Happy New Year! As we start 2024, the inevitable conversation about new years resolutions takes hold. I have the same resolution each year, which isn’t necessarily to do anything new, but to try and be more conscious of and focused on the things I’m already doing.
This links to school work, especially making improvements in my classrooms.
We can be prone to following trends in education. This isn’t me being judgemental. I think it’s for the best of reasons; we want to improve the quality of education for the children we serve… but sometimes just don’t know where to start.
Back in October I wrote about the idea of respectful scepticism and focusing on the ‘niggly bits’ in our classrooms. The message behind this was that by taking control of the smaller aspects of our classroom practice, we remove barriers to learning, improve our own sense of self-efficacy and develop school/classroom culture.
As an EdD student, I’ve learnt about the process of action research whilst studying. Far from being a new concept, action researchers attribute the movement to its ‘father’, Kurt Lewin, who wrote about the phenomena in the 1940s. Action research can be defined as ‘the study of a social situation with a view of improving action within it’ (Elliott, 1991, p. 69) and was first engaged with in the context of education within the 1970s when Stenhouse coined the concept of the ‘teacher as researcher’ in 1975 (Townsend, 2013).
Action research is a reflective practice that starts with a question. For example:
‘What impact does verbalising my own thought process whilst I model have on pupils’ ability to write a 4 mark question?’
‘What is the long-term impact of regular communication with home when a child receiving negative behaviour points in my lessons?’
As a senior leader working within the quality of education team at my school, I do think about the balance between having a whole school foci based on our lesson drop in data and empowering teachers to pursue areas of their practice that they are genuinely interested in.
I don’t think there is a one size fits all answer to this, and with most things in education context is key. On the one hand, it could be argued that by deciding what the focus of reflection will be, school leaders are removing autonomy away from teachers, who will then get less out of the process as a consequence. On the other hand, action research is a process that flourishes when done through professional learning networks so there are individual benefits as well as whole school benefits to working on the same area of development (Brown et al., 2018; Cain et al., 2019).
Whether the area of teaching your focusing on is a whole school initiative, or something you’re interested in exploring on your own, undertaking action research follows the process of posing a question, reflecting, planning, acting and observing then reflection upon what has happened so far. This process can be applied to pretty much anything you want to explore and personally makes me feel much more confident.
My favourite model is this by Kemmis and McTaggart (2005) as it shows how the process can keep going and going if you so wish. Find this useful as we are never really finished when it comes to improving our practice and this model follows my experience of then finding another aspect of practice/pedagogy that flows naturally as a next step and then running with that:
Before Christmas I started this process with one of my classes and have summarised where I’m up to with this as an example of how action research can help us to reflect and meaningfully improve our classroom practice.
One of my KS3 history classes is very hesitant when it comes to extended writing. I think this is for a mixture of different reasons and wanted to heavily scaffold each stage of the writing process to ensure that pupils had a clear understanding of what I wanted them to do.
To investigate what was going on a support my pupils with their first hefty essay, I decided to explore the following research question:
‘How can I plan a short series of lessons to support pupils in writing extended answers?’
Lesson 1: Formative assessment to check for understanding using questions we’ve revisited as part of our ‘do now’ retrieval quizzes. I then used this information to inform which aspects of the topic I emphasised in the next lesson
Lesson 2: Feedback and modelling creating a plan for the essay as well as going through the essay structure I wanted them to use
Lesson 3: Planning lesson where pupils work through their plans and I move around the room supporting, add comments in books etc.
Lesson 4: Writing essays
Within these lessons I wanted to focus particularly on how I could balance those in my class who grasped the topic quickly, understood the premise of the essay and wanted to ‘get on with it’ as well as supporting those who needed more guided support at each stage. I decided that the way I wanted to do this was through heavy scaffolding at the start of the lesson and then circulating whilst pupils worked so I could see who needed further support and also expand answers through questioning.
Act and Observe
As we worked though these lessons I noticed that there were points where the vast majority of the class were looking at me confused, so I started my explanation over, giving pupils the chance to either work independently or listen again. Additionally, I noticed that rather predictably, the confidence level of some of my pupils didn’t match their actual writing! This wasn’t surprising, but focusing on checking as I moved around the room helped me to deal with this as it arose rather than whilst marking.
I asked a fellow history teacher to observe a lesson to get their views on whether pupils seemed clear and confident whilst they worked. It just so happened that they were able to drop in during the writing lesson so they could see the work pupils had done in their books and give me feedback on the entire process. This was useful and helped me tweak what I’d do next time.
The key things I'm taking away from this process of action research is just how much you pick up by constantly moving around the classroom with a specific focus. I was knackered at the end of each lesson and my watch confirmed that I was doing lots of steps! I move around the room during most lessons, but having an emphasis on this gave me so much more information (and retrospectively made me wonder about what I've missed in previous lessons). Additionally, I will appreciate just how complex a process preparing pupils for extended writing is and ensure that I give their next essay a similar level of attention.
The point I’m trying to make is that focusing on what we are already doing within a model of action can improve teaching. By using Kemmis and McTaggart's (2005) model we are structuring a process of thought for ourselves and allowing for a more intentional reflection on our actions. I’d use this process when introducing something new, but the example I’ve shared here shows that it’s also effective in looking at our current practice.
Education is fast moving and there are always lots of new ideas. This is fabulous in many ways, but its also important to focus on the small, micro level research that we can undertake into our own practice using action research.
Brown, C., Zhang, D., Xu, N., & Corbett, S. (2018). Exploring the impact of social relationships on teachers' use of research: A regression analysis of 389 teachers in England International Journal of Educational Research, 89, 36-46.
Cain, T., Brindley, S., Brown, C., Jones, G., & Riga, F. (2019). Bounded decision-making, teachers reflection and organisational learning: How research can inform teachers and teaching British Educational Research Journal, 45(5), 1072-1087.
Elliott, J. (1991). Action Research For Educational Change Open University Press.
Kemmis, S., & McTaggart, R. (2005). Participatory Action Research: Communicative Action and the Public Sphere. In N. K. Denzin & S. Lincoln (Eds.), he Sage handbook of qualitative research. Sage Publications
Townsend, A. (2013). Action Research; The Challenges of Understanding and Changing Practice. Open University Press.