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Education Blog

Practitioner Enquiry as a Base for Career Long Professional Learning

In the first of a two-part blog series, Kate Wall, Anna Beck and Nova Scott consider the interchange between research and practice, and explain the way that practitioner enquiry has become a foundation for several modules in the School of Education. 

In this post we consider the increasingly important role that practitioner enquiry plays in professional learning at all stages of a teacher’s career. 

We draw on examples from two programmes in our School of Education – the new Professional Graduate Diploma in Education (PGDE) and the PGCert in Supporting Teacher Learning – to explore what this looks like in practice. These are by no means the only programmes that include elements of practitioner enquiry, but they are examples of programmes that have been recently revised to make the focus on enquiry more explicit, in-line with wider changes in Scottish education. 

A practitioner enquiry approach to professional learning in education has become increasingly common as practitioners are encouraged to engage in and with research (Cordingley, 2013) as part of their professional learning. Although this can take many different forms under various names (e.g. action research, inquiry, enquiry, teacher research, knowledge mobilisation, evidence-informed), the collective effort to create a research-engaged profession is driven by one unifying aim: to improve education (the purpose of which can be multiple, but we do not enter this debate here). 

With growing recognition of the importance for teachers to be research literate right from the beginning of their career, practitioner enquiry has become a key feature of initial teacher education (ITE) programmes across the world (Rutten, 2021). 

A BERA-RSA (2014) enquiry into the role of research in teacher education stressed the need for ITE to equip student teachers with the skills to conduct their own research, individually and collectively, as well as the confidence to become ‘discerning consumers of research’, rather than accepting research findings and educational trends at face value (learning styles anyone?). 

The new PGDE module ‘Professional Learning through Enquiry’, introduced this year as part of the new PGDE programme, supports students in both of these areas. This was particularly timely given the publication of the new GTCS (2021) standards that explicitly state the need for teachers to be actively engaged in practitioner enquiry. 

Although supporting student teachers to become active, enquiring professionals has been a central aim of our PGDE programme for some time, the development of a module on practitioner enquiry has made this focus more explicit. We draw on the model of practitioner enquiry described in the remainder of this blog to support students to develop the necessary skills to design and carry out classroom-based enquiry. Collaborative practitioner enquiry is becoming an increasingly common feature of the induction year across many local authorities and our students will enter this space fully prepared to engage with this. An overarching aim is to enable students to learn how to engage with research, literature and policy in a critical manner, in order to support the development of voice and agency (Sachs, 2016). If the ultimate aim of practitioner enquiry is to promote social justice and equity by disrupting mainstream assumptions about education (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 1993), then it is important that our students see that they have a voice in this space.   

The module begins by introducing students to key principles of practitioner enquiry and we help them to explore both ‘Enquiry as Project’ and ‘Enquiry as Stance’. We look at tools for enquiry and encourage students to consider creative methods rather than those used in ‘traditional research’. One of the key messages, (and one that many students took time and persuasion to believe), is to keep the enquiry manageable and look at a tight, well refined question that will lead to a small improvement for learners. “There are no prizes for size in practitioner enquiry,” is an oft-repeated mantra in our sessions. 

This is one of the first modules that students take in the new course so it is important to introduce them to a range of important educational ‘issues’ in order to give them contexts to begin to think about their enquiry. We do this through lectures on the following themes: Pupil Voice and Participation; Closing the Poverty related Attainment Gap; Children and Young People’s Mental Health; Critical Approaches to Assessment, and Family Engagement.  

In the follow up seminars, we take a closer look at these topics and the kinds of enquiry questions, approaches and tools that could be used to explore each in a critical and meaningful way. 

The PgCert in Supporting Teacher Learning consists of three modules, each of which are interlinked but look at different aspects of supporting teacher learning. It attracts a range of practitioners from across education, including further and higher education, but the majority come from schools (classroom teachers, right through to headteachers). 

The first module explores different understandings of teacher learning, methods for supporting it (e.g. coaching and mentoring) and key themes inherent to that such as professionalism and accountability. The second module looks at the wider context: the local community and national and global policy contexts, and asks students to conduct a critical policy analysis on an area of choice. For some students this is their first opportunity to engage critically with policy and this helps to develop the enquiry stance they need for the final module. In the third module, they take what they have learned from the previous two modules and use it to inform the development of an individual practitioner enquiry project. In the projects, students are asked to explore their role in supporting teacher learning and their own learning throughout this – although this brief is flexible and students are encouraged to be creative and come up with their own model for supporting teacher learning appropriate to their context. 

The finished projects vary widely from investigating the experiences of student teachers during school-based mentoring to whole-school critiques of national policy guidance. However, what is notable is that every project seems to, in some way, illuminate the voices of those who are often unheard. 

In one project, we learned that a student’s enquiry had planted the seeds for the beginning of a culture of teacher activism and a significant and sustained shift in the nature of professional learning in their school. When given the opportunity to co-design the content of professional learning for in-service days, their colleagues rejected the traditional model of ‘bring in the expert’, instead working collaboratively to create useful, relevant activities, drawn from expertise available in their own school. Practitioner enquiry is a powerful professional learning tool, and in the right conditions, can be transformative for individuals and organisations while also supporting a resilient disposition to fast paced change. 

Would you like to engage more with practitioner enquiry? Throughout early 2021, the School of Education are running a series of CLPL sessions to support interested colleagues throughout the education system. Find out more about these sessions.

In our next post in this series, Kate Wall together with SoE colleague Lorna Arnott explain the nature of practitioner enquiry, and how it links to the new National Professional Learning Model. 

References

Cochran-Smith, M., and Lytle, S. (1993). Inside/outside: teacher research and knowledge. New York: Teachers College Press.

Cordingley, P. (2013). The Contribution Of Research To Teachers’ Professional Learning And Development. Research and Teacher Education: the BERA-RSA Inquiry. London: British Educational Research Association.

GTCS (2021). Professional standards. https://www.gtcs.org.uk/professional-standards/professional-standards-2021-engagement.aspx

Rutten, L. (2021). Toward a theory of action for practitioner inquiry as professional development in preservice teacher education. Teaching and Teacher Education. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0742051X20313858?via%3Dihub

Sachs, J. (2016). Teacher professionalism: why are we still talking about it? Teachers and Teaching, 22(4), 413-425.