by Dr James Mannion

There are many aspects to my work these days, but by far my favourite is that I get to work with groups of teachers and school leaders, usually over the course of a year or more, to help them get even better at that they do. *

I run a few different programmes in schools, both through the UCL Institute of Education and as an independent consultant – implementation science, lesson study and teacher research, to name just a few. I will be writing more about implementation science in the weeks and months to come. ** In this post, I just want to give you a quick flavour of a teacher research programme I’m working on currently. ***

There are six sessions throughout the year – one per half-term. Some sessions are with the whole group (usually around 10 to 12 participants), and some are individual clinic sessions. At the final session, which is usually in June, the participants present their findings to their colleagues.

Sometimes, the school suggests a common theme for the teachers to focus on, but generally I find it’s best if each participant is free to choose an aspect of their practice that they want to improve, or just find out more about.

After the first session, which sets out a rationale and an introduction to doing research, the participants go away and collect some baseline data and carry out a short literature review.

Today was session two – a (socially distanced) face to face affair with the whole group. The second session is by far my favourite, because the teachers do most of the talking. This is a very collaborative, oracy-based approach to professional development. Essentially, people get better at what they do by thinking out loud in a culture of high support and high challenge.

The variety of research questions I have helped teachers explore over the years is truly staggering. To give you a flavour, here are some of the projects currently taking shape among the teachers I worked with today. ****

  • Mary, a maths teacher, was initially interested in the extent to which teachers are able to develop metacognition and self-regulation through their teaching. But her research question has mutated – as research questions tend to do – to focus more on teacher learning. Her current plan is to interview teachers to ask them what ideas and experiences have most influenced their thinking, their beliefs and their practice as teachers. She is particularly interested in habit change. What makes us into the teachers (and people) we become?
  • Veronica, a physics teacher, was formerly a data analyst. She has created the most incredible spreadsheets, with macros written by herself, for students and teachers to use as a tool for question-level analysis of summative assessments. Her literature review found that there is lots of literature on formative feedback, but not much on how best to provide feedback following a summative assessment. She believes that giving the students ownership and control over their own data will empower them. Having established proof of concept with her own classes over the last year, she plans to implement the approach across the department over the next two terms to see what impact it has on student learning and engagement in post-examination feedback lessons.
  • Martin, an experienced drama teacher, is interested in exploring the use of guided visualisation and/or mindfulness meditation as a method for promoting wellbeing and achievement (which might be measured in any number of ways) among his year 7s. He has tried these methods previously but has found that after a few initial sessions, the novelty tends to wear off. So he’s interested in looking at methods that sustain the children’s interest and enthusiasm over time. Martin teaches four year 7 classes currently, so he plans to have two classes as an experimental group, and two as a control group. He also mentioned Deschooling Society by Ivan Illych in the course of the conversation, which makes him OK by my book.
  • Michael is fascinated by the fact that students who take music at GCSE tend to get higher grades than those who don’t take music. Is this relationship causal or correlational? No doubt it is complex, but he has read some research to suggest that there might be a causal element – some schools seem to have significantly improved attainment in English and Maths simply by getting every student to learn a musical instrument. Michael is still working out where his inquiry will take him. He has carried out some impressive baseline data analyses, with colour-coded scatter plots showing attainment at GCSE by which students play a musical instrument. Using these plots, he will be able to identify and sample a range of students – those who fit the pattern of his hypothesis, and also some outliers – to find out what’s going on. Can playing a musical instrument really make you smarter? If so, how? Is it the discipline of learning an instrument? Is it the performative aspect that helps young people overcome performance anxiety in exams? Time will tell…
  • Fiona, the head of drama, is interested in student choice. In schools, teachers set the agenda for what needs to be learned, and how, and by when. This makes for an efficient use of time, but the question begs to be asked: how can young people learn to self-regulate in such a top-down, micro-managed environment? Fiona plans to explore a range of ways in which to introduce student choice – allowing them to choose how to engage with a play (e.g. to perform it or to analyse it), how to engage in costume design (e.g. creatively or critically) and even allowing them to set their own homework. She is aware that student choice is not always a positive thing – some students tend to choose the path of least resistance, and choose to sit with their friends over a group that will enable them to work well, for example. So this won’t be a free-for-all. But she is interested to explore how providing students with opportunities for make choices about aspects of their learning will impact on their engagement and attainment as they progress through year 9. Will more of them choose drama as an option at GCSE as a consequence?
  • Rhianna, an English teacher, is interested in exploring ways of using technology to provide students with verbal feedback for their homework. There are two goals here – to reduce teacher workload while improving student engagement and responses to her feedback. Her research to date suggests that many teachers have experimented with similar approaches, but generally stop because of the ’faff factor’. There are certainly technical issues to overcome – hardware, software, and whether students will be able to listen and respond to audio feedback in a classroom environment. Will Rhianna be able to find a way to make this work as we progress through the year?

I don’t know about you, but I find all of this absolutely fascinating. Through inquiries such as these – and many more like them – teachers and school leaders take control of their own professional development – managing and evaluating their own practice, and improving outcomes for their students and sharing best practice with their colleagues.

Over the last few years, I have been developing a platform called Praxis Teacher Research – a free online research journal written for teachers, by teachers. It is my monument to what has become one of the genuine loves of my life – helping teachers innovate and investigate aspects their practice, improving outcomes for their students and sharing the fruits of their inquiries with their colleagues and the wider teaching profession, free for all the world to see.

What’s not to like?

* In case you haven’t noticed, teachers are already kind of amazing.

** Implementation science is the future.

*** I use the phrase ‘teacher research’, but it goes by various names – action research, practitioner inquiry, collaborative R&D… you pays your money and you takes your choice.

**** Names have been changed to protect the innocent.