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How can I undertake educational enquiries in a way that will help my students and me to learn?

Assignment submitted for assessment in the Methods of Educational Enquiry Unit at The University of Bath
Researcher: Emma Kirby

My Context as an Action Researcher.

Firstly, I think it is important to set the context in which I am writing this assignment and that is as an Action Researcher as it forms the principles and basis upon which I undertake all of my work as a practicing teacher. It is therefore difficult to undertake an Educational Enquiry or even to describe the Methods of Educational Enquiry without first making clear from which angle I am approaching this assignment.
Action Research is a term developed by the social psychologist Kurt Lewin (1890–1947) in the 1940’s. Carr and Kemmis (1986) in Wellington (2000, page 20) describe it as ‘a form of self-reflective enquiry undertaken by participants (teachers, students or principals for example) in social (including educational) situations in order to improve the rationality and justice of (a) the own social or educational practices (b) their understanding of these practices and (c) the situations and institutions in which these practices are carried out’.

As an Action Researcher I am constantly asking myself questions that are aimed at improving my understanding and quality of my own practice. At the heart of this questioning is the desire to improve my own teaching and learning and the learning of my pupils. McNiff (1988, page 37) describes Jack Whitehead’s work and his notion of a ‘living educational theory’ in which the ‘I’, in my case the ‘teacher-practitioner’ must be kept at the centre of educational research and discussions or else action research ‘loses touch with reality and becomes an academic exercise’. For this very reason it is important when deciding on area of research to start from the angle “How can I…..?” which from the outset keeps the ‘I’ very central to the enquiry. Similarly, Judi Marshall (1999) calls her view “living life as inquiry” and describes it in reference to her own theory and practice as ‘a range of beliefs, strategies and ways of behaving which encourage me to treat little as fixed, finished, clear-cut. Rather I have an image of living continually in process, adjusting, seeing what emerges, bringing things into question’. This reflects how I try to incorporate the type of research I do into my everyday teaching and practice and to use it as part of my professional development.

In the Methods of Educational Enquiry handbook it states (page 1.2) that the area of enquiry should have “general applicability and interest” and should “be worthwhile in educational terms, not be something trivial, marginal, or of only very local interest”. This is somewhat inconsistent with my beliefs and current practice as an Action Researcher as many of the projects I have undertaken are only relevant to one of my classes, may not be relevant to a similar class next year and may not be of general applicability. These projects are often contextually specific and of ‘local interest’ but in an educational context relating to teacher and pupil learning the findings will be generalisable even though some of the context specific findings may not. Whilst my small scale enquiries are moving on my learning and that of my students then they are worthwhile in educational terms.

I was given a rare opportunity as a Distance Learning student to watch other students at the same stage in the MEE course as me engaging with each other on the topic of Educational Enquiries. The session was videoed at Bath University on 26/01/01 during a MEE taught course seminar run by Jack Whitehead. Discussing Hurst (1983) during the discussion group Jack Whitehead explains that we must be prepared to move away from pragmatic principles which have no ethical or moral base and only create a ‘crude and superficial justification of our practice’. Instead we must look towards recognising more practical principles and going on to quote from his own book (1971, page 55) Jack Whitehead discusses Michael Polanyi’s view that we must ‘change to change our own experience and understand the world from our own point of view’. This is a fundamental justification for doing what I do in the way that I do it. I am trying to use my own experiences of teaching and learning to legitimise my work and strengthen and develop my future enquiries. Jack Whitehead confirms this by adding that ‘what you know as educators is right and the source of your inspiration doesn’t matter’. I prefer to apply the Action Research approach to my work rather than other more traditional objectivist forms of research because these forms of research tend to do research ‘on’ rather than ‘with’ a subject. Lewin in Burns (2000, page 444) dismisses the social scientist as being a ‘disinterested and objective observer of human affairs’ thus agreeing with my former comment that more traditional forms of research tend not to work from the inside out but prefer to carry out research ‘on’ a subject from a distance. McNiff (1988, page 4) reinforces this also by explaining that the traditional approach is that the researcher, the expert, does all the research on other people’ and such approaches tend to exclude the ‘I’ rather then making the ‘I’ central to the enquiry as happens with Action Research. McNiff (1988, page 4) agrees with Lewin and expands by adding that an action research approach to enquiries is ‘participatory’ and ‘collaborative’ in that teacher and others are involved ensuring that the research is carried out ‘with’ rather than ‘on’. The principles at the heart of Action Research involve an individual or a group of researchers looking at their own situation, carrying out research, implementing strategies for improving their practice and then re-evaluating the situation.

What is my Concern?

I first encountered Educational Studies during my PGCE year at Bath University where we carried out small scale Educational Studies in order to meet the Government’s QTS standards. It was also my first contact with the Action Research approach which was introduced to us by our tutor Sarah Fletcher. I carried out my first Educational Enquiry during my NQT year into establishing a peer mentoring scheme amongst my tutor group. My problem is that although I know how to do an Educational Enquiry, I do not overtly know how to describe and justify the processes and methods I use when undertaking the Enquiry. I need to improve my understanding of how I can explicate ways of undertaking an enquiry in a way that will move on my own and my students’ learning.

I recently submitted what I thought was the beginning of a Methods of Educational Enquiry assignment to my tutor Sarah Fletcher at Bath University. During discussions about the assignment with Sarah, I quickly realised that the assignment was becoming more of an Educational Enquiry as I was describing the enquiry itself rather than the process I undertook regarding methodologies and methods. I found it very easy to describe the actual enquiry and although I subconsciously followed all the steps necessary in a Methods of Educational Enquiry assignment it was hard for me to describe the process on paper. I put this down to the fact that the Action Research / Educational Enquiry process is an inbuilt process to me and one that I instinctively follow. The problem is that although an ‘Enquiry’ is perfectly acceptable to undertake, it does not need explicating and the process does not need validating. However, for an ‘Enquiry’ to become and ‘Educational Enquiry’, it requires ‘making knowledge explicit and defining the research process and my place in it’ (discussion with Sarah Fletcher 24/04/01). An ‘Enquiry’ is not ‘Educational’ until it is validated and disseminated making it of educational value.

Context in Terms of My Position and my Research.

I am in my second year of teaching and continue to build on skills learnt during my PGCE year and the Educational Enquiry that I undertook in my NQT year. It was natural for me no matter which school I took a job in to teach as part of an enquiry and to be constantly looking at ways of improving my teaching and my pupils and my own learning and to look at ways of getting the pupils to do the same. It is important to me that pupils are not just taught subjects but are also prepared for real life and therefore should be encouraged to take more responsibility for their learning. At Hanham High School many pupils expect the teacher to do too much and are in danger of becoming lazy when it comes to taking responsibility and ownership of their work. If a child doesn’t feel that they own their work then they are less likely to try to do well at it, leading to underachievement.

I work in a state school on the outskirts of Bristol although in the authority of South Gloucestershire, the fourth worst funded local authorities in Britain. Our current A* - C GCSE results are 44% and remained unchanged last year. Although the area is quite affluent, many parents are self employed, working class people who have not necessarily attended university and there is a lack of appreciation of education amongst pupils and a feeling of, as one of my Year 7 boys said to me last year whilst the topic of aiming high, ‘my mum didn’t go to college Miss and she’s got a good job’. This poses an even harder task for me as an MFL teacher in that it is already a hard job getting pupils interested in MFL but even harder when pupils are turned off school altogether. My Concern that has led me to decide upon the area of my research. Once again and as is the general pattern right across the country, the girls out perform the boys at most levels, especially at GCSE. Obviously, this is of concern to the school as a whole and to me as an individual teacher as I see it happening in so many of my classes. The MEE handbook (page 1.4) states that ‘having identified a general area that I want to study’ I must now ‘try to formulate my concern, problem or issue as a question or a hypothesis (a proposition that can be tested)’. In September 2002 the Headteacher set up a Boys Underachievement Working Party for which I volunteered. I was particularly interested as I had set one of my Performance Management targets as raising the level of boys writing in one of my French classes. The brief of the Working Party is to look at reasons why boys are underachieving at Hanham High School and to suggest whole school / departmental strategies for raising achievement. Possible hypothesis could be ‘What are the reasons behind underachievement of boys at Hanham High School?’ ‘What strategies could be employed to raise achievement of boys at Hanham High School?’

Reviewing the literature

The object of a literature review is primarily to set my research in the context of what is already known and to show my originality and my critical judgement. It is also to study what previous research has been done on the subject, the reason why it was carried out and the findings and problems of such research. A literature review can also enable me to establish how I can build on previous work and take the research area forward. There is a wealth of literature and research available on boys’ underachievement and it remains a hot topic for the government but when reviewing literature Lancy (1993, page 236) reminds us that it must be treated as an ongoing process. As Burns (2000, page 27) explains the literature review can be split into two sections, the reviewing of the primary sources and the secondary sources. Reviewing the secondary sources would involve books and articles on the general nature of the topic. This would help to narrow down the focus of the research and clarify the nature of the topic to be researched. Verma and Mallick (1999, page 141) describe the literature review process as an opportunity to identify and avoid problems that may have occurred in previous similar research. They also add that ‘careful and critical reading of research reports might well enable a researcher to identify possibilities for further research’. Of course it may be argued that by conducting a review of relevant literature it would avoid repetition of a previous study. Verma and Mallick (1999, page 142) argue that repetition is not necessarily a bad thing especially ‘if some doubt exists about an aspect of its methodology which might have affected the results’. Cohen and Manion (1994, page 51) describe the review of literature as ‘a preparatory stage to gathering data’ and one which ‘serves to acquaint researchers with previous research on the topics they are studying’.

Choosing a methodology

The Action Research cycle encourages us to look at a range of methodologies and to select one or two to experiment with. It is important to consider whether to use a Qualitative or Quantitative methodology or a combination always keeping in mind what it is that you actually want to find out. Sidney Slater in Hustler, Cassidy and Cuff (1986, page 157) emphasizes the importance of, in certain cases, using a balance of quantitative and qualitative methods and ‘the need for triangulation to improve the reliability and validity of the research’. Although a political scientist, Harrison (2001, page 168) describes ‘triangulation’ as ‘a process by which two or more kinds of data from different sources are used to see if the information is corroborated’. Elliot and Adelman (1976) in McNiff (1988, page 15) explains what triangulation means from an educationist’s point of view and that is that it involves ‘gathering accounts of a teaching (and I would add here learning) situation from three different points of view; namely those of the teacher, the pupils and a participant observer’. I would argue that the ‘participant observer’ could be another teacher, a research group, UBTRN (a network of teacher researchers based at the University of Bath) or a critical friend all of whom could provide advice and suggestions to help validate the results. It is important to validate the results of a teacher enquiry as the validity is what makes it an educational enquiry and the findings can then be used to benefit others. McNiff (1988, page 133) supports this by saying that ‘research findings are of social value only if they may be communicated to others’. The whole aim of research is to move something on, whether it be teaching or learning. Until there is some proof, whether qualitative or quantitative then the research has not fulfilled its aims.

Quantitative approaches are often referred to as ‘positivist’ or scientific. Cohen and Manion (1994, page 7) says that researcher adopting this approach will ‘treat the social world like a world of natural phenomena as being hard, real and external to the individual’ Tools for carrying out research under this methodology may include surveys, experiments and testing. Burns (2000, page 9) describes the strengths of this methodology as the ‘precision and control’ which are achieved through ‘sampling, design and quantitative and reliable measurement’. The limitations of this approach are however that when dealing with people and human reactions and feelings it is very hard to maintain a controlled environment. People are individuals who all have the ability to think for themselves and they will react differently to others in the same situation.

Qualitative approach is often called a ‘naturalistic approach in which as Lancy (1993, page 9) describes the researcher as ‘going into the field with an open mind to carry out investigations’ and ‘like a natural historian who observes, records, classifies, and concludes, seeking, wherever possible, to capture the reality of the subjects and not only her or his own reality’. Cohen and Manion (1994, page 8) state that a qualitative approach ‘favours the alternative view of social reality which stresses the importance of the subjective experience of individuals in the creation of the social world’. They describe the principal concern of the qualitative approach as ‘an understanding of the way in which the individual creates, modifies and interprets the world in which he or she finds himself or herself’. As Burns (2000) explains, qualitative research is often criticised as not being adequately valid or reliable because of its subjective nature. However, such an approach may be more relevant when dealing with people because of the nature of individuality associated with human beings. Burns (2000, page 13) suggests that ‘qualitative descriptions can play the important role of suggesting possible relationship(s), causes, effects and even dynamic processes in school settings’. Furthermore, ‘qualitative methods can highlight subtleties in pupil behaviour and response, illuminate reasons for action and provide in-depth information on teacher interpretations and teaching style’. Different ways of gathering qualitative data include interviews, observations, diaries / journals, case studies and focus groups. Although many methods exist it is essential to adapt such methods to fit the context in which I am working.

During my last Educational Enquiry one of the biggest lessons that I learnt, through the use of focus groups, was the importance and usefulness of the pupil voice when it comes to making judgements about pupils styles of learning. They made me realise that although they can contribute greatly to planning their own learning and explaining how they learn best. This ties in with the move towards trying to make pupils more independent learners but how can we do this if we are not allowing them the opportunity to make their ideas count? Empowering pupils and making them feel worthy is a step towards making them more independent. If a pupil feels that he is being listened to and his / her ideas being taken on board and used to shape teaching and learning opportunities then he / she is more likely to embrace the things that he / she is asked to do rather than reject them. This is why in class if pupils can be given a choice of activities to do then they are more likely to feel part of the process and take more responsibility for their work.

With this in mind I think that probably one of the best and most insightful pieces of research I could do on this topic would be to interview boys who are felt by teachers or shown through statistics to be underachieving. But before this I need to identify the meaning of ‘underachieving’ which can be done using a dictionary, through the literature review and through discussions with colleagues and pupils. Having done this I next need to identify the boys to be used in the sample which can be done using a number of different sources. Firstly, the YELLIS tests taken by Year 10 pupils show a list of pupils, boys and girls, who are underachieving, however it would not be accurate enough to use this information only as the tests show a brief glimpse of a pupil taken on one morning in particular. Secondly, I can use pupils NFER test results in Years 7 and 8 compared with SATS in Year 9, YELLIS in Year 10 as well as Year 10 subject exams and predicted grades and finally Year 11 mock exams and predicted grades. All of this information gives a good and balanced view of a pupil’s ability and actual performance and it should be easier to identify those boys who have the ability to do well but are not currently achieving their full potential. Of course, there is one final way of identifying these pupils and that is through our knowledge and perception as teachers. We, sometimes instinctively, know which pupils are capable of doing better, whether it is because at times they show there full potential in their work or whether because we can see for example that maybe their behaviour is a barrier to their learning and therefore they are not achieving as highly as they could.
With regards to how to gauge the boys views on underachieving I would probably use a range of techniques including a written survey and individual interviews or focus groups.

According to Burns (2000, page 566) there are two main forms of survey. The first is the descriptive survey which ‘aims to estimate as precisely as possible the nature of existing conditions’ and the second, and probably more useful in this situation, is the explanatory survey which ‘seeks to establish cause and effect relationships but without experimental manipulation’. According to Cohen and Manion (1994, page 85) some factors need to be taken into consideration when designing a survey;

1. the purpose of the questionnaire / survey, what information is it that I want to extract

2. the audience, in this case the pupils who are going to complete the survey, the language and questions will have to be accessible to them

3. the resources available, the surveys will need to be photocopied but there is little or no time budgeted for carrying out the survey so it may have to be done in the teachers and pupils own time and I should therefore before when thinking about the length of the survey

Verma and Mallick (1999, page 117) suggest two different types of questionnaire with regards to the way in which they are filled out. One is a questionnaire for self-completion and the second is a questionnaire that requires assisted completion, meaning that I would ask the pupils the questions and fill in the answers myself. Although both are valid forms in this case I think it is important to get the views of the pupils across in their own language so would opt for the self-completion questionnaire. Also, an assisted completion questionnaire would not be possible because of the number of boys involved and the lack of time given for me to carry out any such research. However, it doesn’t mean that the questionnaire does not have to be filled out individually and without consulting with other pupils. As Murray and Lawrence (2000, page 96) explain, the term ‘survey’ does not just have to involve paper and pen but ‘is a generic term taking in a whole range of information-gathering techniques for use with representative groups of people’ which could include group discussion of survey questions. The fact that many underachieving boys will find it hard to express them selves on paper and find the sitting down and having to write about their ideas boring, a better option in my particular situation would be to use video which would give the boys an opportunity to get their ideas across. The questionnaire could be filled out individually and then followed-up with a group discussion after which the group could reflect on the ideas discussed and complete a questionnaire together. It would be important to pilot the survey with a small number of pupils first as the problem with a written survey is that the questions could well be misinterpreted by some pupils. A pilot may highlight some of the potential problems.

How would I validate such research and evaluate whether any whole school strategies that are adopted are successful?

Having already established that validation is essential I would use colleagues at the school, UBTRN, my mentor and of course the pupils to validate my research. Obviously, evaluation of the success of strategies in raising achievement would take time and would have to be done over the course of terms and probably years, as cohorts move through the school and take their GCSE exams. Short term indicators of success will however be things like increased motivation in class, fewer behavioural problems etc.


Having considered a number of possible methodologies and methods during the thinking about and writing of this assignment I have had to consider a number of factors including;

1. which methods would be most suitable to use with the pupils we have at Hanham High School bearing in mind that we have a high number of underachieving and disaffected boys

2. which methods would be most suitable for the particular focus of investigating reasons why boys underachieve and for suggesting strategies for raising achievement

3. the time (and cost) restraints of only possibly being given one afternoon for the interviewing of the boys

4. the pressure from the Head with the prospect of OFSTED in the near future to show a movement towards addressing the problem of underachievement in the school

In short, my Action Research action plan for undertaking this research would be;

1. Identify the area of concern – Boys Underachievement, reasons why and the need for some whole school / departmental strategies for raising achievement

2. Reviewing literature – through discussions with my mentor identify possible primary and secondary sources of literature, use the internet, library, colleagues with expertise in school or through the Network Learning Partnership

3. Collect data - to ensure that we actually have a problem at Hanham High School and to see if there are particular departments that are more affected

4. Select the sample of boys to be interviewed – identification of the boys through data interpretation and through discussion with colleagues

5. Consider different methodologies and methods – use of a self-completion questionnaire and focus group video recorded sessions

6. Collect evidence – carry out the questionnaires and interviews

7. Analysis and validation of data – primary analysis of data leading to a report of initial findings. Selection of some possible strategies and get a whole staff commitment to trying the strategies

8. Implementation of strategies – either whole school or departmental

9. Monitoring of strategies

10. Evaluation of strategies – if desired outcome i.e. raised achievement is not achieved then try different strategies (back to step7), if successful then is there another similar area that needs researching e.g. has boys achievement been raised but at the expense of the girls



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