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What is Teacher Research?

Article published in Wiltshire Journal of Education, Spring 2002
Sarah Fletcher

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 talked through.

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 my enquiry.

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 relationship.

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.

Catherine Meacher

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!

Sarah Fletcher


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