Putting research into action

Broader outreach is needed to fulfil the potential of action research, says Andy Townsend.

Teacher helping student with tabletThere seems at present to be a resurgence of interest in the links between teaching and educational research. It is exemplified in a number of initiatives including the research and development role established for teaching schools in England; the promotion of teacher research by the General Teaching Council for Scotland; and the development of ResearchEd, the teacher-led educational research conference, which is now in its second year.

These initiatives, and others like them, are recent iterations of enduring attempts to link research and practice in education. There are many interpretations of how this link can be established. I would like to suggest that this may be achieved more successfully if things can be learnt from previous attempts.

Aspirations for action research

My own interest in understanding how research can influence practice is linked to the idea of action research (Townsend, 2013). This is a discipline which, as the name suggests, proposes that actions and research should be inexplicably linked, even intertwined. This approach is not without its critiques. There are suggestions that one cannot do the two simultaneously. But I believe that action research has much to offer to this recent iteration of the promotion of research-informed practice.

As action research is founded on the notion that actions and research should be intertwined, a feature of action research is that any research should be undertaken with the aim of changing or improving the current situation. This approach challenges the idea that knowledge about education should only be constructed through research conducted by outsiders, and instead has sought to demonstrate how people from different institutions can work together for the benefit of all (see, for example, McLaughlin, Black-Hawkins, Brindley, McIntyre, & Taber, 2006; Rauch, 2013). Action research is therefore a participatory discipline. It proposes that people who are to be subjected to change should have a say in how that change is decided upon and implemented. 

Building a culture for educational research

To my mind, the participatory imperative of action research should prompt us to see the recent interest in linking research and practice in a wider context, as much concerned with communicating a collective vision for education as it is with developing individual practices through practice-related research. Lawrence Stenhouse once defined research as being ‘systematic inquiry made public’ (1980) and it is the second feature of this, the ‘making public’ aspect, which I believe presents a particular challenge, and also an opportunity.

The difficulty, it seems, is not only to develop the kinds of research practices in education which can be useful to teachers, school leaders, academics, policy makers and others interested in education (itself quite some challenge), but also to provide the means by which the outcomes of research can be communicated to others so that they can learn from it. This requires collaboration so that groups of interested parties with differing experiences and perspectives can learn from each other. It also requires mechanisms which can extend beyond the particular practices which have been developed through research.

Alliances and networks can go some way towards achieving this sharing of knowledge (Hadfield & Chapman, 2009), and partnerships between universities and schools are similarly beneficial (see the University of Nottingham’s School-University Knowledge Transfer and Exchange Network). But even then, the sharing is limited to the members of the network or partnership in question. What is needed are mechanisms for recording and communicating the conduct and outcomes of practice-related research in such a way that it can be seen by others, and then replicated or tested in other contexts. Only once that challenge has been met will we really be able to realise the transformative potential for research in education to which many of us aspire.

Andy Townsend is Associate Professor in Educational Leadership in the School of Education, University of Nottingham.

  1. Hadfield, M., & Chapman, C. (2009). Leading School-Based Networks. Abingdon: Routledge.
  2. McLaughlin, C., Black-Hawkins, K., Brindley, S., McIntyre, D., & Taber, K. (2006). Researching Schools: Stories from a Schools–University Partnership for Educational Research. London: Routledge.
  3. Rauch, F. (2013). Regional networks in education: a case study of an Austrian project. Cambridge Journal of Education, 43(3), 313–324.
  4. Stenhouse, L. (1980). The study of samples and the study of cases. British Educational Research Journal, 6(1), 1–6.
  5. Townsend, A. (2013). Action research: the challenges of understanding and changing practice. Maidenhead: Open University Press.

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