What is educational close to practice research? Who is it for, and why?

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What is educational close to practice research? Who is it for, and why?

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By Camtree Team

In this article, Dr. Alison Twiner, Camtree Research Associate, discusses the nature and role of close-to-practice research in education and the ways in which Camtree is seeking to support teacher-researchers.

In the early 1980s, Lawrence Stenhouse challenged the educational research community to really consider what it means to conduct educational research, who has authority or validity in this frame, and why: 

‘the professional researcher seems to me more vulnerable because of his distance from practice and his lack of responsibility for practice than is the teacher by virtue of his involvement in practice

(Stenhouse, 1981, p. 110) 

In this sense, whilst academic researchers conduct research that is ‘distant’ from practice, it is practitioners’ involvement, responsibility for or ‘closeness’ to practice that makes their perspectives hold greater weight. In spite of the time since Stenhouse’s proposal, educational close-to-practice research still struggles to be taken as seriously as, for instance, medical research conducted by medical practitioners.

Camtree reflects and is pushing forward a much-need shift in this emphasis, whereby educational close-to-practice research is recognised and valued for its intrinsic value at classroom, school and policy levels even if small in scale.

There are many approaches to educational close-to-practice research (CTPR) – for instance lesson study, case study, action research, teacher inquiry, and many more. What links these approaches are the following important elements:

  • An aim to understand or improve something educational, often at a relatively local level and usually with an intent to improve (it may be possible to generalise more widely, but the initial focus is usually aimed at impact in the context of the study itself);
  • The research focus is in some way ‘close’ to the educational focus – generally by an educational practitioner investigating educational issues in their own classroom or setting, or by a relative ‘outsider’ such as an academic researcher exploring in collaboration with educational practitioner/s and/or learners. Such closeness is therefore often in terms of insight and understanding of the context, and potential to impact on it directly, as much as physical distance;
  • The focus and exploration follow a process that can be outlined and understood by others, and reviewed for wider relevance.

A report commissioned by the British Educational Research Association (BERA) offered the following definition for educational CTPR, which chimes with some themes within Stenhouse’s call:

‘close-to-practice research focuses on issues defined by practitioners as relevant to their practice, and involves collaboration between people whose main expertise is in research, in educational practice, or both’

(Wyse, et al., 2018)

Wyse et al’s definition is useful as a starting point, but it may not be considered to represent what all close-to-practice researchers want to get out of their research – or what they find helpful when reading fellow practitioners’ work (which was in any case beyond Wyse and colleagues’ stated remit). There has been substantial discussion surrounding this work, with powerful and passionate arguments raised regarding what something needs to do, have, or report, to be considered CTPR (for instance see the 2021 Special Section in British Educational Research Journal devoted to this).

Camtree seeks not necessarily to resolve this discussion, but to give voice to and connect a reflective practitioner community whilst being mindful of debates that have gone before and continue. Through Camtree, we offer a practitioner-oriented and owned space, where practitioners continue such debates in terms of what CTPR is useful, why, where, how, and for whom, through exploring their practice with a range of approaches that suit their context and intentions. With this in mind, Camtree works with educational practitioners to review reports of practitioner research aligned to quality criteria, whereby people are supported to submit and publish work that:

  • is reported in a way that interested others in a broad range of contexts and backgrounds could understand, and if they wished, adapt to their settings;
  • is grounded and reports clear aims – why they wanted to explore the issue, what they were going to explore and how; and what they hoped to find (this doesn’t necessarily prevent them from finding other interesting things along the way though);
  • follows a method or approach that is meaningful in their context and for their aims;
  • reports clear outcomes – successes and limitations, through appropriate measures or evidence;
  • identifies the usefulness of the work – for themselves, for learners, for their context and/or more widely;
  • points to next steps, or what further exploration would be useful.

Precisely because CTPR is such a diverse field, Camtree seeks to ignite discussion and sharing of differences, of why something worked here but not here, as well as allowing scope to find similarities or alignments in perhaps the most unexpected of places.

Fundamentally, Camtree believes that treating quality close to practice studies seriously and even as components of ‘big (qualitative) data’ has the potential to unearth and reveal insights about learning, practice and provision that have never been exposed before, while at the same time building and connecting CTPR capacity around the globe. This may radically improve the quality of educational policy-making as a result.