Critical considerations

The following ten critical considerations are issues/contextual factors that must be considered and planned/accounted for when planning and engaging in practitioner enquiry.

These critical considerations emerged from the research with schools. They were significant factors common to all schools and individuals engaging in practitioner enquiry. These factors influenced and impacted on how worthwhile and successful, or not, the enquiry approaches and projects were.

The critical considerations are necessarily interrelated and interdependent on each other.

Outlined below are some of the particular points worth emphasising and giving specific attention to when planning and engaging in practitioner enquiry.

Personal considerations

What and Why Practitioner Enquiry

It is critical all involved in practitioner enquiry understand what it is and why they are doing it. 

What is Practitioner Enquiry?

Why Practitioner Enquiry?

Skills, Knowledge and Understandings

Practitioner enquiry is a systematic process that requires planning and careful consideration.

The quality of the enquiry plan, the choice of methods for gathering data, the skills of analysis and ability to make sense of that data and use the evidence to inform future practice, are critical to ensure the enquiry process is worthwhile.

What I really wanted there was I wanted an understanding that we didn’t have. We don’t have the research skills, the research understanding, and the universities do.
Senior Management Team

Practitioner enquiry challenges traditional models and understandings of research. When approached rigorously and with attention to nature and purpose of the enquiry it is a worthwhile and valuable form of research in education.

It can impact a teacher, pupil, school and contribute to what is known about a particular issue. All involved in the process (individual teachers, SMT, external partners etc) must have the skills, knowledge and understanding of practitioner enquiry.

These practices have not been part of the day-to-day work of teachers and education professionals more generally and therefore there is now a need to build capacity across the profession in these skills.

Specific skills, knowledge and understandings required for and developed through enquiry, are:

  • Understanding the distinctive nature of practitioner enquiry, knowing the purpose of the enquiry and the kind of knowledge likely gained from it
  • Creating a clear research focus (and knowing it will likely evolve as the enquiry evolves)
  • Skills in data collection (knowing fitness for purpose, understanding what it can tell you and knowing limitations of data)
  • Skills in data analysis
  • Knowledge of other relevant research
  • Theoretical Knowledge and understanding of the issue/subject
  • Skills in asking probing, critical questions of the research and the data gathered
I’ve learned how important it is to analyse a response in more depth and not disregard what someone has said because it does not ‘fit’ with my own idea, I realised I too focus on my recall of events and explain learning in terms of what children ‘do’, instead of going deeper into what this tells me about what is being learned.
Teacher

Methods appropriate for practitioner enquiry are often different to those methods used in more traditional research projects. Questionnaires and quantitative data sets can be useful but are often not the primary source of data and are limited in what they can tell us.

Teachers need to make use of creative research methods and methods that are more suitable for and consistent with classroom practices:

Conducting the enquiry and videoing myself made me really think about my lessons… I had videoed myself five times and was able to have a look at my videos and I wasn’t very happy with how I came across and my practice. So it’s made me really think about what learning and teaching is actually going on in my classroom.
Teacher
  • Visual methods are particularly useful. They look deceptively easy but require skill to analyse well
  • Interviews & focus groups. These often need to be conducted in more innovative ways to suit needs of children and young people
  • Video blogs are a really useful research tool in schools
  • Observations are a well know method of gathering data but again careful planning and understanding about what is being observed, by whom, how and why is critical

Often, well planned data gathering in the classroom will lead to data serving multiple purposes; the data may well be useful evidence of pupil work and can be assessed as part of teaching and learning as well as being an important data source that can be analysed to help address the research focus.

It is important for individuals to understand how they will use the data in these different ways.

Dispositions
I’ve just been teaching for two years. And I was at that point where actually, you know, getting quite comfy. So it’s nice to get a kick to become uncomfy again so you can progress.
Teacher

Engaging in enquiry is a challenging process. When individuals deeply question what they are doing and what they know it is often difficult and ‘uncomfortable’.

I felt some concern that, with over 40 years of almost full time class responsibility, I have ‘reflected’ seldom on my practice and that my thinking is pretty stagnant.
Teacher

The following dispositions are necessary to help individuals engage meaningfully with the process:

  • Passion
  • Resilience
  • Confidence
  • Risk Taking
  • Being open to Challenge
  • Courage
  • Being teacher-as-learners
  • Willingness and commitment to question own understandings, assumptions, beliefs and practices
  • Willingness and commitment to engage with theory, literature and research about teaching and learning

When teachers really deeply question pupil learning and their own knowledge and understanding of learning then deep and transformative impact is likely.

Challenges
…how we teach at a secondary level – that is a very difficult change in mindset to develop because we are hung up on what we teach. For me that is one of the biggest advantages of securing enquiry as part of CPD in a school, because I believe that, bit by bit, you will change the perception. But it is not a fast process, especially in a secondary school. I think it is a very long term, five, six year plan to get through a critical mass of staff that are feeling and thinking that way. It is no good telling people. We learn by doing.
Senior Management Team

Practitioner enquiry that systematically examines and interrogates practice will be a challenging experience.

It can be ‘uncomfortable’, it can question often long-held assumptions and practices. It might raise previously unconsidered issues and more often than not more questions than ‘answers’ emerge from enquiry.

This questioning and discomfort is a necessary part of any learning that leads to transformational change. This is all part of being an adaptive and enquiring practitioner.

However, through careful planning, understanding of and consideration to the process steps can be taken to minimise any unnecessary difficulties. The following are some ‘cautions’ to be aware of and prepared for:

  • It is ‘uncomfortable’. It presents a challenge and that challenge may need to be managed in sensitive ways so ensure it is still a productive process. Careful and expert support is required
  • This model challenges the traditional ‘way of being a teacher’. Different practices and ways of working through an enquiring approach demand different skills. Enquiry should be deeply embedded into practice and not another initiative that needs to be completed
  • It can be lonely and isolating. Working with critical friends and having a supportive environment is important in this process
  • It is distinctly different from other in-house (learning rounds, TLCs etc.) and external CPD courses. These should and could all contribute to the enquiry approach can support aspects of the enquiry
  • Practitioner enquiry challenges the often insular and comfortable practices
  • It is a slow process, there is not always a clear direction or specific end points
  • Transformative professional learning requires radical and rigorous change. This is difficult and individuals and schools need to be open to and ready for potential changes
  • It can be somewhat overwhelming and needs to be managed carefully. It is very easy to take on too much
  • It is important that enquiry processes are embedded in practice and the focus of the enquiry is about practice-in-action
  • Enquiry should be about/connected to teaching and learning
  • It can be a disengaging and disempowering process if it is not well planned, understood, managed and supported at all levels, in particular if it is imposed it can lead to the disenfranchisement of those involved
  • It is difficult to question own assumptions and often the focus then becomes on products, strategies and pupils, in isolation and without questioning own beliefs, understanding and assumptions about these. Critical friend and external partners should provide necessary support to help individuals with this process
Content, Subject and Pedagogical knowledge

I didn’t feel when I was at uni that we were taught how to teach reading. It was like, ‘go on placement, do reading lessons. You’re on GINN book level five. Read the book, answer some questions, that’s it’. So, I was never very happy with my reading but I didn’t know how to go about changing it. But now I’ve got an increased knowledge and understanding of reading.
Teacher

Teachers develop their subject and pedagogical knowledge through engaging in enquiry. The very nature of practitioner enquiry demands that individuals bring their current knowledge and understandings and open these up to scrutiny and questioning.

This is done through extended reading in the area of theory and research, and as appropriate the subject matter itself. Teachers need to develop this knowledge to be able to ask critical questions through their enquiry.

In addition they develop the knowledge by asking critical questions and examining practices and engaging in wider reading.

It is important that the taken-for-granted practices and knowledge are brought into question and examined alongside distinctly ‘new’ knowledge and pedagogical understandings.

When engaging in enquiry:

  • Developing content/subject knowledge is essential
  • Planning for related and relevant external input/CPD
  • Developing pedagogical knowledge as part of the enquiry and to inform the enquiry is a critical component

Other considerations

Culture and Ethos
In the first year, big questions were asked and it was really challenging. So, we spent a lot of time in the first year, I think, developing and making sure there was a culture of trust and professional, professionalism on the staff, where we, we’re saying, ‘look no-one’s making any judgments. The culture and the ethos we’ve got in the school is so important, where there’s no blame… And teachers have got to have confidence that if something is thrown up or if they try something and it doesn’t work, no-one’s going to be blaming them. No-one’s going to be criticising them. We’re not making any judgments’… We’re identifying what we need to do together. We’re just trying to find a way together to move forward, to move the school forward. And we’ll do that collectively.
Senior Management Team

The culture and ethos within a school environment is critical to the success of initiating and engaging in practitioner enquiry.

Even if policy contexts promote a particular stance, individuals are skilled and knowledgeable, and an enquiry is well planned and considered, if the culture does not promote this practice then it will be very difficult for individuals to engage in or sustain an enquiring approach.

  • Collegiality
  • Relationships
  • Trust
  • Questioning/interrogative culture
Leadership
I think management need to be strong to resist certain external pressures from the local authority or from Scottish Government and say, ‘Actually, you know, we know our schools. We’ve self-evaluated. We know where we’re at. We know the way forward and this is delivering what we need to deliver… I’m quite happy for anyone to come into our school and see what’s going on and ask us about what’s going on and ask any of the teachers what’s going on and why it’s going on. And they can all articulate what we’ve been doing and why we’ve been doing it and what the impact’s been for the pupils. And you can talk to the pupils and get the same responses and you can look at the pupils work. And the, standard… it’s just incredible!
Teacher

The leadership in school is essential to the success of enquiry. Senior management teams and school leaders need to:

  • Understand and value the worth of practitioner enquiry
  • Legitimise practitioner enquiry as a core activity of teachers’ work
  • Provide dedicated time for practitioner enquiry as part of the core framework for professional learning. The enquiry should inform and be the umbrella for all/most of the planned professional learning
  • Understand the complexity of change process
  • Have courage to take risks
  • Have difficult conversations when required and provide the appropriate support
  • Develop expertise knowledge and understanding of practitioner enquiry and draw upon external expertise to support the process, as appropriate
Policy Context

The policy at national and local levels must support and legitimise teachers engaging in practitioner enquiry.

Expert Other/External Partnerships
I knew we needed something and I knew it had to be something from outside. I felt we could be too cushy, and maybe, complacent. I didn’t think we were being complacent but I thought we could be too impressed without own progress. And too busy saying, ‘We like it, it is good’ and nobody else coming in to say, ‘Well yes, actually it is quite good but have you thought of this as well?’
Senior Management Team

One of the significant advantages of practitioner enquiry is that it is about a teachers own professional practice and context. It is practice-based and therefore should be directly relevant to those involved.

It should draw in the knowledge and expertise of those within the context. However the best enquiry requires the support and knowledge offered by expert others and external partnerships.

Input and support from the university staff have really elevated the work and our thinking.
Senior Management Team

Expert partners should:

  • Have a deep knowledge, understanding and expertise in teaching and learning
  • Be skilled in critical questioning and offering probing questions as part of the process
  • Help provide momentum to the enquiry process
  • Understand the change process and support all involved in this process
  • Should ensure ownership of the work to the individuals involved
  • Have courage and be able to have difficult conversations in sensitive and constructive ways
  • Have deep knowledge, expertise, understanding and experience of engaging in practitioner enquiry
One of the barriers we felt was that we were not skilled enough to ask the probing, challenging questions that our university colleagues did. The challenging conversations were really very, very key.
Senior Management Team

Critical to any successful partnership is the development of trusting, supportive relationships.

Relationships:

  • Need time to build and nurture mutually respectful working relationships
  • Should be based on reciprocity
  • Should not be hierarchical

Visit the Partnerships section

Structure and Support
It was borne out of a dissatisfaction about the impact that CPD was having before we went down this road of practitioner enquiry. People generally went off and did CPD; identified courses that they’d like to go on. But, actually, when we looked at the impact there was no discernible impact. Sometimes people did courses and, you know, it was never used in, as part of the teaching and learning or in the classroom situation. So, we definitely wanted to do something that was more meaningful. And we also wanted to do something that would be embedded in practice as well. We didn’t want to do yet another thing for a short period of time.
Senior Management Team

The right support and structures need to be in place if teachers are to engage in practitioner enquiry.

There is no fixed model for this support and it must be recognised that enquiry is an iterative ongoing process therefore the supports and structures in place must be flexible and responsive to change.

Specific features that are important include:

  • Enquiry being a core and embedded part of professional learning
  • A clear purpose for enquiry is negotiated and share at school level
  • Recognition that practitioner enquiry is complex, evolving and organic and individuals and structures need to be responsive and flexible to change
  • School spaces need to support those involved to share and interrogate thinking and progress
  • Ownership of direction and focus for individuals involved is critical. If the focus of is imposed, or is perceived to be imposed, those involved will likely become disengaged and disempowered
  • 1-1 critical conversations are vital to support thinking and progress
  • Difficult conversations need to supported and encouraged within a trusting culture. Recognising and celebrating success is important but for enquiry to be meaningful individuals need to challenge thinking and practices
  • Policy must support and legitimise practitioner enquiry at national, local authority and school level
  • Schools must start at the level of the individual. For some this will involve beginning to develop enquiry skills and ways of interrogating one aspect of practice in small but carefully planned ways; for other sit may be progressing to developing systematic planned collaborative enquiry projects
  • Structures and expectations need to support and recognise timescales and sustain and help provide momentum and support
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