Lawrence Stenhouse, a former president of the British Educational Research Association (BERA) and British Curriculum Forum (BCF) founder, was one of the most distinguished, original and influential educationalists of his generation. His theories about curriculum, pedagogy, teacher research and research as a basis for teaching remain compelling. Stenhouse (Stenhouse, 1971) held strongly to the view that young people of all abilities and backgrounds could be encouraged to think of their learning in terms of enquiry. And behind Stenhouse’s educational theory was a firm and generous democratic conviction that was thoroughly optimistic about what human beings could and should achieve.
The concept of a National Curriculum is often problematic. Stenhouse (Stenhouse, 1975) recognised that curriculum development has little chance of success unless it involves teachers and practitioners in exploring their own practice through research. This approach to change, and its implications for teacher engagement in research, presupposes a reflective view of professionalism. Thus, the emphasis in this article is on identifying the curriculum in terms of content, process and intent, recognising that teachers must actively engage with it in the reality of their classrooms, rather than merely as a set of written content statements.
The British Curriculum Forum aims to promote curricular development and enquiry, and a recent conference (British Curriculum Forum, 2018) was designed to promote ‘meaningful dialogue’ between practitioners, policy-makers and academics about all things curricula. But of greater importance was the notion of action – action at a time of change. In this article, we present three contributions from the conference. Firstly, we consider the agency that teachers have to be researchers in their own classrooms. This is followed by two examples of researching in practice, through a networked cross-sector research initiative, and through school improvement grounded in research. It is hoped that these will inspire continuing progress in the development of teachers actively engaging with research to enhance pupil learning.
Acting like a researcher: Making a deliberate change of emphasis
All practising teachers can also be researchers. ‘Research’ may sound grand, but it can be very closely linked to any teacher’s daily routines. There is only a change in emphasis. Thinking like a researcher across all aspects of professional practice requires us to pay attention to our experiences more closely and deliberately. This can be challenging during the working day, but it might be possible to take note of significant experiences for later thought and reflection. Crucial in this endeavour is an awareness that our professional lives are complex and require some detailed thought.
Many writers and researchers suggest ways of approaching practitioner research. Works by John Mason (Mason, 2002) and Tony Brown (Brown, 2001) are good places to start. A key concern for those supporting practitioner research is to try to find ways of facilitating teacher learning that are as time-efficient (and close to practice) as possible. The key points are, firstly, that the teacher is always already involved and, far from being a hindrance, their personal commitments are a positive, generative and crucial aspect of the research they want to do. Secondly, teacher thinking and action are central to the research. How we think – feel – perceive – evaluate decides to a significant degree what the professional world can be for us, and will shape the kinds of knowledge we find useful in the fields of pedagogy, curriculum and assessment.
A key aspect of researching one’s own practice, to enhance the educational experience of both teachers and pupils, lies in recognising our reliance on language. The words we choose to characterise something that happened cannot be neutral. They will belong to a value system or paradigm that will frame what happened as an object of knowledge in particular ways. For instance, if a teacher struggles to convey an idea in class, how should they explain what happened? One approach would be to look at pedagogy – their approach to presenting the difficult idea. Another approach would be to look at curriculum – perhaps focusing on the idea’s ‘content’ or innate characteristics. Each approach implies a very different way of getting to grips with the situation and will proffer alternative kinds of hypothesis, formulation and solution.
A teacher’s everyday interactions can provide important data for subsequent analysis. Looking outside the school, a media image, government message or policy document might stimulate our thinking and provide new insights. Even a throwaway conversation with friends can trigger thinking in new ways. Being a researcher, in this ‘practitioner’ sense, requires us to look more closely at significant moments and pay special heed to their appearance in language. This can enable us to unpick the complexities of our experience and find alternative ways of talking about who we are, how we learn and what we aspire to be as professionals.
Building Research in Primary Schools (BRiPS)
These ideas are exemplified in the Building Research in Primary Schools project, a small-scale research project funded by the Association for the Study of Primary Education (ASPE). Guiding principles for the project were:
- Research is an important part of teachers’ professional practice
- Research can be messy and complex, not always offering simple solutions
- The curriculum does not easily translate in simple linear ways for the needs of pupils
- Existing research evidence can only guide school improvement and development. It requires adaptation and contextual adjustments
- Partnership and collaboration enable research to be supported, interpreted, shared, sustained and disseminated.
These principles drew on Biesta’s notion of research evidence becoming an ‘instrument in intelligent professional action’ for teachers ((Biesta, 2010), p. 43) and Stenhouse’s notion of teacheras- researcher, recognising that the curriculum must be enacted and translated by teachers in their own contexts through their own research and development (Stenhouse, 1975) if they are to promote pupil learning.
Model for research engagement
The model adopted for this project involved a lead at a university, where one academic (previously a primary school teacher) worked in partnership with six primary schools. Recent Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) research on the role and significance of teachers being engaged in research points to the need for teachers to be systemically supported in the research process, and not just left with translations of existing research (Education Endowment Foundation, 2017). This project was specifically designed across six schools with two teachers undertaking research in each school, so that each researching teacher had support from a colleague. In discussion with their head teachers, each teacher selected their own focus for research, and attended four twilight sessions on research methods at the university. These sessions were designed to guide the teachers into establishing a starting point for their research idea linked to any existing evidence, framing research questions, designing appropriate research methods, analysing, interpreting data from particular perspectives, drawing conclusions and disseminating their findings. They were each funded to have a day released from teaching to enable them to collect data within their school. The teachers were visited and supported in school as they carried out their school-based research. There was also agreement that the research would be disseminated within each school at the end of the year, and that the teachers would present their research at a university conference. This fulfilled Stenhouse’s notion ((Stenhouse, 1981), p. 104) that research is ‘systematic enquiry made public’.
Focus, action and outcomes
Eleven of the 12 projects related to aspects of curriculum, pedagogy or assessment, often with a focus on target ages or pupil groupings. Each reported positive results for the pupils in terms of outcomes and/or wellbeing. Each of the teachers also reported how their own teaching was developed through their engagement in the research project. They all had ideas for scaling up their projects and developing more research in their schools beyond their enquiry. The project revealed that the impact of small-scale research projects is not necessarily only measurable in terms of student learning outcomes, but also in terms of teachers’ own professional development and for the small steps towards building research culture and community, which begin to be more sustainable in the future.
Is it better than we are already doing?
Building on Stenhouse’s (Stenhouse, 1975) notion of teacher-as-researcher, the story of Ash Grove Academy takes this one step further, placing inquiry at the heart of a school improvement process. It is a tale deeply rooted in its context, illustrating how using research evidence, engagement with research and research principles can lie at the heart of self-sustaining transformation.
In 2009, Ash Grove Primary School was a challenging school on the point of closure. In a medium-sized town, in the North West, the school served a community facing high social and economic disadvantage, and it was evident that standard school improvement strategies had not been effective. The arrival of a new head teacher and a new deputy head teacher initiated a change in direction. Rather than relying on previous experience or advice from others, it was decided to put high-quality research and research evidence at the heart of every action and decision made.
Back to basics
All teaching and learning was stripped back to the basics and redeveloped to reflect the evidence. Over time, a systematic five-stage cycle (Sharratt and Fullen, 2009) was adopted to structure the process explicitly:
Stage 1: What does the data say? What is the challenge?
Stage 2: What does the research suggest? What is the theory that underpins effective practice?
Stage 3: What will the theory look like in our classrooms?
Stage 4: How will we know if it is working? How will we measure the impact?
Stage 5: What does the outcome teach us? What can we learn from the innovation?
Quickly, a menu of pedagogies, interventions, resources and approaches began to be assembled – a toolkit exemplifying what worked, when, where, for whom and in what circumstances. All staff within the school became coinvestigators in the development of the menu – collaborators at every stage. Codifying the work of the school in this way enabled all aspects to be rigorously scrutinised and evaluated. The school became a place where it was ‘no longer risky to take risks or quirky to try something new’ (Matthews et al., 2014) and was recognised as Outstanding in all areas by Ofsted in 2013.
Reaching out Since then, the school has established a multi-academy trust and a teaching school and become a founding member of the EEF/IEE Research Schools Network, reaching out to other schools across the system. Five strands of research engagement (BERA/RSA, 2014) underpin the strategic development plan for the teaching school, and the work of the EEF and IEE enriches the decisions made and provides further challenge and support. As a research school, Ash Grove Academy helps schools access research and interpret it in the context of their own communities and provides training programmes. Ultimately, as Sharples et al. (Sharples et al., 2018) remind us, ‘it doesn’t matter how great an educational idea or intervention is in principle; what really matters is how it manifests itself in the day-to-day work of people in schools’ – and Ash Grove Academy continues to explore, document and share what it looks, sounds and feels like to use research evidence every day in a selfimproving system.
What we hope this article achieves is to illustrate the importance of the curriculum being something that is enacted and tested by teachers in their schools as part of teachers’ deliberate professional action. A research approach that encourages critical thought, testable possibilities and reflection related to classroom and school-level practices creates more possibilities for the curriculum to meaningfully support pupil learning. The two examples demonstrate how teachers can actively research the curriculum and, in so doing, enhance their own professional development as well as pupil learning. It also offers a means through which whole schools can both begin and sustain improvement.