Some teachers and other commentators argue that bit-by-bit the autonomy of teachers is being eroded: prescriptive curricula, set teaching methodologies, marking policies.
However, I believe that one way of regaining this autonomy is by schools and teachers engaging in classroom-based research.
In a nutshell, classroom-based research is about reflecting deeply and systematically on teaching practices and evaluating the effect of different actions and practices in order to improve the quality of pupils’ learning.
It is one of the most powerful forms of professional development that a teacher can undertake, putting the teacher at the centre of their personal development giving them the autonomy to develop the teaching that will make the most difference to their pupils.
The “bottom-up” approach gives ownership of teachers’ work to teachers themselves. It empowers teachers; it enables them to examine their own assumptions and beliefs. It also enables teachers to develop their understanding of their pedagogical practices in a context that is specific to them. But more than this, by sharing their findings with colleagues both in their schools and further afield, whether in writing or at meetings or conferences, they contribute to the greater collective understanding of learning.
The 21st Century Learning Alliance Fellowships are a great example of small-scale action research projects in practice. The Fellowship programme aims to build an active collegiate system of peer-assessed action-research. Since 2009, 16 Fellowships have been awarded and the range and scope of the research is wide and varied. Fellows are expected to share their findings in school, via internet communities and by publishing short articles.
This year’s research spans all phases, from key stage 1 to 5. The projects are an eclectic mix, including research into “flipping the classroom” at key stage 3 and 4 by using instruction videos at home thereby releasing teacher time to work with pupils in one-to-one situations.
Other examples include a primary project that seeks to gain a deeper understanding of the factors that contribute to children’s enjoyment of writing and those that act as barriers, and research into how the skills gap for key stage 5 media students can be closed.
The enthusiasm at the first meeting of this year’s Fellows was palpable. But key was the support and suggestions that the Fellows gave to one another and the guidance from the 21st Century Learning Alliance Board members.
Previous Fellows have also found that the engagement and collaboration that comes from other teachers round the county is equally as valuable, enabling them to reflect more effectively on their work and its impact.
However, a word of caution, classroom-based research is not always well understood and it is easy, through flaws in the design of the research, to arrive at misleading conclusions.
For research to work and make a difference to learning, it is crucial that it is well-structured, with the evidence gathered, recorded and scrutinised in a way that makes the information useful and accessible for future readers.
Joining a research group such as CamSTAR – Cambridge, School Teachers and Research – where a group of schools work together as a learning community to support school-based teacher research, or through organisations such as the 21st Century Learning Alliance, Fellowship can add rigour and depth to all aspects of the research process.
Classroom-based research takes considerable time if it is done properly and is to be meaningful. It is not something that can just be an “add-on” to the day job. It takes commitment from the teacher-researcher and the buy-in and commitment of their school.
The number of research-engaged schools and research-engaged teachers has increased significantly since the turn of the century. This was supported by sponsorship from organisations such as the Teacher Development Agency, the General Teaching Council for England, and the National Centre for Excellence in Teaching Mathematics, to name a few.
In this climate of financial cut-back, this investment has had a much lower priority. Support more commonly now comes from investment from external organisations such as the 21st Century Learning Alliance or universities.
Whether schools or teachers engage in research is left to chance – there is no clear structure for schools to engage in research or even the expectation that schools are research-engaged or rewarded for when they do. I believe that this is a missed opportunity for the government to re-engage with teachers.
The enthusiasm that research generates in the teachers conducting the work and the richness of the findings for the school and the wider community of the school is too important for us to put at risk.
Further informationThe 21st Century Learning Alliance is a forum with representation from practitioners and industry that debates difficult issues to help stimulate improvement and change. For more information on the Fellowships, visit www.21stcenturylearningalliance.org/fellowship. You can also follow the Alliance on Twitter @Learning_21C.
Maria Dawes is head of school effectiveness at Babcock 4S. Babcock Education is one of the financial supporters of the 21st Century Learning Alliance Fellowship programme.