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A thriving culture

When Bridget Somekh made the switch from teacher to researcher she never looked back

I remember the moment when my whole career as a teacher changed. It was over coffee at the Cambridge Institute of Education in 1978 when another student on the advanced diploma course asked me if I was taking curriculum studies ("absolutely the top thing at the moment") with John Elliott, one of the early advocates of action research by teachers.

I switched courses, attended John's first session and found that he had arranged for local teachers to commission us to carry out research on their behalf. I was an English teacher of seven years' experience seconded for one year's study and I knew immediately that this was an amazing opportunity.

Soon I was working in a Bedfordshire upper school, observing classes, interviewing teachers and pupils and learning techniques such as triangulation - comparing three points of view (teacher, pupils, observer) to try to make sense of the data.

My main study was on how the head of physics was implementing the Nuffield A-level course. We started to look at the reasons why his pupils did not engage in classroom discussions and quickly became immersed in the fascinating complexities of teacher-pupil interactions which are absolutely key to how pupils learn. This was action research that led to fundamental changes in his teaching - and in mine too when I returned to the classroom.

For the next six years, action research became part of what I did as a teacher. My pupils became used to being asked to keep "learning diaries", or tape-record their group work.

"But why did you change my name?" one 12-year-old with learning difficulties asked after he had spent a morning break excitedly reading the transcript of his interview. This insight into how assumptions about ethical research practice can take away a child's right to be heard has remained with me ever since.

Since 1985 I have worked in universities, for the first eight years as a researcher on short-term contracts (insecure but rewarding) and latterly as the director of a research group at Manchester Metropolitan University. All my research has involved working closely with practitioners and feeding back knowledge from research into the improvement of policy and practice.

In our Pedagogies with e-learning project, sponsored by the General Teaching Council, we are working with teacher-researchers and pupil-researchers in four schools seeing if we can develop radically different ways of teaching and learning using ICT resources such as the internet, digital video and interactive whiteboards.

In another project, the evaluation of the ICT test bed initiative for the Department for Education and Skills, teachers, support staff and school managers are carrying out action research to feed directly into the report to government.

Although teachers these days do not get secondments to study full-time, recent government policies supporting teacher research have built a thriving research culture. The teacher-researchers we are working with are making to research knowledge and many tell us that the experience is very fulfilling. Long may it continue.

Bridget Somekh is professor of educational research at Manchester Metropolitan University and co-author with Herbert Altrichter and Peter Posch of Teachers Investigate Their Work (Routledge 1993)

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