Practitioner research is an underused and underestimated resource in the education sector. I’d argue that the aims of practitioner researchers need to take a step forward: we need to use the research to develop and nourish our sector, its policy, its teaching institutions and its teaching practice. It should not be seen as a standalone activity: edu-research in FE should feed the tree, not simply decorate it.
There is a lot of practitioner research in FE and there are opportunities to share it in FEResearchmeets, the Learning and Skills Research Network and BrewEds. Also, there are books with practitioner contributions, blogs and college-based initiatives. The Education and Training Foundation (ETF) supports many research projects carried out by staff, teachers, tutors and leaders.
From this work, the sector has benefited from new ideas and new collaborations. Research encourages staff to change the way they feel about themselves for the better and to influence practice around them. Although this is feeding the ground roots of practitioner-level work, it is not working its way up the tree. It is still mainly decorating the FE tree, rather than feeding it.
We need to be looking at developing practitioner research into something that can shape the sector. This does come with issues: trying to consider what makes rigorous or quality research is something I have touched on previously. Practitioner research often has issues of scale – the government and other bodies like their research supersized, ideally through randomised control trials that sell themselves as being "the gold standard" of research.
However, I would argue that smaller scale, often qualitative work produced by many practitioner researchers has its own positives as it creates nuanced pictures of specific contexts – a useful trait in such a diverse sector.
Making the best use of research in FE
We need to protect those who contribute. Recognising those who contribute ideas is not only the ethical thing to do, but also a sensible approach. If people who research in colleges see their ideas take flight but don’t get recognition, they are unlikely to keep contributing.
At the moment, it’s difficult for practitioners to be heard and this impoverishes our sector. Look at a policy or a report of a committee that discusses how to shape the sector and you’ll be amazed at the lack of input from practitioners. Using practitioner research is a great way to ensure that we are there, giving our expert knowledge.
At a more local level, the benefits to a college leadership team of having practitioner research building a nuanced picture of the local situation are great. All that really needs to be considered here is a way of harnessing the potential.
The benefits are also pretty clear for the individual researchers themselves. Which researcher doesn’t want to inform practice around them? The sense of worth and satisfaction that comes from research is nothing but useful in a sector where staff are often made to feel "second best". Maybe it could also be a game-changer in the way that the sectors’ teachers are viewed and, who knows, funded and paid?
Perhaps most of all, it gives the opportunity for those in the sector to get their voices heard: to shape and contribute to the sector, to give our expert knowledge of practice, subject-specialisms and research itself to those who best understand policy or funding or governance.
Listening to those at the chalkface
At this time of change, we need innovative ideas, we need decisions to be made based on views from across the sector. What could be more innovative than to listen to those working at the chalkface? We are the experts, and we have a lot to contribute, to nourish and develop the sector.
This is why I firmly believe that the next step in the practitioner research journey is to search for and develop mechanisms to allow us to feed the tree.
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