Practitioners Using Action Research to Develop their Distinctive Pedagogies

Practitioners Using Action Research to Develop their Distinctive Pedagogies

Claire Callow

Research Group Lead (RGL)

Anthology of Practitioner Action Research Reports 2020-21

In this section, we see committed practitioners experimenting with fresh pedagogical practices (teaching methods, technologies and organisational strategies). It is through researching these alternative approaches that they develop new insights into deep-seated barriers experienced by their learners. Through action research into their teaching, practitioner
researchers develop their personal pedagogical decision-making and become critically aware of the effects of their teaching activities on learners.

Lee Shulman (2005) identified what he described as “signature  pedagogies” which characterise the ways that different groups of professionals (including teachers) are inducted into their professional practices, and through which these emerging professionals learn “to think, to perform and to act with integrity”. He stressed that these signature  pedagogies embody tensions that must be resolved by practitioners as they begin to exercise their professional responsibilities; for example, Shulman asks whether teachers teach to the “benefit of those students most likely to earn high test scores”, or do they “teach in ways that equalize educational opportunity and emphasize educational ends whether or not they are externally examined”? (2005, p. 58).

Thomson et al (2012) argue that there is a default signature pedagogy common across English schooling, and that this approach – which is typically content and assessment-driven – is not appropriate for all learners. Consequently, many of our post-16 teachers frequently encounter demotivated learners who have become negative about their English and maths abilities as a result of this default pedagogy that has failed to inspire them. However, in the following reports we see how this default operates as the starting point from which practitioner action researchers begin to develop their improved practice, and through their reflective investigations, they hone their own distinctive pedagogies which help learners to recover from previous failures and to begin to rebuild their sense of identity as successful students.

Practitioners typically began action research by focusing on a particular practice (e.g., use of online technologies; paired learning; new content matter, etc) but it was often through listening to individual learners that they came to appreciate the deeper causes that had been inhibiting learners making significant progress.

As we read the reports, we see practitioners adopting new pedagogical understandings, and rethinking their practices in order to refocus and inspire demotivated learners who may have been excluded by the dominant practices of the default assessment-driven pedagogy.

In these reports, we learn that practitioners on this programme don’t just lift a pedagogical approach ‘off the peg’; rather, they fashion their own particular understandings of the teaching that learners’ need – in essence, post-16 practitioners are working towards shaping, crafting and owning their own distinctive pedagogies.

The importance of community for improving pedagogical practice.

We can see practitioners on OTLA 7 developing more informed pedagogical understandings to help learners for whom traditional pedagogical approaches were proving inappropriate. Through systematic inquiries into their practice, many practitioners arrived at pedagogical understandings that aligned with social theories of learning.

Social theories of learning are already popular throughout the post-16 sector as is evident in the widespread use of group and paired activities in sessions, and from reading these projects, it becomes apparent that practitioners as well as learners also respond productively to social learning opportunities that are stimulated by project collaboration.

For example, Shipley College and Waltham Forest College planned collaborative action research into English students writing for real audiences, and their experiments with sharing learners’ work between the colleges left teachers stunned by the level of responsiveness in learners. This raised staff expectations of learners’ potential, preparing them for further reciprocal activities in the future.

The United Colleges Group collaboratively investigated their use of online learning, and their ethos of sharing inspired participating practitioners to overcome inhibitions about adopting new technologies in their teaching. A teacher of twenty years’ writes how, “Taking part in this collaboration has changed my life” and the report arrives at the astute conclusion that, in order to stimulate commitment to such initiatives, project leaders should, “Call it research, not a project”.

At Westminster Adult Education Service, reports of improved staff ‘confidence’ are evidenced by demonstrations of greater staff agency – practitioners were not just utilising ‘handed-down’ resources but were expressing their improved pedagogical decision-making through interdependently creating and designing more learner-centred, contextually relevant online resources.

The collaborative nature of cross-departmental projects is also evident in South Essex College’s pairing of maths and English teachers to learn from each other as they tackled the challenges of ‘the language of maths’. The shared experience helped refresh practitioners’ restrictive individualistic practices; one liberated teacher delightedly reported that he no longer felt it necessary to be “hammering on about maths terminology”.

Making changes in pedagogical decision-making required support from colleagues, the organisation and project mentor to encourage risk-taking with established practices. Thus, we see how the project community at New City College provided the conditions for continuing change, and their collaborative efforts to stimulate creative writing left the team hungry to explore new ways to develop vocabulary, showing that the project was not just satisfied with making progress in specific strategies, but is intent on building on the collaborative impetus in future teaching and learning endeavours.

In Devon, Petroc embraced the wider support community to discover how Additional Learning Support (ALS) practitioners could contribute their skilled practices more effectively. Although ALS practitioners are typically deployed to support specific learners, the project discovered that all learners enjoyed benefiting from the help and insights which support workers could provide, and both ALS and teachers took a new pride in their collaborative potential, thus opening new pedagogical understandings upon which they can plan future practice.

ELATT works with a variety of very disadvantaged learners in London, and they used the action research opportunity to explore how to help staff to elicit and respond to feedback from these learners. In the process of developing feedback tools to provide individual staff with constructive formative feedback which could inform their pedagogical decision-making, participating staff reported not only getting insights into learners’ needs, but also gaining new understandings of the power of Teaching Assistant support. This search for even better ways to gain high quality learner feedback has become an ELATT development point.

A legacy of improved teaching

One of the aims of the OTLA programme is to leave a legacy of improved teaching throughout organisations and this wider pedagogical culture change can be seen in two contrasting settings. In Essex Adult and Community Learning, managers designed an online initial assessment tool for learners applying to improve their maths. This led to greater uptake of the initial assessments and reshaped how tutors planned their contact time with those enrolling, enjoying the personal satisfactions of making a difference for nervous and inhibited returners: “You have time for a proper chat with learners”.

The wider organisational changes needed across our learning communities are captured in the Weston College project which attended to the needs of foreign national prisoners. Many prisoners were being misdirected onto programmes through use of an unsuitable generic initial assessment tool. The project team were able to raise the pedagogical awareness of those organising prison education, by showing how pre-Entry ESOL learners were inappropriately conflated with illiterate learners (as ESOL learners are literate in their first language but may not be in English; illiterate learners cannot read or write in any language).

The project devised and trialled a new assessment approach which greatly reduced wasteful misdirection, and this was shared at local, regional and national levels. The initiative had influence beyond the teaching domain, as the new initial assessment provided vital intelligence to the prison’s Labour Allocation organisers, thus ensuring that prisoners can be allocated to appropriate and worthwhile activities. As well as developing ESOL teachers’ pedagogical decision-making, this initiative can be seen as educative for a wide range of stakeholders.

In reading the following reports, we hope that you will appreciate how this OTLA action research programme has created the opportunities for all participating practitioners – in a variety of roles, and with differing levels of teaching experience – to better understand the effects of their teaching in particular contexts and to develop their distinctively personal pedagogical responses. Too often, practitioners have been drawn into pedagogical processes that fixate on future results for learners who have been wounded and frustrated by their educational pasts.

These action research projects have provided much-needed spaces for practitioners to pause, to enjoy listening to and working with their learners, so that together they make progress on the learners’ journey at a pace and style that better acknowledges the individuals in their settings.

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