Academic and Practitioner-Led Research, We Can Learn From and Inform Both

Gail Lydon

Research Group Lead

Anthology of Practitioner Action Research Reports 2020-21

The impact of low maths skills

Our work in post-16 education interfaces with some of the leastadvantaged individuals in our communities. Within these groups are many with low levels of numeracy making them more susceptible to losing jobs, receiving lower wages, poor health, etc. (National Numeracy, 2021). The practitioners sharing their OTLA 7 research are sharing their passion for supporting their learners to develop these life changing skills. There are many themes reflected through the maths research projects. Here I share a few thoughts with you.

The power of reflection

In May 2021 I read a research review by Ofsted (2021d) which had over 200 references and it is a fascinating read. The following month, June 2021, I had the pleasure of reading the reports of the maths OTLA 7 projects, equally fascinating but taking a very different approach. These reports are a frank and open consideration by practitioner researchers of their own
practice. They shine a different light on maths practice in post-16 education in England. I choose the words ‘frank’ and ‘open’ deliberately because the researchers have shared their reflections in powerful and honest ways, sharing their experiences, concerns, disappointments, and learning.

Some of the most exciting aspects of the practitioner research have been down to looking at known strategies and applying them in new ways and I think there are some powerful messages for all of us who care so much about the learning taking place in our classrooms and workspaces.

The teaching of maths is a complicated activity, and it appears even more complicated when we are faced with the plethora of approaches being recommended in our sector and in schools. But there is something aligning in the OTLA 7 practitioner research and the academic research – small changes can make a big difference! Finessing our practice rather than wholesale change is the way to go.

Small Changes make a big difference

Solihull College and University Centre’s project enabled students to engage successfully in online learning between their maths lessons. They changed “homework” to “preparation”, consulted with their students and adapted tasks. Class norms changed; students expected one another to prepare; they enjoyed the lessons more, worked harder and results improved.

Academic versus practitioner-led research

I think there is value in all research if the data, approach, and reason for the research is transparent. For some, academic research is more rigorous than practitioner-led action research, partly because of what is seen as the subjective nature of practitioner research, but it is important to note that academic research too must be read with an open and questioning mind. This is epitomised in a research study (Schweinsberg et al, 2021) where 180 co-authors used the same data to test the same two hypotheses and came up with 29 different results. Reflecting on the study, Schweinsberg states:

“Our study illustrates the benefits of transparent and open science practices. Subjective analytical choices are unavoidable, and we should embrace them because a collection of diverse analytical backgrounds and approaches can reveal the true consistency of an empirical claim.”

From the very outset our reason for researching needs to be clear to both ourselves and our readers. As per Schweinsberg et al, our practitioner research must embrace our analytical choices, as long as we are aware of and share why we are making these choices.

We can build our research and develop our own ideas by reading and learning from what others have done. However, as Dana (2016) states:

“The real world of schools and classrooms are not controlled settings, rather they are wonderfully messy and complicated places, making broad-scale implementation of any practice derived in a controlled setting inherently complicated.“

We must look for the diamonds and golden threads – we must not lose sight of our own common sense and the practical wisdom we and our colleagues have developed.

Diamonds and Golden Threads

The Sheffield College‘s project set out to investigate if a more nuanced approach to undertaking weekly electronic diagnostic assessments prior to attendance at a weekly GCSE Mathematics Resit class improved learner motivation, confidence, and their learning experience.

“Interviews with learners and staff have been a rich data source. The challenge was to identify the diamonds and golden threads”.

Teachers make a difference

We teachers have no control of the baggage our learners bring to our classrooms, but we need to be aware of the baggage – it’s about more than the maths! What we can do is be the best we can. Hattie (2003) suggests that what teachers do accounts for about 30% of the variance in learner achievement. This is huge! I believe that practitioner research is a way to be the best teachers we can be. We must interface with both academic and practitioner-led research.

It’s about more than the maths

Bishop Burton and Riseholme College‘s project took a holistic approach to Functional Skills (FS) maths. They developed a blended learning environment that helped to give learners the confidence to risk being wrong and created a hands up culture where a comfortable classroom allowed deeper thinking and discussion around misconceptions.

“I think the biggest thing we have learnt throughout this project is that it is not just about the maths. We are all adaptable and resilient, but it helps when we know that we are not alone”.

What next?

I hope that the OTLA 7 reports will be widely read and discussed by the sector and by academic researchers. I also hope that the researchers involved in OTLA 7 will return to their reports and reread them in the future in the light of new and evolving research in and on the sector.