How can participating in collaborative professional enquiry foster pupil learning and professional learning in teachers? Alison Fox from the University of Stirling and chartered teacher Jan Brophy describe how

In 2002, the Standard for Chartered Teacher was published in Scotland. This represented an opportunity for teachers to demonstrate their expertise outside of the formal promotion structure, with all those who were at the top of the main grade, invited to move towards chartered status by undertaking an accredited programme, mostly within universities. The standard is a wide-ranging document, which offers interesting reading to teachers over the border and beyond, as it positions experienced teachers as enhanced practitioners with a level of professional autonomy that seems like a distant memory to those of us of a certain age, and may even be new to younger colleagues.

One major strand of particular interest is that chartered teachers are expected to improve their professional performance by ‘engaging in professional enquiry and action research, and applying findings’ (SG, 2002, p10). These two activities are not explained or differentiated within the standard and in this article I explain my own interpretation of professional enquiry as a type of action research, which contributes to and goes beyond knowledge creation, and begins to address the issue of teacher agency.

The inclusion of professional enquiry within the repertoire of every teacher is an emancipatory activity, which contributes to their professional learning about areas of pedagogical interest, and which can contribute to improvements in learning and teaching at school level. This is illustrated by the case study below, of a teacher who facilitated a collaborative professional enquiry within an urban secondary school in central Scotland. She explains the positive contribution that professional enquiry made to the learning of the pupils in the school, the teaching and professional practice of the teachers involved, and her own professional identity.

Case study: Using the templates at Liskeard School and Community College

Our enquiry was based on researching the impact that the introduction of cooperative learning had on the attainment of pupils and on their social skills. To raise achievement for all is only one aim of cooperative learning, it also aspires to prepare pupils to make a positive contribution to their workplace by being able to function as part of a team. In addition, it allowed us, as teachers, to ensure that we were taking a wider view when looking at ways of improving learning and teaching. The analysis of the evidence collected demonstrated that pupils’ attainment had improved across all abilities and that pupils were more confident with their social skills, as was observed in the classroom.

Cowie and Ruddock (1990) suggest that current policy and practice leads to a stranglehold on the curriculum. Our enquiry into cooperative learning has permitted us to release this hold a little as it allowed us to build a framework in which to be creative within the curriculum, while exploring the potential of teacher-led research in our own school. Not only were we instrumental in initiating change, but this change has had a positive impact on the attainment of pupils, improving school standards and increasing pupils’ enjoyment of school and learning. The staff involved also increased in confidence.

Since becoming a chartered teacher, part of my new professional role in the school is that I provide inhouse continuing professional development to motivate staff to adopt cooperative learning. After one session, a faculty head noted that I did not try to sell them the idea, as is often the case. Instead, I used the work of the collaborative group to show what we had achieved and to stimulate educational debate. I was approaching these matters from the level of a practitioner and this bottom-up dissemination of what we had done let others see that they too could influence teaching and learning positively and creatively.

Through this professional enquiry, I feel that I have become a leader of teachers and an innovator of teaching and learning techniques. However, this is not the conventional type of leadership but one where I lead students and teachers, help the school meet its aims and plans, and am influential in school working groups and even at local authority level.

The process has also led to a changing role for the school planning group. I was appointed to the group as a practitioner-observer but now find myself contributing in a way that has led to me being given responsibility to write specific parts of the plans and lead discussions – unusual for an unpromoted member of staff in my setting. This change of ‘status’ has not come without disturbance. It has required the acceptance of dispersed leadership by those who have traditionally held the authority.

The work of the school planning group has had wider implications. Having led the introduction of cooperative learning in the school, the group continues to take this forward, taking on a leadership function previously undertaken by senior managers. This supports the view of some involved in educational research, who believe that the way forward for schools is to select the right people to lead change and to recognise that this may not always be a senior manager. In our case, the skills of staff with different levels of experience were utilised, allowing them to gain the confidence to lead learning beyond their classroom walls.

The collaborative process was crucial. Cowie and Ruddock (1990) suggest that, without the support of others, it is difficult for teachers to initiate and continue with innovation in teaching. Without the support of the other members of the team, we would not have achieved as much as we did. Their input and support took the enquiry beyond my original plans and the work involved was much more manageable and effective with a supportive team.

While I did have the support of our management team, I had to negotiate this at times. Some of the managers felt threatened by the move from a more traditional view of leadership roles – where teachers follow and managers lead – to a more dispersed approach. The collaborative group has gained a high level of credibility in the eyes of the staff, and this may be disturbing for managers, which is something to be sensitive about when undertaking teacher-led enquiry. Being involved in this enquiry has made me more aware of school politics and how to negotiate this. I also found that those managers who had previously been involved in school-based research did not feel as threatened by our activities as others, and they continue to offer the support and encouragement needed for us to keep enquiring.

Knowledge, understanding and skills
Teachers with an enhanced and proven ability to contribute to the improvement agenda through enquiry, and to influence colleagues positively in doing so, have a great deal to offer to the school system, if only they are allowed and encouraged to do so.

By leading a collaborative professional enquiry, I consider that my knowledge and understanding of learning and teaching has been enhanced. The opportunity to lead others and share my enthusiasm for change and innovation has developed skills that I did not have even when I was a principal teacher, where there was not the same freedom and time for creativity in approach. These skills can now be shared with others and developed through being used effectively as a chartered teacher.

Professional enquiry as a form of action research
Enacting professional enquiry/action research is not simple and straightforward, particularly when done in collaboration with others. Zuber-Skerritt’s (1996) book is helpful here as she examines action research from a critical theory perspective, focusing on issues of power and participation. She categorises action research in three ways – technical, practical and emancipatory – with each one demanding particular types of involvement from the participants. Where technical action research is undertaken, an outside ‘expert’ is involved who coopts the practitioners to evaluate particular areas of educational practice. Such action research is typical of work undertaken in partnership between universities and schools, where the university researcher involves practitioners in one or more setting.  Underlying this model is a claim that such action contributes to the professional development of those involved.

Practical action research involves a facilitator who takes on a ‘Socratic role’ and who encourages participation and self-reflection by the practitioners. The aim of the work is also to evaluate the effectiveness of particular areas of educational practice. Practical action research could be said to be characteristic of the type undertaken by teachers who are working towards an accredited qualification and where the facilitator is a university tutor.

However, the nature of the involvement of staff engaged in emancipatory action research is markedly different. Action research is considered by Zuber-Skerritt to be emancipatory when it aims not only at ‘technical and practical improvement and the participants’ better understanding,’ but also when it changes the system itself or those conditions that impede desired improvement in the system or organisation. Emancipatory action research also aims to improve the participants’ empowerment and self-confidence through their ability to solve complex problems in totally new situations, collaboratively as a team or as a ‘community of scholars’.

The Standard for Chartered Teacher, which contributed directly to the interpretation of collaborative professional enquiry outlined in this article, does not include bold statements regarding emancipation and empowerment. The use of the word ‘emancipatory’ foregrounds the main purpose of the exercise – that this form of action research intends to initiate change within the organisation and to free practitioners from constraining management structures that affect the organisation as a whole. It is this form of action research that I refer to as professional enquiry, particularly when it is undertaken freely and collaboratively within a school, by colleagues interested or concerned about an area of their own practice.

Professional enquiry is initiated by teachers themselves. All teachers who become involved do so by choice and it is expected that such professional action is supported by school managers, both in terms of emotional support and more pragmatic resources. Chartered teachers are also charged with ‘articulating a personal, independent and critical stance in relation to contrasting perspectives on educational issues, policies and developments’ (SG, 2002) and they have a responsibility to ‘contribute to enhancing the quality of the educational experience provided by the school’  (SG, 2002). It would appear that teachers have a right and a duty to initiate collaborative professional enquiry and so, towards the end of the chartered teacher programme at the University of Stirling, teachers are asked to lead an enquiry and document its progress and outcomes. They are expected to work with colleagues in a democratic way, contributing to the bank of professional knowledge about the area of their enquiry, while also developing the professional capacity of all involved.

Collaborative professional enquiry requires teachers to display independence of thought as initiators and innovators. However, when considering the developing identity of chartered teachers, Reeves (2007) noted that ‘many managers were inclined to regard a display of activism on the part of a class teacher as surprising, and in some cases, highly inappropriate.’ This issue is alluded to in the case study above. While it seems that democratic relationships within schools support enquiring behaviour from teachers, some of the literature suggests that such relationships are aspirational within our traditional hierarchical school system. The idea of a discourse free from power and domination may be aspirational but the case study suggests that, where these issues are articulated, and time is taken to genuinely confront them, powerful professional learning can take place at all levels.

Professional enquiry as professional learning
The Standard for Chartered Teacher assumes a causal link between the engagement in professional enquiry and action research, and improvement in professional performance. While continuing professional development  is enacted within the chartered teacher programme to effect progress in pupils’ learning and development, it is also designed to contribute to the continuing professional learning of those who are involved. In addition, it is expected to contribute to the building of a school’s capacity to do its job – to improve the learning and development of the pupils beyond the individual classroom of the aspiring chartered teacher. 

The case study on page 6 illustrates the impact of a collaborative professional enquiry on the facilitator, her colleagues and their pupils. It illustrates how this type of professional action can go beyond the accumulation of knowledge and skills but it also highlights the ways in which such action can disturb the power dynamics in a school.

Professional enquiry as an effective professional action
Collaborative professional enquiry contributes to the building of capacity in schools in which it is enacted by making effective use of the expertise and motivation of teachers to enquire into their own professional practice for the benefit of their pupils.

The case study shows how the teacher involved noted constructive changes that occurred in relationships in school between herself and her managers and also between the members of the group and their colleagues. She also noted that the collaborative professional enquiry empowered the group members to question issues  that were related to policy and to the curriculum in an informed and confident way.

The work that these people have done has had an effect in their school, and that work continues
make a contribution towards the school’s improvement agenda.

References

  • Cowie, H and Ruddock, J (1990) Cooperative Learning: Traditions and Transitions, BP Educational Service
  • Reeves, J (2007) ‘Inventing the Chartered Teacher’, British Journal of Educational Studies, vol55, no1, pp56–76
  • Scottish Government (2002) Standard for Chartered Teacher
  • Zuber-Skerritt, O (1996) ‘Emancipatory Action Research for Organisational Change and Management Development’, in O Zuber-Skerritt (1996) (Ed) New Directions in Action Research, Falmer Press
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