Teacher-researchers are like gardeners nurturing their new plants, writes Liz MacGarvey. And their work can be just as important as that of their academic colleagues who have sometimes been too ready to sneer in the past
Holding up a paper on which we could just make out the words 'boys' attitudes' and 'research', my colleague said: "And this is an offering from X. When you've finished marking Year 11's coursework and chased up the lads whose attitudes you've been struggling with for five years, you might have time to read it and pick up some tips about what to do with them."
He let the paper fall before adding: "But don't hold your breath."
I am Knowsley's recently appointed research officer and a believer in the effectiveness of practitioner research as a tool for improving teaching and learning. I am also a schoolteacher-academic, newly returned from 12 years in higher education and re-learning teaching so that I can feel credible when I urge colleagues to practise research and teach as well. And on the third day into the job I was faced with an attitude which, coming from a dedicated and insightful head of department, I ought to have found disconcerting at least. But I didn't. I recognised what my colleague was implying and I knew why he felt as he does.
Shortly afterwards, he showed me a document plotting the progress of a cohort of pupils who had had additional help in Year 7 and later achieved better-than-predicted results in Year 11. He had a theory and he had a set of carefully maintained records to support its investigation. Not someone, then, dismissive of research.
But what weight should be given to teachers' own research and inquiry? Until recently, whenever the quality of practitioner research was discussed, you could predict that an academic had raised the issue. You could further guess that she or he was worried that teachers might not be able to get it right without hefty support from professional researchers.
Some academics would make excuses for teachers, claiming they did not have the time to do the job thoroughly. Others argued that the proper place for reliable research was outside the school altogether, conducted by trained researchers who could gather evidence with a purity of purpose.
Now it is more generally accepted that teachers should be admitted to the research community, provided they serve the interests of their school and do not just potter about in their own classrooms like obsessive gardeners interested only in developing a new variety of dahlia.
But practitioner research - even of the secret-garden variety - need not be at the expense of quality or of a school's corporate development, any more than academic research can be seen to be always rigorous or insightful.
Many teachers read high-profile accounts of academic research only to feel disappointment. "Is that it?", they ask. Where research supports what we intuitively know, it is reassuring, but what we want as practitioners is a deeper understanding of pedagogical problems - a way of changing practice to enhance our pupils' learning and achievement. And this is where much academic research fails to deliver and gives rise to my head-of-department colleague's knee-jerk reaction.
Teachers have been questioning the quality of academic research for a long time - longer certainly than academics have had to worry about what teacher-researchers are getting up to. At the heart of the matter, I believe, is mutual misunderstanding and unnecessary suspicion of each other. What academics and teacher-researchers do are closely related but they are not exactly the same thing. Academic researchers may, for example, want to establish why fewer men are coming into teaching and they will have access to a range of resources, databases and funding to help them do that.
We also hope they will have well-worked-out methodologies for dealing with large-scale surveys.
Senior teachers seeking a gender balance in school may well find the research useful. If they are addressing their school's gender imbalance, however, they will be looking for solutions that may require novel forms of investigation - interview stalls at job centres, say - and a lot of local knowledge. Their differing objectives will set the research agenda.
The current wave of school-based research calls out for innovative methods of collecting local knowledge and drawing from it messages that can be shared with a wider audience. New ways to research and disseminate information are also needed. Online discussion of visual evidence - photographs, documentary-drama, video diaries and the use of email and text-messaging - are all likely to increase. The voices of support staff and adult learners are also being heard.
My experience of working with teachers confirms that they are enthusiastic about practitioner research. Many are keen to test out theories about learning styles and motivational strategies and they are interested in methods of investigation. The quality of their methodology and reports will, of course, vary. It will be up to research co-ordinators to ensure that there is sensitive intervention and monitoring, adapting models of postgraduate supervision. We are establishing this procedure in Knowsley.
As teachers continue to explore classroom practice and to talk to colleagues in school and in higher education, research practice will become more refined. Instead of being exercised by the quality issue, critics of practitioner-research will do well to recognise that they are dealing with a profession which made the national curriculum work. It is also one that uses data every day while remembering that Darren won't like being asked to sit with Natasha if the month has an R in it.
What is urgent, it seems to me, is for schools to develop stronger structures to support practitioner research. We can do this by using new technology to keep teachers better informed and by encouraging a culture of inquiry. Mini-conferences could also be held locally to offer rehearsal space before teachers disseminate their findings to bigger audiences. If such initiatives receive widespread support, we could enter a new and exciting era in classroom practice.
Liz MacGarvey can be contacted at email@example.com