Last summer, while listening to a college leader’s impassioned speech, I experienced a moment of disquiet. I was the next speaker at a staff development day focused on practitioner research, awaiting my turn at the back of the stage. I was watching the audience. For every person sitting forward intently, another folded their arms: a classic sign of resistance. It niggled me.
One of the headline stories of FE in recent years has been the rise of a genuinely grassroots research movement. It has been a pleasure watching this unfold, supported in various ways by cross-sector influencers such as the Education and Training Foundation (ETF), LSRN, the #ukfechat community, both major trade unions (UCU and NEU), annual conferences such as #ReImagineFE and, of course, Tes. Full credit goes to the energy of research-minded individuals such as Tes FE Awards 2019 teacher of the year and blogger Samantha Jones, as well as research activists who seek one another out on Twitter and create opportunities to share what they do at #FEResearchMeets and weekend #BrewEd events, among many other real and virtual gatherings.
Read more: New website launches to promote FE research
Like any cultural change movement, FE research can only go so far before it needs to start having an impact on the organisations and structures that block its progress. Aside from how isolating it can feel to be the only research maverick in the organisation, pragmatically you want to be able to implement what you’ve discovered. This is the point at which we need organisations to take on a commitment to practitioner research, and over the summer it became clear that many were doing just that – wholeheartedly. But the niggle remained.
In October, I got a call for help. Someone I had worked with to develop a college-wide practitioner research strategy called me and said, "I’m having trouble with the unions." The niggle woke up and finally it was time to take stock. In hierarchical organisations, in austere times, we walk a fine line between enabling change and imposing it. Busy educators, already buckling under bureaucracy and the whims of policy change, cannot be expected to share the enthusiasms of others, especially if it looks like it means more work. Experience teaches the fearful that change, in FE, is not usually a good thing.
Struggling with the tension
I took to the Twittersphere and heard from colleagues that they too were struggling with this tension – practically and ethically. I talked to the national unions. They absolutely support the developing research culture but rightly said it should be the practitioner’s space. Yet growth requires organisational buy-in and many senior leaders are equally passionate advocates of research. It seems to me that we have reached that inevitable moment in any grassroots movement where bottom-up meets top-down and everyone sits awkwardly on the fence.
So what do we do? Firstly, we have to discuss developing research cultures in a manner that respects the point of view of the other. Given the horrors of national political discourse, it would be good to experiment with methods of facilitation that compel listening as well as speaking, and which welcome missing, resistant voices rather than leaving them, as Arundhati Roy would put it, "preferably unheard". Those of us who are converts well know the joy of getting stuck into practitioner research; for many, it’s what brings the job to life. But we all had to reach that point for ourselves.
Secondly, we could do with collaborating on a practitioner research training module that is free and accessible to everyone, and which does not need organisational approval. It probably already exists somewhere. There is so much (good) material out there that it’s bewildering. We all need to know the first principles of something before we can find a purpose for it – and identifying that purpose is the point at which individuals buy in.
And thirdly, all this could be facilitated by a stronger policy steer. Language shapes the way that we think and ETF’s inclusion of the word "research" in the 2014 Professional Standards provided crucial early leverage. As the Standards approach their time for review, how good would it be if practitioner research expectations were strengthened?
Bringing everyone along with you is a perennial challenge of change leadership – and every grassroots revolution reaches the point where it sticks, overthrows or (in a good way) collaborates. With FE research, we’ve reached that point. We can choose either to make it work, or we can split off back into our silos, grumbling about one another. I know which I prefer.
Lou Mycroft is a facilitator, writer and public speaker