Where's your proof?

24th February 2006 at 00:00
Teacher researcher...AKA Workaholic, committed professional. When academics study a situation from the inside it is called "action research". In teaching, this kind of activity, where the teacher leads the research, is promoted as on-going professional development. Some teachers work on a project with other teachers, others are doing a masters degree - a few are collaborating with a wider university based enquiry.

Expect a lot of...

I scepticism. Education theory has had a bad press for several years - often with some justification. Many teachers are highly resistant to the notion that there is anything to "know" about teaching and learning. They believe that good teaching is about experience and classroom management.

The second most common reaction among your colleagues is likely to be a reluctance to believe that anyone doing this most demanding of jobs would want to load themselves with the additional hassle of questionnaires, research reports and background reading. From the position of a neutral observer with past experience of the manic workload most teachers experience during term time, I'd say that your incredulous colleagues may have a point.

What does it involve?

Teacher researchers set out with an interest - assessment, behaviour, use of the whiteboard - something which is central to their teaching. Then they do somea lota huge amount (delete where applicable) of background reading to see what other people have said about the topic. Next comes the construction of a hypothesis, such as students will be more motivated if they are consulted about the learning process. Now here comes the difficult bit: you have to collect evidence to test that hypothesis, perhaps setting up some situations at school that will provide useful data. The whole thing is likely to take at least a year - some action research is longitudinal, which means it is intended to last for a very long time indeed.

Are you good at...

I methodology? Because your research will not be worth a bag of nuts unless you understand the pitfalls awaiting the amateur researcher. Leading questions, unrepresentative sample groups, controls, observer bias - all of these lie in wait for the tyro.

Perhaps the most interesting is the Hawthorne effect; first observed in the 1930s by Elton Mayo in the wiring room of the Hawthorne works of the American Western Electrical Company. A study intended to look into various means of increasing worker productivity changed room temperatures, break times, lighting levels and other environmental "variables". But the results startled the researchers: whether conditions were made better or worse was irrelevant, productivity improved regardless. Mayo concluded that the presence of the researcher was influencing the outcome - the workers were producing more because someone was showing an interest in what they did.

Does it pay?

No. Few employers are willing to underwrite the costs of a year or more's work. There are grants available (see footnote), but these are usually just to cover expenses. Under the new higher education landscape, where every course has its fee, Masters degrees can cost up to pound;3,000.

Is it a good career move?

Yes. Appointing panels looking for senior managers increasingly expect candidates to be able to demonstrate evidence of personal professional development, except in central London of course, where they simply want to know when you can start.

Is it safe?

Probably. People who set out on this kind of professional development are usually good time managers, so the workload may not be an issue.

Reputationally you could be at risk. Your research may produce results that clash with deeply entrenched views held by colleagues. You may prove, for example, that the presence of a school blazer has little or no effect on a student's intelligence, work rate or general amenability. Such a finding may be true, but it won't be welcome. People have been burned at the stake for less.

For further information about action research and the role of the teacher researcher, visit: www.teacherresearch.netOn March 14, at the NEC Birmingham, there will be a national conference of teacher researchers, supported by the DfES, the GTC, the NCSL and the Government's Innovation Unit. Tel: 020 8481 3319

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