Why has practitioner research had such little impact in schools?

One thing that has always baffled me is how school leaders have marginalised staff involved in research or practitioner inquiry. If a teacher wants to do an MA or PhD in an area related to their own professional development, they are often given little or no financial or time support. Certainly research has not been a central part of the mission of being a classroom teacher, it has in effect been seen as an expensive hobby.

Many teachers I’ve spoken to have essentially felt like rogue agents, “pale students of unhallowed arts” wielding dangerous knowledge. Their work is not aligned with a whole school focus and very little of it is even linked with their own professional development.

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How many senior leadership meetings features the phrase “What does the research say?” or even taken the position that it might be something useful? In my experience many younger staff who want to do research are not sure exactly what it is they want to research but just want to improve and be more reflective about their practice. Why aren’t school leaders harnessing that kind of enthusiasm towards whole school improvement?

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Whole school research focus.

In order to maximise the impact of school led research we need to move towards a model where there is a common focus of inquiry that has many stakeholders One way of doing that is to:

  • – Establish an issue to be solved that is aligned with whole school vision.
  • – work with HEI to survey the literature around this area and help design methodologically robust approaches.
  • – Opportunities given for practitioner research embedded across all departments/faculties not just a self-selected few.
  • – Involve the student body with this focus using student journal clubs.
  • – Establish a Research Centre to act as a conduit.
  • – Build in time for staff to conduct research and disseminate findings.

If we are going to maximise the impact of research in schools then it needs to be more than a clandestine bunch of mavericks practicing some kind of weird alchemy that no-one even understands (especially themselves.)

Opportunities need to be given for practitioner-led research that is aligned with a clearly defined whole school vision of improvement, that is well communicated and where all staff feel they can have an impact.

12 comments

  1. jfin107

    The key rationale for practitioner research rest in the professional development of the teacher. The teacher engages in PR in order to better understand an issue/problem that if addressed through systematic enquiry leading to change and improvement in the experience of both teacher and pupils. This will be specific to the teacher’s daily professional life. This enquiry need not directly impact on the whole school. It may well impact on a community of subject teachers if carefully disseminated. Impact can be evaluated in terms of the teacher’s professional development. The integrity of the teacher, their perceived enquiry needs should be paramount. There is a long history of PR impacting in this way. There are numerous outsatnding examples

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  2. frankie roberts

    Arising from concerns about student outcomes and teacher wellbeing and having experienced the benefits of explicit teaching of literacy, we are about to embark on a teacher-research project which tests the effect of improved writing skills on student outcomes in the South Australian SACE subject ‘Research Project’. Our starting point was the Chief Assessors Report and then we invited an academic partner. Her support has been invaluable especially considering the requirements of ethical protocols, etc. Our project will start next week. I would welcome all suggestions and advice.

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  3. angryhungryresearcher

    I don’t agree that PR only benefits those undertaking it. I think, as argued here, there does need to be systems in place to recognise, join up & disseminate PR school-wide, and would go even further and suggest the ideal would be ways to share this type of research in a rigourous way across parterships, LAs or even nationally.
    The difficulty is making results of small scale, qualitative studies commensurable, so they could become part of something like a meta-analysis or systematic review in the ways we can currently do for quants research.

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  4. jfin107

    Certainly at the subject level in secondary education there is un urgent need to share and disseminate widely as I suggested. The History Today Magazine is an example. Qualitative research typical of case study and action research is capable of presenting a set of hypotheses (theoretical ideas, depending on the quality of existing knowledge being built upon) for others to investigate and for others to generalise from into their own practice. However, I would maintain that the chief beneficiaries are those involved in the research.

    While no individual teacher’s research should be an island within their school (presumably a senior member of staff is gatekeeper to it) and while a community of in school teacher researchers is of course desirable, the opportunity for each teacher to respond to their particular imminent concerns should not be compromised by a whole school system. We wouldn’t want every teacher researching growth mind-sets, would we?

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  5. garyrjones

    One of the bigs lessons from the evidence-based medicine movement when trying to encourage colleagues to engage in research is to focus on using research rather than learning how to do it. For me, we need to walk before we can run and become better evidence-based practitioners, drawing upon a range over of evidence – which includes research – but also school data, professional experience and stakeholder evidence – before becoming researchers. As I commented at the Research Leads event in London – you don’t need to engage with HEIs to define the question or review the literature – there are other far more time effective ways of doing this work.

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  6. jfin107

    In reply to Gary: True, but on the other hand, in becoming evidence-based practitioners (or is it ‘evidence-informed’ practitioners?) the process of evaluating the provenance and relevance of research evidence may be best learnt through engaging in an enquiry giving reason for selecting evidence, contextualising it and testing it. Of course, teachers often make use of theoretical ideas rather than evidence from empirical research. To systematically explore these ideas thorugh action may be the best way to understand and evaluate them.

    Yes, I can see as Gary proposes that understanding the nature of different kinds of evidence is important.

    In speaking of ‘evidence-based…’ it may be helpful to note that the most important context for this is ‘what is all this for?’ The answers to that question are frequently glib or the question is avoided altogether.

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  9. rmlofthouse

    Having just completed the first day of teaching my Masters group on a module called Innovation in Curriculum and Pedagogy through Action Enquiry I have read this with interest. I understand the concerns about whether teachers’ engagement with practitioner enquiry has any impact beyond the personal, and am very aware of the disconnect that some teachers who become active in and with research start to feel with their colleagues and senior leaders. There is no easy resolution but I agree with jfin107 that when an individual professional embarks on a route through practitioner enquiry they should not feel that they do so only to meet the current school improvement needs. There needs to be scope for personal sense-making, which includes asking the question what is education for and what is my role in forming this purpose. School improvement is too frequently narrowly defined by readily measurable and comparable outcome data, while professional practices are made up of many rich dimensions and professional learning cannot be routinized and coerced. At a recent research showcase event a DHT reflected on a presentation with a cautionary tale. He had stipulated that his colleagues should engage in ‘action research’ around themes related to school improvement, and a year later realised that many were doing so as part of their compliance with school improvement and performance management procedures. He noted that the life and learning was being drained from what had (at a smaller scale with more individual ownership) been a productive and purposeful means of developing practice. For my Masters group there is an invitation to innovate and to use the process of action enquiry as a methodological framework to do so systematically. There is also an expectation that the teachers will engage with a professional community as part of that process of enquiry, using them to help form and critique practices as they emerge over time. We privilege divergent professional learning outcomes, but not isolated practice and singular learning. Each participating teacher’s action enquiry is not designed to solve a specific school improvement dilemma, but to emerge in the spaces where the teachers can think again and think differently about pedagogy, curriculum and assessment. It is nuanced to the needs of the learners within the context of the school and we support the teachers in their allegiance to their learners, but we anticipate independent professional curiosity will take the participants in many directions.

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