Action research: The Centre for Inspiring Minds

Written by: Dorothy Lepkowska | Published:
Research-engaged: The team at ACE International Schools celebrates its Research Mark accreditation. (l-r) Therese Forbes (board member), Phil Hodkinson (board chair), Ben Hren (head of centre), Latifa Hassanali (programme manager) and Chris Johnson (CEO)

The teacher-led research work at ACS International Schools is supported by their very own Centre for Inspiring Minds. Dorothy Lepkowska finds out more

Working outside the constraints of a national curriculum gives ACS International Schools certain freedoms. They are able to innovate, design and develop a curriculum that is appropriate for the needs of their diverse population of students.

This group of schools – which includes three schools in London and Surrey and one in Doha, Qatar – also uses these freedoms to maximise its effectiveness in teaching and learning through action research.

Continuous improvement is a running theme through the school’s ethos and culture, and there is an expectation that teachers are reflective in their classroom practice.

The school is unique in having set up its own Centre for Inspiring Minds (CIM) five years ago to support their teaching staff and facilitate this work. The CIM, which is staffed with experts and offers a huge pool of materials and resources, has links to top British and overseas universities.

ACS International Schools were recently awarded the Research Mark from the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) for the work done by staff in using research to improve the quality of teaching and learning.

The school’s rationale for engaging in research underpins how it innovates with evidence and sound concepts to address the learning needs of students, as Ben Hren, the head of the CIM, explained: “What we do is build educators’ capacity to collaborate professionally and to use and generate data that provides evidence of the effectiveness of teaching and learning and innovation for continuous improvement.

“All of our teachers are required to create self-directed professional growth plans for themselves as part of CPD. This could take the form of lesson observations or lesson study, but it can also mean action research.

“We give teachers a range of options so they can curate their professional growth based on their interests and the practice they want to develop, while at the same time creating something that can be shared with others within the school.”

While teaching staff are not required to participate in action research, having the CIM on-site and easily accessible means those that do are well supported and have access to a range of expertise, materials and resources. They also know their research will be evaluated to the highest standard.

Each of the four ACS schools shares a number of features including a student population that is variably mobile and a large proportion of native language speakers. A proportion of pupils will also have special needs and learning difficulties, as in most schools.

Some action research projects comprise groups of teachers collaborating in two or more ACS schools, and working on larger and more in-depth projects. A theme that is revisited often as part of action research is what it means to be an international school – what are the benefits and advantages, and the challenges?

The ACS schools offer an international curriculum with the International Baccalaureate sitting alongside top United States programmes of study, such as Advanced Placement (AP) courses and the new AP Capstone and International Diploma.

Staff taking part in research projects are awarded a research allowance to acknowledge that they are doing additional work and supply cover may be put in place where needed.

In one project, staff used electronic baby simulators to teach a unit on relationships and parenting as part of its PSHE and sex and relationships education (SRE) provision. The electronic baby is programmed to behave like a real infant, and the pupils’ responses to the simulator are logged in the baby’s computer system, giving teachers an indication of how students are applying their new learning.

To understand the extent to which this new learning persists over time, the 13-year-olds were surveyed at the end of the term and again a year later. Developing assessments and tools for better understanding the learning arising from PSHE and SRE is essential, as there is no standardised assessment in either.

Mr Hren said: “The project has given us qualitative feedback on whether we’re effectively delivering PSHE and SRE, and what values, attitudes and disposition come out of those experiences in class.”

Another teacher-led project looked at the learning potential of the schools’ extensive grounds and outdoor spaces, and how the educational needs of primary-aged pupils in the lower school could best be met through an outdoors-based curriculum.

The teachers involved used a teaching method called Storyline, developed by researchers at the University of Strathclyde’s Jordanhill College. The purpose of the study was to gather information about students’ engagement with and enjoyment of a project on Medieval life in England, alongside the learning and assessment of traditional subject-based knowledge and understanding.

Pupils were presented with a story about life in Medieval England, which they then had to expand by becoming the characters in the story and developing the plot. They were then asked to record and reflect on their experiences, with teachers noting how much they’d enjoyed the creative side of the exercise.

Typically, there are up to 10 action research projects taking place at the ACS schools at any one time, involving the participation of more than 30 teachers.

The NFER report on the Research Mark accreditation observed a “demonstrable commitment” among senior leaders to research-informed professional practice and to developing ACS International Schools as a “robust and sustainable learning community”.

The report’s author, Professor Lesley Saunders, a research associate at NFER, said: “There is now a considerable history of encouraging staff to engage in and with research, with the result that ACS has a well-articulated vision for research as a core value of the professional practice of teaching.”

She also noted the collaboration between the schools and the CIM, and the fact that the Centre has close links with Cambridge and Harvard universities, and the Institute of Education in London.

“It’s ‘offer’ of expertise to the consortium is substantial, and includes short courses, workshops, literature reviews, coaching for specific projects, research tools and dissemination of relevant external research studies,” the report found.

The CIM gives an annual presentation to each school informing staff of the opportunities that are available to them through action research. Staff who are interested in participating then submit proposals and ideas which are assessed on explicit criteria, including intended impact on learning outcomes. Each project has a project leader who is encouraged to collaborate with at least one of the other ACS schools.

Prof Saunders’ report noted: “Involving the whole school in research and enquiry helps to develop a community of reflective practitioners.”
It added that the allocation of time, materials and expertise to enable engagement with research and enquiry was “a clear indicator of the value the school places on research”.

Mr Hren added: “Action research projects provide practical knowledge about how we can make things better. Successful projects will demonstrate improved student learning, including faster or deeper acquisition of concepts or skills, and progress with students who have learning challenges that might make it difficult for them to meet grade-level expectations.

“But it also develops reflective thinking among the teaching staff about how they can use evidence from students to inform.”

The senior leaders at ACS International Schools take a broad view of “research”, acknowledging the importance of self-evaluation, reflective practice and collaborative enquiry.

  • Dorothy Lepkowska is a freelance education writer.

Further information

The Research Mark – supported by SecEd – is a recognised national award scheme endorsing schools and colleges. Gain accreditation from NFER if you are engaging with research, in-school research (known as enquiry) and evaluating evidence. Register for free and download your welcome pack, containing application criteria, case studies, our guide for senior leaders and more. Visit


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