Models of action research and notions of academic rigour both set a lot of store in reviewing the literature. This is understandable: a systematic review of the literature can create an in-depth understanding of "what’s known" in an area, and even a cursory read of a few well-chosen texts can provide a fresh perspective and new understandings.
I want to suggest, however, that solely reviewing the literature can take the focus away from the practice itself. Much academic work is designed to move forward theoretical perspectives and understanding, designed to get other theorists to challenge, abstract and reframe their thinking. Put simply, generally the focus of the academic work is on theorisation of practice for other theorists, rather than on the development of teachers’ practice itself.
What I would like to propose instead is that what may be beneficial to research focused on practice development is a type of "practice review", something that could be undertaken alongside, or in some cases instead of, a literature review
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This is new thinking for me and I don’t have an ideal format to offer. It will require time, discussion, thinking and experimentation by lots of people to begin to create a useful model. But I have a pretty clear idea of how it shouldn’t look. It shouldn’t just be a cursory SWOT analysis, a read-through of an observation report or a visit to another college.
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Not that any of these activities couldn’t form part of a useful review, but any review of the practice in an area would need to follow a more planned, systematic and critical format. Action taken as part of the review would require the selection and appraisal of actions taken to justify their use and ensure they are the best fit for the area under consideration. From my perspective, I’d want the review to provide a synthesis of some of the key features, standards and thinking underpinning a practice.
For example, I am presently co-supervising a piece of work looking at developing workplace observations. This would be a great opportunity to create a justified plan to review practice. The individual could begin perhaps by recording their practice and sitting with a third party who also practices in that area to review it. Discussion could centre around the explanation and justification of actions, consideration of reasoning employed or the degree to which outcomes anticipated by the action was successful. The focus here is on that individual analysing practice to a more in-depth understanding of both conscious and unconscious or routine actions. They may choose to observe the practice of others in the same way, looking to understand what is common amongst practice, what perhaps changes between contexts.
They may seek to understand the reasoning of others' practice in the same way as they did their own by interviewing participants after the observation to gain this understanding and where practice could be improved or developed. They may also choose to observe in organisations staffed by individuals who are considered to be advanced in the practice, or perhaps whose practice is new or different. The important thing is that they need to take these actions based on a clear definition of what they want to understand. The first actions would be more appropriate to understanding the thinking behind practice, the final options looking for the most up-to-date practice.
Practice may also be found in written formats, which will need to be read with an understanding of the purpose they were written for and an understanding of the purpose for which you are reading. For example, observation reports, often written to a more experienced other to either check compliance with generic teaching standards or perhaps for them to give pointers to guide development towards the same. Schemes of work are also a good way of understanding how practice is structured, allowing for analysis and critique. The important element is that they should be included only if it adds towards the defined aspects of practice the researcher wishes to better understand.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, and neither is it a "how to" guide – rather it is an attempt to consider what is important to research on practice in a post-16 education and training setting, and to stimulate debate as to how to shape existing models to better suit this context. I look forward to others critiquing or developing these ideas as the sector begins to shape research methodologies to better suit its requirements and practices.
Sam Jones is the chair of the steering committee at the Research College Group and founder of FEResearchmeet