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Practitioner-led Action Research (PLAR)


What is practitioner-led action research?

Practitioner-led research can be approached in many ways, and there are many distinctions. This in part comes from the rich history of practitioner-led research dating back to John Dewey in the 1930’s. It has evolved and reshaped ever since, resulting in it being named in different ways: action research, teacher research, practitioner inquiry, teacher inquiry, and even self-study - see: Fichtman Dana, Nancy (2016) The Relevancy and Importance of Practitioner Research in Contemporary Times. For simplicity here, we will discuss practitioner-led action research. Importantly this ‘research’ is informed by the wider body of knowledge, and is focussed on improving practice.

Practitioner-led research:

  • is about teachers investigating an area of their own practice and professional decision making - then combining their professional expertise with evidence from their own and other’s research.  
  • starts from the viewpoint that teaching and learning can be improved - building on reflective practice by learning from others and sharing findings. 
  • is about practitioners undertaking a systematic enquiry of their own practice with a view to evaluation, implementing change and improvement.

The design, methods, analysis and outputs of the research are open to peer-review (Campbell & McNamara, 2009):

  • Action research 
  • Joint practice development 
  • Autoethnography 

In essence, the aim is to gain a better understanding, and seek to create improvements through a cycle or spiral of plan, act/observe, reflect.

A brief guide to the action research process

Prof Jean McNiff in Concise advice for new action researchers suggests these following basic steps constitute an action plan:

  • we review our current practice
  • identify an aspect that we want to investigate
  • imagine a way forward
  • try it out
  • take stock of what happens
  • we modify what we are doing in the light of what we have found, and continue working in this new way (try another option, if the new way of working is not right)
  • monitor what we do
  • review and evaluate the modified action
  • and so on …

‘Two processes are at work: your systematic actions as you work your way through these steps, and your learning. Your actions embody your learning, and your learning is informed by your reflections on your actions. Therefore, when you come to write your report or make your research public in other ways, you should aim to show not only the actions of your research, but also the learning involved. Some researchers focus only on the actions and procedures, and this can weaken the authenticity of the research.’

Jamie Heywood, course manager at Bedford College Group, has written a useful blog: How can action research in teacher training help you become a reflective practitioner. Published on the BERA website in September 2020, it provides an accessible introduction and food for thought, as well as some useful further references. This site is a rich source of blogs from practitioners and research fellows, for example:

Other guides to research are available, and can be a useful starting. They may have been developed for schools audiences, but they provide a useful starting point to understand research methods, definitions and pitfalls – especially for new researchers. For example:

  • The Coalition for Evidence-Based Education CEBE offers a publication Leading research engagement in education, which aims to make more effective use of research evidence, and establish conditions where research engagement can flourish.
  • NFER offer 5 ‘How to’ guides to take you through the research journey from planning to writing up. 
The benefits for you and your learners

As practitioner-led research is inextricably linked to reflective practice, working with colleagues can be a highly supportive activity and can allow self-supporting communities to develop. For teaching staff, it can be a tool for personal reflection and can be highly motivating. Learners can benefit from practitioner-led research. As teachers engage with their own learning journey, it is closely linked with the needs of their learners. Such research can influence the very culture in which learners and teachers interact, see: Wall, K. and Hall, E. The Teacher in Teacher-Practitioner Research: Three Principles of Inquiry.

The research may focus on the learner, staff, institution, context or community, for example:

  • on a particular learner or ‘category’ of learner such as a specific dyslexic student
  • looking at motivation techniques for encouraging reading at Level 3
  • feedback versus grades
  • curriculum development

In her abstract: A call to action: why we need more practitioner research (2013), Kimberley Hill Campbell states:

‘As teacher-educators we need to embrace practitioner (action) research of our own classroom practice. Such research serves to improve our practice, inform the teaching profession, and serve as modelling for future teachers to become practitioner researchers in support of their efforts to meet the learning needs of the students with whom they work as well as have a voice in policy decisions that impact their professional lives.’

Back in 2007 the National Research and Development Centre for Adult Literacy and Numeracy (NRDC) produced a booklet: Maximising the impact of practitioner research: a handbook of practical advice. It was designed for ‘everyone who would like to conduct small-scale action research projects within their own organisation: from senior managers to individual teachers or teams planning to work  collaboratively’.

How to get involved in research opportunities through the ETF

Practitioners have taken many routes through the research opportunities on offer through the ETF. The Practitioner Research Programme or OTLA might be a useful place for you to start depending on your subject specialism.

Practitioner Research Programme

This programme offers participants time and space, as well as expert research training and support, from a renowned team of FE specialists. Courses can lead to an MPhil and beyond. The programme is particularly interested in supporting practitioners who have been involved in wider ETF practitioner research projects such as OTLA, Professional Exchange or Practice Development Group activities. There are many examples of the outputs of the Practitioner Research programme on the Excellence Gateway, including some from the MA short course, which include a research report and poster:

A taste of research example: A Positive Psychology Intervention in FE to Improve growth mindset and well-being

A taste of research example: Just being me: Challenging stereotypical assumptions of the LGBT community in classroom

A taste of research example: Mastery in GCSE maths: should we teach fewer topics in greater depth.

Outstanding Teaching Learning and Assessment (OTLA)

OTLA projects have been run for a number of years, and have focused on a range of topics, e.g. technical skills, English, maths and digital. OTLA aims to improve the quality of teaching learning and assessment, and to support increased professionalism in the further education (FE) and training sector through collaboration and research.

A taste of research example: Outstanding teaching, learning and assessment technical skills National programme 2019.

A taste of research example:  OTLA, Digital Educators 2018.

A taste of research example: A summary of projects OTLA6 (English)2020.  

Centres for Excellence in maths (CfEM)

If you join a CfEM network, you will have the opportunity to work collaboratively with peers to systematically investigate an area of your maths practice by undertaking a small-scale action research project.  

A taste of research: Action research at Tameside College


Other opportunities to get involved in research

There are a growing number of research networks which would welcome you.

CARN (Collaborative Action Research Network)

CARN was founded in 1976 with the aim encouraging and supporting action research projects. It is now an international network that runs training and conferences. Membership starts at £22 per year, but there is a wealth of freely available material available to all on their website. CARN’s latest venture is CARN Praxis, which aims to give a collaborative and supportive space for newcomers to share their research. Twitter handle @CARN_Intl


edutopia along with Lucas Education Research is part of the George Lucas Educational Foundation. They collaborate with university partners, research firms and leading educators to produce accessible articles and videos.


The Learnus core mission is to share knowledge, research and experience in education, and the study of the brain and mind. They run lectures and webinars on a range of contemporary brain related research. Twitter handle @LearnusUK

The Learning and Skills Research network (LSRN)

The purpose of LSRN is to help people, in going about their professional practice, to engage with research and development. You can read their newsletters and get involved at a regional and national level through their convenors.

Society for Education and Training (SET)

Qualified Teacher Learning and Skills (QTLS) is the badge of professionalism for post-14 education and training (Year 10, Year 11 and above/adults), helping teachers and trainers to advance in their careers, and to demonstrate their expertise and experience to colleagues, employers and learners. The critical reflection required in Section 5 of the process expects an informed and reflective account of the professional activity undertaken. These activities are linked to the Professional Standards.

Advanced Teacher Status (ATS) offers a step up from QTLS to recognise advanced teachers and trainers with significant experience, who can demonstrate ‘mastery’ at a high level in three major competencies:

  1. Continuing self-improvement and development of pedagogical practice and subject specialism.
  2. Commitment to the development of others through coaching and mentoring activity with colleagues.
  3. Ability to influence internal and external stakeholders and effect change in curriculum, and improve organisational quality and development.

The process is a collaborative one, requiring the maintenance and updating of your subject knowledge alongside educational research.