Anthology Editorial – Jean McNiff

Anthology Editorial

Jean McNiff, Professor of Educational Research, York St John University

It has been an utter privilege and delight to work with the OTLA (North East and Cumbria) team, and with the amazing teachers and trainers involved in the project reported in these pages. Thank you to all, for your warm welcome, your friendship, and the opportunity to become part of a rigorous research-based and research-informed venture.

The individual projects, and the overall project they comprise, have been an outstanding success in terms of achieving the aims of the team, as these also communicate the wider aims of the Education and Training Foundation. Those aims have included throughout a consistent commitment to supporting participants in achieving the professional standards for teachers and trainers, as set out in current advice, available online.

The individual reports contained in this present document show that these standards have been fully and appropriately achieved by all participating projects. Further, all thirteen projects have to different degrees extended and surpassed the required levels of achievement in that they also demonstrate a keen sense of the need for practices to take the form of high quality practice-based research; they also demonstrate a strong awareness of the need for practitioner-researchers to articulate both how this has been achieved and the potential significance of the achievement for different constituencies.

These processes together have amounted to a realisation of Hoyle’s original conceptualisation of ‘the extended professional’ (see Hoyle, 1974; Hoyle and John, 1995), a key feature of which is an ongoing awareness of the development of self as a researcher who is committed to the continual development of a research-based, research-active practice in the service of others.

The accounts presented here show that all participants have developed both practical strategies for improving practices and also the capacity to theorise what they are doing: that is, they can offer descriptions and explanations for their practices, and produce evidence by which they may test the validity of their provisional knowledge claims.

Some accounts could also stand as reports of what is generally called ‘academic research’ in that authors test their ideas against those in the scholarly literatures and produce narratives that show the evolution of their own theories of practice, in which they incorporate those established theories. These processes have resulted in massive shifts in most participants’ self-perceptions and self-identifications, with potential far-reaching implications for the development of teaching, learning and assessment for the teaching profession across the disciplines and sectors.

We ALL bring the strands together: OTLAYet the concept of extended professionalism, in this report, goes further; now to embrace the idea and requirement of ‘demonstrating impact’, as set out in Walker et al. (2016). ‘Impact’ is defined in terms of the continual improvement of a range of practical and intellectual capacities, specifically in relation to enhancing teaching, learning and assessment by and for teachers, trainers and learners. This is similar to the definition of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE, 2016) in relation to the Research Excellence Framework, that ‘impact’ should be taken as meaning ‘an effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia’. Participants in the projects reported here can show that they fulfil this Higher Education criterion as fully as that of the Education and Training Foundation; an achievement of which all should be justifiably proud.

Such excellence does not simply happen. It happens largely through the development of a culture that encourages awareness and capacity in achieving appropriate forms of understanding and their realisation in and through practices. Further, cultures do not come into being of themselves, rooted as they are in the everyday practices of participants in the discourses.

In the case of professional education initiatives, they are systematically and deliberately nurtured by providers (in this case, the OTLA North East and Cumbria team), often most effectively through the development of appropriate infrastructures, informed by specific values. In terms of the projects reported here, a core aim was to conceptualise and develop the whole initiative as a community of enquiry, an extension of Lave and Wenger’s (1991) and Wenger’s (1998) original concept of communities of practice, in which dialogue was a key feature. All thirteen projects were convened by project leaders who encouraged all participants to see themselves as a community in which all were entitled to speak for themselves and to be listened to respectfully. In this regard, project leaders were pivotal to the success of each project in terms of their capacity to coach, support, critique and hold fast to the realisation of dialogical values.

Each project had its independent status and dynamic trajectory, while also acknowledging its relationship with the other twelve projects. The thirteen projects then coalesced into one large project, including also as appropriate insider and outsider assessors, administrators and managers; many of the outsider visitors brought their learning from their observations of this project to developing their own home initiatives. The entire enterprise stands as a fine example of how the underlying values of respectful encouragement can manifest as the real-life development of critically independent thinkers and dialogical communities of educational enquiry – a most impressive achievement and one from which organisational managers and policy makers can learn.

Further, a contributing factor in the success of the different collaborative partnerships developed throughout the overall project has been the capacity of the core team to accept responsibility themselves for demonstrating the professional standards in action, in the same way as is required of those they support. This understanding has meant that the project has avoided taking a form in which professional providers do research on participants or give them instructions about what to do and think, a situation that often results in what Easterly (2013) calls ‘the tyranny of experts’. On the contrary, the core team have conducted their own self-evaluations in company with those they are supporting.

They have consistently judged their personal and collective practices by the same means as have all participants, that is, in terms of how the professional standards have provided ongoing principles of practices and evaluation by which they judge the quality of their own work. These self- and collective evaluations have been conducted through regularly convened team meetings, consultation with participants, and the production of ongoing progress reports. Throughout, and acting on participants’ and one another’s evaluative feedback, the team has articulated what is going well and what could be improved and further developed, with future actions identified, target dates set for their fulfilment and the means for their successful achievement negotiated.

A next step in the overall project therefore is for the core team formally to assess the quality of their research in light of participants’ feedback, as per the requirement of Professional Standard 10 (‘Evaluate your practice with others and assess its impact on learning’) and then to make it public through texts, as per Stenhouse’s definition of research as ‘systematic enquiry made public’ (see Skilbeck, 1983).

Their accounts of practice-based research, together with those of trainers and teachers, will contribute to a knowledge base that has the capacity to inform future research and policy formation. This knowledge base will incorporate all the accounts produced from this project, and others, where appropriate, with capacity for influencing the quality of education and educational provision in this sector and in this country, and potentially beyond.

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