How to change classroom practice through action research

Ruth Golding

I am head of Tenzing School in Tor Bridge High, as well as mental health lead and chair of Plymouth Secondary Mental Health Leads Group. In addition, I am a regional leader for WomenEdSW, and am a project board member for Women Leading in Education SW. I also coach on the DfE Women’s Leadership Pledge. I am inspired by the transformational power of education to change lives, and view improving teaching and learning as a way to do this.

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Image credit: Department of Education, University of Oxford // Neil Dixon. Image credit: Department of Education, University of Oxford // Neil Dixon.

I have been interested in action research for a number of years. Having working in social services for the first part of my career, we were trained to within an inch of our lives. Much of the training was practical, and focused on the concept of practice development. This evidence-informed practice enabled us to look at the skills and strategies we needed to meet the needs of our service users. Entering teaching in the nineties and noughties I found that this wasn’t really the case. Training was very prescriptive and centralised from government (National Strategies/APP) or ad hoc, and wasn’t concerned with meeting the needs of everyone in every classroom.

It really surprised me that, when it came to staff development, we seemed to miss the important part of school improvement: changing practice at classroom level.

I started with a pilot working with my colleagues in Tenzing School. The purpose of the pilot was to show people the process of action research. At the time we had a lot of mandatory CPD, as we had some issues with consistency. With this in mind, my initial plan was take one of the mandatory sessions on questioning, and work with my colleagues for them to use action research to test out the strategies we were given in the training.

There was some trepidation, but all staff with a wide range of differing roles were all able to take part. We did very basic planning and preparation - evaluations were short, but when the booklet of evidence was produced, all of us found that the training had caused real impact. What’s more, there was also the collective feeling of everyone working on something together, and the sense of unity this created cannot be underestimated.

Running a pilot serves two functions: you can test the process, but also you can bring a core body of people on board. It took us two more years to get to the point where we got rid of the mandatory CPD that people reported was often stealing their valuable time. The staff were telling us that they didn’t feel it impacted on their practice, and that what they really wanted was more time in teams and more opportunities to try strategies out with their classes.

We identified our action research theme areas, and these are (unsurprisingly for a city comprehensive): closing gaps for disadvantaged students, challenging the most able, assessment and improving the performance boys.

Each area has two research leads and a coach. The rationale for two leads is down to our believing that there is strength through collaboration at every level and within every system. The action research group that people have signed up to has to be as a result of a known need, eg results showing that disadvantaged students in my class did not do as well as their peers. People work in triads. There are no stipulations as to who goes where, apart from teams must be represented in each group.

Dr Gary Jones, in his evidence-based educational leadership blog, has some excellent advice to give to schools venturing to action research. This includes evaluating your school’s readiness to engage - for example, is there ‘buy in’ from staff? Does it start with an end in mind? Are you making it a part of everyone’s work? Is educator practice at its core? Is the model distributed and are the right people leading it? If you are answering yes to these, then you are in a strong position for making action research a success.

Claire Price, headteacher at Chepstow School, stresses the importance of having research champions to lead the way, and feels that it can succeed or fail on this aspect alone! I agree with Claire; the research leads are pivotal. Ours included many very experienced middle leaders, as well as some keen and capable people with other roles. The research leadership role drives the work forward. They QA research proposals, identify themes and subgroups, filter information, answer questions, coach others, and also provide support and encouragement. They are also coached by a member of SLT in their practice as research leads.

We want to give people the freedom to develop their practice in any way they can, as long as they work with others and are open to feedback. The mantra is ‘learn with and from each other’. We have set a few milestones along the way, and we have provided materials like an action research checklist and templates for planning, such as Stephen Tierney’s brilliant ‘5 minute Action Research Plan’.

Dr Gary Jones’ 5 Minute Research Plan

We are not looking for perfection in our action research. We are definitely looking for what doesn’t work and what does work. We have set up an action research blog as a depository of all the research and our ongoing journey. As a showcase for everyone’s work, we are running in-school TeachMeets on the action research areas, so that we can share practice and give everyone a summary of all the research as their teaching and learning handbook for next year. The rationale is that new staff can join the adventure, understand the school’s context, learn what works, and be immersed in practice development.

Publishing the evidence is vital, and this can be done in many ways. Chris Hildrew, headteacher of Churchill Academy, and his team have made bookmarks with each project on it, with handy quick reads and prompts for the busy teachers! Whichever way you choose to publish your evidence, my advice would be ditch the one-size-fits-all CPD. Hand professional learning over to your teams, and wait to be amazed and energised at just how evidence informed practice can transform your school.

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