Take action, but be true to the evidence
As the year drew to a close, one of my most pleasant duties was to address around 80 probationary teachers in Dumfries and Galloway. For several years now, that authority has required all probationers - whether working in the primary or secondary sector - to carry out a small-scale action research project and to produce a report on their findings. It is a programme that has attracted considerable interest from other parts of Scotland.
Part of the appeal of action research is that it arises out of real classroom situations where the teacher identifies a problem, finds out what the existing research literature has to say about it and devises an intervention strategy designed to improve the quality of pupil learning.
It also has limitations, of course, in that the results are likely to be particular to their context and difficult to generalise about. But as a counterweight to the view that research is something abstruse that only experts can undertake, it has much to commend it.
I was impressed by the range and quality of the projects, and by the level of commitment the probationers showed. They had clearly learnt a great deal about framing research questions, choosing an appropriate methodology, gathering and analysing data, and interpreting their findings. They were also alert to the problem of subjectivity in action research - the danger that the teacher's desire to benefit pupils may incline him or her to see only the positive effects and play down, or even ignore, any negative outcomes.
Several of the probationers' studies acknowledged that the results were mixed or did not take the form anticipated. This led the teachers to reflect on possible explanations and to consider alternative strategies that might have been more successful. In doing so, they were demonstrating adherence to a fundamental principle of good research: namely that it is vital to remain true to the evidence, even when it leads in an uncomfortable direction.
The probationers who spoke all paid tribute to the support they had received from the local authority and from experienced colleagues. Although having to undertake the project represented an additional pressure in the challenging first year of teaching, they appreciated the contribution it made to their professional development.
In my own input, I tried to suggest ways in which the benefits could be extended beyond individuals to the wider community of teachers, leading to a new conception of professional identity that combines traditional craft, a robust evidential base and a capacity to interrogate policy directives.
The presence and comments of a small group of pupils from Calside and Hecklegirth primaries, who were involved in an innovative project using information technology, added a nice touch to the proceedings. They even listened to my 45-minute talk without obvious signs of distress. Gold stars for endurance all round.
Walter Humes is research professor in education at the University of the West of Scotland.