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The research skills needed for postgraduate degrees can enrich careers and enhance classroom skills. Geraldine Brennan investigates

The research skills needed for postgraduate degrees can enrich careers and enhance classroom skills. Geraldine Brennan investigates

Who has time to think about what teaching means, work out how schools can be more effective and reflect on their strengths and weaknesses? Probably not since the last job interview or application for teacher training.

Jean McPherson was so keen to do this that she decided to convert her primary PGCE into a masters degree by completing a research project even though she was only in her NQT year. She chose to base her research on the needs of the children in her first Year 1 class at Sherwood Park Community Primary in Tunbridge Wells, and designed a programme to teach specific social skills and skills for learning, such as listening, independent thinking and goal-setting, to promote autonomy.

By the time she submitted her dissertation earlier this term, she had been appointed the school's movement and well-being co-ordinator. She enrolled the pupils in a "skills club" and designed a "task board" from which children could choose something to do during unstructured time.

She observed pupils over eight weeks in the spring and summer terms as they carried out the tasks. Some were open-ended, such as designing a way of teaching colours to nursery children, and some closed, such as working as a team to make a chair for Goldilocks.

"I found that more complex skills such as goal-setting and planning were less visible after eight weeks than improvement in listening, concentration, independent thinking and perseverance, but that the focus on the tasks improved overall motivation and preparedness for learning," Ms McPherson said. "The benefits became clearer as the eight weeks progressed and children became more accustomed to a more autonomous style of learning during unstructured time."

More and more teachers are considering further study to complement their career. The new school-based masters in Teaching and Learning (MTL), available from next April, encourages teachers to develop "skills of enquiry and the use of evidence" and sharing what they have learnt in school and beyond, supported by the higher education institutions that are developing the qualification alongside schools. The third phase of the MTL programme includes a piece of the teacher's research based on their own practice, combining theoretical and practical knowledge.

"It is about teachers developing their own practice, gathering information through observation and being critically reflective," says Gary Thomas, a professor of education at Birmingham University, and author of the ultimate guide for teachers doing research, How to do Your Research Project: a Guide for Students in Education and Applied Social Sciences (see TES Reader Offer, overleaf).

A research project shows that you are capable of thinking critically and reflectively, can work independently in a sustained and disciplined way, and have good time-management and project-management skills. Sharing your findings with others in your school or council could also raise your profile and you may be able to channel your expertise into advisory or consultancy work. Another good reason for doing research, believes Professor Thomas, is that it's fun. "It's exciting to pursue a line of enquiry you have developed yourself and to be perhaps surprised by the outcome. Research can restore excitement about teaching to teachers who have temporarily lost it."

Ms McPherson hadn't lost any enthusiasm for teaching, but taking on a research project in her NQT year brought challenges. "That approach is perhaps not for everyone, but I had already been studying for five years (her first degree took four years) and I wanted to do it while I had the studying momentum. My school supported me and gave me an extra teaching assistant for an hour a day for the eight weeks so I could observe the children as a researcher." She feels the work has informed her teaching practice because she can now see how much pupils like to have a choice of tasks and feel included in their learning.

The value of further research has been noted. A 2003 report commissioned by the then Teacher Training Agency on award-bearing in-service training (the forerunner of today's postgraduate professional development) reported that teachers' research contributed to school improvement. In particular, this was the case if it was supported by the head, if several staff were doing it and the outcome could be evaluated and disseminated. In the following year, an Ofsted report, Making a Difference, revealed that teachers' research projects had delivered many benefits for their schools, including deepening understanding of the Government's National Strategies and a wider range of approaches for effective teaching.

More recently, in January this year, evidence to the Commons education select committee report on teacher training from Universities UK pointed out that "research and reflective practice . are an important element of a teacher's development and approach after qualification" and highlighted the value of "practitioners investigating and evaluating their practice in the school environment in order to understand and improve it".

Most school-based research projects are carried out by teachers doing a degree-level qualification supervised by a higher education institution, or a longer-term continuing professional development course. This is a popular way to convert a PGCE into a masters degree. With MTL, teachers generally take three to five years to complete their courses and can study Open University-style courses by remote learning. The aim is also for schools to be given cash to help them cover for teachers doing part of their studying in school time.

Miriam Thomas, in her third year teaching English at Weston Favell School, Northampton, converted her PGCE from Birmingham University to a masters with a research project on the behaviour and inclusion unit that her school shares with another secondary. Like Ms McPherson, she is glad to have experienced the research process early in her career. "I have always been interested in the paradox between the emphasis on inclusion and the competitive element in education represented by league tables, and how as teachers we cope with those demands," she said. "It was good to have a chance to reflect on these issues."

She based her research on teaching in the unit one period a week for seven months during the school year 200708. Her dissertation won a prize for the best dissertation of her year at Birmingham, which she says "made me certain that doing the project was a good thing for me personally as well as professionally".

"I found that the behaviour and inclusion unit was meeting a lot of the pupils' social and emotional needs while they are not ready for return to mainstream," says Ms Thomas. "Doing this work made me more aware of how difficult the environment we have to work in can be for children and made me challenge the ideal that they should all be taught in mainstream." She wants to get more classroom experience before doing more research, but it is something she would consider in future.

Alison Patterson had been teaching for 20 years when she decided to follow further study. She opted for a postgraduate diploma in inclusive education at Nottingham Trent University. She added to this a third year of part- time study, a research project and a 15,000-word dissertation to earn her masters.

Having been on the sharp end of teaching for so long, relearning study skills was her first challenge. "When I started the diploma, it was 20 years since I had written assignments, but the course was modular so I would often have a two-week break after handing in an assignment. For a dissertation, you have to sustain the work over a longer period and there is a huge amount of redrafting, so you need to allow more time than you might expect."

Mrs Patterson had moved from the classroom to working for Nottinghamshire County Council's early-years inclusion-support service as an early-years specialist teacher, working two days a week and also combining part-time study with family responsibilities.

Her dissertation was on the relationship between the support service she works for and foundation-stage teachers, and the expectations on both sides.

"I wanted to explore the extent to which there was a match or mismatch of expectations, and what the implications might be," she explains. She interviewed 50 foundation-stage teachers in Nottinghamshire by questionnaire and surveyed her team with support from her employers: "Our conditions of employment include two days' study leave a term, and the county council supports people doing a masters. I went through questionnaires with my team, and I was also allowed to take some to a teacher-training event."

She recently handed in her dissertation and is about to present her findings to her team. "They are tentative conclusions, but very interesting," she says. She will also discuss them with leaders in her service. "It is early days yet, but I am looking forward to seeing what the outcomes could be."

She feels that the experience of conducting research has given her an opportunity to reflect on her own practice. "I find myself analysing my job in terms of inclusion and the impact on outcomes for children," she says.

As anyone who takes on further study will attest, Mrs Patterson felt that finding time to write the dissertation was the biggest challenge. She spread the work over six months, doing an average of 10 hours a week in term time and more in the holidays. "My son is a competitive swimmer, and I spend a lot of early mornings in swimming-pool car parks waiting for him, so I did a lot of work in the car at 6am. If you decide it is worth doing, you let other things go for a while to make time."

Professor Thomas believes it's always worth doing. "Research can give you a buzz," he concludes. "There's immense satisfaction that comes from finding out something new."

Thinking about research?

  • Choose a research topic that excites and intrigues you. You could choose an issue that affects your class or school.
  • While you may well feel passionately about your area of research, you must be able to approach it with an open mind and not confuse analysis with campaigning.
  • Decide on a question you want to answer. You are likely to refine or shift the emphasis of the question as your research progresses.
  • Read around your topic, find out what research has been done on it already, look for themes and clarify where your own work will fit into the overall picture.
  • Are there any ethical considerations or problems with access in gathering your data? For example, you might want to interview colleagues about how they manage teacher stress, although you will probably not identify your interviewees.
  • Make sure the questions you ask lead to the right methods for answering. Will you need case studies, evaluation, action research or a small experiment?
  • You probably won't have extended chunks of time to work on your project. By its nature, a lot of the work will have to be done in term time. Doing a little work on it every day, or at least every other day, is more efficient than saving it for the weekend.
  • Do not underestimate the time you will need for writing and redrafting your dissertation. Give yourself a manageable target of writing 250 words a day, and work out how many days you will have to spend.
    • TES reader offer

Extracts above from How to Do Your Research Project: a Guide for Students in Education and Applied Social Sciences by Gary Thomas, published by Sage Publications. TES readers can get 10 per cent off the published price of pound;18.99 at by quoting UK09DM004.

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