How Project Mentors Energise Practitioner Research

Dr Andy Convery

Research and Professional Development Lead, ccConsultancy Associate

This is the third OTLA programme managed by our team, and we can reflect on some very successful projects which have inspired learners’ self-belief, boosted their self-esteem, and spurred learners to enjoy challenge and success in reading and writing activities.

Tired teachers have been revitalised and have raised their expectations about what they – and their learners – might achieve. Vocational tutors, learning support assistants, library staff and volunteers have discovered they can be crucial in nurturing learners’ confidence and skills as readers, writers – and even as spellers. As a programme team with considerable previous experience of practitioner research and development programmes, we have become aware that this OTLA English programme has been very successful, as evidenced by the project reports and importantly, by the underpinning teachers’ accounts, the learners’ feedback and the evidence of progression in case studies of learners’ journeys. From my role as Research and Professional Development Lead, it is apparent that appointing a team of mentors was the central factor in facilitating teachers’ professional growth and their learners’ increased skills and confidence with English. It is worth asking:

  • Why did this team have such impact?
  • How did our programme structure help them to hit the ground running?
  • What lessons have we learned for the design of practitioner support in similar programmes?
    The mentors’ roles in the project

The mentors’ roles in the project

In this programme we had designed a support structure in which the 45 successful organisations were grouped into 12 thematic projects of three or four partners who were coordinated and supported by a mentor.

Mentors were chosen both for their relevant subject expertise and their contributions to practitioner professional development activities. Mentors worked most closely with the “project leads”, who usually led the project in each of their 3 or 4 partner organisations. Mentors had four main roles to perform with their 3 or 4 partner organisations in their respective projects:

  • Quality Assurance – complementing the Strand Leads by providing first-line encouragement to meet the project reporting commitments;
  • Facilitating English Teaching – helping projects adopt and implement more effective teaching strategies;
  • Encouraging Practitioner Research – encouraging all practitioners to engage with, and report on, their English experiments in classrooms.
  • Reminding projects to collect “evidence” – participating teachers tended to focus upon planning and resourcing new teaching activities. Mentors encouraged project teams to focus on gathering credible evidence of the effects of these activities on learners.

There were also four Strand Leads who operated as “Lead Mentors” for a group of three projects. The four leads met monthly with the programme management team. These leads were selected because they were themselves nationally recognised English specialists with expertise in complementary areas of English (i.e. post-16 GCSE English; post-16 Phonics: GCSE/Functional Skills qualification design; and Adult Literacy.)

Being able to appoint well-qualified and respected staff to act as mentors was a major benefit for the project.

Why did we invest heavily in a mentoring team?

Our previous OTLA management experience had identified that the most productive projects were led by exceptional project leads who had experience of teacher development and some experience of practitioner research approaches. We attempted to ensure that all projects benefited from having access to such informed leadership, and well-qualified mentors could develop project leadership across the board. We were also conscious that other collaborative projects that had been informed by JPD (joint practice development) sometimes led to activity that could be limited to partners simply recycling limited strategies.

Because English teaching was so important in the post-16 sector, we needed experienced specialists to provide direction and to help teachers to leave their comfort zones and feel confident in accessing, testing and revising the most successful English approaches from all sectors. Engaging subject specialists to advise over the life of a project could improve the quality and focus of the research.

Our experience showed that all participants needed support, but the really productive “flagship” projects had benefited from being driven as well as supported. They needed support in overcoming barriers arising in their practitioner research processes, and also, they needed access to the latest English thinking and practices. We invested in experienced mentors with some research background and also expert pedagogical subject knowledge as we wanted every project to be a flagship.

This strategy is a development of the ETF-funded Technical Skills programme approach which appointed two central “Excellence Advisors” to support the individual project “Peer Advisors” who were available to projects; however, our design wanted mentors to be not just available, but to be proactive in ensuring the momentum of the practitioner research could be sustained. Mentors needed to provide a crucial dimension in the rhythm of professional development events designed into the overall programme. Mentors could be uniquely situated to provide

How well did the mentors fulfil their potential?

Across ESOL, GCSE resit and Functional Skills projects, there was evidence that learners could be roused from demotivation and passivity and gain self-belief in their achievements and potential. Teachers used the project opportunities to begin to know their learners in much greater depth, and to better understand the barriers that learners were experiencing. In terms of quantitative progress, twelve projects generated 41 reports, and each is underpinned by case records of learner journeys, including examples of learners’ work, teacher strategies and resources, and teacher accounts of their personal experience. These well-written reports are each animated by appendices where other practitioners can find materials to help their own decision-making.

One can also see the added value that Strand Leads and mentors have provided in the improved quality of the evidence that projects produced:

1. Projects drew upon a wider range of evidence from beyond the sector.
The influence of the mentors can be seen where projects drew on emerging good practice from beyond our own sector. The mentors encouraged projects to engage with practices from schools and outside agencies (such as oracy approaches and use of visualisers). Mentors also introduced variations on established approaches (e.g. scaffolding and mnemonics) from other settings, and advised how they might be tested in our sector settings to develop partners’ practitioner research. Experienced mentors guided projects to draw upon practice and ideas fromProfessional Exchange Networks, and they also drew on learning from earlier OTLA projects to offer new avenues and facilitate progress.

2. Mentors encouraged projects to test received opinions
Mentors also gave projects the confidence to test ideas from the research community rather than accept them uncritically and obediently. Mentors invited projects to test approaches (such as strategies recommended in the post-16 Phonics toolkit) and to adapt them to a range of vocational contexts, from prison education to Community SEND. They also encouraged projects to critically challenge over-simplistic mantras about mindset or resilience so that teachers could integrate principles into their practical planning in challenging contexts. Some projects also questioned the authority of established literature (e.g. Hattie 2015) by providing evidence of the impact of volunteers supporting teachers.

3. Practitioners sustained their inquiries in action research cycles.
Staff in our sector always seem under pressure and some projects bend to pressure, curtail research activities and submit a minimal report with token evidence. In this programme, the majority of organisations have engaged wholeheartedly in sustaining risk-taking and exploration, and there are valuable examples of teachers acknowledging “What didn’t go as planned”, and outlining the limitations of their research activities.

There are also engaging examples of practitioners’ personal accounts of teaching dilemmas, illustrating what they have learned through their new relationships with learners and with colleagues in different roles and different subject areas. The quality of these measured reports, illuminated by insightful personal accounts from individual teachers, indicates their significant professional development. Many have offered reflective accounts which evidence how they have risen above their need to defend their former practices as they have become more responsive to learners.

I would argue that the examples of sustained inquiry and self-reflection in project reports result from the continuing support by mentors which has stimulated practitioners’ capacity to do research, and this has validated practitioners’ emerging identities as practitioner-researchers.

Which strategies improved mentors’ capacity to act as practitioner-research facilitators?

In retrospect, it is possible to identify a number of factors that were instrumental in maximising the effectiveness of our well-equipped mentors. These included:

1. Sharing guided feedback on project proposals
Most organisations had been over-ambitious in writing their project proposals (both in terms of project scope and research “doability”) but they provided an excellent foundation for negotiation. Consequently, we sent each project (and their mentor) detailed feedback and a suggested revised research schedule. Mentors found this useful, both for highlighting our programme research approach and also for offering a timetable of focused research activities. These proposal revisions acted as the basis of action planning discussions between the mentors and their research teams.

2. The dynamics and content of project inception meetings.
We made a conscious decision to invest time and personnel in the individual project “inception meetings” which were staffed by mentors and members of the Programme Team. We designed these days as educational planning days to prepare those teachers and managers from partner organisations for leading their project teams. We had planned a variety of case studies and interactive exemplar materials to engage project leads in the practical application of issues crucial to ensuring the project success:

  • What teaching activities will our project focus upon?
  • How can we ensure the participation and commitment of all the English team? What CPD might they need for this project?
  • Who are the learners, and how will we judge their progress?
  • How will we support and encourage teachers to conduct action research and to gather evidence of their teaching?

We included mentors in the delivery of these practitioner-led research activities and the experience proved educative for all. These inception events initiated a collaborative ethos, with mentors and project teams working and learning together. The case-studies sparked good working relationships between mentors and project teams, and planning tasks provided project leads and mentors with a purposeful plan for which they could assume elements of joint responsibility and ownership.

During these meetings, organisational project leads found it reassuring to meet the other partners who were following their particular theme. Typically, discussions encouraged partners to deliberate how they might best experiment with approaches (e.g. “Should we use commercially produced podcasts to promote knowledge of language features?”; “Could teachers produce their own podcasts?”; “Could students make them?”; “How?”; “In pairs?” “Which levels of learners would podcasts help most?” etc). Such discussion inevitably introduced practitioner research into teachers’ everyday practice – helping teachers ground their inquiries into pragmatic judgements about activities that involved the learners whenever possible. These meetings were educative for all participants; mentors became central in adopting practitioner research approaches to investigate the value of English strategies. These meetings seemed instrumental in stimulating a research facilitator dimension to complement mentors’ identities as English experts.

3. Building in a rhythm of CPD events

Whilst a powerful inception experience was necessary to kick-start the Programme, we knew that projects needed the continuing support of a “rhythm” of CPD. Too often, practitioner research begins with detailed planning, only for projects to become side-lined when competing pressures intervened. To counter this fall-off, we had organised a series of subsequent one-day events, including “Investigating Teaching & Learning” regional events, Interim and Final Dissemination Events, and “Writing Days” to energise project participants.
The national events foregrounding research and writing approaches were ostensibly directed at projects, but they also served as a professional development opportunity for mentors as these meetings emphasised the events described them as an invaluable and productive learning experience; not just for the content of the presentations, but also by learning about other mentors’ and projects’ priorities, practices and concerns, they developed unique understandings about how to manage their extended roles as “English specialist” and “research facilitator”. Their experiences of these events were powerful in establishing their membership of the project mentors’ community of practice.

Conclusion: mentors make projects work (harder)

Mentors have ensured that the teachers and learners on this project have fully achieved their potential. Their supportive and constructive presence has driven a wide range of projects far beyond what would have been achieved without their steadfast interest and responsiveness. If these reflections end on a sobering note, it is because mentors exerted most effort into those few projects who did not commit as wholeheartedly to mentors’ efforts.

Successful mentoring requires two-way commitment, and whilst mentors can provide support, projects have to engage with the mentoring process. Those projects who were limited in their progress tended to be those projects who absented themselves from meetings and distanced themselves from offers of mentor support. Some projects who suffered staffing attrition or organisational upheaval but responded to mentor encouragement still made significant professional progress, albeit for a reduced number of staff and students, and they have still contributed to our understanding of English teaching in challenging contexts.

There has not been space in this booklet to publish the reports of all mentors, so we have invited reports from the four lead mentors. On reflection, I appreciate that we would benefit from listening to the voices of all twelve. Fortunately, several have joined the “Writing for Publication” mentoring project which continues beyond this programme, so I anticipate they may shortly be using their creative resourcefulness to complete this phase of our education…