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Elizabeth Holmes

Small-scale research: your next CPD priority

Use action research to enhance teaching and learning. Elizabeth Holmes explains how

‘Spoon feeding in the long run teaches us nothing but the shape of the spoon.’ EM Forster

ith the ongoing debate about using research in education to inform teaching and learning, it seems timely to revisit the topic of small-scale research projects. These are typically undertaken within one institution; they have a specific focus attempting to meet an identified need in that institution and are carried out by staff, usually during the course of the working day. If there is funding for these research projects either externally sourced or internally directed, this is commonly used to buy non-contact time, to enable completion of the projects and preserve the precious evenings and holidays of those undertaking them. In reviewing a pile of education research papers I was reminded of the impact that small-scale research projects can have on the enhancement of teaching and learning. While problematic issues such as time constraints, gaps in expertise, internal support for research and availability of resources for research – including administrative support – can be overcome if there is a will to value the process of research and any subsequent findings, it’s essential to give it some priority. These thoughts may offer a springboard:

Review the existing literature on your theme

Most research projects will begin with a review of the existing relevant literature. This process supports professional learning and helps to refine research questions.

Collaborate with others

Beyond the joint working you almost certainly already engage in within your school, one of the most potentially fruitful collaborations you might develop is with your local higher education institution (HEI). Develop the links you already have and build on those. Aim to match the research interests of your staff with those of the HEI staff you may have contact with. You may also want to consider ways of supporting researchers in a supervisory role, matching up staff researchers with others who are in a position to offer supervision or, at the very least, to offer some overview and insights which may impact the direction of research. Working in isolation can be fruitful, but professional dialogues with other educators can help to keep research focused and successful.

Include students

Consider ways in which your pupils and students can be involved in research projects, perhaps as co-researchers. Your pupils just may be one of your most valuable resources when it comes to exploring issues around the development of effective teaching and learning strategies.

Develop a virtuous circle of teaching and research

While in some universities research can tend to be valued more highly than teaching (which seems utterly ill-advised in the current climate), this cannot be the case in schools. Both teaching and research can, under the right circumstances, feed into enhanced learning. It is worth considering ways of creating a virtuous circle of teaching and research in which they inform and inspire each other rather than being viewed as distinct activities, one more important than the other.

Disseminate findings

Your findings will be of interest to the profession as a whole and will usefully feed into the wider body of research about teaching and learning. Don’t sit on them! Dissemination typically happens close to home initially, within your school or cluster of schools. You can publish any resulting reports on your website or through an education journal. Use social media to introduce your findings to a wider audience and invite comment. Perhaps also explain your findings to other educators in your locality. A Teachmeet would be an effective way of achieving this. However you decide to share your research, the important thing is that it doesn’t get left to languish unread or not acted upon. We undertake research in the hope that some change is initiated (why bother, otherwise?) and unless findings are disseminated the potential for change is limited.

Identify change

Research is fascinating in itself but of course, that’s not enough. How can research findings be expressed concisely and applied in the classroom? Do you have methods for identifying and evaluating the change that occurs as a result of the application of your research? Focusing on these issues may help to maximise use of any small-scale research undertaken in your school.

Leave room for questions

Research helps us to uncover key findings that can greatly assist in the drive to improve teaching and learning, but it will also reveal further questions. It hardly needs to be said that teaching involves the interactions between teachers and students and these interactions are unique, as are the needs of each learner and each teacher. Small scale research projects will be incredibly useful in informing how best to maximise the chances of great teaching and learning occurring but it can never offer a one-size-fits-all approach to the job, thankfully. We still need to engage as individuals with the research and we will necessarily interpret research for the benefit of our learners. So, what new research questions are raised by the evaluation of research and of any resulting change? How might these questions be addressed in future research?

Research according to interests

There is always an inevitable tension between the research and development interests of the individual and those of the school. Naturally, for the greatest chance of completing research, staff should go with what interests them, but it’s curious how much anecdotal evidence there seems to be suggesting that teachers don’t feel they always have that option when it comes to professional learning activities. What would staff at your school say? If we want our teaching to continue to be informed by evidence we, as a profession (which includes all educators in schools, colleges, universities and beyond) need to continue to do research. And if that research is to have a chance of contributing to sustainable change in the context in which we work, then small-scale action research will continue to be of interest and value.

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