Resilient Action Researchers – Some Hints + Tips

Claire Callow

Strand Lead for projects 4, 5 and 6, and ccConsultancy Associate

Dr Vicky Butterby

Mentor for project 5, ccConsultancy

The projects we were involved with as a strand lead and project mentor shared a common purpose; to explore, develop and reflect upon strategies for growing and developing English learners’ resilience. Through developing resilience, our projects hoped to encourage independent working, develop learner-centred practices, and instil in learners a sense of achievement and success.
In essence, practitioners were undertaking action research so they could better support learners to negotiate, manage, anticipate and overcome current obstacles and potential setbacks – related to their English learning and to their wider lives and experiences too.

When we first embarked upon the various projects, we were full of notions of raising student achievement, improving motivation and engagement and developing teaching, learning and assessment approaches; we weren’t particularly focused on practitioner resilience. However, one of the happy, ‘secondary’ outcomes of working on these projects has been greater teacher resilience and an increase in practitioner risk-taking and exploration.

Teachers have to work within a number of frameworks (set down by: the system; their organisations; awarding bodies; quality processes; and so on). This can sometimes lead to a reluctance to break away from the norm or to try out something new for fear that this might be construed as risky behaviour. Through this project, however, we have seen the growth of teacher confidence toward taking these otherwise perceived risks.

This growth in confidence has been a particularly gratifying outcome of these projects. As the ETF professional standards recognise: creativity, innovation, risk-taking and experimentation are so important to the development of a practitioner’s professional judgment.

Being part of this action research – being instrumental in its conception, delivery and development – legitimised risk taking and experimentation; it gave practitioners and managers permission to not ‘teach to the test’ and allowed them to try something different and challenge existing thinking. In no small way, we saw how this experience liberated teachers’ professional judgement and understanding, which then became a vehicle to drive the research forward.

This, in turn, afforded the freedom for projects to metamorphose: the initial focus sometimes changed, evolved or was refined (put quite simply, a ‘better’ question was sometimes asked). Armed with this new resilience, the action researchers in the various projects were also able freely to embrace learning around what not to do with particular learners, rather than seeing such learning as a failure. They also learnt that good quality action research can be just as much about discovering what doesn’t work as what does.

What follows is a description of some of the themes that emerged during the project and which, in turn, allowed for greater experimentation by the resilient practitioner action researchers. This thematic explanation is then followed by some hints and tips for conducting action research which are the result of discussions with participants on the OTLA projects.

Grandiose theories or received wisdoms may not translate or work for your learners; contextualisation is key!

This was a common theme across the projects we were mentoring and supporting; implementing a ‘one size fits all’ scheme of work, or applying an ‘off the shelf’ intervention was not always straightforward. There were different reasons for this disconnect between established, ‘evidence informed’ interventions and the ‘grass roots’ reality of everyday life in FE.

In some cases, there were contextual differences, so suggested strategies for educational improvement did not always appreciate or meet FE-based learners’ needs.

For example, when one of our research teams (an FE college with a high proportion of GCSE resit learners, many of whom have SEND), began to implement and evaluate the impact of Oakes and Griffin’s (2016) VESPA strategies (a mindset tool originally devised for A Level students), they found they needed to adapt and contextualise activities so that those strategies worked for their learners.

The team did this in a variety of ways, including working with learners in small groups to explore and discuss the wider factors that shaped their everyday lives and well-being. However, the team discovered that, before learners could access VESPA, they first needed to understand what being ready to learn looks and feels like.

Another project focused on exploring active learning strategies for ESOL learners, building on recommendations from Ofsted to develop these practices. However, when the team began to ask learners which teaching and learning approaches they would like to experience, the team quickly realised there were cultural barriers to overcome. These barriers not only related to some ESOL learners’ active participation in lessons, but also their engagement in participatory approaches to teaching and learning.

In some cases, learners worried that their ideas and opinions would be perceived as a criticism of their teacher: this was something they felt was unacceptable! With this in mind, practitioners had to develop creative and innovative ways of eliciting learner feedback. They also had to scrutinise received educational wisdoms about ‘best practice’ and ‘what works’ for learners, developing instead a series of active approaches for teaching and learning that understood the specific, contextual needs of the learners they were working with.

In some cases, projects found they were able to offer a direct challenge to HE-generated research about teaching and learning, strengthening the case for contextualised understandings of teaching and learning in FE. In a similar vein to previous research stemming from OTLA projects (ETF, 2018; McPartland, 2018), teams were able to refute Hattie’s (2015) assertion that volunteers and learning support practitioners have little impact upon learner progress. Conversely, the team found that when structured development programmes were put into place for volunteers, and were welcomed and valued as part of the teaching and learning team, their work with Entry Level and ESOL learners had considerable impact.

The team found that through volunteer supported engagement at lunch clubs and gardening projects, learners grew in confidence, improved their attendance and made accelerated progress through their functional skills qualifications. For these learners, value-added became obvious and engagement in volunteer-led projects supported both literacy and social development.

In order to support learners’ English development, you first have to understand the wider context of their lives and circumstances.

In each of the examples described above, progress in English flourished when learner-centred practices took centre stage. Listening carefully to what learners had to say (and indeed, taking notice of what they weren’t saying) helped generate conditions where learners could grow in confidence, develop independence and build resilience.

Learner-centred practice evolved in different ways as project teams explored a wide variety of strategies and approaches for teaching and learning. In one case, by developing a heightened understanding of neurodiversity through connection with research and through actively listening to the experiences of neurodiverse learners, the project team were able to make small changes to their teaching and learning practices (including tweaking the language of classroom questions) that supported learners with their English work.

For project teams working with ESOL and pre-entry level learners, connection with research that explored the importance of eliciting learners’ schematic knowledge, coupled with caring conversations with learners about their lives and experiences, further aided the development of learner-centred teaching and learning approaches.

In one instance, the creation of a holistic self-assessment tool, which learners worked through and discussed one-to-one with a volunteer, opened up conversations about values and identity as well as about English. This helped learners feel more confident during their English lessons, aiding active engagement in class and improving contributions during speaking and listening work.

Meaningful conversations with learners about their English learning is time well spent.

The teams overwhelmingly felt that time spent with learners having meaningful conversations about learning was time well spent. Fears that time spent away from the curriculum would be detrimental were quickly alleviated, as the insights learners shared (on mental health and well-being, on socio-cultural considerations, on mindset and motivation) helped develop a culture of trust and understanding that enabled practitioners to construct more effective and productive strategies for English teaching and learning.

Opportunity to talk about learning with learners is not regularly foregrounded in education, yet it was often during these conversations that critical knowledge about effective approaches for English teaching and learning began to evolve.

For some projects, these conversations became the cornerstone of their research findings. For instance, when one project team engaged in small group work with English resit learners, they found that time spent discussing learning was as (if not more) motivational for these learners as the motivation-driven interventions they were embedding.

Another project exploring English learners’ mental health and wellbeing drew upon learner testimony to inform their teaching and learning approaches. Engaging in relational work such as this can be complex and time-consuming; practitioners across projects attested to the emotional impact of such approaches, especially when disclosures were made. Nevertheless, a common finding from our research projects suggests that feeling listened to and pro-actively supported in learning is especially important for GCSE resit learners.

Talking with learners about learning therefore seems particularly important in FE, as a way of acknowledging the deep-rooted sense of failure and disconnection many learners hold in relation to education, and as a way of co-constructing learner-centred English lessons that work hard to address the barriers to learning that learners may face.

When practitioners are supported and enabled through action research to explore and develop teaching and learning practices, new knowledge about how we learn and how we think is elicited.

One of the beauties of action research is that it provides a legitimate space for reflexive practice. When we are given permission to explore and develop aspects of our practice by allowing it to evolve and metamorphose, we often find that unexpected branches and shoots grow out from our original research questions, awakening something in our learners and in ourselves about how we learn and how we think.

By fully and openly engaging with the research process, project teams regularly found that they were left with as many questions as answers. Often, these questions revealed a shift in thinking, from a generalised acceptance that HE or school-driven strategies for English teaching and learning would work in FE (because HE-produced research told them so), to an in-depth exploration and critical analysis of ‘evidence-based’ approaches for English teaching and learning in FE.

The contextual knowledge our project teams have produced through their research is invaluable for our sector, helping us better understand what works, and what doesn’t work, for FE-based English learners.

Hints and tips for resilient action research

The hints and tips below have been generated by our project teams:

  • Keep it small. Monitoring and managing is simpler on a small scale. When you think you’ve made it small, you can generally make it smaller! You can always upscale later as things develop.
  • Before you start, be aware of contextual and cultural considerations which might get in the way. For instance, allow for learner flexibility and fit the project around learners and staff, not the other way around.
  • Zero-hour contracts can be problematic. Be mindful around choices regarding the research team and learners.
  • Keep detailed records and regularly step back to reflect. This helps to keep momentum going. You also need to focus on reporting and recording otherwise a project can run away with itself without anything to share/learning being passed on.
  • Be a scavenger: try to find meaning from things, even when they don’t fit your original anticipated outcomes.
  • Communication and creating opportunities to communicate is key. Sharing and reflecting amongst teams leads to better buy-in from all and better awareness of practice.
  • Create a collaborative, inclusive research community:
  1. Tutors don’t like being told what to do: involve them in the conception of the project and encourage their ownership. Allow them to work in their own ways and to put their individual stamp on group endeavours.
  2. Involve the students by talking to them about what you are doing and trying to achieve. Make them a regular part of the recording and reflecting process.
  3. Share the rationale for the project with everybody you can, including across the whole organisation: cultural change will be instigated only if you do so.
  • Don’t worry if you are moving in one direction and the path opens up in front of you! It’s all part of a valuable process.
  • Expect some things not to work out: this is all part of the learning and gives you insights into what you might want to try next.
  • Your assumptions don’t always have to be correct. It’s often in the explaining, asking questions, exploring and reflecting where the important learning takes place.
  • Engage the support of someone ‘external’ who isn’t directly involved in the project, to check that the project is meeting deadlines, to keep momentum and to give feedback on which you can reflect as a team.

In summary, do the best you can with the people you work with, and the project will turn out, possibly not as you intended, but definitely worthwhile and valuable for all concerned. We have found that, through following these principles, we have helped teachers and others to develop resilience so that they can better meet and overcome the challenges that each day brings for the benefit of their learners and for the society we are all privileged to be part of.