Much has been written recently about the need for teachers to research an aspect of their school practice as a means of understanding some of the contingent complexities. Some coverage has focused on whole-school issues and some on classroom processes by researching while teaching. Sometimes this has been done as part of a team, sometimes at an individual level. Occasionally, a combination of these approaches can be of significant benefit.
Whatever form of research is undertaken, crucial to its initiation is the teachers' belief that they can do the research without necessarily having a thorough grounding in research methods. Such research is often an act of faith in pursuing what they believe is of direct benefit to them and their pupils, and this is likely to give rise to research which is more relevant to practice. Teachers need also to be given time and appropriate support at each stage of the process.
In order to promote professional development in the workplace, a team at the faculty of education, University of Strathclyde, and at St Andrew's College has produced a handbook entitled Professional Development through Work-based Learning Agreements. Its purpose is to promote interest in such agreements, to establish user-friendly procedures and suggest a means for quality assurance.
A work-based learning agreement is a commitment to an agreed plan between a university or college and an individual or group which can have a significant role in supporting and encouraging professional development. Such agreements allow colleges and universities to be more responsive to the needs which schools have identified as important to them, and also offer alternatives in planning for staff development and the use of devolved training budgets.
Staff at Stirling University's department of education have sought to be more responsive to the needs of schools and to find alternatives to the conventional modular MEd. The Stirling course now comprises six taught units and a six-unit dissertation or eight taught units and a four-unit project. Credits may also be awarded under the SCOTCAT credit transfer for prior learning on other courses or prior experiential learning.
Work completed and accredited by Stirling University as part of a work-based learning agreement would receive an appropriate amount of credit towards an advanced certificate, diploma or MEd. Since the work undertaken is likely to be research-orientated, this will heighten awareness about the problems and possibilities of educational research and should benefit greatly those teachers who wish to continue professional development through our part-time MEd programme.
A recent initiative along these lines was an action research module undertaken with teachers of Callander primary (see above). Accreditation of their written work was carried out by the university.
Teachers are also responding to another initiative which is planned for primary mathematics: in particular, interest has been shown in the use of information technology in mathematics. With both initiatives we have had to rethink our roles and relationships with students.
An important part of the support given to teachers lies in the creation of a culture that encourages critical reflection. This may come about in a number of ways. Our support is guided by the importance of having, as a starting point, the needs and interests of teachers wanting to take the first steps into researching their own practice.
These and other issues form part of the negotiation in drawing up a work-based learning agreement. They could form an excellent forum for developing our own understanding of what it means to research practice and for teachers seeking to develop new ideas and understandings for themselves.
Malcolm Simmons is director of the, MEd programme, department of education, University of Stirling