Colleges Week: How FE runs edu-research on a shoestring

Edu-research doesn't have to cost the earth - grassroots, teacher-owned research can have a big impact, says Sam Jones

FE research: how it can be run on a shoestring

Research and evidence-based practice has become a hot topic in schools and colleges in recent years. There are many multi-million-pound schemes that aim to develop an evidence base that will give guidance to government, its associated bodies and educational leaders.  However, not all research movements work on large amounts of funding. Some work on "next to nothing" levels of funding and, as a result, create radically different types of research and structures to support, critique and share. 

The tale of one research movement

I'm going to share with you a tale of how one edu-research movement began. 

It started with teacher-researchers getting together with academics to try and make a difference to their teaching. This group shared their work through publication of a book that offered a radically different view of their practice, and set up what they called "a democratic, campaigning network for educators who have not got cynical".


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What followed next was a research meet: a self-organised meeting of teacher-researchers funded by the NEU teaching union, bringing together researchers who, in the main, produced small-scale, context-specific research. This first research meet was quickly followed by two others, which, in turn, encouraged other teacher-researchers to run meets across England and Wales.

Individuals then created maps for teacher-researchers to identify their locations so that others could see who was nearby to facilitate collaboration and dissemination.  Other individuals set up communal writing areas or digital spaces to share and support the development of ideas and practice.

The teacher-researchers were supported by bodies in both putting together roadmaps and financially to facilitate presentations at conferences.  These presentations reimagined the future of this small-scale, contextual research with researchers and leaders from different sectors contributing towards the conversation.

As a result, teacher-research has been empowered and educated.  We've got new languages through which to explore our experiences – and these experiences have been theorised and shared in an attempt to change the world around us. There are now calls for this work to be used to add context to individual educational institutions and to facilitate the voice of the teacher being heard in a space where it is so often sidelined: in the discussion of their own teaching practice. 

Research on a shoestring had produced a significantly different, although imperfect, response to how research should be used to inform education.  Movements led by teacher-researchers tend to have a democratic, social justice flavour; they tend to look to empower teachers, both in terms of giving them ownership of their research and how it shapes their environments.

The power of teacher-researchers

Some of you may have guessed by now, but the movement I'm talking about took place in FE. It started with Tutor Voices, and the Further Education and the Twelve Dancing Princesses.  The research meets are actually #FEResearchmeets,  the map is the FE Researchers map and supporting organisations include the Learning and Skills Research Network, the Education and Training Foundation and Birmingham City University’s RE-ImagineFE conference.  All actions have involved co-operation by researchers from further and higher education. 

The work done on the shoestring so far offers a different but complementary educator-focused future for research involving practitioners, academics and those who see themselves sitting between these positions. It capitalises on the strengths of the kind of research that a teacher-researcher can produce, the validity of which comes from the faithfulness with which it methodologically and ethically explores its context.  It builds the professionalism of teachers by allowing them to describe, explore and, potentially, shape their practice.

It is not a binary: there is not one way to research, nor is there only one way to approach developing research in education and the practice of education itself.  The important point is that knowledge and practice move forward, and in exploring new mechanisms to do so we offer new and nurturing possibilities that I hope will benefit the profession.

Sam Jones is a lecturer at Bedford College, founder of FE Research Meet and was FE teacher of the year at the Tes FE Awards 2019

The next #FEResearchMeets are on 29 November 2019 at Ashton Sixth Form and 12 December at the University of South Wales. The LSRN Networking the Networks site can found here

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