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Practitioner Research


What is practitioner research?

Practitioner 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, e.g. Fichtman Dana (2016) 'The Relevancy and Importance of Practitioner Research in Contemporary Times'. For simplicity here, we will discuss practitioner research. Importantly this ‘research’ is informed by the wider body of knowledge, focussed on improving practice and open to peer-review (Campbell & McNamara, 2009).

Practitioner 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. 

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:

                                 Action plan: review, identify, imagine try, take stock, modify, monitor and review

‘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.’

To find out more about how practitioner-led action research works in practice, take a look at CCC's: 'Doing Action Research: A Guide for Post-16 Practitioners' (2021) explaining the different approaches used in their OTLA projects, things you need to consider, and useful templates to get you started.

What are the benefits for you and your learners?

As practitioner 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 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, e.g. Wall & Hall 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.’

Practitioner research and the ETF

Practitioners have taken many routes through the research opportunities on offer through the ETF and SET. 

Practitioner Research Programme

This programme offered participants time and space, as well as expert research training and support, from a renowned team of FE specialists. Courses led to an MPhil and beyond. The programme was particularly interested in supporting practitioners who were 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. Examples include:

Outstanding Teaching Learning and Assessment (OTLA)

OTLA projects ran for a number of years, and focused on a range of topics, e.g. technical skills, English, maths and digital. OTLA aimed 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. Examples include:

Current opportunities

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, for example:

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.

Other useful research links

BERA (British Educational Research Association) Blogs:

CARN (Collaborative Action Research Network) runs training and conferences.

CARN Praxis provides a collaborative and supportive space for newcomers to share their research. 

CEBE (Coalition for Evidence-Based Education) offers a publication Leading research engagement in education.

edutopia is a part of the George Lucas Educational Foundation that collaborates with research firms and leading educators to produce accessible articles and videos.

Learnus runs lectures and webinars on a range of contemporary brain related research. 

LSRN (The Learning and Skills Research Network) provides practitioners with help to engage with research and development.

NFER (National Federation of Educational Research) has 5 ‘How to’ guides that take you through the research journey from planning to writing up. 

NRDC (National Research and Development Centre for Adult Literacy and Numeracy) booklet: Maximising the impact of practitioner research: a handbook of practical advice.