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I’m a teacher – why should I be bothered about conducting research in my practice?

In this post, Hannah Owen, deputy head of The Grove Primary School in Cambridge reflects on the role that research has played in her professional learning. She highlights how the knowledge that teachers create is particularly valuable because it emerges from, and is embedded in, practice.

I always find it hard to explain what it is like being a teacher.  Often, when asked to describe my experiences in the classroom, I am drawn to the analogy of a circus performer ‘spinning plates.’  During a lesson many things happen simultaneously and there is the constant need to act, adjusting and modifying my practice, not only in response to the actions, reactions and interactions of those around me but also in anticipation of things to come!  Attempting to do research in this context sounds crazy but actually, it is a fantastic way to slow things down.

We are all keen to do the best by the children in our classes which means we are continually seeking to improve our classroom teaching. After all, ‘practice makes better,’ right?  But how do we go about making things better, particularly in the intense multidimensional reality of classroom life?  Conducting research does not sound like a serious answer, but in fact, engaging in research can provide a focus for improvement.  Standing back slightly and looking at your practice can open your eyes to aspects which you did not see initially, and allow you to identify what exactly is the problem.  And you don’t need to wait for someone else to provide the answer; drawing on the experiences of others, you can create your own solutions. Research encourages you to experiment, reflect, tweak and review, and you know that your results are uniquely tailored to your own context.

However, researching my practice has not just benefited the children in my class; it has also enabled me to develop as a learner.  While engaging with a range of ideas and experiences, I have had to weigh up the benefits of alternative approaches and use the evidence collected to think reflectively and reflexively about the consequences of particular choices.  As a consequence, I like to think that I’ve acquired a more informed, systematic and critical mind-set that I can apply across many different aspects of my practice, extending beyond the classroom to include issues of school improvement.     

Engaging in research as a school can develop a culture of ‘continuous improvement’ where we are actively encouraged to take risks, seek and try out new ideas and strategies, and discuss our own work openly so that we feel confident collaborating and learning from each other.  After all, teachers in the same context are likely to be asking similar questions and facing similar problems.  And if, through research, we can find workable solutions to these issues, then why wouldn’t we want to share them with others?  For this knowledge is immediately usable; it has been embedded in practice.  Theoretical ideas have been tried and tested in a practical context by those who are situated in the classroom environment.  By engaging in research, we have not only become agents of learning but also sources of knowledge creation and through this, part of the wider conversation about what works best in education.

About the Author

Hannah Owen is deputy head of The Grove Primary School in Cambridge where she leads on teaching and learning, and professional development.  She believes empowering teachers to become ‘natural experimenters’ is central to improving teaching and learning.  As a result, she encourages teachers to engage with action research and lesson study to find new solutions to issues of classroom practice and implement curriculum development.  She is studying for a PhD at the University of Cambridge where she is researching the nature of dialogic interactions within lesson study, investigating the links between dialogue and the learning patterns and processes of teachers.