Reasons to be Cheerful…

Bob Read

Strand Lead for projects 1, 2 and 3 and ccConsultancy Associate

For those of us working in the post-16 sector to improve our learners’ English skills there are daily reminders that we work in a very challenging curriculum area. Low learner motivation levels, behaviour management issues, staff shortages, more rigorous qualifications, demands for higher retention and achievement, shifting mark boundaries – such factors can dampen the enthusiasm of even the most committed teachers.

However, this year’s OTLA programme has provided for many of us some important reminders of how the sector is responding bravely and creatively to those many challenges, and in writing this article I would like to share some reflections on those ‘reasons to be cheerful’.

Building on research from other sectors

First, I have been greatly encouraged to note how many teachers working in the post-16 sector regularly take time to read and evaluate research findings, Twitter chats and blog posts by English teachers in the school sector and are keen to use the OTLA programme to investigate how to adapt those ideas for use in college settings. Here are some examples:

  • Rebecca Walker and her team at South Devon College have explored an approach to the marking of learner work based on the use of ‘Directed Improvement and Reflection Time – DIRT’ in the primary and secondary sector.
  • As a member of the Teamenglish Twitter community Louisa Baddiley, project lead at Suffolk New College, had been greatly impressed by the reports about the benefits of using visualisers in secondary schools and was keen to pilot their use on GCSE English resit programmes in her college.
  • The project at PETROC has explored ways in which the VESPA approach (Oakes and Griffin, 2017) to teaching study skills had been developed within a 6th Form College.
  • Georgina Choat at Harlow College was originally inspired to explore the importance of oracy skills in her OTLA project by attending events organised through the Voice 21 Project in schools.

Synergy with other ETF-funded projects

I have also been delighted to see how many practitioners on this year’s OTLA programme have accessed resources and training offered by other ETF-funded projects, suggesting a valuable synergy that can be of considerable benefit to those concerned and shows an efficient use of government funding.

For example, as part of an earlier OTLA project in 2017, Dom Thompson and colleagues at Havant and South Downs College produced an online resource, Teachers Takeaway, a bank of short informal video interviews with teachers who are keen to report on their success in introducing innovative teaching strategies into their practice. This excellent online resource continues to be updated with new material and features, and has been an inspiring example for those working on this year’s OTLA programme; it shows how digital technology can enable teachers to share their ideas and enthusiasm in ways that can often be more persuasive and convincing than a written report.

Similarly, in the very early stages of his project, Tom Vines at Brooklands College appreciated the opportunity to access and adapt resources shared on a Padlet board by members of an ETF Professional Exchange Network (PEN). The PEN was set up in the Eastern region to share examples of reading material that were effective in engaging and motivating reluctant readers on GCSE English resit programmes. The resultant collection provided a useful source of ideas for Tom and his colleagues as they began their own action research project.

Finally, in the early months of the OTLA project some organisations were able to request training on topics relevant to their chosen research interests such as phonics, use of a visualiser and embedded approaches.

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.

Dissemination of early research findings

In a December meeting of an English Practitioners Network in the Eastern region I arranged for two managers from the OTLA programme to update network members on their progress and early research findings. The feedback from members was extremely positive and indicated that teachers value the opportunity to hear from colleagues who are piloting new teaching approaches in authentic teaching contexts and are willing to share their resources and tentative conclusions about their new practices.

Such presentations can be challenging for those delivering them, as teachers will quite rightly probe any explanation of a causal link between an intervention and its impact. But overwhelmingly and quite understandably, practitioners attach a premium to authentic accounts from those ‘working at the chalkface’ who face challenges similar to their own and who value ‘experiential, practice-based forms of knowledge’.
After the meeting several members noted on their evaluation forms that they would be very keen to be involved in the OTLA programme next year and one of the managers at the meeting emailed me the next morning to say:

“I just wanted to thank you for convening yesterday’s meeting. I found it really inspiring and have taken away with me a host of ideas. I spent most of my journey home thinking and planning and it has helped to invigorate some enthusiasm at the end of a long term!”

Within a curriculum area that continues to face daunting challenges I feel the OTLA programme this year has been an uplifting and valuable experience for all of us who have been directly involved and, I hope too, for those who may read these reports and access the resources we have created.