Again the text slides to a discussion of paradigms (page 175) rather than giving a clear perspective on how to write a story as a teacher. Instead there is a rather passing reference to role of self study story telling (which fails to mention the enormous influence and success of the Self-study movement AERA Sstep) which Zeichner heralded as being one of the most important contributions to educational research in the 1990s.

The book is at its best where it stays with the ‘how to’ of research but with the proviso that practitioner research evolves as you undertake it and should not constrained by pre-determinism. I recommend reading this book and I hear from teacher researchers that they find useful.

 

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