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.
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.