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Why we are providing staff with the time and resources to encourage staff to address reflective questions about their practice - Kate Sida-Nicholls

22nd December 2022

Kate Sida-Nicholls, Group Director of Teacher Development, Professional Learning and Research, Eastern Colleges Group

At Eastern Colleges Group in Suffolk, we have embarked on a research inquiry journey across three sixth form colleges, including apprenticeship and adult education teams, as well as one HE provision. It is a three year programme, with staff completing their inquiry within each academic year for the next three years. We started year one at the end of August and staff have been given time on professional learning days throughout this academic year to engage with the inquiry process. The inspiration for implementing this approach is from John Tomsett and Jonny Uttley’s book Putting Staff First A Blueprint for Revitalising Our Schools (published by John Catt in 2020). I am grateful for the guidance from the book and also conversations with John Tomsett about how to implement the scale of this research inquiry.

In his book Putting Staff First, John clearly states that “teachers are not researchers” - and I have to agree with him. Classroom teachers are not usually given the time to acquire the knowledge to undertake what might be viewed as “traditional academic research” as undertaken by universities. Instead, we should encourage teaching staff to become engaged with research practices to help support them to make evidence-based decisions about their practice.

Teaching is too complex to ever find one solution to an issue in a classroom that will suit all staff and all students. Classrooms are very contextual and as we know, the learning environment can alter, just because it is snowing outside or a bumble bee has entered the classroom. No other profession has such a range of unforeseeable factors to contend with at any one time. Our starting point is that we are not turning our teaching staff into researchers, instead we want them to become reflective practitioners in a disciplined and structured manner.

By undertaking this research inquiry, we are providing time, motivation and resources to encourage staff to address their own contextual reflective question about their practice in a structured manner. In October, the Education Endowment Foundation, published its guidance report on Effective Professional Development. Within this evidence based report, it states that there are four key mechanisms for effective professional learning which are building knowledge; motivating teachers; developing teacher techniques and embedding practice. By implementing research inquiries at Eastern Colleges Group, our aim is to maximise the impact of these four mechanisms by doing the following:

  1. Building knowledge – we are managing cognitive load as the whole research inquiry process is taking place over a whole year.
  2. Motivating teachers - devising the research question and submitting the research inquiry document ensures that clear goals are being set. Staff have been asked to engage with evidence based articles as part of the process and we are also providing individual feedback about the quality of the research inquiry form and the proposed methodology etc. Informal feedback is taking place with the professional discussions that takes place in curriculum areas about the research inquiry between colleagues.
  3. Developing teacher techniques – teachers are developing techniques by focusing on a key area of their teaching practice or one of the strategies from the Teaching Walkthrus series by Tom Sherrington and Oliver Caviglioli. Staff have time to discuss their research focus and ideas on professional learning days and can seek social support from each other about their focus.
  4. Embedding practice – the research inquiry process is a form of action planning for staff and we are encouraging monitoring of progress by asking staff to collect data at the start of the research and at the end of the research period in order to assess impact and outcomes for students as well as completion of the posters.

I don’t think we have all the fourteen suggested mechanisms from the Developing Professional Development report incorporated within our practitioner inquiry programme but we are in year one of a three year plan. We hope that after seeking feedback from staff, reviewing the project and looking at all the outcomes, we will be able to decide which ones of the mechanisms we need to strengthen or include in the following two years.

Clearly there needs to be ways of demonstrating impact due to the time, money and professionalism of teachers that has been devoted to this inquiry approach. The obvious measurable outcomes are the quality of the research inquiry forms, the completion rate of the research inquiries by staff and the calibre and number of the research posters. Additionally, the posters will have a section about impact so each poster should be able to demonstrate the effect that it has on student learning whether that be in a qualitative or quantitative way. However, what about the other less tangible outcomes? I am hoping that we will have helped staff to overcome their reluctance about engaging with evidence-based texts and that they can see the value of engaging with them. By reading these articles and blogs, staff will encounter a different viewpoint from their current perspective, and it will encourage them to take a different perspective on issues within their classrooms. Hopefully staff will become more reflective about their practice so they can build their self-efficacy about their teaching and increase their confidence and strategies for addressing issues within their own classrooms. Collaborative professional practice is also a desired outcome from this research programme as we hope that the opportunities which staff have had to engage with each other about their research inquiries with allocated time during professional learning days will strengthen the positive culture of our colleges which we all know is important to teacher retention and job satisfaction.

If you are interested in finding out more than we have created a website which is still in its infancy but will develop as the research inquiry programme becomes more established and you can find it here Professional Learning and Research – Eastern Colleges Group