Action research – theory and practice
A key source of interest and pleasure for me has also been the opportunity to meet and work with Professor Jean McNiff at three of the national events featured in this year’s OTLA programme. I was already familiar with her distinctive approach to action research from reading some of her articles and books but it has been fascinating to hear her talk through her ideas within the context of our post-16 sector and the particular challenges we face in English teaching.
In her presentation at the launch event in York, Jean explored different types of knowledge and prompted us to consider how the prestige attached to the abstract knowledge generated by traditional academic research in universities often contrasts with the lower status of knowledge gained by practitioners through reflection on their own experiences in workplaces and in everyday life. The low status of ‘experiential, practice-based forms of knowledge’ (McNiff, 2017, p 50), she says, is an example of ‘epistemic injustice’ (McNiff, 2020) that we should resist.
“The form of knowledge and its acceptability still tends to be linked to how much the knower is publicly valued: people on the high ground are seen as legitimate knowers and theorists while those in the swampy lowlands are seen as trainees and hopefuls. Schön does not accept this situation: practitioners, he says, should create their own knowledge through investigating their practices and thereby promote themselves as powerful and competent practitioner-researchers who are able to produce their personal theories of practice to account for what they do.”
(McNiff, 2017, pp 73-74)
From this theoretical basis Jean has encouraged our practitioner researchers to value the ‘knowledge claims’ that can result from using a rigorous and well-planned action research process to structure their OTLA projects. This empowering message is particularly welcome at a time when teachers are trying to find their own creative solutions to new challenges of delivering GCSE and Functional Skills English qualifications.
Jean is the first to say that academic research clearly has its place (McNiff, 2017, pp37), most often perhaps in clarifying starting points for an action research project. She also encourages teachers to value the opportunities they have on the OTLA programme to generate valuable knowledge and theories from within their own practice. I was delighted to see how positive and responsive our practitioners have been in engaging in such discussions and to note how Jean’s ideas have served to develop their confidence in the role they have as practitioner researchers.
A willingness to value “experiential, practice-based forms of knowledge” is a key feature of all types of action research and underpins the OTLA programme and other ETF joint practice development initiatives. It has also been rewarding to revisit with Jean the important debate about different modes of knowledge and to consider the kind of rigour needed to build into action research projects if they are to generate knowledge claims that will be seen by others as valid and reliable. Central to that rigour is the need for practitioners to ‘theorise their practice’; and in the latter stages of the OTLA programme I have been able to support project workers in this important stage of the research process.
For example, Laura Holland at The College of West Anglia managed a project rejecting the use of acronyms such as PEE and PETAL, on GCSE English resit programmes in favour of alternative writing support strategies. However, she and her team have realised that as well as exploring the technical aspects of teaching writing skills they have also recognised the importance of gathering information about the attitudes and experiences of resit learners at the start of the course.
For example, in asking learners to discuss their views on the use of acronyms, teachers found ways of building stronger working relationships more quickly with learners and gained valuable insights into the relevance of study skills not only to the use of acronyms but to other aspects of their English programme. Laura and colleagues are keen to undertake another action research cycle next year to explore this area further.
Similarly, Tom Vines at Brooklands College notes that the experience of involving learners as key members of his research team has encouraged him and other managers to consider using this collaborative approach to curriculum design more extensively as it yielded unexpected benefits.
In discussions with Laura and Tom about their research projects I suggested that their insights reflect some of the findings in the study carried out by the DfE (Hume et al, 2018) to identify ways of improving retention on GCSE resit programmes. One of the report recommendations emphasised the effectiveness of interventions to actively explore and validate learners’ backgrounds and experiences, and enable learners to feel ‘a sense of belonging’ both on their programmes and within the college generally.
However, given the original timescale and funding constraints of the OTLA project, time for such discussions looked to be limited and threatened to restrict the important opportunities for practitioners to theorise their practice.
Fortunately, additional funding was offered to providers in the last month of the programme so they could continue to bring practitioners together to reflect collaboratively on their research findings. These discussions turned out to be highly productive.