Practitioner research: insights and inspiration from those who have done it

The place of practitioner action research as a tool for driving improvement in Further Education is well-understood, but formal routes into it can be limited by considerations such as a lack of time, the cost, or the willingness of colleges or training providers to release individuals to participate.

Education and Training Foundation (ETF) Associate Victor Dejean spoke to five colleagues from across the sector – previous or current participants of ETF’s practitioner led development and research programmes including the ETF-SunCETT (University of Sunderland Centre of Excellence in Teacher Training) research programme – about their experiences of practitioner research.

They share their journeys – including how they got started; how they’ve balanced work, home and study; the benefits they have felt – and offer advice and insights for those contemplating undertaking action research themselves.

Alistair Smith

Alistair Smith

Alistair Smith is a lecturer in Photography at Lincoln College. He first got involved in action research through the ETF’s Outstanding Teaching, Learning and Assessment (OTLA) programme when the project team explored the embedding of maths. After its completion, he wanted to take his research further and paired up with a colleague to tackle the ETF-University of Sunderland Centre of Excellence in Teacher Training (SunCETT) MA short course.

So, what was the experience like?

“I felt reinvigorated, and the college was very supportive,” says Alistair, “I particularly loved working collaboratively, and the community aspect, which helped us to forge networks.”

“More importantly perhaps, it changed his practice and increased his self-belief and interest in Higher Education too. “It has improved how I reflect on what I’m doing,” he says, “and changed my attitude to CPD from being passive to active.”

So, what was the experience like?

“I felt reinvigorated, and the college was very supportive,” says Alistair, “I particularly loved working collaboratively, and the community aspect, which helped us to forge networks.” More importantly perhaps, it changed his practice, and increased his self-belief and interest in Higher Education too. “It has improved how I reflect on what I’m doing,” he says, “and changed my attitude to CPD from being passive to active.”

Inspired by his experience, Alistair collaborated with Jo Fletcher-Saxon to set up FE Research Podcast, which serves a developing community of like-minded practitioners with monthly input from experts – amongst others – from across the sector.

What advice would you give others who are considering formal practitioner research?

“It’s important to remember that your research doesn’t have to be big,” says Alistair, “it can also be small and focused. It requires a lot of energy, so you need to choose a topic that really interests you, not something that is just flavour of the month.”

Alistair, who is also connected with FE Research Meet and the Research College Group, is currently studying for his MPhil., also with SunCETT.

Christine Osborne

Christine Osborne

Christine is an Advanced Practitioner, and mentors teachers at Buckinghamshire College. Reflecting on what had got her started on her research journey, she observes, “I think I wanted a reason to study, and to have autonomy to decide my own pathway”. Fortunately for Christine, she was given the opportunity to attend a regional research gathering, where she found out about the MA Short Course. This fitted the bill perfectly for her, and soon she was on her way.

So, what was the experience like?

“It was hard work initially, but it was worth it, as I increasingly began to feel the benefit, and it made things much easier for me later on.” One of the key benefits for

her was that it gave her the ‘headspace’ to reflect on her practice and to explore up-to-date theories. Her chosen specialism was ‘feedback’ and ultimately this research positively impacted her practice.

What advice would you give others who are considering formal practitioner research?

“Firstly, you don’t have to be highly academic,” says Christine, “good teachers have always done research by critically analysing their own practice. So, trust your instincts to identify where you can make a change that will enhance the learner experience. We owe it to ourselves to develop professionally.”

“The college gave me great support,” she says, “and the SunCETT residentials were inspiring.” So much so, that Christine has progressed on to an MPhil on ‘Feedback in Formative Assessment’, which she has nearly completed.

Anna Copper

Anna Copper

Anna is currently a Health & Social Care Lecturer at North Hertfordshire College, having previously been a ‘Success Coach’ there. The start to her research journey goes back a long way. “Growing up with dyslexia,” she says, “expectations of how far I could progress academically were low, which wasn’t exactly great for my confidence or aspirations.”

Despite the difficulties, Anna made great strides. She won an internal award at college, and whilst conducting research for her Level 5 Diploma in Education, discovered the ETF/SunCETT MA Short Course.

What made you want to apply for the programme?

“Through my studies, I was developing an interest in research, and I suppose I wanted to prove to myself that I was capable of a higher level of study,” she reflected, “and to be acknowledged academically for what I’d already been doing.”

Building on her research, Anna focused on the use of Learning Intentions in the classroom for her MA Short Course. “I wanted to find out if I was missing something, maybe because of my dyslexia,” she explains. In practice, her use of Learning Intentions didn’t seem to be delivering the learning progress educational literature stated they should accomplish. “Learners didn’t really seem to understand what they were for, or if they had been achieved.” This led to her exploring a collaborative approach with her learners, identifying ‘success criteria’ and involving self-evaluation.

What was the experience like?

Having a young family has been an additional challenge for Anna to overcome. “It’s not easy juggling work and home commitments anyway, but sometimes I’d get so absorbed in my studies, that I’d suddenly realise it was the middle of the night!” However, Anna feels that the research and qualifications have more than justified all the time and effort she has had to put in – building up her confidence along the way.

What advice would you give others who are considering formal practitioner research?

“Developing your own practice is a responsibility as an educator, so you have to be flexible from a time-management perspective.” She stops, and thinks for a moment, “If I can quote Dylan William,” she says, “you realise you do have time, but you’re spending it on the wrong things. It also shows managers that you’re proactive.”

Anna is currently completing her QTLS (Qualified Teacher Learning and Skills status) and hopes to further her research by studying for a MPhil., and possibly progressing on to a PhD at some time in the future.

Simon Justice and Jacqui Browne

Simon and Jacqui

Simon and Jacqui are both Professional Standards Learning Coaches at Lincoln College working with ITE and mentoring new starters. They had both already conducted informal research in college, but wanted to formalise it. Having spoken to colleagues who had already graduated from the MA and MPhil Short Courses, they opted to follow the same pathway.

“We had similar thoughts on what we wanted to research,” says Simon, “so we decided it would make sense to work together.”

They also felt that the experience had made them more sympathetic to teaching colleagues, and that it had helped them to test assumptions, as well as informing their ITE and Management thinking.

What advice would you give others who are considering formal practitioner research?

“You don’t need to fix anything;” Jacqui points out, “focus on something you are genuinely interested in, have the capacity to find out about, and that’s relevant to your job.”

“And don’t expect to be told how to do it,” Simon advises. “For example, check if your college has its own Ethics Board. If your college delivers HE qualifications, they should have one. The Ethical Statement element of the study can be a bit daunting, so they could save you a lot of time.”

“And having a ‘buddy’ to bounce of is very helpful too,” says Jacqui, “especially if you have complementary skill sets.”

Jacqui is currently completing her Advanced Teacher Status (ATS), which she is really valuing and considers important for her role, whilst Simon has followed the ETF Advanced Mentoring and Emerging Leaders programmes through FutureLearn. Both would like to take their research studies further … given time.

Practitioner Research Sharing Events – July 2022

The ETF is hosting online ‘Practitioner Research Sharing Events’ on 11 and 13 July 2022. These twilight sessions (3:30 to 5:00pm) are designed to provide insights into effective practitioner research from those with experience and expertise in the field. They will feature speakers including Sam Jones of RandO and the Research College Group, Claire Collins and Dr Vicky Butterby of Claire Collins Consultancy, and CfEM (Centres for Excellence in Maths) practitioner Liz Hopker of Newham College. They are free to attend and places can be booked via the ETF booking system.

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