Take control

11th June 2004 at 01:00
Don't think of research as extra work - think of it as an extension of your knowledge, says Justine Chan

Some years ago, a popular and charismatic teacher came into our staffroom during an inspection week and announced: "No matter what an inspector says, I know I'm a good teacher." Many would echo her sentiments. But a little voice in my head piped up: "How do you know?" Even extremely able teachers have found that when they begin researching their own classroom practice, they discover areas that need improvement. The difference between finding it out for yourself and having an Ofsted inspector point it out is obvious.

The former is enlightening, the latter could be threatening.

For my own journey of self-discovery following that inspection, I began a taught masters degree with the Open University. The course units involved small-scale action research projects, which I linked to issues at work. For example, when I was muddled and uncertain about the increasing tendency for parents to claim that their children were "bright but dyslexic", I decided to explore the issues surrounding the diagnosis of dyslexia. I also researched how to raise these children's attainment by trying out suggested learning programmes in my classroom. This allowed me to make my own mind up about the usefulness of different strategies. Each piece of research gave me answers, and a host of additional questions.

Research is never cut and dried. Yet I had begun to see the path towards my becoming a far more effective teacher - and I knew the children would benefit.

Some colleagues think I am mad to increase my workload by undertaking classroom research. Putting data onto Excel spreadsheets in the evening, and word processing observations scribbled during lessons, is not on their list of things to do. But I see it as part of a full circle in my personal development.

How often are we given top-down instructions from politically motivated groups, some of which are utterly irrelevant? (Who decided we had to teach semi-colons to primary children?)

If we do not take control of our input at some level, where is the job satisfaction? How can we be good teachers if we are not constantly putting ourselves in the role of learners? We all want to know why that set of children in the corner are not progressing adequately.

Using a research model allows us to trust our conclusions, like any scientific "fair test". When I have examined the problem, done my background reading, found out possibilities that I had not thought of before, chosen my methodology, and come to some new conclusions for dealing with the issues - then I feel positive about myself as a professional. But even if I cannot sort out a problem, I can at least talk knowledgeably about the issues involved when I seek help - and maintain dignity during the process.

And isn't this the process we want children to adopt? We want our pupils to take control of their learning. In order for them to assimilate knowledge, we give them a modelled route to investigate, and ask them to use the information gained in a variety of ways. They then have the satisfaction of being active participants in the educational process.

Shall we practise what we preach? Won't you join me in a little class-based research?

Justine Chan is head of English at Woodford Green preparatory school, Woodford Green, Essex

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