The Greater Your Storm, the Brighter your Rainbow: Sharing Pots of Gold from the OTLA Programme in Lockdown

The Greater Your Storm, the Brighter your Rainbow: Sharing Pots of Gold from the OTLA Programme in Lockdown

Claire Collins + Dr Vicky Butterby

Project Director and Programme Manager

Anthology of Practitioner Action Research Reports 2020-21

The anthology of action research accounts contains 53 chapters written by practitioners from post-16 education settings across England, along with think-pieces from members of the ‘OTLA’ programme team.

Phase 7 of the OTLA programme was led by a team from ccConsultancy and our partners, That Reading Thing and SfL Network. Project teams received grants to support remission and take part in training alongside the action research they carried out. They were supported and mentored by a group of post-16 education and action research specialists, all of whom work in the post-16 sector in various roles as teachers, managers, teacher trainers, coaches and researchers.

This year, funding for project teams to undertake their action research came from three distinct ETF programmes: OTLA 7 (English), Shaping Success (maths and English) and Essential Digital Skills (EDS). Working under the inclusive umbrella of the OTLA programme, teams were able to explore pertinent, subject-specific aspects of maths, English and EDS, whilst also being able to connect with one another to share practice, discuss research findings and grow together as a research community. This cross-fertilisation across different ETF programmes helped ensure that project teams were able to learn from one another, and that key emerging themes and cross-cutting findings for our work as educators within post-16 learning could be collated and shared.

As you work through the book, you will notice that it is divided into sections. Each section contains a group of projects, supported by a Research Specialist Lead (RGL). Our RGLs were carefully matched to each group of projects, chosen because of their extensive experience as both subject specialists and action researchers. You can read think pieces from our RGLs at the start of each section, which bring together and theorise some of the overarching findings from their respective project teams. Working alongside each RGL, were a small team of highly dedicated and supportive mentors.

Each mentor had responsibility for a cluster of three or four thematically grouped projects, drawing upon a golden combination of teaching expertise and research experience to support project teams to shape their research, make meaning from what they discovered and articulate their findings. You can read a brief introduction from each of our mentors to their team’s project reports.

Finally, and most importantly, you will find research reports from each of our project teams. We have no doubt that you will find them a vibrant and illuminating read, and we hope that the passion, knowledge and care of each of our practitioner-researchers shines through as you learn from them. The different colours represent projects within each mentor cluster.

In 2020, when we first embarked on OTLA 7, we had no idea that the COVID-19 pandemic would have such a profound impact on all our lives. A broad range of research projects were chosen for support and, as time went on, many teams included a focus on best approaches for supporting learners studying remotely and in isolation through a series of national lockdowns. Such is the beauty of action research that it enables people to respond to current conditions in real time.

Chasing rainbows

rainbow drawn on to the road in chalk

Photo by Alex Jackman on Unsplash

Early in the programme, we began to plan how we would publish everyone’s findings. We have always chosen a colour for our publications – ‘the big green book’ being our last anthology of research reports (for OTLA Phase 6). With so many different topics being researched this time, we knew this anthology would be a bumper edition, necessitating different coloured sections. We began to refer to it as the ‘big rainbow book’.

Moreover, rainbows were starting to have a special place in our lives, with windows across England (and the world) decorated with these seven coloured arcs, expressing thanks to our nurses, teachers, ambulance teams, refuse collectors, delivery people and all the other key workers who helped us to navigate the choppy waters of the pandemic.

The rainbow became synonymous with hope and gratitude, and for us, also the power of action research to enable teachers to face the day-to-day challenges of teaching remotely and planning for the future, once this current storm had passed.

According to the Met Office (2021), ‘rainbows are formed when sunlight is scattered from raindrops into the eyes of an observer.’ The Met Office also states that the weather conditions have to be just right in order to see a rainbow and that even in perfect rainbow forming conditions, you have to be in the right place at the right time or you will miss the moment (the sun needs to be sitting low on the horizon behind you and the rain needs to be falling in front of you).

Parallels can be drawn between being perfectly placed to appreciate the multi-coloured magnificence of a post-storm rainbow, and OTLA
participants’ own positionalities as ‘insider’ action researchers working within post-16 learning. By using action research as a vehicle through which they were able to collaboratively critique, develop and improve their practice, participants were able to draw out and share a nuanced collection of findings and recommendations for teaching and learning that might pass other researchers by (e.g., those less immersed in our sector).

Engaging in action research within post-16 organisations enabled them to ‘draw upon the shared understandings and trust of [their] colleagues [and learners], with whom normal social interactions of working communities have been developed’ (Costley, Elliott and Gibbs, 2010 p.1).

By writing about and sharing our learning, as the project teams featured within this Big Rainbow Book have done, we contribute an original, contextualised technicoloured spectrum of ‘situated knowledges’ (Haraway, 1988) that have the potential to question and shift monochromatic thinking and approaches to educational reform.

In her writing on rainbows and mythology, author Terri Windling (2020) states:

‘Mysterious and ephemeral, appearing and disappearing in the blink of an eye, rainbows in stories around the globe are magical pathways to Somewhere Else: the spirit world, the Faerie realm, the lands of the dead or the palaces of the gods.’

Learners in post-16 learning are often also yearning to be ‘Somewhere Else’. Many have been marginalised within other areas of our education system and are understandably sceptical about meritocratic ideologies and magical pathways to educational success and belonging.

The context of our work in post-16 learning means that we are often in the land of second chances, where people are encouraged to start afresh and renegotiate their relationships with learning. By drawing on the principles of action research, project teams were able to explore and develop learnercentred practices that supported learners not only to make academic progress, but to value their talents and feel heard and respected too. As you work your way through this anthology of research, you will see how this occurred in a myriad of ways.

Pots of Gold

In Irish mythology, a pot of gold is always said to be at the end of every rainbow. If we consider practitioner-led research to be a metaphorical
rainbow of ‘hopeful praxis’ (Butterby, Collins and Powell, 2018) within and for our sector, our project teams this year have shown us that there is much to be treasured as the result of undertaking action research in post-16 settings.

We have seen that action research is a way to…

R – Refresh and Revitalise

During our OTLA 7 Interim Dissemination event (December 2020), CPD lead Andy Convery described action research as “refreshing parts of the sector that other research fails to reach”. Whereas traditional ‘academic’ research approaches can sometimes feel out of sync with the ‘proudly practical’ nature of post-16 learning (Collins, Convery and Read, 2021), action research by contrast is an open and dynamic invitation to start where we’re at, to investigate our practice and to make timely and pragmatic changes that benefit and support our learners. The activeness of action research, coupled with its inherently optimistic nature, can help revitalise tired and frustrated mindsets, helping people become ‘unstuck’ in their work, and, to quote one OTLA participant, “to fall in love with teaching again”.

O – Obstinately overcome obstacles

Teaching in post-16 learning comes with its own unique set of challenges that those of us immersed within the sector are acutely aware of. Colloquially described as the ‘Cinderella Sector’ (initially by the Conservative politician Kenneth Baker due to the lack of government attention FE received (Baker, 1989) but more commonly within the sector itself because of FE’s marginalised status within educational policy, academic literature and political decision making), arguably, “FE deserves a better future than its immediate past has offered it” (Keep, 2020:xxvi). More recently, there have been calls to reject this ‘cinderella status’ (Daley, Orr and Petrie, 2015; Petrie, 2015) and instead celebrate the creativity, autonomy and collective strength of FE-based practitioners. By engaging in action research, OTLA participants have been able to explore, discuss and share grass roots, contextualised understandings of teaching and learning within post-16 learning. The research findings in this anthology reflect our practitioners’ passion for their work and illuminate the unique potential our sector has “to say yes when everyone else has said no” (Duckworth and Smith, 2017:6). It is within this spirit that our practitioner researchers have bravely battled the additional emotional and practical challenges of the global pandemic, working alongside colleagues and learners to obstinately overcome obstacles, to navigate national lockdowns and to establish, renew and make meaning from remote and blended learning practices when face-to-face teaching was put on hold.

Y – Yoda yourself and your assumptions about how learners learn

During his training to become a Jedi Knight (Star Wars V, the Empire Strikes Back), Yoda explains to a young Luke Skywalker that “you must
unlearn what you have learned”. Action research asks us to do the same; we need to be open and willing to challenge our assumptions, to investigate the effectiveness of our teaching practices from a fresh perspective and to put our tacit (practice-based) knowledges to the test. In her book Action Research for Professional Development (2017), Professor Jean McNiff describes action research as “critical and risky” (p.35). Jean goes on to remind us that “improving one’s thinking in order to improve one’s practices involves questioning what we think is the case, and possibly changing our positions in light of greater honesty. This can be uncomfortable, and often requires considerable courage.” (ibid).

G – Gradually gain momentum as a voice for post-16 research

The OTLA programme enables practitioners from different settings, geographical locations and subject specialisms to come together with a shared aim of improving teaching and learning practices for learners within our sector.

By collaboratively engaging in research activity, by reflecting on our findings and by discussing them with colleagues, we form rich and vibrant ‘constellations of practice’ (Mycroft and Sidebottom, 2018) that help us discuss, develop, critique and shape our work.

When we share our research findings, when we amplify learner voices, and when we actively engage with what other researchers have found, we show that we value our thinking, that we value our insight and that we value our contribution to knowledge as practitioner-researchers within (and beyond) post-16 learning.

The accounts produced by our OTLA teams in this anthology thus form a substantive body of grounded, contextualised research findings for our sector that illuminate the values above, helping us gradually gain momentum as both knowledge producers and as a collective voice for ‘what works’ in post-16 learning.

B – Build better relationships with learners and with one another

A reoccurring theme during OTLA action research projects past and present centres around the importance of developing caring and trusting relationships with learners in order to support their educational progress. McNiff (2017:42) reminds us that action research is grounded in “dialogical, inclusional and collaborative”, practices that by their nature support and underpin learner-centred approaches to teaching, learning and assessment. When people’s opinions and perspectives are listened to, valued and acted upon, we are inevitably creating conditions where relationships can deepen, and meaningful learning can occur.

I- Inspire impactful improvements for learners and one another

Action research has at its heart the concept of improvement (McNiff, 2017), and our OTLA research teams were each united in their desire to make personal and operational changes to improve learners’ educational experiences and outcomes.

Central to many projects was the concept of holistic improvement, with research teams exploring how they might better support learner wellbeing, confidence, self-worth and self-belief, as well as how improvements might be made in relation to learner retention, progress and achievement.

Impact can be a difficult thing to measure, and often needs to be reviewed over time. Anecdotally however, practitioners shared stories of learners “not asking for the time every 2 minutes”, of “coming back to class after break” and of “seeing themselves as writers with something important to say”.

Several participants also reported better relationships with learners and enjoyed closer working practices with colleagues from within and outside of their organisations and departments.

One participant shared during our OTLA Celebration Event that action research had given them “time to think and time to breathe” with another saying, “action research shows we are not alone, we all have similar challenges and difficulties, and we can work together to solve them.”

V- Validate values-driven, learner-centred pedagogies for post-16 learning

Engaging in action research can be simultaneously exhilarating and challenging. As we open ourselves up through the research process and reflect upon our research findings, we may discover that our previous assumptions about effective teaching and learning are disrupted or even subverted. Action research encourages us to consider our personal and professional values and interrogate how our current practices align or fall short of these (McDonagh, Roche, Sullivan and Glenn, 2020:82).

Over the course of the OTLA programme, practitioners continually reiterated the importance of developing learner-centred approaches for
teaching and learning, of ‘seeing the person beyond the grade’ and of creating a climate of care that fostered high expectations and continual positive regard. From hand-delivered work packs to the creation of safe and supportive online spaces for learners to connect with one another, our action research findings suggest that these values driven, learnercentred pedagogies pay dividends, improving learner attendance, aiding motivation and self-belief, and enabling opportunities for full and active engagement in learning.

We now invite you to read the action research findings shared by post-16 practitioners in this anthology of their 2020-21 project reports. So many of their projects embody the ideas we have shared above.

Photo by Yulia Gadalina on Unsplash

For example, you can read about the project at Cambridge Regional College, where learners who had not been used to writing and who lacked confidence expressing themselves creatively explored the genre of horror and influenced people around the college to take notice of what they were doing. Hereby, learners who had previously not wanted to go to their mandated English classes looked forward to their sessions and improved their English outcomes.

At Wolverhampton College, learners were given the chance to expand their thinking using free association diagrams and became more confident in planning their creative writing. In another example, a partnership between Shipley College in the North of England and Waltham Forest College in the South illustrated the powerful effect of introducing previously unknown learners (from the respective colleges) as peer reviewers and, in addition, the positive influence on writing practices when learners from the two colleges sent letters to one another ‘like they did in the old days’ (!).

We can also point to the prison project led by a team from Weston College at HMP Maidstone, who improved their English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) initial assessment practices or the team from Manchester Adult Education Service who explored the extent that their Learning Community app could support low-level English learners to develop their Essential Digital Skills (EDS).

This anthology is a collection of accounts of significant projects such as these few examples. We hope that you enjoy reading about the 2020–21 OTLA 7 project teams’ findings, carried out during such a tumultuous, stormy period of our lives. Just like a rainbow, the accounts represent a moment in time. We think that they are especially poignant because they are accounts of a time when post-16 practitioners worked tirelessly to ensure that learners got the best support possible and were enabled and connected through their learning communities.

As so many of the banners and window posters in our neighbourhoods stated at the time; ‘without a storm, there cannot be a rainbow’