Learners take the lead – prompted by practitioner action research

In the final of a series of three blogs, Dr Lynne Taylerson, the author of a recent thematic review into the outcomes of the Outstanding Teaching Learning and Assessment (OTLA) 6 projects, reflects on the experiences of learners whose tutors have been undertaking action research. Dr Taylerson’s review looked at the outcomes of OTLA 6 projects, which spanned 2019 and 2020, focusing on teaching and learning in English.

Undertaking a thematic review of phase six of ETF’s OTLA projects (ETF, 2020) was fascinating work. I discovered valuable insights into teachers’ challenges and their capacity for creativity in the teaching of English. In this blog, I’ll review some key innovations made to learning activities and resources and relate the diverse ways in which action researchers worked with peers and learners.

A powerful, cross-cutting theme stemming from the OTLA 6 review for me was that development of learners’ confidence, resilience and positive mindsets was crucial, regardless of the learning outcomes, strategies or resources used. Central to this idea was encouraging learners to fully appreciate the value, relevance and personal resonance of English skills. OTLA teams found that no ‘win’ was too small to be celebrated. Incremental acquisition of ‘micro skills’ was a significant motivator, especially if skills were hard-won or achievement was a challenge in the past.

Another important factor in skills development stemming from research outcomes was the building of a strong awareness of the value of transferable skills. Engagement and motivation was heightened when learners appreciated the relevance of English skills to the workplace. Asking learners to consider the importance of effective communication, collaboration and reflective capability to employers and future work and learning activities proved motivational.

Another strategy which I noticed impacted significantly on learning was the naturalising of productive, engaging routines. This included the setting up of dedicated reading hours, weekly spelling strategies sessions and embedding of analytical frameworks. OTLA teams noted that these new activities and strategies needed to be given ample time to bed in and their purpose and value needed to be actively ‘sold’ to learners.

I discovered that OTLA programmes provided opportunities for teachers to work with learners to analyse established ways of working, asking ‘why do we always do it this way?’ Teams collaborated with learners to re-evaluate and reimagine learning spaces and were not afraid to change long-established environments and routines. Productive strategies included creatively rearranging physical learning spaces to aid interaction and collaboration and moving learning into more relaxed spaces.

I was intrigued by the strategy of extending English learning into shared social spaces and times. Effective approaches included placing English posters or bookshelves with popular texts in learners’ communal areas and the introduction of English skills-based lunch and drop-in clubs. Learners explained how opportunities to practise English speaking and listening in relaxed, ‘low stakes’ social environments with peers was a valuable way of building confidence. Lunch club participation also broadened peer networks, encouraging new friendship groups and enabling learners to discover more about peers’ preferences and cultures as they discussed language, recipes, games, books and films.

Some of the curriculum creativity which particularly intrigued me happened in the digital domain where the introduction of shared online spaces and channels raised engagement. Use of Padlet’s online ‘sticky notes’ boards for project planning, flipped classroom reading tasks leading to group research and discussions and the use of realistic workplace email exchanges were notable innovations. Tutors noted that use of tools such as online collaboration boards and email also built valuable transferable digital skills for the workplace.

I think that one of the most powerful examples of action research outcomes involved learners acting as true collaborators and co-creators of curriculum with significant involvement in the design of activities and resources. Research teams needed to positively promote the benefits of participating in action research, ensuring that learners were fully informed and engaged in partnership working. Learners were regularly informed of research outcomes so they could appreciate clearly how their involvement led to changes to their learning experiences.

A key outcome from co-creation work was increased contextualisation and personalisation of learning activities and resources. OTLA teams specifically contextualised case studies and problem-based activities to their curriculum area at the request of learners. Self-identified topics of interest to learners and their communities were used in other contexts such as ESOL learning. Learners proposed debate and research topics, suggesting issues directly relevant and engaging for them. Some learners wrote about local issues of immediate concern to their community, working with community groups and media outlets to publish and promote their finished work.

A similar, impactful strategy that resonated with me saw learners encouraged to select their own English resources, for example choosing reading genres or the format of texts for learning activities. Importantly, this led to several organisations significantly updating Learning Resource Centre sources, ordering in mystery or action novels or providing graphic novel formats for the first time. Increased provision of electronic versions of readers and the use of blog-style texts which could be read and annotated easily on digital devices were requested, too. Simple yet innovative systems were created to make reading more accessible. Colour-coding of texts by challenge level or categorisation of books by genre made it easier for learners to locate their preferred styles and topics.

I was particularly struck by the creativity of one OTLA team who refined the action research paradigm as well as developing their professional practice. The project investigated digital approaches to rethinking the English classroom and took the learner-led approach one stage further. Teachers engaged English learners in their own action research working group, encouraging them to investigate how they learn best. This innovative metacognition project cast ‘student-as-researcher’, asking them to reflect upon and discuss their learning processes then contribute findings and recommendations digitally via an online notebook and a WhatsApp group.

OTLA teams concluded that encouraging learners to take the lead made for motivational learning. Unique perspectives brought by learners enabled teachers to reimagine the English curriculum in creative, engaging ways. Crucially, for me, the concept of learners working as curriculum co-creators in collaboration with teachers and peers provided a powerful development model for the sector.

I strongly encourage readers to take time to explore the richness of the OTLA reports and associated, rich online case studies. Teachers, teacher educators, mentors and leaders will find innovative strategies they can experiment with and can gain considerable benefits from reading about the OTLA researchers’ fascinating experiences.

Read the first and second blogs in this series, ‘In praise of complex, ‘messy’ practitioner research’ and ‘Practitioner research impacts resonate all across FE practice’.


The Education and Training Foundation (ETF) (2020) Outstanding teaching, learning and assessment: a summary of projects in the OTLA phase 6 (English) programme (The ‘Green Book’). London: ETF.

The summaries of the OTLA 6 projects are also available from the ETF’s Practitioner Research and Evidence Portal.

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