Action Research: More than a Hobby

For Tom Bennett (@tombennett71), ResearchEd2015 turned out to be all lasagne and toilet rolls. I’m sure this was not a comment on the catering. His was a unique perspective and, if he took the opportunity to sit back and survey the landscape, then he deserved the respite for this was a wondrous landscape he had created.

It had certain must-see features. For anyone who found their way to Finchley Road station via Twitter (and, really, was there any other way?) surely the likes of John Tomsett (@johntomsett), Tom Sherrington (@headguruteacher), David Didau (@LearningSpy) and Sam Freedman (@samfr) were the main draw. These are among those to whom Nick Gibb was referring when he spoke of how teachers have the potential to affect policy. They would have provided the meat in the conference lasagne for many a conference-goer. But, being a quiche-eater, my conference experience was a touch more marginal: no more adventurous and no less fulfilling, just not what everyone would have chosen. But being ResearchEd, it was impossible not to slip into talks delivered by what Tom B labelled somewhere ‘the illuminati.’

This was not my first. Not a veteran, not a neonate: I suppose I may be a ResearchEd toddler. I took my first steps at Dulwich College in 2013. Much has changed, it seems to me, between #reEd13 and #reEd15. Then, many of us needed to be told what the Education Endowment Foundation toolkit was; now it can be the butt of barbed references to its generous funding, and we all nod sagely. At South Hampstead High School, no one needed a primer on Lesson Study. We have come such a distance, and have done such a lot to dismantle the walls dividing our educational estates, that the promises of Connect-Ed to put us all in touch with each other seem quaintly out of time. But, for all this advance, the issue which dominated for me two years ago still lingers: what place does teacher action enquiry have in the research garden? Is it the well-groomed lawn, the pride and joy; or is it rather the embarrassing collection of gnomes, pointless but stubbornly present?

Becky Allen (@drbeckyallen) invited us to hack our own teacher-researcher career: like a domestic goddess in a business suit, we too could have it all. What was not available to her ‘in her day’, was to us on Twitterday. How good we were feeling… until the first slide.

“Almost all teachers should never do educational research.”

Like Dr Husbands in 2013, her point was that ‘piffling around’ with classroom enquiries did not a research study make. Do it for pleasure – or PD – but don’t pretend you are adding anything meaningful to the knowledge base. Yet, though most of us action researchers should leave well alone, ‘Education research needs practising teachers on the team.’ They need us to make up the numbers in their big projects. They. Us. Their. The hacking of her title seems to apply only to the few who can ‘create an identity’ for themselves online, build a team, get a summer job with someone reputable such as Education Datalab, then find a sugar daddy to fund us while we go part-time at school. No one quite asked, but why would we want to do all that, when the ‘pleasures’ of piffling around with action don’t-call-it-research are so enticing?

Because professional educational researchers are doing such a fine job. As the excellent Alex Quigley (@HuntingEnglish) reminded us, someone like John Bohannon call fool even reputable media outlets (not just the Daily Star) that eating chocolate helps you lose weight. And, at the end of the day Professor Robert Coe (@ProfCoe) drew attention to the flaws in the ‘Screen time drags down your grades’ story. Both gave valuable advice, not so much to teacher-researchers, but to teacher-consumers-of-research. Prof Robert Coe WhatWorks departed from Dylan Wiliam, when he said that a research-engaged teacher can be happy with basing just ‘some’ of her decisions upon the evidence. Like Quigley, he offered several tips for the teacher hoping to cut through the ‘BS’ (perhaps the same substance coyly referred to by our headmistress host at the end.) But Coe seemed to reach out to the action research fraternity, in answer to a question from James Mannion (@pedagog_machine): Yes, teachers should monitor and review the messages passed down to them by the experts, by themselves trialling the ideas and methods systematically in their own classrooms.

I know that much practitioner research can be dodgy. It may lack validity in terms of its wider applications; and those of us in school feel more queasy than those who are not about setting up a control group and deliberately denying them the fairy dust we are sprinkling on our treatment group. Like the joyously upbeat Nick Martin and Clare Hood at the Samuel Whitbread school, where every teacher is in a research lesson study triad, we cannot always reliably locate the factor which truly caused the progress. Our sample sizes may be tiny, and the claims we make for the size of our effects may be overblown. Action researchers are hobbyists, and professionals may feel a little embarrassed in our company.

They should get over themselves.