What have we learned from the North East and Cumbria collaborative projects?

Outstanding Teaching Learning and Assessment: What have we learned from the North East and Cumbria collaborative projects?

Dr Andy Convery

ccConsultancy Professional Development Lead

What did successful practitioner action research actually look like?

Teachers are so busy managing

Successful practitioner action research was evident in many contexts across the programme: in prisons, where joinery teachers reshaped the workshop to encourage learners to engage with theory in practical sessions; in training providers, where trainers redesigned

assessments so that learners were actively engaged in recording their achievements; in adult education centres, where practitioners and learners worked co-operatively with Job Centre staff to build literacy confidence in claimants; in staffrooms, where support assistants and teachers devised feedback forms so that supported learners could explain their sticking points; and in colleges, where Sports learners eventually overcame their resistance to giving peers feedback on their assignment drafts.

These are a small sample of the individual initiatives that raised learners’ expectations of who they could be – as more successful learners, and as more confident members of society.

However, successful action research was more than changing a lesson plan, a resource or a classroom seating arrangement strategy in

order to improve results, important though that is. Action research helped practitioners become more confident in their decision-making and more secure about asking their learners about what they were getting from sessions and using learners’ feedback to shift blockages in the system. Action research helped participants to feel more responsible, more responsive – and more professional.

When support assistants began talking with teachers and gained the confidence to simplify a

formative assessment activity, or when practitioners agreed to change the induction process to relieve new learners’ anxieties, practitioners began to change their view of themselves. They began to see themselves as active and reflective professionals, rather than as deliverers of “good practice” handed down from above. Successful practitioner action research involved the participants feeling free to listen to learners, to make changes, and then to listen again. Successful action research moved beyond one-off changes to practice, and it involved a long-term change in participants’ understanding of what being “professional”actually means – for themselves, for their learners and for their communities.

Participants were motivated and enthusiastic

We have been very impressed by the desire of support assistants, administrative workers, trainers, teachers and managers to take responsibility for investigating everyday teaching situations, and to provide valuable insights and intelligence about “what works” for our sector across this region. Most colleagues were interested (if a little apprehensive) to be contributing to the OTLA programme, but they quickly became reassured by working with their close colleagues at project meetings and at programme events.

Teams of staff fed each other’s enthusiasm and rediscovered an excitement from working together to make meaningful changes to their teaching. The programme approach valued participants’ insider expertise, and teams grasped the opportunity to get to grips with long-standing blockages for practitioners, such as obstructive ILP procedures, demotivating “sheep-dip” CPD processes, tokenistic Diversity exercises, and nominal engagement with embedded maths and English.

Collaboration begins at home

We had expected that participants would begin working with the other providers in their projects, but we quickly realised that teams were mainly concerned with working within their own institution. Participants were energised by an opportunity to focus on recognisable classroom events, often with colleagues with whom they already worked alongside in staffrooms. They appreciated the chance to review – and replace – some of the tired, taken-for-granted ways of working that were designed for another time but had gradually become established.

In-house collaboration proved satisfying in giving participants the opportunity to share their working understandings about what was (and what wasn’t) actually happening in classrooms, and this provided huge emotional support as colleagues brought their common concerns to the table. There is a great pressure to be seen to be coping in our sector, and the project provided a space for colleagues to step back and share their difficulties and uncertainties, leading to colleagues designing more learner-centred (and practitioner-friendly) alternatives.

In one provider, it might be that the ILP documentation which management stipulated was causing difficulties when inducting new learners; in another provider, it could be that the constant rescheduling of support staff prevented effective relationships being established. This was an opportunity to work together to change things for learners.

We initially thought that peer-to-peer discussions would take place naturally when participants met their peers from linked organisations. However, we began to appreciate that, whereas it was easy to exchange “teaching tips” across institutions, participants often needed space to explore what the specific barriers were for learners within their own institutions. Colleagues seemed wary of revealing organisational difficulties to other providers during the early stages of projects, so project leaders often encouraged each organisation to work on their own priorities as a workable compromise.

Once teams felt they had achieved some success in their own provision, they were then more confident to share with the other providers in their project, often at whole programme review events, which often triggered wider interest and some collaboration across projects. In general, productive collaborative exchanges usually developed only after teams had been given time and space to stand back and explore issues within their own communities.

The importance of the community for practitioner researchers

Practitioners working in all roles – teachers, trainers, learning support assistants (LSAs), admin workers and managers – demonstrated their capacity to engage in action research activities when they enjoyed communal support. Participants often began with a simple focus which explored why learners might have difficulty in some teaching situations. Most new researchers then needed further encouragement to take on the more demanding role of “action researcher” where they had not only to try out their proposed solutions, but they also had to gather information to show the effects of their experiments and to share these results with other participants in the project.

Where project leaders had set up regular in-house meetings, enthusiastic project participants usually gave each other encouragement to make classroom changes, and the regular meetings created informal “deadlines” which gave them a structure to work fully through the research activities. These regular project meetings (often squeezed into the beginning or ends of days to maximise attendance) created an expectation that colleagues would have something to share, and meetings enabled the sharing of practical resources for practitioners to review.

Participants appreciated the new materials, and more importantly, they enjoyed sharing experiences of how these had actually worked in “the real world”. Often, the project communities shared an excitement that they were making changes happen, and this enthusiasm from their “community of practice” helped individuals persist with their approach. Participants in all roles benefited from this communal support, especially when things did not go as planned.

The collaborative communities provided practical ideas along with vital comfort and reassurance which helped practitioner researchers to keep going. Carrying on with their research and overcoming new obstacles was important for the projects, but even more important for the participants’ professional self-image.

Some organisations changed their practices in the light of project activities, which further added to participants’ improved professional self-image and projects sometimes helped improve communication between staff and managers. However, sometimes project leaders needed to be sensitive in presenting project findings to avoid managerial anxieties that might impede the progress of the project (and fortunately, they were almost always successful in their handling of these situations). In future projects, can we find better ways to include managers more fully in the learning communities?

Keeping going – building practitioners’ research resilience

Participants needed support to persist with implementing meaningful change. Practitioners could be understandably cautious about trying new approaches, and sometimes learners resisted when teaching staff tried to move them out of their comfort zones (for example, by asking them to give peers feedback on their draft assignments). When learners challenged the new approaches, staff were tempted to back away from the research and go back to safe but limited teaching and learning activities.

Project leaders used group meetings to help practitioners persist with changes to practice when first attempts didn’t go as planned. These proved most effective when they encouraged despondent researchers in meetings to share why an activity “had gone down like a lead balloon”, and to use colleagues’ feedback to rework their approach for the next session. Effective project leaders used the community to build practitioners’ research resilience, and this social and practical support helped participants to gradually build a more confident in taking on their professional responsibilities.

Project leaders: making practitioner research happen

Project leaders’ skilful organisation could be critical to help participants reach their research potential. From the start, effective project leaders chose participants who would commit to, and benefit from the project experience. These project leaders (who often held a staff development role within an organisation) began with a working understanding of the teaching strengths and motivation of individual practitioners and they would help participants to tailor their experiments to fit into particular teaching situations. They helped individuals to understand how their attempts to methodically change their practice and to act on evidence from these experiments were research activities. Participants gradually began to see themselves as action researchers.

From research activity to research literacy – getting permission to do things differently

Some participants were hesitant about having to get involved with published research, which seemed difficult to read and not often relevant to their work. Project leaders had to tread a careful balance when introducing research ideas, and they tended to do this by showing participants how good practices had support in the research world.

Generally, project leaders had a confident understanding of the research into teaching which was relevant to participants’ experiments (such as Dylan Wiliam’s work on formative assessment, or Carol Dweck’s work on “mindsets”) and they shared this information sensitively so that participants felt supported when engaging with research.

Project leaders usually began the research process by inviting teams to identify key issues and possible solutions to project issues. Once a practical way forward had been agreed, then project leaders introduced any accessible research evidence that might support that particular approach. Usually, teaching staff felt reasonably relaxed about testing research in practice.
Knowing that the changes they were suggesting could be backed up by “official” research seemed to give the participants permission to trial these changes to their usual teaching. Project leaders needed to be pragmatic in helping practitioner-researchers to access research. Often, project leaders would listen to individual practitioners’ reports of their classroom or workshop experiments and then show them how this linked to theories of learning (such as “formative assessment” or “learner resilience”).

This “testing theory against practice” – showing how research might be relevant to practice – seemed to help participants become more comfortable with discussing (and using) research and relating it to our sector. They moved from becoming research active to research-literate practitioners. All literacy development begins with a search for meaning, and participants needed to see the practical relevance of research before they could engage with it.

Writing up research – not just an academic exercise….

If participants were apprehensive about doing research or reading research, they were often more anxious about suggestions that they might write reports of their research. However, programme and project leaders needed insiders’ reports to give us a good understanding about what is really happening in problematic areas such as developing English and maths and improving learners’ management of their learning.

Successful project leaders were sensitive to individual participants’ “research readiness” and appreciated that some practitioners might be apprehensive about writing up their research, so they used a variety of useful devices to help practitioners record their progress. Some project leaders helped beginning researchers to record their research activities by providing simple templates on one side of A4 with boxes titled “Problem”, “Suggested solution”, “Findings”, and “Next Steps”. This meant that practitioners who were nervous about the “writing-up” aspect of research could be freed to focus meaningfully on the research process and the effects of their experiments.

Writing up these reports proved invaluable in several ways. Primarily, it gave practitioners and project leaders an understanding about the change activities. However, draft reports were also useful in moving research towards completion, as project leaders could use the opportunity to prompt participants to risk taking their changes even further – to the “next steps”. Also, through giving feedback on the drafts, it helped all practitioner researchers to become more confident about continuing writing and sharing their insider insights to a wider audience. Through action research, participants were developing their professional practices and their academic confidence.

This developmental writing up process was further helped by programme leaders inviting Professor Jean McNiff to meet project teams in the organisations where they worked. Everyone appreciated Jean’s practitioner-friendly style of research leadership, where she urged all participants to celebrate what they do; to investigate how to do it even better; and to develop strong voices to produce and share informed

research into our professional practices. As a result of our collaborative efforts, project leaders produced more detailed reports, participants have presented at conferences, and several have been published in the academic journals.

Developing communities within our programme

When we planned the programme, we knew that we had to build in regular events that would encourage participants to feel that they belonged to the programme and were not only given regular encouragement to move onto the next stage of their research, but also had frequent opportunities to share their issues and concerns with others in the communities across projects.

We were surprised and delighted how, when we created the spaces, participants and project teams developed those projects and made informal links between projects that could have never been anticipated. We could not have predicted how projects would evolve, though we now recognise some stimuli that we would try and replicate again.

We discovered that dissemination events were best used by organising project exchanges rather than by project presentations – so that participants could be active learners, searching for their interests rather than being a polite audience listening to a variety of accounts which were often unrelated to their concerns.

We found that using external events with attractive catering could be replicated in local projects – successful commitment was created by practitioners arriving with high expectations that the projects valued their insights rather than needed their attendance at scheduled professional learning. We also found that the framework of programme events was often backed up by their own in-house project meetings – this provided a way of participants checking their understanding.

Learning from this programme

The aim of the programme was to support and equip teams of practitioners in the education and training sector to develop their practice and improve learner outcomes. By giving practitioners both guidance and permission to experiment with new ways of challenging a wide range of learners to track their achievements, we achieved this aim. When practitioners were helped to establish expected learner outcomes that would evidence the success of their innovations, they were more confident about making further changes. Practitioners benefited from engaging in the action research ‘cycle’ at any stage; inviting practitioners to evaluate externally-produced materials helped to build practitioners’ confidence to use research approaches and exercise their informed professional judgement.

The impetus of these projects often enabled existing organisational policies to be practically operationalised, and demonstrated how promising strategies could be effectively implemented in practice. There were many instances where projects were effective in making policies which had been devised in management meetings begin working more effectively in practical classroom and workshop settings. Projects showed how policies on promoting diversity, tracking learners’ progress and using classroom support expertise could be implemented effectively.

We found that the most productive research projects were led by experienced in-house facilitators who had some experience of teacher research, who recognised individual practitioners’ needs, and who could contribute practical teaching strategies that met organisational requirements. Further, we found that individual teachers contributed most when the project lead adopted the role of “research mentor”, offering insight and direction as well as support. Such relationships sustained practitioners’ inquiry into their practice, and their practice development matured into professional development.

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