Learning through research

Written by: HTU | Published:

We hear from Jean Filtness, headteacher of Mengham Junior School in Hampshire, and Dr Neil Saunders, an education researcher, about their year-long project to implement an action research approach to leadership learning at the school

Professional development is central to the success of schools. So too is good leadership. There is a substantial evidence base to reflect how professional development and school leadership contribute to improved school effectiveness and success for all learners. Our personal experience also echoed this view and led our thinking to consider the practical implications it raised, particularly in the context of building leadership capacity and securing sustainability.

Our discussions led to the inception of a year-long professional development programme that was open to all staff and focused on their responsibilities through establishing an action research approach to leadership learning. Mengham Junior School is an increasingly effective school, but we were keen to ensure the improvement trajectory did not plateau and continued to develop a culture where professional dialogue and thinking had high priority. Action research was already familiar to some staff, but for others it was a less familiar concept. It appealed to us as a vehicle for development for several reasons.

Firstly, action research is an approach to learning that is totally consistent with a contemporary perspective on school leadership learning. Indeed, it is perhaps better understood as action learning, since professional learning is the outcome of the research process. In this context research is not an end in itself, but is the key enabling process that takes professional reflection into professional analysis and action based on evidence rather than limited experience, hunch or intuition.

Secondly, action research can usefully bring together two closely inter-related aspects of teacher development. Action research deepens the understanding of school leadership in a context of developing understanding where curriculum, learning and teaching – the core business of the school – are central to an enquiry process that itself needs to be led and managed.

The enquiry process helps model effective learning by emphasising the need to identify relevant questions and gather appropriate data in order to analyse, reflect and deepen understanding.

Finally, when action research is undertaken by a whole staff team, it helps influence a culture of co-operation and interdependence that goes beyond what is possible when undertaken by an individual teacher. Opportunities for joint thinking, through discussion and on-going dialogue about issues that matter because they are real and relevant, are heightened. This helps build a culture that is both understanding of, and supportive to, the reality of deeper adult professional learning.

Ideas into action

With these beliefs and ideas informing our thinking we worked together to plan and launch the development project. In addition to the teaching staff, two higher level teaching assistants (HTLAs) and the school’s finance officer embarked on the project which was led by the headteacher with guidance from an external adviser to facilitate planning and project leadership. Our thinking was focused on two main questions:

- How can staff with a leadership and management responsibility make use of action research to improve their leadership?

- How can the findings from action research be used more effectively within our organisation and beyond?

Beyond these questions which focused on the leadership of the project, each member of staff identified and researched a particular question of professional significance and relevance to their work. Some typical examples to illustrate their breadth and width included:

- What are children’s perceptions of RE and how can they be improved?
- Why do boys think it is uncool to sing?
- How can we ensure we are meeting the needs of parents regarding school communications?

Staff took part in a number of workshops to understand an action research methodology and how to apply it in their own enquiries. The project was fully integrated into the school’s performance management systems.

What do we learn?

Planning and preparation needed time and support. Most staff needed guidance to understand the potential of their work. The main issues that emerged concerned moving from the identification of a broad area of enquiry to a specific research question that was appropriate for small-scale action research.

Personal motivation and confidence needed to be secured and developed. The evidence is that motivation was sustained and confidence grew as the research process developed from what initially was a very varied picture. Anxieties commonly related to time management, how data would be collected and analysed, and the influence of various external factors and variables. The first phase of planning and preparation took much of the first term. However, this was an important initial investment of time and provided the secure basis upon which to build during the implementation phase in the following term. During this period individual enquiries became established and individual and collective confidence became increasingly positive.

As one teacher said: “I felt I was floundering – not knowing how to do the background research. Having spoken to Jean, I now know I am on track and feel confident.”

A key point from this phase of work is that success, however small, helps build confidence and motivation, and enables bigger steps to be taken. Through focused dialogue of a coaching/mentoring nature, problems were managed as they were identified and progress enabled. By the end of the second term, time and personal management issues were far less of a problem and the focus of professional thinking much more clearly based on the research process and the implications of the emerging outcomes for deeper learning and changed practice.

Implementation of the action research continued in the third term of the year, culminating in a dissemination conference in July. Although the shape of individual research projects began to be increasingly differentiated, they all continued to be developed and a number were extended into subsequent enquiries. During this term staff commented:

- “Although I tried to collect the evidence systematically, anomalies did occur due to outside influences.”
- “My research question could be widened out from maths and actually applied to all subjects.”
- “My research certainly provided me with a new focus and I will follow this up with a questionnaire to parents specifically on the use of our website.”

Data from questionnaires and discussions with a range of staff indicated an increasing understanding of the importance of the on-going incremental nature of action research, as ideas and thinking were influenced by reflection and action over subsequent phases of the action research process.

This realisation, although explored initially, was learned in a deeper way by engagement and involvement in the research learning process that it promoted. A further realisation was that action research is not necessarily a tidy process with clear conclusions, but is frequently messy with emerging conclusions that are contextually relevant. These often become the source of a subsequent enquiry. This is an indication of the powerful longer-term influence of action research on thinking. It reflects a particularly important significant influence of the research process for both personal and organisational sustainability.

What did the initiative achieve?

The achievements of the initiative are most easily understood by returning to the two main research questions:

How can staff with a leadership and management responsibility make use of action research to improve their leadership? All staff learned more about aspects of their practice to enable them to be more effective in their various leadership and management roles. This was especially true for those colleagues with subject management responsibilities. Some individual examples that reflect the views expressed by several staff include:

- “My action research has shown me which activities children enjoy in RE and what helps them to learn most effectively.”
- “My action research has been very clear in identifying which practices work best for children.”
- “This action research project was ideal for exploring what kinds of practices work best for which children, under what conditions and with what effect. The opinions expressed by members of the Reading Club informed practice throughout and meant that we were making adjustments to various aspects almost on a weekly basis, for example seating, groupings, reading materials.”

As would be expected, given the range of confidence, experience and motivation that staff brought to the project the extent and nature of the learning achieved varied from one individual to another. However, in all cases they identified that their learning was directly relevant to their particular stage of development, and, of necessity therefore, personalised, with a high degree of self-management. This is in marked contrast to some other forms of training and development.

Action research has contributed successfully to whole-school improvement and to the improvement of leadership and management in significant ways. In particular, it has helped build personal and collective capacity, both of which are central to sustainability. The impact is likely to be incremental over time, especially as staff carry out further research based on their initial findings and further deepen their professional understanding.

How can the findings from action research be used more effectively within our organisation and beyond? The action research initiative demonstrated that providing adequate time, guidance and support for the process is vital to success. The time and effort expended in the school over the course of the year definitely impacted positively on the overall quality of the research projects, which were completed successfully by all staff, and were of a high quality.

Although the end of the school year marked the end of this phase of the initiative, there is sufficient encouraging evidence to ensure action research becomes a sustained feature of the school’s approach to staff development. Our experience of action research has been shared with other schools in the local authority and internally the impact of the research carried out has continued to grow. One member of staff has chosen to use her project as the basis of further research for a post-graduate certificate and another has used her project from last year as a model for a newly qualified teacher to adopt. Additionally staff are now finding it much easier both to choose a focus for their research, to complete their research plans and initiate and develop an enquiry.

Some implications of wider significance

The White Paper, The Importance of Teaching (2010) gives high emphasis to the importance of teachers and their development. This re-professionalisation of the teaching workforce will be popular with many practitioners. However, it will be important not to fall into the old trap of seeing the teaching force largely as vessels to be filled with essential skills and knowledge, while failing to recognise that many are already both highly skilled and extremely knowledgeable.

One of the challenges for professional development is to recognise this reality and to build upon it at both a personal and organisational level. This is neither a soft nor an easy option. Successful professional learning needs to be challenging yet supportive, purposeful and practical, innovative and yet thought-provoking. Above all, teachers do not want re-cycled knowledge; they want and deserve new professional knowledge that they have engaged in creating, based on their analysis and reflection. This deeper learning is essential for leadership development of quality and pedagogical development of real significance. Action research is an approach that, when done well, has the potential to help schools strengthen professional development and secure sustainability.

Other schools thinking about following a similar development will want to consider a number of questions. These include:

- Is this approach to adult learning consistent with our broader view of effective learning?
- Have we the internal expertise to lead and manage the project’s development?
- Would some external advice help focus and sharpen our work?
- Can we build capacity and sustainability more effectively in any other way?

Our experience will, we hope, encourage you to think about the potential benefits of an action research approach to building leadership capacity.

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