Action research in the classroom

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Undertaking research to improve practice is becoming a common activity in UK classrooms. Principal Chris Mallaband explains how his school is developing a researching culture.

Action Research – where teachers reflect on and evaluate their practice in order to resolve problems or improve methods/approaches – is now becoming well established in the compulsory education sector. 

Outstanding teachers will no doubt already be undertaking action research in their classrooms even if they aren’t aware that they are doing so, simply by taking an evidence-based and self-reflective approach to their own development. 

After seeing a number of my colleagues take on formal action research, for example as part of a Master’s degree, I was keen to find out more about what this approach could offer to us as a school.

For me, as the head of a sponsored academy, it has always been important to make the most of the added value that our sponsor could provide. An academy sponsorship should not just be about funding and governance, as educators we need to see how our sponsors can directly contribute to improving educational standards.

We are fortunate that our academy sponsor, CfBT Education Trust, has expertise in educational research. With the support of CfBT we were able to offer our teachers the structure and rigour needed to take their action research to the next level.

I am proud to say that this summer we published our second action research report involving 25 teachers, almost half of the total teaching staff. So how did we get to this stage? 

At the beginning of the academic year in 2011 we held a CPD evening for all teachers to introduce them to action research. Teachers who were interested in taking on a research project of their own then went on to a workshop to introduce them to research skills and processes.

For any school-wide project such as this, the senior management team has a very important role in establishing an effective and supportive environment enabling staff to take advantage of the opportunity without it having a detrimental impact on their day-to-day teaching. 

Lisa Peterkin, our associate head, was the driving force behind the project and was instrumental in keeping the researchers on track and motivated. Our vice-principal Olivia Douse was also a valuable support, assuming the role of our internal research expert and acting as a sounding board for many of the teachers.

As well as creating an enabling environment it was vitally important that this was not a “top-down” task. All teachers had complete freedom to choose whatever subject they wanted to study and how they wanted to approach the issue. It is this freedom and ability to explore issues of direct personal relevance that I believe makes action research such a good professional development tool for teachers. 

Choosing their own focus helps to ensure high levels of self-motivation and interest, and most importantly provides teachers with an immediate and direct impact on their day-to-day teaching. Also, we have found that giving teachers freedom to choose their own area of study resulted in our action research publications covering a diverse range of subjects and issues throughout our school. However, despite this variety, all the projects remain closely aligned to the vision of the school. 

This is where leadership is important. By clearly communicating the vision and future direction of the school, including details about how we aim to achieve them, all staff members are aware of what they are working towards. 

We all have the same goals. And as a result, through teachers exploring their own areas of interest and disseminating their learning to the rest of the school we can achieve these goals more effectively.

We are aware that action research is a big commitment for the teachers involved. Choosing your own area of focus helps with the self motivation but there is no getting around the fact that combining formal research with normal classroom teaching can be a challenging task at times. 

However, because the gains to be had are so huge for both the teachers and the school, it is important to keep the drive and momentum going. Therefore we want to encourage as many of our teachers to become involved as possible – to support their own professional development and to contribute to wider school improvement.

Having the research professionally published gives the whole process credibility and demonstrates how committed we are to action research as a professional development tool. When the report was published we also held a launch event for each of our researchers to showcase the work they had done. This is a great opportunity to celebrate and share the fantastic work done by our colleagues, and I think seeing the end result and the real impact it can have will inspire others to get involved too.

There are two research projects in particular which stand out for me, for different reasons. The first is a great example of collaborative working and reflective practice as three outstanding teachers looked at introducing the Japanese technique of Lesson Study into their classroom. 

Following the Lesson Study approach, these three teachers began planning their lessons collaboratively, observing the plans put into action and then evaluating their effectiveness. The teachers found that this collaborative approach took off some of the personal pressure, allowing them to be more adventurous in what activities they tried. They found that using evidence from the observations had a real and immediate impact on their teaching practice. All three will be continuing to develop the approach this year.

The second example shows the impact that one project can have on the whole school. One of our teachers travelled to Houston, Texas, to spend some time in a KIPP school. The motto of the KIPP school movement is “work hard and be nice”. We were interested in exploring the role that values-driven education could have in our school, and so this project looked at how the KIPP model teaches children to become nice people as well as educating them academically. Because of the lessons learnt from this teacher’s research we have now introduced a new key element into our development plan – “values into action”.

In our first Ofsted inspection as an academy we were given a notice to improve. We have since seen dramatic improvements in our results and in September 2012 were graded as “good”. For me the key factor in this turnaround has been a change in the culture and attitude of the academy; a change in which action research has played its part. 

You used to come into the academy and assume that you were not in control of your own destiny; it was a challenging place to work. Yet now, you walk around the academy and there is a real buzz. Individuals have been able to see that they are in control of their destiny and that what they do has a real impact on the school. 

We have tried to take away the fear of risk and create a “can-do” atmosphere where our teachers can constantly ask: how can I do better? What can I try out today? This approach is at the very heart of what action research is all about. 

Teachers can afford to take risks and try new things because they know that they will have the evidence needed to evaluate impact and adapt practice. Even for those teachers who haven’t yet undertaken their own research project, this ethos and attitude is undoubtedly rubbing off. Action research at the school is not just a one-off project. The impact that it has had on our school in terms of teaching practice, staff development and attitude has been significant. This is now our culture and will help us to grow and improve for many years to come.

  • Chris Mallaband is principal of St Mark’s Church of England Academy in Surrey.

Further information
The research by staff at St Mark’s Academy has now been published by CfBT Education Trust and is available to download for free at www.cfbt.com/evidenceforeducation/PDF/05Web_AR02_StMarks_AcadBk.pdf



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