Cultivating Professional Change Through Action Research
Dr Andy Convery
Research and Professional Development Lead
Welcome to our new environmentally-friendly, freely accessible and shareable compendium of OTLA action research accounts from all corners of the Further Education and post-16 sector. This digital platform is liberated from the constraints of the 15th Century Gutenberg printing press technology, and gives busy staff immediate access to the illuminative appendices which accompany each report. At the click of a mouse you’re invited into living classrooms filled with recognisable students – young and old, rowdy and reserved, nervous and noisy. At the beginning of their stories, these learners often share a common initial frustration that success in education will be out of their reach. Then gradually, through the illustrated appendices, we see these learners blossoming as teachers and support assistants build learners’ trust – learners’ trust in the teachers, learners’ trust in their changing classroom experiences, and increasingly, learners’ trust in themselves to actually achieve success.
“in some cases we had reduced our expectations of our students’ capabilities and therefore reduced the challenge too much….
…We are now beginning to push learners more and expect more of them.”
Through the clickable links, readers may recognise painfully familiar teacher experiences of being faced with negative students rejecting prescribed approaches within ‘one size fits all’ systems. However, time after time on their research journeys, the accounts and appendices document how staff fire learners’ sense of their potential as curious readers, as more assured writers of English, or as digitally confident communicators. Readers will recognise teachers’ delight when they make breakthroughs and spark learners into believing in themselves. In the following accounts, we see how these triumphant moments are almost always triggered by teachers searching for – then investing in – their learners’ feedback. Both teachers and learners enjoy ‘eureka’ moments as they realise what fresh possibilities await. These OTLA 8 accounts are brought to life by teachers providing examples of annotated learners’ work, highlighting learners’ and colleagues’ comments, and sharing candid commentaries and perceptive reflections about their changing classroom relationships. Teachers reading these will seize on these lively supplements as intelligent insights into what is pragmatically possible in similar circumstances – and begin to plan their own changes.
Refining teachers’ pedagogical practices
We see teachers adopting and adapting new teaching strategies (such as encouraging target-setting, introducing ‘resilience’ materials, or introducing new online applications) and such ‘pedagogical processes’ are often the starting point across our 41 projects. We often see teachers agreeing to explore a strategy – such as target-setting – and then negotiating how best it can be applied and evaluated in their particular settings. The findings are revealing: teams find themselves confronting their own assumptions about how strategies work; how learners can use these strategies; and what they, as teachers, need to do to help these learners. For example, through investigating target-setting in practice, colleagues on different projects quickly realised that target-setting was not straightforward, and that it could become dominated by ‘teacher targets’. Such research gives teachers confidence – and a sense of responsibility – to devise personal pedagogical approaches that are effective and meaningful in their classrooms.
Across almost all the following accounts, the major shifts in teachers’ pedagogical understanding – and their classroom decision-making – resulted from their emerging and renewed insights into their learners’ potential. As they revised their appreciation of how learners actually experience the learning process, they began working together to recognise and remove the barriers that block learners’ engagement and stifle their commitment to learn.
Listening to (and learning from) learners
The catalyst for teachers changing their pedagogical approaches was when teachers began meaningful conversations with learners about learning. When teachers created a space to listen attentively to learners’ feedback about the practical initiatives they were introducing, this inspired the teachers to work with the learners to experiment with changes.
In practice, teachers built working research relationships with learners.
The successful development of all teaching strategies depended upon the teachers’ willingness to listen and learn about the learners’ experience, and to design activities that learners found more engaging.
For example, Preston College’s delight that ‘classrooms became workshops’ typically illustrates how learners’ passive expectations could be transformed by working together to design inspiring learning activities that boosted learners’ belief in who they could become.
In many accounts, projects became successful when learners got onboard to fashion their learning activities and teachers learned to place more trust in learners’ feedback.
Learners became both motivated and receptive in response to teachers’ genuine concern to improve learners’ skills and confidence. When staff listened carefully to learners, and then acted on the learners’ thoughtful responses, teachers were able to adapt their approaches to introduce more relevant strategies in a receptive environment.
Developing improved professional development
Across the English, ESOL and Essential Digital Skills projects that follow, teachers reveal their emerging awareness of the complexities of post-16 learning settings, and of their potential to take further steps to help their learners. Project teams are inspired to help learners who have often – for a complex variety of hidden reasons – been failed by the dominant pedagogical approaches practised elsewhere. The OTLA 8 programme frees teachers to invest energy in designing more relevant activities that are not directly prescribed by the content of the syllabus or assessment criteria. For example, investing their energies in encouraging reading cultures, or working through resilience activities to boost learners’ self-esteem. The principal pedagogical change evident across the OTLA projects (and especially so from OTLA 8) is teachers’ confident capacity to make professional judgements – and take actions – that address their learners’ fundamental interests. Put simply, through joining action research projects, teachers’ eyes are opened to what hinders – and helps – learners’ progress.
“One of the comparative strengths of the OTLA8 project was the creative freedom it offered.”
In the accounts that follow, we see staff and learners developing greater empathy. When teachers initiate meaningful discussions about learners’ relationship with their subjects and their learning environment, staff began to appreciate and value learners’ complementary cultural capital. Teachers’ professional expertise stems from their capacity to establish learners’ starting points; the action research investigations provided even deeper insights into learners’ lived experiences so they could better understand how dominant academic forms of expression and representation might be inhibiting learners’ potential. Consequently, across a range of projects, responsive teacher researchers negotiate reading schemes to build upon learners’ preferred interests; technology staff rephrase obstructive terminologies; vocational staff are invited onto project teams to help overcome cultural barriers to reading from apprentices; and everywhere, there is a new appreciation and respect for learners’ traditions. Time after time in the reports, project leaders highlight how the projects have helped staff enhance their professionalism, often citing Professional Standard 5: ‘Value and promote social and cultural diversity, equality of opportunity and inclusion’
Staff working and learning together
These projects certainly refreshed teachers’ professional know-how; however, it was the social element of staff working together on the OTLA programme that gave individual teachers a newfound confidence to risk attempting their new ideas in challenging settings. Often, teams created a dynamic; staff became excited by new ideas, and then feeding back how their attempts had fared created fresh enthusiasm across teams to take further risks.
Some teamwork was carefully planned from the start – for example SAVTE wanted to explore the benefits of teaching triangles. For others, teamwork began in departmental meetings as an organisational convenience, and an unexpected bonus of these projects are the improved relationships between staff within – and between – English, ESOL and EDS departments. Many of the projects illustrate departmental teaching teams enjoying a refreshing and enlightening review of their practices, and most draw attention to the importance of their wider teaching relationships with support workers, vocational teachers, learning resource staff and admin and management. Several projects noted how staff working outside of English, ESOL or digital support departments embraced the project initiatives as opportunities for them to develop their own English, ESOL and digital understandings, thus contextualising digital, literacy and/or language practices to enhance their existing approaches. In the secure estate, four prison education projects noted how their efforts had refreshed the links between separated provisions and contributed to national staff development activities.
The project format often acted as a very effective professional development focus. Well-managed projects responded with sensitivity to teachers’ individual development needs which recognised their differing situations.
“The project has afforded the opportunity for English and Learning Support staff to work together more closely and provided us both with more time to reflect on how we can best support our learners and ensure that they get the most out of their classes.”
Some projects were inspired by ideas that did not achieve their intended potential and needed to be refocused and revised, and this process of joint discovery and problem-solving; “Why is this not working?” – often proved important for team development.
Most projects were instigated by experienced teachers operating in a curriculum leadership role, and some were organised by those with overarching management responsibilities. Several senior managers noted how projects had improved their connections with teaching staff in the search for workable teaching and learning solutions – resetting their relationships with the staff whom they managed as the project activities highlighted the degree of teachers’ professional commitment. Through the project, they developed a better understanding of the teachers, the learners, and the challenges in context. Projects varied in the extent and commitment of staff; for example, Boston College project focused the attention of five staff (including ESOL, vocational and support specialists) on two ESOL learners. This not only benefited both learners but it also proved an intensive professional development opportunity for the team, giving them all insight into how they might prepare for future support of ESOL learners.
“Some teachers thrived within the sessions; they had ‘lightbulb moments’, were open to implementing and trialling new approaches and were not put off if they did not work first time. However, other teachers struggled to see how the concepts could be applied.”
Some projects also took advantage of support from the wider community – Leeds College of Building encouraged University students to act as mentors, and Myerscough College engaged UCLAN students to support individual learners’ creative writing activities. These attempts to introduce new participants into learners’ lives had positive impacts on extending learners’ social worlds and communication skills. We see teams enjoying fresh opportunities to work together, and these project initiatives revived participants’ sense of agency – the project opportunity stimulated participants’ sense of potential and motivated commitment.
“The most impressive impact is that after our director saw our research work, she decided to implement all these activities into our Grade 1,2 and 3 GCSE English Schemes of Work for 2022-2023!”
Alongside teachers seizing the chance to reinvigorate tired topic approaches, vocational tutors volunteered as role model narrators to demonstrate the importance of reading, support workers assumed new responsibilities when freed by the projects, and managers rediscovered the excitement of sparking learners’ interest. Haringey Adult Learning Services and Darlington College engaged learners as mentors which both inspired the mentors and ensured that learners were given additional support and opportunities to communicate their needs through additional channels. The management of Essex ACL encouraged participation in the research process by persuading staff to share their own ‘teaching nuggets’, thus increasing buy-in to experimenting with tried and tested resources that were endorsed by credible colleagues. However one team leader regretted that participation in regular team Zoom meetings – which had been central to staff communication in lockdown – were no longer scheduled. Staff were keen to resume face-to-face contact, and it became difficult to carve out time for those dedicated teacher meetings as staff were once more sucked into their organisations’ demanding schedules.
“In a college community which is predominantly white, working class and male, it was important to us to open up the frame of reference and make unexpected partnerships. The work we are doing with Leeds Arts University is a good example of this, enabling our students to work alongside undergraduates and gain an insight into different lifestyles and world views.”
Teachers becoming researchers – the social benefits
We can see teachers were often excited to be researching together. Although staff may have worked alongside each other for years, their OTLA 8 projects injected a new focus for rethinking old practices that weren’t working, and this created a team bonding which inspired risk-taking and honest sharing of results. For example, there are several ‘resilience’ projects which created a space for teachers to review why learners were unreceptive to teachers’ best efforts. These projects provided staff with the time and space to rethink why learners might be reluctant to engage. This space also encouraged teachers to judge which new approaches might be most valuable for their particular cohorts, and they felt less threatened about making changes as they were supported by the group. Across the projects, we see examples of stronger social relationships with long-standing colleagues – relationships that are now more professionally rewarding.
An important aspect of the team research is the reassuring acceptance and acknowledgement of what strategies are unsuccessful, and several team leaders have indicated that team members were encouraged to contribute more openly when experienced team leaders had shared their own lack of success with differing approaches. This trust prompted further self-disclosures that paved the way for colleagues to establish common ground and to commit to discovering more effective and responsive strategies. This social research process is so important in moving teams beyond a frustration and resignation about, “What doesn’t work” and prompts a constructive energy focused upon, “What learners need…”
Diversity in project leadership
Projects were initiated by project leaders in differing situations. Some projects were led by experienced practitioners who were interested in rolling out new strategies, resources or ways of organising learners. Other projects had more of a management design, and were keen to refresh the wider workforce by introducing new practices or resources. Where project leaders were experienced practitioners enjoying regular contact with learners and colleagues in teaching a subject, there seemed to be more investigation, action and reflection; typically these teams were relatively small and dynamic. Some mentors were frustrated that management-driven projects appeared to be ‘remote-controlled’ – direction from above did not translate into committed action by participants. In some situations, where management had encouraged an approach or use of a resource, teachers seemed to politely accommodate the resource by integrating it into their teaching in ways that did not interfere with their preferred approaches. This is mirrored in Johannesson’s (2022) research into Professional Learning Communities. He discovered that where action research is treated as a project – rather than as a process – the professional development benefits are not as fully realised. The more successful management initiated projects were based upon a willingness to trust staff to explore practice without being overly-directive about what should be the focus (and the implied outcomes) from the research. This facilitative stance enabled project leaders and staff to take greater ownership of change activities with more evidence of local changes being implemented.
“Our evaluative process is always rigorous; we try to make changes to value cultural diversity, to motivate and connect with our learners, who have often lost interest and hope. However, this research gave us the time to evaluate throughout the year in a meaningful way and to gather students’ views too.”
Across all projects, there is evidence that those who initiated projects from different positions progressed their professional learning. Managers learned about their teaching teams; they gained fresh appreciation of the barriers inhibiting change; they learned that ‘straightforward’ topics could be difficult to comprehend because of learners’ lack of familiarity with examiners’ cultural assumptions; and they learned that pedagogical approaches are heavily influenced by context.
Using literature – finding our spaces
Many of our projects cite literature to establish the credentials of the research. In the best projects there is evidence of teachers accessing a variety of relevant teaching publications to seek insights into challenging situations. Teachers draw on these insights from schools and colleges, and test these approaches in their own classrooms. When written up and illustrated in the accounts which follow, they create their own source of literature which give other teachers access to more relatable information. Mentors were often crucial to opening up alternative teaching approaches, guiding project leaders towards insights from different education sectors, or from different corners of our own post-16 education and training sector.
“Using existing research by Myhill’s team which was conducted on a younger cohort with more regular English lessons, we have been able to apply some of the principles and measure their impact on students. It has meant that learners were able to have a dialogue with teachers on how they learn and what has helped them.”
Because the majority of teachers in FE do not enjoy easy access to electronic journals (unlike their HE counterparts), these reports make very good use of available literature from search engines. They draw upon teachers’ blogs, open-access papers and repositories such as the ETF ‘Practitioner research and evidence portal’ which house a wide range of teacher research reports. Because the OTLA 8 research reports are almost always testing previous research and inquiry in unique settings, the research represents a critical evaluation of the previous reports that were accessed. They contribute to the store of evidence-informed practice which can continue to help practitioners and professional researchers alike.
In addition to the illustrations of practice-based, evidence-informed accounts that follow, participants have already extended their work to (and beyond) the sector through contributing to conferences, blogs, podcasts, and writing up for journal submissions (please see the OTLA Programme Action Research Showcase Padlet for examples of work that has been produced for publication over the course of the programme). For example, a group of ESOL project leaders have produced posters for the NATECLA conference 2022 to prompt colleagues into experimenting with their practice. Their posters are creatively illustrated by the graphic templates which have been developed through project and mentor collaboration. An additional bonus for this programme has been the generation of an ESOL-dedicated supplement to the 2021 Doing Action Research in FE Guide which now offers a variety of ESOL-friendly research methods for all teachers to explore when helping their learners. The prison education teams are also editing materials to inspire staff to build on their new interest in researching their practice in this specialist sector.
A testament to mentors
Every project was appointed an action research mentor; an experienced subject specialist whose interests were tailored to their project, and the quality of the project experiences as captured in these reports is largely down to the sensitive supportive insights that project mentors have provided at all stages. Mentors have:
Helped frame and focus projects
Drawn on their extensive teaching experience to inspire pedagogical progress
Pointed project leads to accessible literature for added support and direction
Hosted a rhythm of regular sharing sessions with like-minded project teams
Addressed setbacks by steering teams to productively refocus
Encouraged the honest sharing of all aspects of practice
Acted as critical friends and writing buddies in fostering these rigorous reports to fruition
All mentors were carefully chosen for their specialist experience and capacity to lead teachers to conduct meaningful action research in challenging contexts. As part of OTLA’s contribution to practical knowledge about how to conduct high quality educational action research, might we direct readers to one of the Padlets designed by the mentor for the Novus prison projects: Simulations for Essential Digital Skills Learning.
The Padlet headings provided a partially populated template framework that invites participants’ own contributions. This user-friendly Padlet guides participants through the stages of evidencing the rationale; shares sources of inspiration and relevant literature; explores suitable research methods; illustrates project resources, and finds spaces to value stakeholders’ reflections and contributions. Other projects might well be inspired to draw upon these templates as ways of prompting potential action research teams who are almost ready to commit on their own educational explorations.
OTLA – creating an expansive professional ecology through action research
In conclusion to this editorial, it is timely to acknowledge the visionary encouragement of the Education and Training Foundation in creating opportunities to begin a root and branch change to the prevailing professional culture of Further Education. As teachers on OTLA projects have engaged in action research, they have begun to develop a view of themselves as capable of proactively shaping the learning context. The OTLA programmes have challenged the limited approach of sticking-plaster remedial training to help tired teachers cope with the latest crisis; rather, they have created a supportive space for what Fuller and Unwin (2004) describe as expansive learning environments, where teachers are given time, space and support to collectively stand back, reflect and reimagine new possibilities. Through the action research seeds that OTLA planted and nurtured, we see the green shoots of cultural change as teachers gradually blossom and mature into extended professionals. In the following reports we see teachers shaping a much healthier post-16 environment as they assume greater responsibility for leading learning, using their informed professional judgement to inspire change in classrooms, staffrooms and across communities.
Fuller, A. and Unwin, L. (2004) Expansive learning environments: integrating personal and organisational development, in Rainbird, H., Fuller, A. and Munro, A. (eds) Workplace Learning in Context, London: Routledge.
Johannesson, P. (2022): Development of professional learning communities through action research: understanding professional learning in practice, Educational Action Research Vol 30:3 pp 411-426.
MacBeath, J., Demetriou, H., Rudduck, J., & Myers, K. (2003) Consulting pupils: a toolkit for teachers Cambridge; Pearson Publishing.
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