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How Can I Do Research?

When you are thinking about undertaking research in your school you may find it is helpful to ask yourself questions.

What really matters to me most and why?

What do I want my students to learn?

What do I hope to learn?

By starting with asking yourself questions about what matter 'here' you are accessing your own professional values that brought you into teaching in the first place. You are beginning to interrogate the basis - the professional values that underpin your practice as a teacher.

Alternatively you may prefer to start by looking at the School Development Plan.

Which aspects of the School Development Plan have most impact on my work?

What matters most to me in the SDP and how can I improve my contribution to its effectiveness?

How might I improve what I am already doing as I support my school as a learning community?

My enquiry as a university teacher, focuses on How can I improve my work? and How can we collaborate to improve our work in an educational community? This is why I promote an integration of action research and mentoring. Teaching is a communal activity. As a researcher starting out, I found the most difficult thing was to ensure my focus was narrow enough to be manageable. I wanted to undertake 'Ph.D. size' enquiries at every turn and I didn't have either the time or expertise! A key to success was to think about something that was small enough to be manageable as part of my teaching and directly relevant to my teaching as well as to my own and my students' learning.

Sometimes the focus for a research enquiry can be very clear. For example, when I moved from teaching in a middle school to secondary school teaching I needed to know how to teach my second foreign language at A level. Let's step back in time and ask isle targeted questions .

What matters to me? I need to help my 6th formers learn Spanish.

Why does it matter to me? If I can't help them I am not being the teacher I want ti am failing myself and my students.

What do I want my students to learn? In particular I want them to learn about the Spanish beyond the Costa del Sol! I want them to learn about the diversity of cultures where Spanish is the main language. From a grammatical point of view I want them to learn how to use the subjunctive - and this was where my own learning comes into play. I need to improve my understanding of how the subjunctive is used so I can teach it more effectively and I need to learn how to teach Spanish to young adults - something I have never done before.

Can you see how I was narrowing down my focus of enquiry? My eventual focus is this: How can I help my students in Year 12 to learn the subjunctive in Spanish so they can understand how Spanish speakers communicate in writing and speech in different countries? I could just as easily start from the SDP. The aim of the school is to increase the number of students taking languages at Alive. How can I help my school become a better learning community? I can extend my ability to teach French A level to teaching Spanish. What do I want my students to learn? I want them to learn about using Spanish in real life. What do I need to learn to enable me to do so? I need to learn how to do so...

This is how Catherine Meacher at The John Bentley School, Calne in Wiltshire narrowed down her research focus:

I was not happy with the use that we/the students made of our state-of-the-art PC suite and software at my school.
Sarah explained that having established my main concern, my particular reasons for this would be easier to identify.
At the same time, I needed to take my enquiry down to narrower foci.

Why was I choosing to work with PowerPoint and Year 8 and what would be the implications for every subject in my school?
In my BPRS bid, I had already stated that I wanted to focus on Year 8 but Sarah led me to question this decision. She did so by asking the question:

What area of ICT and modern foreign language teaching do I most want to influence and how might this improve teaching and learning?

Identifying your research focus is a vital first step but if you are going to undertake enquiry you should be thinking about how to share what you know. You are a knowledge creator!

Who should my research be shared with?

How/When can I share my research with others?

How will my enquiry impact upon the whole school and wider community?

How will I share your work with my colleagues/whole staff/community?

Don't be afraid to brainstorm ideas and do be ready to share your thoughts with others - especially other teachers working in a similar context. Think carefully about how you can enable not only yourself but other teachers to teach better. Look for others undertaking similar research to your own and make contact with them. I acknowledge the influence of Jack Whitehead's thinking in my work where he encourages practitioner researchers to consider questions like How Can I Improve my Practice? and to see their professional values as their standards of judgement. Jean McNiff's writings have also profoundly affected how I approach my integration of my research into my research mentoring.


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