Practitioner research impacts resonate all across FE practice

In this blog – the second of a series of three – Dr Lynne Taylerson, the author of a recent thematic review into the outcomes of the Outstanding Teaching Learning and Assessment (OTLA) 6 projects, reflects on key practice developments for teachers engaging in action research projects. Dr Taylerson’s review looked at the outcomes of OTLA 6 projects, which spanned 2019 and 2020, focusing on teaching and learning in English.

My thematic review of phase six of ETF’s OTLA projects (ETF, 2020) was fascinating work, significantly increasing my knowledge of teachers’ challenges and their capacity for creativity and innovation in the teaching of English.

OTLA 6 saw practitioners engaging in significant reflective activity and making creative changes to their practice. While reviewing the action research work, I found that the concept of practice architectures helped me to examine how teachers developed their practice, allowing me to analyse complex, situated teaching and learning by considering:

  • Teachers’ ‘doings’: the resources available in the classroom and wider environment
  • Teachers’ ‘sayings’: their general and subject-specific language, ideas and concepts taught
  • Teachers’ ‘relatings’: their relationships with learners, peers and support colleagues.

(Kemmis (2017, in Powell, 2018:2)

Regarding teachers’ ‘doings’, OTLA 6 research shows teachers adopting new pedagogies and engaging with approaches such as the flipped classroom, discovery learning and more developed personalisation and contextualisation of learning. Researchers reported an increase in learner motivation and engagement following wider use of game-, problem- and project-based learning, and introduction of vocationally contextualised case study approaches.

What really struck me was the significant creativity shown in reimagining conventional learning spaces and sites with learning potential across the wider campus. This included placement of bookcases stocked with learner-selected texts and posters encouraging writing development in learners’ social spaces. The use of ‘plant sticks’ displaying song lyrics in a shared garden encouraging reading by spurring passing curiosity was another really creative innovation (project 3b).

I also noticed growth in practitioners’ affective development allowing them to reframe their ‘sayings’, and ‘relatings’ – how they conceptualise and facilitate relationships with learners – and also, I would argue, their perceptions of self-identity.

I think it’s significant that teachers placed a higher emphasis on the value of their pastoral role as a result of the research work. They adopted a more holistic view of the learner as an individual on a journey with a wider life beyond the classroom. Development of a greater understanding of how past negative experiences with English impacted upon motivation spurred greater acknowledgement and discussion of these issues at the start of term.

The impacts of this new knowledge were seen in the extended use of resilience-building strategies such as the VESPA mindset programme (Oakes and Griffin, 2017). Practitioners engaged learners in discussions on self-perception and self-esteem. Dialogues on the impacts of past challenges on health and wellbeing were also held. I think a notable additional outcome is that teachers acknowledged that skills in empathetic management of sensitive discussions and ability to use empathetic vocabulary developed significantly after engaging in these discussions.

I also found it significant that teachers reported being able to get to know individual learners and groups better, and earlier in the term, than with previous cohorts. This familiarity encouraged the building of more productive relationships with learners and enabled identification of specific support needs more accurately and quickly. Acknowledgement of the achievement of the small, yet highly significant, learning steps most important to learners and the reward of these ‘micro successes’ proved a valuable motivational strategy which we can all take note of.

Teachers also seemed to be more willing to share more of their identities and personalities with learners. I saw this evidenced in narratives on the placing of posters showcasing the novels teachers were reading for pleasure (project 3b). Practitioners also reported recognition of the value of showing some vulnerability, for example regarding their own past learning challenges. This experience-sharing served to build stronger empathetic bonds with learners.

I noticed further developments to teachers’ ‘relatings’, both to colleagues and regarding self-perception, in an increased capacity and enthusiasm for reflective practice. Participants set aside time for reflective journaling on- and offline and engaged in peer reflective discussion. It’s notable that journaling had been allowed to lapse in many cases once initial teacher education was completed. It was so encouraging to read that OTLA work had reignited an engagement in reflective practice.

Another fascinating outcome for me was the notable change in practitioners’ self-conceptualisation, including a reframing of ideas regarding self-identity and professional values. Practitioners reported a renewed realisation that, like learners, they too are on a journey which develops professional practice. The concept of ‘teacher-as-learner’ may have been an aspect of identity less well recognised after the end of formal teacher training.

I think this renewed recognition of the learning journey contributed to an increased willingness to ‘take risks’. Practitioners explained how experimentation with new strategies was done in the recognition that if an innovation was not successful, value was still gained from reflecting on why the activity did not work as expected. This coincided with a renewed enthusiasm for collaboration and co-creation with immediate peers, with learners and in the development of wider professional networks.

I think it’s notable that across diverse OTLA 6 projects, collaborative work was undertaken with parents, carers, other providers, community groups, media organisations and volunteers. A significant increase in co-creative activity came through inter-team work on contextualisation and personalisation of English learning.

I found it encouraging that the knowledge and skills of peers in the organisational ecology became more widely recognised and valued as a result of collaborative work. English tutors and learning support assistants (LSAs) are mentioned as key collaborators, but contributions made to curriculum co-design and facilitation by colleagues in Learning Resource Centres (LRCs), English ‘champions’, IT and digital support colleagues and volunteers were acknowledged.

It was affirming to read that the achievements of OTLA participants were formally recognised by organisations. Opportunities were offered to present innovations in newsletters, at organisation-wide CPD sessions and at skills showcase events. OTLA participation was obviously a powerful way for individual practitioners and teams to raise professional profiles and status within organisations.

Perhaps most significantly of all, experimentation with new strategies, collaborative activity and reframing of relationships helped practitioners reconnect with their enthusiasm for teaching. Several projects noted that participants rediscovered a ‘love’ of the educator role and identity.

I strongly encourage readers of this blog to take time to delve into the richness of OTLA reports and associated case studies. Fellow teachers, teacher educators, mentors and leaders can discover innovative strategies to experiment with and the gain considerable benefits from reading the ‘lessons learned’ during OTLA research.

The first blog in this series, ‘In praise of complex, ‘messy’ practitioner research,’ is available on the ETF website.

References:

The Education and Training Foundation (ETF) (2020) Outstanding teaching, learning and assessment: a summary of projects in the OTLA phase 6 (English) programme (The ‘Green Book’). London: ETF.

Kemmis, S. (2017) in Powell, D. (2018) Practice architectures and ecologies of practices: new ways of seeing into and making changes to teaching, learning and assessment practices. [online]. Available from: https://www.skillsforlifenetwork.com/attachments/OTLA/A%20new%20way%20of%20seeing%20into%20TLA%201.pdf

The summaries of the OTLA 6 projects are also available from the ETF’s Practitioner Research and Evidence Portal.

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