"We are all Researchers!"
Creating a Research-active Community
by Dr. Andy Convery
Professor Jean McNiff made this powerful rallying call to the support assistants, trainers, assessors, teachers and managers who work across the prisons, training providers, workplaces and colleges in the North East and Cumbria. During a week of visits, Jean joined groups of Outstanding Teaching, Learning & Assessment (OTLA) project participants to share what it means to be a practitioner researcher in our sector.
Jean was astonished to discover the range and complexity of our challenging work and, through engaging activities, she urged us all to commit to our responsibilities as professionals: we must celebrate what we do; we must investigate how we can do it even better; and we must make sure that we develop strong voices to produce and share our informed research into our professional practice.
Jean reminded us how we all do research whenever we investigate better ways to manage our everyday lives. We make plans, we take actions and we review what we do with the aim of making life better. However, Jean suggested that we usually don’t think of ourselves as being capable of research, as we have become accustomed to seeing research as being something that is done by other “experts”. Jean drew on Schön’s image of the practitioners with their knowledgeable experience of the “swampy low ground” of everyday practice relying on the academic researchers up in the “hard, high ground” in universities to provide explanations of what the practitioners are actually doing. And Jean left us in no doubt that this under-informed research on practice will continue until practitioners say, “I can speak for myself, thank you!”
Jean was concerned that practitioners’ rich experience of classroom realities will continue to be neglected unless we learn to develop confident voices which assert and justify the sensitive judgements which guide our teaching and training. We enjoyed how she clarified research terminology, and she helped us recognise that in practitioner action research we must feel confident about adopting the language of research when validating our work to local and national audiences. Jean insisted that we all need to take a little time to gain a confident understanding of the fundamental language of research, and that we take pride in speaking as equal partners as we contribute to the established research community.
The response from all the participants on the project teams was extremely appreciative – there were many comments which shared the same message: “It all makes sense now!”. Student support workers, teachers, trainers, and managers described how it gave them confidence and a sense of empowerment – this was “real CPD”.
“...really inspiring session. I came away feeling empowered and keen to contribute to action research.”
“...was excellent and made me feel confident and comfortable to write (about) my experience.”
“(I can now) take ownership of my views - I know why I do something and can justify my practice.”
“I plan to look at my evidence through my values.”
One really telling comment came from a colleague who was retiring at the end of the week after a long career and admitted to having ‘gate-crashed’ Jean’s session: “That was so powerful – I really wish that I could stay on and try some of those ideas….”
So where do we go next?
At the end of a wonderfully inspiring week, Jean left us with a reminder – that our professional practice is extremely important, but it is largely hidden from the public, and we must “sing our praises” if we want our voices to be heard. We need to address the research community in writing, that fully and powerfully captures the richness and rigour of our research. Jean acknowledged that for busy (and often over-stretched) colleagues, it is too easy just to leave the writing to those on the “hard high ground”. However, should we do this, we will continue to rely on them to provide partial interpretations of our practices, and we will remain frustrated when they produce well-intentioned policies which are inevitably limited.
Jean proposed that she would be willing to lead a writing workshop for our projects later in the year. Would we be interested in such an invitation? We suddenly discovered our new strong voices and loudly responded “Yes please!”
Find out more
To find out more about the action research being undertaken within the Outstanding Teaching, Learning and Assessment North East and Cumbria, click here