What is Teacher Research?
Article published in Wiltshire Journal of Education, Spring 2002
In writing this article, I am setting out to explain why teacher research
is important in Wiltshire, on a national and international plane and how
research-in-the-classroom is vitally important to help our profession
improve both teaching and learning. I am explaining how the government
is now enabling teachers to buy time and expertise to enable them to undertake
classroom-based enquiries of the kind 'How can I improve my teaching and
my own and my pupils' learning?' and how teachers can live out their professional
values more fully as they engage in answering this type of question. Catherine
Meacher's account of how we are working together to improve her students
understanding in modern languages by using Power Point illustrates what
we mean when we talk about research-mentoring.
I sense a rapidly changing culture in the schools I am working with in
Wiltshire and this is being actively promoted and supported by colleagues
in Wiltshire LEA who are now 'leading the field'.
For too long 'research' has often meant just large funded projects and
imposed measures that cannot acknowledge let alone accommodate local teaching
contexts. We need to celebrate and disseminate the research that
teachers do as a matter of course when they challenge themselves to teach
'better'. In the 1970s Lawrence Stenhouse recognised that teachers
ARE researchers but it has taken 30 years for this insight to be embedded
in a way that schools are realising their own potential for educational
change. No Quick Fixes (1999) is the lesson that Louise Stoll
and Dean Fink have been teaching us - change comes from bottom-up engagement
by learning communities as well as top-down imposed directives.
As Ghandi advised, we must 'be the changes we want to see in the world'
and teachers are 'being the changes' by researching their teaching in
a systematic way and disseminating their understandings. If we as
teachers are weary of top down initiatives we need to live our professional
values differently, more fully so we are teachers we want to be, taking
responsibility for our own and students' learning.
Academic researchers are realising that schools do not improve through
imposed educational changes:
This is not to say that major research projects are unhelpful - quite
the reverse, but it is an interaction, a dialogue, between what counts
as research-based knowledge outside and inside schools that matters:
'many British teachers lack a culture of collaborative professional learning
by which they might work smarter.' The process of school improvement in
a climate of external pressure to raise standards is thus severely impaired.'
Hargreaves, D. (2001) A Capital Theory of School effectiveness and Improvement'
in the British Educational Research Journal, Volume 27 (4) pp. 487 - 504.
If British teachers do lack 'a culture of collaborative learning' what
can we do about it in Wiltshire?
Fortunately help is at hand! There is a thriving Research and Development
Group led by Nick Glass and he and his colleagues are working together
to establish support networks for learning communities. As the link
representative between Bath University and Wiltshire LEA we are collaborating
to promote 'smarter' ways of working which will change the rhetoric of
school improvement to improving learning. It's an exciting time
in Wiltshire with groups/individual teachers taking up the challenge to
research their work and bidding for government funding under the Best
Practice Research Scholarships Scheme. Under a year ago David Marriott
whose excellent article appeared in the previous Wiltshire Journal, Jack
Whitehead, Moira Laidlaw and I presented our work at the major TTA Conference
in London to promote teaching as profession where teachers' own classroom
based research determines best practice. You can learn about Moira's
classroom based work on Jack's web site at www.ActionResearch.net.
So what's teacher research got to do with me? I am a passionate
teacher and when I left the classroom with huge uncertainty in 1994 it
was largely because I was being told that teachers don't do research.!
Now I able to share my conviction that good teachers do do research with
my group of novice teachers in the PGCE programme and with more experienced
teachers in Wiltshire Schools as we learn together.
This year I am very privileged to be working with two PGCE mentors who
have applied successfully for BPRS funding to research their own practice
and we are learning from one another in our research mentoring.
I am being 'bought in' as a research mentor by Catherine Meacher (John
Bentley School, Calne) and Anthony Kelly (The Clarendon School, Trowbridge)
to share my knowledge of research;
Catherine has written about her experience of undertaking enquiry to
help her improve her teaching:
Mentoring as Crucial Part of Action
Research by Catherine Meacher, The John Bentley School, Calne
Background, January 2002
During the course of this term, I will be working with a Year 8 class
as part of the action research that I am carrying out as part of my Best
Practice Research Scholarship. Students will be encouraged to reflect
on his/her own work and in so doing become independent learners. This
self-reflection will take the form of video-audio recordings, multi-media
presentations and even web site contributions. In addition, students will
be encouraged to keep diaries and take photos to form part of their portfolio.
I have been fortunate enough to be granted a research scholarship from
the DFES in order to carry out my own research. This scholarship is the
government's way of encouraging teachers to carry out enquiries so as
to continue to improve their teaching and their learning.
My particular focus is
'How can I assist my students in Year 8 to improve how they use Powerpoint
as part of their learning in Modern Foreign Languages?
Throughout this enquiry, I will be working closely with my mentor, Sarah
Fletcher from the University of Bath. Time spent together will take place
at both the University and my school, The John Bentley School (JBS), a
Language College in Calne.
Mentoring at work with action research
The mentoring process really began in May 2001 when Sarah invited me
to participate in BPRS action research. Sarah encouraged me by both providing
examples of other action research conducted by teachers and reassuring
me that an action research enquiry would form an integral part of my daily
classroom practice. Sarah insisted that all teachers can carry out research.
What separates action research from everyday teaching and learning is
that work is shared, systematised and validated.
In the autumn, Sarah and I met to start working together and to explore
what it is to engage in action research. We brainstormed possible strategies.
Sarah encouraged me to reflect critically on my own practice, share any
concerns that I had and assisted me to establish a focus for my research.
Our last meeting together was earlier in January at JBS. We had hoped
to involve another BPRS researcher but he was unfortunately unable to
join us. As a follow up to our last meeting, I had researched the topic
of action research and had prepared some ideas for our meeting which we
Considering the wording of the title to be of relatively little importance
at this stage, Sarah began by suggesting that I needed to make the title
more precise and specific. In addition, she advised that I should broaden
the perspective and narrow the focus of my enquiry.
In order to broaden the context of my enquiry and considering what I
wanted my main focus to be, Sarah proposed that I think more about my
research by asking myself the following questions:
What is in it for me?
What really matters to me most and why?
What do I want the students to learn?
What do I hope to learn?
What could you/the students do with?
followed by the broader implications for the whole school and community:
How and who will that be shared with?
How will your enquiry impact upon the whole school and wider community?
How will you share your work with your colleagues/whole staff/community?
Sarah described how thinking more about I would lead me to have more
ownership of my research. We looked at the concerns that I had highlighted
and only one began with the word 'I'. Sarah encouraged me to assume that
this was the concern that meant the most to me. The concern was this:
I am not happy with the use that we/the students make of our state-of-the-art
PC suite and software.
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/MFL do I most want to influence and why?
I responded with Key Stage 3 and the levels that we submit at the
end of Year 9.
I was then provoked into considering which particular year group would
benefit the most from this enquiry. I immediately eliminated Year 9, considering
it too late to be effective here. I didn't consider Year 7 either as I
am happy with our Year 7 language software provision. The Vektor beginners'software
'Essentials'is aimed at this level. I came back to Year 8 who currently
use the same software in MFL lessons as the Year 7s. With progression
in mind, I considered it time that the Year 8s were challenged and introduced
to a new ICT skill.
Sarah quizzed me as to which ICT skill I would be new for Year 8 and
I mentioned Powerpoint and Spreadsheets. Having mentioned Powerpoint first,
Sarah led me to assume that I was more interested in this skill and itĂs
potential in the classroom. When Sarah questioned me as to what I hoped
to gain from working with Powerpoint, I admitted my lack of competence
in this skill. I commented on how excited I was at the prospect of aiming
to improve my ICT and in particular that of Powerpoint alongside that
of my students. Sarah asked me what the benefits of using Powerpoint could
be for both the Year 8 students and me. I talked about Powerpoint being
the way forward. In my opinion, it will replace both the white and blackboard
and will be used in our classrooms for presentations and lessons by both
teachers. It is also highly likely that students will be asked to do presentations
via Powerpoint both at school and in the workplace Sarah got me to consider
what the final outcome of this project could be. She suggested one
possible scenario. The students and I could give a presentation to staff.
The aim of this would be to celebrate:
Where the students had come from?
What had they learnt?
What could they now do?
as well as
What had I learnt?
Throughout the entire session, Sarah put ideas to me but was careful
not to give me definite solutions. She used vocabulary such as 'What if?,
How..? You might ...,What is sometimes really nice is ÷, What I can see
you doing is ...and in fact even quizzed me as to whether I felt that
she was giving me solutions or not!
We also considered my professional values and whether I was being the
teacher I wanted to be. Am I denying myself my professional values and
if so, why? This was a question that I would have to keep revisiting throughout
After having established a plan of action for my enquiry, Sarah suggested
that we talk through what both and I and the students would be doing at
each stage. As she had on many occasions before, Sarah asked 'Shall we
talk about..? and encouraged me to systematise the processes that all
participants would be involved in.
Sarah enabled me to clarify in my mind the two processes that would be
running parallel: that of my Year 8 research participants and myself.
She made me feel confident both of the path that my research would follow
and my ability to carry out action research.
It was particularly useful to be given examples of other action researchers
and the challenges they faced, especially regarding the question of the
fulfillment of professional values.
Conclusion : The impact of mentoring on action research
The impact of mentoring on action research cannot be underestimated.
The guidance and support that I have received has led me to believe in
my future research and removed any fears or preconceptions that I may
have had. Sarah has smoothed the way; helped me to give my work direction
and filled me with the confidence to carry out action research.
I have learnt that action research is not about creating more work for
the classroom practitioner but systematising and validating something
that is being done already. If anything, action research has the crucial
role in schools of ensuring that colleagues share their good practice
and assist each other in constantly improving teaching and learning.
Since our meeting on 9th January, Sarah has provided me with the opportunity
to speak about my BPRS and mentoring with action research on two occasions.
The role of the mentor goes beyond that of a guider and supporter but
a provider of opportunities, similar to that of a parent in a parent-child
The first public airing of my work was at an Educational Enquiry session
on mentoring at JBS, the second at the Teacher Network Group held at the
University of Bath. Both occasions have provided me with a forum where
I can present my plans and my findings and in so doing, share my work
with others and validate my research. Equally, the more I talk to others
about my plans, the more they become concrete and real.
As my action research mentor, Sarah has been and continues to be a wonderful
source of enthusiasm and energy. She is incredibly positive and full of
praise. One of her comments was 'Wonderful, you are doing so well.
It is all so intensive! This kind of feedback is vital if an action researcher
is to succeed. Everybody needs to feel good about themselves and be told
so. Sarah's willingness to be involved in the work of others is a real
source of inspiration. It might involve me ...is a phrase that stuck in
my mind. What was most flattering by the end of our mentor session, was
that Sarah suggested that I might be able to mentor action researchers
in the future. This role would no doubt assist in improving my own classroom
practice as well as my own mentoring.
The John Bentley School
Sarah continues her commentary:
Even as I write this article for the Wiltshire Journal, more bids are
being created for BPRS funding across the county of Wiltshire. There
are bids too for in-county funding of research and we are all looking
forward with great anticipation to the meeting to decide who has submitted
a successful bid!
Plans are afoot for extending the on-going research by the group at Westwood
St. Thomas School who have an unparalleled record in gaining accreditation
at master's level for their educational enquiries. Stuart Jones,
the group's coordinator, has sent me though news of fourteen bids for
BPRS funding. The group at John Bentley School in Calne, led by Gordon
Trafford and in conjunction with the Bath University Teacher Research
Network (BUTRN) is hosting an outstanding programme of educational debates
and is planning to submit for BPRS funding this year too. There is a thriving
Learning Group at The Clarendon School in Trowbridge - I have seen their
excellent bids that they intend to submit.
A brand new Enquiry Group has been established at the John of Gaunt School
in Trowbridge, led by John Bishop and they to are seeking funding under
the BPRS Scheme. These schools' groups represent just some of the
Wiltshire initiatives in promoting educational classroom research by teachers.
In answering the question I started with What is Teacher Research?
I hope that Catherine and I have demonstrated that teacher research is
for and by teachers - like you!
You can make a real difference by undertaking research in your own classroom
even if you are not successful in getting funding this year. Emma
Kirby is working with her tutor group and asking How can we work together
so I teach and you learn more effectively - she is in her NQT year.
She is now providing an excellent model of just what can be achieved by
teachers at any stage of their career. You can meet her and teachers
like her, who don't leave school improvement to others, at BUTRN meetings
Do contact me for details and come along to share understandings of best
practice in our profession!
'In the 20th century the education system was too often a
one-size-fits-all structure. It neither demanded nor provided excellent
standards in education for everyone. Nor did the education system
adequately target the needs of the individual pupil. In the 21st
Century, to be prosperous, the economy will depend heavily on the creativity
and skills of its people. In a knowledge economy it is vital that
we tap the potential of everyone of our citizens.'
Estelle Morris, February 2002, '14-19 extending opportunities, raising
standards.' A Green Paper
We can wait for someone else, some distant researcher to tell us what
we might do to improve teaching and learning in our classrooms in Wiltshire
or we can make a real commitment to work together, now!
This page is part of the www.TeacherResearch.net
website maintained by Sarah Fletcher