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Teacher Research Transforming practice or re-arranging the deckchairs ? Tim Cain, Richard Harris & Gary Kinchin – University of Southampton BERA 7th September 2011. Technical action research.

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Teacher research transforming practice or re arranging the deckchairs

Teacher Research

Transforming practice or re-arranging the deckchairs?

Tim Cain, Richard Harris & Gary Kinchin – University of Southampton

BERA 7th September 2011

Technical action research

Technical action research

Externally-formulated questions & issues, not based in practical concerns of teachers - may be inauthentic for practitioners (co-option)

Aims for greater efficiency or effectiveness (instrumental reasoning)

Might be used to test findings from research, carried out by others

… provides a stimulus for change, participation in professional development, supportive organisational structure for self-monitoring

Carr & Kemmis, 1986: 202-03

Practical action research

Practical action research

Cooperative practitioner-facilitator relationships

Aims to develop professional wisdom – understanding in praxis

Criteria for improvement may change

Carr & Kemmis, 1986: 203

Emancipatory action research

Emancipatory action research

‘ … best embodies the values of a critical educational science’

Responsibility taken by participant group, with ‘moderator’ (collaboration)

Aims to develop ‘common practical theories, authentic insights and prudent decision making (based on mutual understanding and consensus)’

Aims to emancipate participants from ‘tradition, precedent, habit, coercion or self-deception’

Incorporates a social perspective, provokes a critical response to organizational constraints, aims at transforming organisation & practice of education

Explores these, to identify contradictory and irrational aspects

Carr & Kemmis, 1986: 203-4

The status quo

The ‘status quo’

‘… exists because the norms and rules learned through socialization have been internalized and are constantly reinforced. Human beings learn which skills work within the status quo and which do not work. The more the skills work, the more they influence individuals’ sense of competence. Individuals draw on such skills and justify their use by identifying the values embedded in them and adhering to these values.’

Argyris et al., 1985: xi

‘Practitioner research either can reproduce those norms, rules, skills and values or it can challenge them’.

Anderson, Herr & Nihlen, 1994: 25

The challenge of emanciaptory ar

The challenge of emanciaptory AR

‘Because of the essentially political nature of life in schools, educational practitioners who are engaged in research in their schools are not necessarily welcomed with open arms by colleagues and administrators ‘

Anderson, Herr & Nihlen, 1994: 38

‘… action research and educational institutions have dichotomous polar tendencies such that there is a dialectical tension between them. While action research fosters collegiality, informality, openness and collaboration, action researchers have to contend with educational institutions that are structured hierarchically with formal asymmetrical relations of power and responsibility’.

Huthchinson & Whitehouse, 1986: 85

Project outline

Project outline

  • Initiated by Headteacher (& one researcher)

  • Teachers volunteered

  • University day to introduce AR – July, 2010

  • Encouraged a collaborative project; teachers went solo

  • Monthly visits to support & interview, Sept – Dec, 2010

  • Presentation to SIG groups, Dec, 2010

  • Interviews July, 2011

Teacher research transforming practice or re arranging the deckchairs


  • Teachers’ notes, submitted after University day

  • Interview data, recorded and transcribed

  • Unstructured observation of SIG presentations

  • Other data, offered by teachers (worksheets, emails etc.)

  • Analysis by themes: contexts (school and personal), projects (intentions and actions), impact (support and outcomes)

Amy her initial focus

Amy – her initial focus

  • Fitted in with the school priority to improve the number of A/A* grades

  • Her plan was to focus on the A/A* exam criteria and share these constantly with the students

  • Her concern was that this might disadvantage students working towards lower grades

  • Additional frustrations

    • “I’ve been very typecast as a C, D borderline teacher for a long time, if I’m honest, as someone who can get kids Cs, …, and actually I’m bored of that

Amy s real aspiration

Amy’s ‘real’ aspiration

  • “I want to have that, you know that buzz when you’re teaching and you just think, cor, that was great today and when you actually can’t wait to come in the next day because you’re going to be trying that with the class, … and I want to go back to

  • “playing safe is something I can do well and not take risks … but I want to not be that sort of teacher who plays safe, I want to try and take a few risks and do something a bit different and be a bit out of your comfort zone”

  • Shift in focus

    • “So I could think about what it is that they need to be able to do in English to make them successful and then actually teach to that rather than teach to the exam”

  • Amy s development

    Amy’s development

    • Need for reassurance

      • “am I on the right track now or am I sort of going off at a tangent?”

    • Pupils

      • “I think they’ve become much more confident in their learning … something I should mention is the revision classes were packed, I mean, like falling out the door packed, full of kids who wanted to come and some kids I didn’t teach but who’d heard, you know, who came, so that was a good indication”

    • Self

      • “At the start I really did, I was more concerned about, you know, what grade they came up with and now I think I’m more concerned that they leave here with an enriching and creative and happy time, … actually that that’s really important to me that they see English as something that’s, I don’t know, fun and different and stretches their brain in a different kind of way, so, yeah, it’s definitely different to how I thought I’d feel about it at the beginning”



    • In January the school took away her top set and gave her a C/D group to teach

    • School became ‘exam city’

    • End of the school improvement group she had led which provided an impetus to keep trying things

    • But …

    • She was trying out new approaches with another class

    • Other colleagues were trying her ideas and positive feedback encouraged her

    • Had plans for the next academic year

    James initial focus

    James – initial focus

    • To implement his MSc findings

      • “to encourage them to actually understand where they are and where they need to be, long term” (GCSE grades)

      • “our aim in school is to get them a GCSE, the best grade they could possibly get … the students are aware of that being their primary objective when they get here”

      • “get them [pupils] to take responsibility for their progress”

    Teacher research transforming practice or re arranging the deckchairs





    Student aspiration

    School minimum target
















    Y7 ---------------- Y8 -------------------- Y9 -------------------- Y10 ------------- Y11 ------------

    James 2 nd interview

    James – 2nd interview

    • Students had drawn graphs – most wanted A* (top grade)

    • Minimum target grade also entered

    • Students read off the target grades for each term, entered in mathematics books

    • “At the end of the day we are here to produce good grades”

    James later developments

    James – later developments

    • Administered 3 termly tests

    • Produced spreadsheet to calculate level from raw scores

    • Entered test results on graphs

    • By the end of the year, developed a ‘flight plan’

    Teacher research transforming practice or re arranging the deckchairs

    • Differs from original plan:

    • ‘Runway’ allows for less progress in the first term

    • Teacher selects GCSE aim, not pupil

    • Given to all, not just top set



    • Differences between technical, practical & emancipatory action research explained in terms of external support (co-option – collaboration) (Carr & Kemmis, 1986)

    • However, similar external support generated:

      • James: technical (instrumental reasoning, greater efficiency)

      • Amy: more emancipatory (change in self, change in focus)

    • How do you explain the difference?

    The context

    The context

    • School focus is overwhelmingly on GCSE results:

      • students take exams early, enabling 2 attempts

      • booster classes, aimed at those students who are capable of getting ‘C’ grades

      • staff deployed to maximise examination achievement

      • focus is on what can crudely be described as an ‘economic-functionalist’ view of schooling as opposed to a view focused on ‘self-actualisation’

    The individuals

    The individuals

    • James – his role as a teacher is to get good results

    • This fits with the school’s focus on ‘economic-functionalist’ view of education

    • Reinforced by his previous educational/career experiences

    • Receives plenty of affirmation

    • No internal tensions

    • High level of self-efficacy

    • Project involves no risk

    • Project confirms existing practice

    Teacher research transforming practice or re arranging the deckchairs

    • Amy – her role is to get pupils to enjoy her subject so that it lives with them

    • Runs counter to school ethos

    • Needs reassurance

    • Internal tension – wants to put her values into practice – there is a source of frustration

    • Pro-active – high levels of self-efficacy

    • Project involves risk

    • Project challenged norms, rules, skills and values



    • Role of outside support (e.g. from universities) – should it encourage a critical response to school culture?

    • Teachers can respond in different ways: by reinforcing or challenging the culture – should teachers be encouraged to take risks and challenge the educational culture?

    • When action research is sponsored by the Headteacher, who decides is/should be challenged?

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