Sunday, 20 December 2015

Practitioner enquiry

As the holidays beckon, I have been thinking about practitioner enquiry and how to support teacher to develop an ‘enquiry of stance’ mindset. I have sources research articles and a few books to help delve deeper into practitioner enquiry and improve my understanding. I am interested in the history of practitioner enquiry i.e. where and when did this concept emerge? I am also wondering about the costs and benefits of practitioner enquiry. Having undertaken research in my own classroom I know that it can have a massive impact on both the teachers learning and pupils learning, but how do we support and promote this professional learning activity with teachers? Here are some thought on practitioner enquiry as I continue to critically think through how GTCS can support teachers as part of professional learning in practitioner enquiry.
The purpose of any professional leaning activity should be related to increasing skills, knowledge or practice of the teachers but must also be linked to improved outcomes for learners. Practitioner enquiry should lead to deep transformative learning which significantly informs and influences professionals’ understanding, practice and impact on pupil experiences.
Practitioner enquiry is a key aspect in the professional learning of a teacher in Scotland and is embedded in the Standards. The Recent BERA study (2014 p6) discusses the need for teachers to be “equipped to engage in enquiry oriented practice” and have the “capacity, motivation, confidence and opportunity to do so”. By engaging in practitioner enquiry Brookfield feels this empowers teacher as “we become much less willing to give away our histories” (1995 p187) and take responsibility and pride of our own professional learning. When teachers become engage in practitioner enquiry and engage with research literature they benefit by becoming more confident in their own practice.
GTCS support practitioner access literature via an investment in EBSCO Educational Resource. EBSCO is an on-line resource providing registrants with access to a collection of over 1,700 journals, a selection of eBooks, and additional research resources in the field of education and a range of ebooks. There is also a Research Engagement Group (REG) which has been set up to help support, promote and facilitate critical engagement with research, as we know that teachers are 'research rich but time poor' and therefore appropriate resources to support engagement is critical. We are also in the processes of setting up a Teacher Network group to support the work of the REG.
Practitioner enquiry is given many names in literature, Cochran-Smith and Lytle (2009 p39) use the term practitioner inquiry as “a conceptual and linguistic umbrella term” for action research, participatory research, teacher research, self-study, the scholarship teacher and using practice as site for research. Although each enquiry method has their own important differences all have similar underlying principles as Cochran-Smith and Lytle put it they “share as sense of the practitioner knower and agent for educational and social change”.
Cochran-Smith and Lytle coined the term ‘inquiry as stance’ in the late 1990’s and have expanded on its meaning between then and now. ‘Inquiry as stance’, “positions the role of practitioner and practitioner knowledge as central to the goal of transforming teaching, learning, leading and schooling” (p119). The ‘inquiry’ part relates to engaging with research and questioning practice to develop a “critical habit of mind” (p120) while the ‘as stance’, “capture[s] the ways we stand, the ways we see and lenses we see through” (p120).
As defined by Menter et al (2011), practitioner enquiry is a ‘finding out’ or an investigation with a rationale and approach that can be explained or defended and then the findings shared so it becomes more than reflection or personal enquiry. Practitioner enquiry is usually undertaken within the practitioners own practice or in collaboration with others. Evaluation and reflective teaching are deeply bound into practitioner enquiry and within collaborative enquiry the group shares a common research question which can then be ‘investigated’ through different lenses to enhance knowledge creation and dissemination within the group and beyond. 
For teachers, regular engagement in practitioner enquiry supports professional growth by challenging or ‘disrupting thinking’ and ‘ingrained habits of mind’. Practitioner enquiry helps to create a space to stop and look again at existing ways of working. It is argued by McLaughlin et al (2004) that teachers who engage in research have ‘better understanding of their practice and ways to improve it’. For some teachers, enquiry may promote levels of critical reflection that are ‘transformative’. However, transformative learning can only occur when individuals have the opportunity and skills to really question and consider their underpinning beliefs, assumptions, values and practices. This goes beyond developing content knowledge and requires a criticality and questioning approach and as such the process of transformative learning can be challenging and 'uncomfortable'. The gains from transformative learning however, could be that it can lead to meaningful changes in practice which impact positively on pupil learning.

Practitioner research can play a major part in making change more systemic and indeed sustainable as practitioners become agents of their own professional learning. Systematic enquiry helps teachers to “‘let go’, unlearn, innovate and re-skill in cycles of professional learning throughout their career in response to changing circumstances” Menter et al (2011 p19).
Practitioner enquiry allow teachers the space to engage with research and create their own knowledge which is very pertinent to their students in their situation. Even more powerful yet is being part of an enquiring community, where all data and evidence is given consideration and the reliance on test scores and ‘what works’ is are included but critically reviewed to establish the best path for the establishment at that time to support student learning. When a community becomes an enquiring community it opens up the possibility to challenge assumptions, to articulate values, to make their practice problematic and to form partnerships with academics to engage in theory and research to further enhance the life chances of their students.
Claxton (2002 p15) discussed what students need to be ‘good learners’ which is;
“Being a good real-life learners means knowing what is worth learning, what you are good (and not so good ) at learning, who can help, how to face confusion without getting upset, and what the best learning tool is for the job at hand”
The same can be said for any learner, teachers who engage in practitioner enquiry will find themselves in the position of a learner and will have to as Claxton (2002) discusses have to have a strategic overview of their learning, plan and organise their learning, be flexible, make meaning of their learning, have self-knowledge and self-awareness and be effective at revising strategies. All of this takes time and need multiple opportunities to gain maximum learning but small incremental changes in practice, akin to marginal gains theory (, should be supported, recognised and celebrated.

Brookfield, S.D. (1995) Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher, San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Claxton, G. (2002) Building Learning Power. Bristol: TLO Limited

Cochran-Smith and Lytle (2009) Inquiry as a Stance: Practitioner Research for the Next Generation Teacher College Press, New York

Menter, I Elliott, D Hulme, M. Lewin, J Lowden K. (2011) A Guide to Practitioner research in Education. SAGE publishing

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