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Things arent what they're supposed to be

Recently I had the pleasure of working with a group of teachers from another school who were just about to embark on their own journey with practitioner enquiry. I had taken along a couple of teachers so they could give first-hand accounts of practitioner enquiry as class teachers, warts and all. I was essentially the warm up act! My role was to share the big picture regarding practitioner enquiry, explain some of the research behind the approach, explore the process and identify some of the benefits and issues to be considered. I could do that.

I had never considered myself as a scary person before, but it seems that was what I was being seen as by some of my audience. This was encapsulated by the teacher who articulated her fears. 'This is like being back at university and carrying out research for my degree' she pleaded. 'Where do we find the time to carry out all this research that you suggest we should be doing' she asked. Her reaction was not untypical of others I have received from very busy teachers when I am asked to talk about this approach. I probably need to reconsider the message I am putting across because, as I said to this teacher and have said to others, 'this is not about you becoming a researcher in the way understood by those in higher education. What it is about is you becoming an enquirer into your practice and your impact on learning.'

Of course, I am not against researchers and recognise the vital role they have to play in education and elsewhere. But researchers are employed to research. Teachers are employed to teach. Researchers are steeped in the process of research and have deep understandings in how to carry this out in a way that is fair, ethical and free from bias. The have a wide range of understanding around research approaches and tools, that they understand deeply and can employ in their work, often developed over many years. Teachers too have a range of skills and experiences that help shape and hone their practice and improve their impact on learning. They do not have the time or the expertise to carry out an in-depth, high quality piece of research, and nor should they be expected to. What they can be expected to do, and be, however is to be professionally curious with dispositions towards enquiring into their practice throughout their careers. I also believe the insights they gain can, and should, be shared with others, but in ways that are manageable and accessible to all.

Fortunately, to help me exemplify the point, the two teachers with me stepped in to share their experiences of continually enquiring into their practice. Both explained that they too were not researchers, but they had always been reflective practitioners, who were continually trying to develop and grow their practice. They explained that what the adoption of a practitioner enquiry approach had given them was a systematic way of looking at their practice, which was informed by data and evidence. They explained how they incorporated the enquiry process into the everyday activities of their classrooms and how, by keeping the focus small scale, they kept the data collection manageable, but were able to scale up the insights they gained. The colleagues we were working with asked lots of pertinent questions of us all, which we answered honestly and as fully as we could. We must have done something right, as the headteacher of the school we visited, phoned me the next day to tell me how excited the staff were about identifying and starting their own enquiries. She was particularly pleased that the staff who asked the most questions and expressed the most apprehension were just as enthused.

What this experience re-enforced to myself was that, even though currently there is a lot of focus on practitioner and collaborative enquiry in Scotland, and further afield, there are still many misconceptions about what these approaches actually entail. Perhaps the biggest threat to achieving the impacts we should through practitioner enquiry are misconceptions that then turn in to the 'lethal mutations' Marilyn Cochran Smith cautioned about when in Edinburgh last year. I worry that practitioner enquiry is just seen as another 'thing' to be done, rather than the disposition it needs to be. The trouble with 'things' is they can mean different 'things' to different people.


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