Seeing the wood and the trees: the contributions of OTLA 8 practitioners towards the growth and development of action research in further education

Claire Collins + Dr Vicky Butterby

Project Director and Programme Manager

Anthology of Practitioner Action Research Reports 2021-22


As each iteration of the Outstanding Teaching Learning and Assessment (OTLA) programme draws to a close, we hold a celebration and sharing event. Our sharing event is one of the highlights of our work on the OTLA programme, as it is a rare opportunity for us to come together as a collective to connect with, and learn from, one another. Over the course of the day, individual project teams share their research findings, reflect upon their professional and personal journeys and consider their next steps as action researchers. Our celebration and sharing events are usually a noisy affair, punctuated with laughter, deep discussion and challenging questions about what it means to be an action researcher in our highly complex, and wonderfully diverse, Further Education (FE) sector.

Professor Emerita Jean McNiff recently described action research as ‘not a technique to be applied, but a practice to be lived’ (McNiff, 2022) and this year, we employed the metaphor of a forest to help guide us through the day and situate our research practices as lived experiences within our teaching and learning communities. Drawing on the work of forester and author, Peter Wohlleben (2016), we were able to appreciate some of the similarities between forest networks and action research communities, extending some of Wohlleben’s reflections on what is required for healthy forest growth and development to consider how action research as a ‘lived practice’ can help create conditions that have the capacity to breathe new life into tired teaching spaces. Just as healthy forest networks are intricately connected through their canopies and root systems, and buzzing with life, action research activities and connections can invigorate and energise educators to free themselves (at least in part) from imposed practices: firstly, about ‘what works’ in education and secondly, about who is qualified to make these judgements. Just as growth within a forest is simultaneously visible and invisible, with feelers sent into open spaces and deep underground, the work of action researchers within FE occurs both in plain sight and deep within its undergrowth. Hidden between the cracks of long-established systems and approaches, action researchers are able to push their way through the dead wood, working together to reuse, recycle and repurpose educational curricula to ensure that learner-centred practices are at the heart of FE.

At the end of this year’s programme at the final sharing event, we facilitated a roots and leaves activity, which helped us to appreciate and understand how engaging in action research can make a difference to professional practices within FE. First, we asked people to share their ‘action research roots’, to tell us about the connections they had made and nurtured throughout the programme. Then later in the day, we gathered our‘canopy of leaves’, helping illuminate what practitioners wanted togrow from theiraction research projects moving forwards. Throughout this think piece, we draw on responses to the roots and leaves activity, alongside our day-to-day work on the OTLA 8 programme, to consider how action research within FE has the potential to:

  • Seed and grow sustainable research communities.
  • nurture safe and respectful spaces for developing and sharing practice.
  • encourage compassionate, social practices within teaching and learning spaces that centre relationship building, promote social justice and critique marketized approaches to education.
  • ignite curiosity and support the deepening of contextualised, co-created knowledges within our sector.
rocks and moss

Growing sustainable research communities in Further Education

A tree’s most important means of staying connected to other trees is a “wood wide web” of soil fungi that connects vegetation in an intimate network that allows the sharing of an enormous amount of information and goods.

– Tim Flannery (in Wohlleben,2016)

This year’s programme has once again necessitated practitioner action researchers working against a backdrop of uncertainty, as teaching and learning communities have had to adapt to the various ‘new normals’ that the Covid-19 global pandemic has bestowed upon them. In many instances, learners and teachers were back in face-to-face contact, with others taking tentative steps towards their physical classrooms and workshop spaces. In some instances, teaching was still taking place remotely, with a mix of blended learning, online classes and one to one work. The pandemic has cast, and continues to cast, its shadow over both our working and personal lives; many learners and colleagues have lost loved ones, and staff and learner absences through sickness or through shielding have been inevitable, leading to ever-widening gaps in learning, short notice cover work, and increasing withdrawal from re-energising Continuous Professional Development (CPD) opportunities.

In this extremely testing climate, described by one teacher as ‘surviving rather than thriving’, asking people to ‘go above and beyond’ their day-to-day roles to critically explore their teaching and learning practices as part of an action research project seemed a very big ask. When trees are unhappy, they shed their leaves to conserve energy, and for some, the shedding of anything other than an immediate concern for supporting learners to progress was an entirely understandable course of action.

But action research has an uncanny way of bringing people together, particularly when resources are scarce and there is a real and pressing need to think outside the box. Given the exceptionally challenging circumstances described above, could action research be considered as a form of personal as well as professional nourishment, as a gentle way of building community and offering mutual support and comfort to one another in a time of crisis?

For those who were involved in this year’s projects, the formation of practical research communities -particularly those that were created across diverse departments and between those with very different roles -were highly valued. These communities, which were championed and/or facilitated by mentors, enabled learners and teachers to connect beyond assessment outcomes and learning criteria, to consider not only what they were learning, but how they might apply their learning within other aspects of their lives. For example, learners at Haringey Adult Learning and Skills Service supported one another to apply their language learning so that their voices could be heard in relation to housing issues within their local community, and deaf learners at City Lit applied their English, British Sign Language and digital skills to re-imagine a college-wide charity event so that it became more inclusive. Staff teams were also able to work more closely together, with research meetings providing much needed time and space for colleagues to reflect on past action and discuss ‘what next?’ Staff in diverse roles and from different departments were able to draw upon one another’s guidance and expertise, helping in some instances to ‘tackle old problems in new ways’ and move towards a collective responsibility for practice improvement, as these responses to the roots and canopy activity illustrate:

Q. What connections have you made and/ or deepened during OTLA 8?

Staff across subjects and departments, external agencies (now partners)’

Q. What will grow from your work this year?

‘I hope a desire for more action researchers to come forward within our organisation. I also hope the great relationships we have built with important stakeholders. I hope a better environment for our learners.’

The development of these cross-organisational working practices through action research activity can help contribute to refreshing and strengthening collaborative working culture within organisations (described by Kemmis et al, 2014 as understanding the site’s ‘practice architectures’). We can again compare this to a healthy forest, which is nurtured and nourished through the mutual relationships that are established and grown between flora and fauna. Furthermore, widening stakeholder involvement in relation to the development of effective teaching and learning strategies, also encourages a shift away from siloed (individualistic) practices towards holistic educative practices that are firmly rooted in, and deeply responsive to, learners’ lives.

trees in a forest

Cultivating safe and respectful spaces for professional and practice development

When trees grow together, nutrients and water can be optimally divided among them all so that each tree can grow into the best tree it can be. If you “help” individual trees by getting rid of their supposed competition, the remaining trees are bereft.

– Peter Wohlleben

In a forest environment, information is continually shared, which supports the health and development of the entire ecosystem. These ‘rhizomatic connections’ are equally important in our own work in FE, as they forge important lines of communication that enable and encourage shared learning within and across organisations (Sidebottom and Mycroft, 2018). Over the course of the OTLA 8 programme, it was exciting to notice where and how these connections developed, with practice being discussed, shared and critiqued both in the open (through organised meetings and dissemination events) and below the surface (through informal in person and/ or online conversations between practitioners). In many instances, OTLA 8 Research Group Leads (RGLs) and mentors were able to operate as metaphorical switchboards, linking those who had similar research interests, common experiences or shared teaching and learning challenges. These new (or in some cases, renewed) relationships between participants within and across organisations helped cultivate fresh ideas and sparked innovative approaches to teaching and learning support. Nurtured by action research as a methodology that encourages questioning, risk taking, critical thinking, self-reflection and challenge, the OTLA 8 programme was able to provide much needed space and time for FE practitioners to act as critical friends for one another, access mentoring support and actively engage with learners and colleagues as co-researchers. In several cases, practitioners spoke about feeling energised by the process, as they felt that their working practices and professional values were becoming more closely aligned:

Q. What connections have you made and/ or deepened during OTLA 8?

‘Connections with other programme teams all working to try and make FE an even better place to work and study’.

Q. What will grow from your work this year?

‘A desire to challenge inequalities within educational spaces (and beyond)’.

In a similar vein, the OTLA team were able to work closely this year with colleagues facilitating other ETF programmes, including the Advanced Practitioner Programme, Maths and SEND Centres for Excellence and the Essential Digital Skills team. Coming together with other programme facilitators helped generate a collaborative understanding of the current challenges within FE, the internal and external support systems being developed in response, and where programmes needed to stand together to better understand and help meet the needs of our participants. Our joint meetings also enabled good news stories to be shared, collaborative CPD opportunities to be promoted, and respectful challenge to be offered to one another regarding how programmes could be further strengthened and developed. Working in this collaborative, non-competitive way helped us to stray across boundaries and appreciate fresh growth across the sector, helping to rhizomatically unite previously disparate patches of woodland to further develop, encourage and extend the rich and diverse forest of home-grown research that is currently being produced by those who are working and learning within FE.

Rhizomatic working has energy, it brings an activist focus by tunnelling its way out of the flowerbed, crossing disciplines and refusing to differentiate between gardens and wasteland: it is essentially democratising, revealing unseen demarcation lines before breaching them.

– Mycroft and Sidebottom, 2018, p.2

Paramount to the success of these spaces within the OTLA 8 programme (and also between the different research-based programmes on offer through the ETF) was the careful creation and nurturing of conditions that fostered respect and trust between practitioners (Donovan, 2021). This was especially important in instances where research topics and/ or findings threatened the status quo, either in their divergence from well-established practices/ dominant academic literatures and/or by their challenging of organisational policies/ hegemonic ideas about FE. In the current political climate, which posits education providers as businesses and learning as something that can be bought and sold (Smith, 2014; Kulz, 2017), the use of action research as a way of forging safe and respectful spaces for dialogue between individuals, organisations and professional development programmes felt extremely important. Through their engagement in action research, practitioners were able to challenge and reject some of the invasive knowledge systems that have been imposed upon FE from the outside, moving instead towards a more holistic form of learning about how to improve and develop teaching, learning and managerial practices, which stems from within.

bluebell field

Action Research as a social practice

Nevertheless, I have learned from this just how powerful a community of trees can be. “A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.” Trees could have come up with this old craftsperson’s saying. And because they know this intuitively, they do not hesitate to help each other out.

– Peter Wohlleben

We have established above that action research carried out through the OTLA programme enabled and nurtured relationships and collaborative development in FE settings. If we view action research through a ‘social practices’ lens, one that has been more commonly applied to the teaching of adult literacy over the last 30 years(Papen, 2005) we can also start to explore the power that it gives teachers and learners to work together to identify for themselveswhat works, where andwhyand, thereby, to improve teaching, learning and assessment from a situated and grounded perspective. Social practice theories refute the idea that there are forms of knowledge that, if learnt correctly, can be applied anywhere. By viewing action research as a social practice, we can also challenge the idea that the purpose of research in education is “to change educational practitioners’ practices so they will conform to educational theorists’ theories about how practice should be conducted.” (Kemmis, 2009, p.5) Instead, action research foregrounds the socially and historically-constructed nature of knowledge and gives teachers “intellectual and moral control over their practice” (IBID, p.6).

The importance of positioning teachers (and learners) as knowers, with the resources and aptitude to identify effective teaching, learning and assessmentpractices, cannot be understated. There is much rhetoric at the moment in FE about the use of ‘evidence informed’ practices, which can be interpreted narrowly and, as Wrigley (2016) argues far too simplistically and mistakenly, as being about teachers adopting approaches ‘proven’ through ‘objective research’ to work at a large scale. Knowledge is seen differently however on the OTLA programme. Here, we focused on teachers (as well as other professionals and, at times, learners) gathering and analysing their own evidence of what works or doesn’t work in particular contexts and with particular learners.

Viewing action research as social practice is not just about identifying/ developing ‘effective’ forms of teaching, learning and assessment it is also about understanding and responding to the consequences of our actions on ourselves and others (Kemmis 2009). It is, thereby, a practice rooted in our individual and collective values. This understanding can help us to problematise what it means for an educational practice to be ‘effective’ (effective as in ‘this assessment for learning practice really works!’) When considering the effectiveness of their actions, OTLA researchers tried to understand what consequences these actions had on their learners and on eachother. Virtues such as sensitivity and compassion were shown by those who took part in the OTLA programme. This was evident in their reports; that talked about how the action research had influenced and affected others and what was done to ensure people were included and their views understood and represented. Often, as McNiff notes in her editorial for ‘Value and Virtue in Practice-Based Research’ (2013), people’s values are not illuminated clearly enough during action research. McNiff (IBID) explains the importance of expressing our work in terms of our values so we can ‘shine where the light and life are’ and argue clearly that we are engaged in ‘virtuous practices’. In his closing piece for the same book, Julian Sternfurther stresses the importance of doing action research in our communities, where we can ‘live divided no more’.

An example of a virtuous OTLA project is illusrated here by the team at NOVUS (it was hard to choose one to share, as value-based decisions and virtuous actions were evident everywhere we looked in the OTLA 8 anthology of reports. The project involved people from across the prisons where it took place. People who had previously often been excluded from taking part in digital developments, such as vocational trainers in the prisons, were included from the outset, alongside prison learners as key creators and evaluators of the approaches being trailed. The action research “opened up an opportunity for the production of learner-led, co-designed digital skills development strategies and resources, which can be incorporated into future schemes of work as learners suggest the platforms and digital tasks they would like to explore next.”

Q. What connections have you made and/ or deepened during OTLA 8?

‘Building a community and sense ofshared understanding with learners.’

Q. What will grow from your work this year?

‘Really involving learners from the outset in new and authentic ways’

Conceptualising action research as social practice on OTLA encouraged us to create space for people(with each other, with their mentors and research group leads and with people from other projects) to identify what they knew and needed to find out in order to move their practice forwards in virtuous ways.

trees in a forest with some purple flowers in the background

Action research as a curiosity igniter

Perhaps we are poorer for having lost a possible explanation or richer for having gained a mystery.

– Peter Wohlleben

Throughout the programme activities, from our large events, to more intimate research round tables and project-level mentoring meetings,we expressed action research as a way to explore the unknown, to be curious. In doing so people ‘changed their practices, their understandings of their practices, and the conditions under which they practiced’ (Carr and Sometimes it's nice to be lostKemmis, 1986) This action research curiosity, to explore the unknown, is different to traditionalist social science, as it can lead to more questions than answers. However, as we noted above, action research processes or ‘meta practices’ (Kemmis, 2009) are, in themselves, enactments that can be virtuous and, also, incredibly fulfilling. There is ajoy in being able to wander along different paths and have the opportunity to explore lesser trod areas. Action researchers often had a general idea of where they wanted to go but they appreciated that they could take many different paths and that what they found there might not be what they expected (or hoped for!)

We, the OTLA programme team, reminded people that sometimes it’s good to be lost! They could re-route and that was OK. We encouraged people to appreciate that, in getting lost, they would almost always learn knew things and make new discoveries about their practice. As Jean McNiff reminded us recently (2022), ‘all movement is movement’ and it is the job of action researchers to identify the significance of what they are learning for themselves and others.

Thinking about the significance of our work is not always straightforward. As Jean McNiff outlined in a summer school we ran this year (McNiff, 2022), questions of significance invite us to consider the criteria against which our work will be judged and the standards that will be employed in that judgment. Jean also invited us to critique the notion of ‘impact’ and think instead of the influencethat our action research has/ could have on others. It is important, as many of the OTLA action researchers reminded us this year, to work with others to understand our influence on them so that, when we share more widely, we can express the trustworthiness and relatability of our work. This is in contrast to more widely held research values of reliability and validity and of the notion of rigor. Rigor, like ‘evidence-based’ is a concept in research that seems so ‘obviously correct’ and we had no wish to present ideas of research that were not rigorous. We interpreted this in different ways, however, using such concepts as ‘trustworthy triangulation’ (thanks to our colleague Dr Andy Convery for introducing us to this idea) when it came to identifying evidence of what was working or not (triangulating evidence in terms of time (before, during and after an intervention) and people (our own reflections, that of our peers and that of our learners.) Again, the ideas of trustworthiness and relatability were central here.

Q. What connections have you madeand/ or deepened during OTLA 8?

‘With myself! Thinking about my own impact (positive and negative) on my world’

Q. What will grow from your work this year?

‘More curiosity, greater space for creative, learner-centred thinking. Activism and further challenging of inequalities.’

Concluding thoughts

This year there was a tinge of sadness within the team, as the OTLA programme is coming to an end. However, action research is always more of a comma than a full stop, and we are excited to see how our forest of FE research will continue to grow and self-sustain left to its own creative devices. We will each take what we have learnt during our time on OTLA into our future work and lives.We have shared our reflections above on the symbiotic relationships between action research and community; the idea of knowledge co-creation, how we see action research as social practice and an ignitor of curiosity, and why this matters. We can see in the OTLA 8 anthology countless examples of projects that were values-driven and positioned teachers (and other educators), along with the learners they teach as ‘knowers’ and ‘effective practice’ asdeeply rooted in context and social purpose.In our often marginalised, ‘second chance’ sector, where we typically work with learners who are less heard, who are pushed to the peripheries of society and who feel less valued by education (Duckworth and Smith, 2019), the development of contextualised, learner-centred pedagogies and practices that feel meaningful and relevant is of the utmost importance. Through action research, we have an opportunity to work withlearners rather than doing tothem, to embrace our curiosities about teaching and learning and (rather than mindlessly following pre-determined routes and irrelevant signposts of success) explore the forest that is the further education sector together.

red mushroom

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