Coronavirus: Why now is an ideal time for teacher study

The closure of schools could be an ideal opportunity to encourage teachers to engage in research study, argues Kulvarn Atwal

Kulvarn Atwal

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A major factor that impacts on the quality of children’s learning in schools is the quality of teaching. And the greatest influence on the quality of teaching is the quality of teacher learning.

The key, then, for school leaders is to create an environment in which teachers have opportunities to learn and reflect in order to develop their practice.

In the current situation of school closures and lockdowns, time for teacher study and learning may not be top of the agenda, but actually it could be the ideal chance for leaders to encourage staff to engage in research that will, in the long run, boost their skills and in turn improve pupils' attainment.

Of course, teachers have a lot to think about right now – both professional and personally – so this isn't to say we should be adding to their workloads but if the time can be found, the rewards could be notable.

The problem with traditional approaches

Engagement in research is a crucial activity that enables teachers to think deeply and become empowered, critical decision-makers in the classroom.

However, I believe traditional forms of CPD on offer to teachers in our schools have been relatively poor. Too many CPD approaches, such as offsite conferences or one-day courses, are short-term fixes and not contextualised in practice.

Teachers may value the opportunity to have a day out of school, but what is the actual impact on their practice in schools?

Equally, the five training days across the year and the one-hour staff meetings after school each week – are they really personalised to each teacher’s learning needs and are they getting the best out of each participant?

Too often, the meetings are focused on what the school thinks teachers need to learn rather than on what teachers feel they need to learn about.

Motivating teachers to engage in research

A far better way to boost teacher skill sets is through engaging in research, grounded in solid academic practice and that provides guidance on ideas tested in schools that could enhance their teaching.

However, how do we motivate teachers to want to engage in research? My research showed that the biggest barriers to teacher engagement in research were "time" and "workload", so we need to make it as easy as possible for them by offering the following things:

  • Support from school leaders.
  • Time in their working lives to reflect upon their practice.
  • Research readings that are directly related to their day-to-day classroom practice.
  • A whole school culture of enquiry that authentically respects the voice of teachers.
  • A focus on initiatives that are shown to be effective.
  • Opportunities to identify their own focus – they want to research about things they are genuinely interested in.
  • Collaboration with colleagues to undertake research.
  • The value of engagement in research.

Why do teachers want to engage in research?

Teachers want to do the best for their children but they don’t always feel the CPD they are offered enables them to do that. My research reflected the following perceptions of teachers’ engagement in research. They felt:

  • It was great to have opportunities to learn and trial new strategies.
  • They improved their practice.
  • That their CPD was more personalised and relevant to their children.
  • Learning over time on one topic was better than one-off CPD sessions.
  • Working collaboratively really helped their learning.
  • They became more reflective and analytical.
  • They had more opportunities to keep up with latest practice which was valued.
  • They became more confident as teachers and more motivated to learn.

It is up to leaders therefore to develop a learning environment in their schools that enables and encourages all teachers to engage in research.

Consider the impact on a school and its children when being led by a team of reflective, research-informed and critical independent thinkers – all taking creative and informed risks in leading the learning in every classroom.

The current crisis has many challenges and will be a tough time for many. But we should find positives where we can.

If closures and lockdown mean there is more time to encourage staff to engage in research study that boosts their teaching, schools should embrace that where possible.

Kulvarn Atwal is executive headteacher of two large primary schools in the London Borough of Redbridge. His first book, The Thinking School: developing a dynamic learning community, is out now. He tweets @Thinkingschool2

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