The DfE now expects all schools to engage in action research and it is now part of every Head Teacher’s Standards, and by becoming a research-informed profession we empower ourselves to be able to resist some of the ‘one-size-fits-all’ initiatives that can have spurious outcomes for schools. To get the most from action research we need to think about the positive impact we want to secure for our pupils and the ability to make change long-term and sustainable in terms of resources and commitment.
Why are you doing it?
To be successful there are a few ideas here that may help schools to outline what they hope to achieve.
- Does it address a priority for the school? Does it come from a priority in your School Improvement Plan or data analysis?
- Is it a new initiative that you want to introduce that will benefit pupils?
Measuring impact is important in evaluating the success of your project so have a baseline measure that you can use to reliably compare results. Compare your school to statistical neighbours and to national data to see how you measure up and where you want to aim for. Make sure that you track progress during the project – don’t just wait until the end or you may find pupil progress has been impaired. You may need to make alterations if this is the case to prevent a decline in school results. Ask colleagues who have already trialled something in their schools for their views. What worked well and what didn’t? What were the benefits to pupils and/or staff? Is there any empirical evidence of impact?
What do you want from it?
Have a specific goal you want to achieve and also identify any unexpected benefits.
The best action research is when collaboration takes place within school or between schools. Involving staff, pupils and the leadership team can all help improve outcomes and pedagogy
The best way to conduct action research is to conduct a small pilot study to see what works before committing time, money and large numbers of pupils and staff to something that we are undure about
Pupils can tell us what they like and what helps them to succeed- this in turn engages them more in the process
Teachers will grow professionally if they can have some time to reflect and engage deeply. They will develop greater consistency of approach when they have time to discuss what works well
Leaders at all levels can give valuable support and insight when they are engaged in defining and helping to steer projects. This helps to strengthen relationships, dialogue and the resolve to succeed for the good of pupils
What are your non-negotiables?
Action research needs open-mindedness and flexibility. We may have to challenge our own and others’ long held beliefs and to have the courage of our convictions to carry it through. We may face resistance and challenge from colleagues who don’t share our commitment. There may also be ethical considerations to address such as which children or groups receive interventions. We may be able to find ways to ensure that all children can access an intervention by time-limiting the change we make, but we may then risk diluting the impact.
Most projects involve some additional workload for us or our colleagues so ensure that it is realistic, manageable and allows staff to maintain the other aspects of their work effectively alongside these new demands. Articulate to colleagues why you think it will help and which approaches you think will be most successful, but be prepared to listen to the views and ideas of colleagues who may also have valid ideas and insights to offer.
If there is to be a major piece of work e.g. producing resources or classifying books allow a sensible period of time when staff can pitch in and are prepared to commit time. Projects are often unsuccessful because they are not well thought out.
Ensure that you have the leadership team’s commitment for financial resources for materials, staff overtime if needed and management time to oversee the project.
What if the priorities change?
As the project progresses changes in the needs of the school or new national and local initiatives may mean a need to change the emphasis or direction taken. This is a sensible approach provided it is done with care and reflection and is not just a knee jerk reaction during times of stress. Some thought may need to be given about the impact of the changes to the integrity of the project and the reliability / validity of results.
What if it is unsuccessful?
Action research should be thought of primarily as learning journey as well as a goal you want to achieve By taking a non-judgemental approach we can ensure that the focus is on development and learning . We may be finding out about which approaches don’t work in our particular schools, but equally what is working well in our colleagues’ classes or schools involved in our collaboration. This may help us overcome some of the concerns we may have about external accountability and use of funding. The most successful innovators in our society are characterised by number of failures they experienced before they achieved success, so by comparison the teaching profession does very well with many of its tried and tested approaches that we already use.
Who can we learn from?
We can read literature including journals from similar studies, speak to colleagues, external facilitators, specialist leaders, researchers and other strategic partners including universities and teacher training institutions. Consultants and advisers are able to see the big picture across schools and may be able to point us to successful practice or resources.
How long will it take?
Staff need to see clear timelines and interim progress measures. Bringing about real change doesn’t happen instantly and cultural change means enabling staff to be curious, research-oriented and open to new learning and feedback. It means learning to trust colleagues from other schools and organisations and having the time to reflect and develop new approaches that will have lasting impact. We all need time to internalise feedback and incorporate it into teaching and learning approaches. Some people will learn at a faster rate than others and this may allow opportunities for mentoring and coaching to take place, but this also takes time to embed and to develop a climate of trust and confidence. If we can learn to take calculated risks and to develop more collegial approaches to the challenges we face then we have a real chance to take back the moral high ground from the politicians and quangos.