Action research: how can we turn around our students’ experiences in the classroom so they reflect the humanistic values we believe in?
By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 20 November 2020
Ever since I first walked into a classroom in an Inner London comprehensive as a student teacher in 1986, my primary aim, like many other new entrants to the profession, was to make a difference to children’s lives. Maybe, even if in only some small way, I could change society for the better.
That’s why I’m so pleased about the publication of a special feature of the London Review of Education which focuses on the potential of action research to promote an empowering school curriculum. As guest editor, I am excited about seeing the fruits of many months of labour by the twenty-six authors, reviewers and others who have worked with me. But the publication will also have a deeper significance for me as I reflect on over 30 years of experience working within the education system.
I am fortunate to have spent most of my educational career (as classroom teacher, curriculum coordinator, head of department, curriculum developer, local authority consultant and now teacher educator) working closely with other teachers. I am struck by how many teachers share the humanistic vision of education that I believe in as a means of transforming society for the better.
Countless hours are spent striving for innovative ways of enabling students to develop as autonomous learners, in search of a curriculum that will enable the next generation to develop the knowledge, skills, attitudes and values they need to address many of the environmental, economic and social challenges facing our global society.
And yet the experiences of most school students in classrooms in England rarely reflect this humanistic vision of education. Educational policy is decided by debates amongst powerful interest groups with very different ideas about what the ‘good society’ should look like.
Education has both a transformative and a reproductive function – perpetuating the status quo – and there is always tension between the two. As Carr & Kemmis say, “Practical educational questions about what to teach and how to teach are always themselves a particular expression of more fundamental political questions about which existing patterns of social life ought to be reproduced or transformed.” (2009, p. 76). Teachers’ best intentions are often undermined by the imposition of an increasingly standardised and instrumentalised school curriculum, arising from policy-makers’ tendencies to prioritise the needs of the economy, and increasing levels of performativity and accountability in schools.
When I studied for my PGCE qualification at Goldsmith’s College, London, back in 1986, there was considerable interest in research into, and policy debates around, educational inequality. And yet, more than three decades later, we are still facing unacceptably high levels of under-achievement amongst students from disadvantaged backgrounds. The Covid-19 pandemic has merely served to highlight persistent differences in educational outcomes amongst various groups in society. So why has educational research failed to address these differences? Many of the papers in the special feature highlight how conventional research does not take sufficient account of the socio-political nature of education or the everyday constraints faced by teachers in the classroom. Educational action research is proposed as an alternative methodology that places teachers at the heart of the research process. Through genuine collaboration between teacher researchers and academic researchers, action research enables teachers to engage in Freire’s notion of ‘praxis’, i.e. acting on the basis of their ethical dispositions in applying theory to their practice.
Two of my own research projects have involved working collaboratively with teacher researchers in conducting participatory action research. The Teaching Maths for Social Justice Project demonstrated how involving teachers in developing the research design, and devising and evaluating classroom strategies, generates findings of greater relevance and interest to other practitioners. The Visible Maths Pedagogy project highlighted how, by engaging with research theory, playing a leading role in the collection of student data (through surveys and interviews) and by using videos to stimulate critically reflective discussions, teacher researchers were able to develop sophisticated research insight and a greater awareness of theory-in-practice. Both projects had a powerful impact on teachers’ pedagogical thinking and classroom practice and on students’ engagement, particularly in relation to students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
The London Review of Education special feature on ‘Developing an empowering school curriculum: A renewed focus on action research’ reports on the experiences of teacher researchers and academic researchers who, whilst operating in a diversity of contexts and situations, share a commitment towards taking action to translate emancipatory and humanistic views of education into practice.
The special feature is published in London Review of Education, 13(3), November 2020.