Joanna Johnston discusses the implications of exploratory research in schools for teachers, managers and researchers.

In front of me sits a hologrammed parchment, bold proof of my new doctoral status. How did I come to undertake a research degree and why should my research be of interest to readers of this CPD update? I’ll try to explain. I’ll first describe how my research evolved, from questions rising directly from my practice, to the development of methods appropriate for exploratory research in school. I’ll present my findings, focusing on their significance for teachers, managers and researchers, and end with a challenge to all interested in keeping their professional wits alive.

Rooted in practice

Curiosity led me to take up research. In eight years teaching English to able seven- to 13-year-olds, I observed a small group of intelligent children who, unlike the majority of their ability matched peers, had great problems with social interaction in school. I found myself intrigued as to why this should be, and keen to tease out the factors which eased and exacerbated their difficulties. Of course, problems with social interaction cross the ability range, but it seemed that intelligent children capable of articulating their perceptions of experience might provide insights useful to all seeking to support social development.

What factors would a small-scale study of the perceptions of pupils with social intellectual dissynchrony, their parents and teachers reveal about the social environment of school? This question led me to wonder to what extent perceptions about the social world would be shared. I decided to make a case study, focusing closely on the experience of a small number of able children with social difficulties in The Forest, a co-educational school for three- to 13-year-olds, in a district rapidly becoming gentrified in a UK conurbation.

Exploratory research

Although my research was underpinned by issues from academic literature, my research was exploratory. Rather than seeking to verify a theory, I wanted to see what theory would emerge from data when pupils and teachers determined the issues which concerned them. Instead of relegating their issues to the position of ‘any other business’ following my preordained research agenda, I was keen to devise a research process which maximised their control (1).

 The research instruments were devised with the possibility that, used together to marry different perspectives, they might bring to the surface concerns which might otherwise be factored out as minority issues, or slip away unnoticed at the busy interstices of a school day. Pupils had to construct a multiple-choice, magazine-style quiz entitled ‘The Best Days of Your Life – Life Outside the Classroom.’ Teachers were asked to comment and advise on a series of vignettes about the imaginary Stevna. Both tasks required generation of suggestions, following reflection on experience.

My second research question arose from my decision to test a research methodology. Could distance data gathering methods be used for qualitative research? Why should I want to obtain unquantifiable, personal perceptions about social relations using postal methods?

There were two reasons. Firstly, I wanted to step out of the process as much as possible to avoid influencing the data. The second reason followed from a hypothesis. I felt it likely that engaging pupils in a process which required them to reflect on their social knowledge and experiences, and formulate and articulate their values for a non-judgmental, distanced third-party might help the transfer of abstract skills knowledge to practical social interaction. While I had no intention of testing the hypothesis within my thesis, the possibility of using research as a tool for stimulating personal development became an important theme.

Turning individuals’ problem-solving attention on themselves to stimulating transformative learning is what providers of CPD seek to do. According to 1990s transformational learning theory, to become capable of change, individuals must become capable of perceiving themselves and their  contexts from different perspectives.

Contextualising school research

As a teacher entering the university world, I inevitably came to consider my place within my new context and to notice the complicated status of school research. I found academics with quite different stances. I decided I needed to examine closely the nature and role of research more closely if I was to develop meaningful research in school.

Academic journals revealed heated debate over what education research should be, why it should be done and who should be carrying it out. If teachers discussed research at all, it was to express impatience with its frequent failure to mesh with practical matters.

My reading revealed that tension between theoreticians and practitioners spans disciplines. Theoreticians are interested in building generalisable knowledge, while practitioners are interested in research which incorporates the particular characteristics of specific contexts in ways that allow them to draw parallels with their own situations.

To ground my research, I visited Swanlington, a large, co-educational, north of England senior school with a culture supportive of teacher research, interviewing three teachers and two academics involved with practitioner research there to seek pointers for school research design.


I found the social environment of the school complicated by the interplay between external and internal factors: specific contextual influences; levels of structure and support; regulation, extent of responsibility, effort/motivation and engagement with activities; groupings; quality of relationships and communication; consonance of perceptions; maturity; empathy, awareness, reflectiveness and expectations. My research showed that teachers’ and pupils’ perceptions of social problems are not always the same and teachers do not always agree amongst themselves. A whole-school proactive approach was recommended.

I found that active, engaging instruments can elicit qualitative data across distance. The pupil task successfully engaged interest, sustained motivation and stimulated reflective responses, opening the way for exploring the transformative potential of research in school.
It should be remembered that the study focused on a small number of pupils from one school. Moving towards theory, it focused on the particular, making no sweeping claims from the research. As exploratory research it directed attention to matters easily overlooked.

Implications for teachers

Enabling pupils to formulate and articulate their experience offers adults access to unique perceptions, particularly where pupils have special needs. Along with an overview of the research, the following questions were sent to Forest teachers, inviting reflection upon their own attitudes and assumptions and, indirectly, their role as teachers.

  • Pupils are urged to strive for academic excellence. Are they similarly challenged to attain mastery of social skills?
  • Do able pupils with poor peer relations lack self control or social skills? Are articulate able pupils assumed to be skilled leaders?
  • Do pupils demonstrate self-sustained independence or are they isolated by limited social competence?
  • Are pupils’ problems viewed as internal and fixed – a part of being gifted – or external and changeable – directly linked to environmental influences?
  • Is pupils’ behaviour the cause or symptom of problems?
  • Are pupils managed until they ‘grow out of problems’ or supported to develop strategies?

While children need space to try things for themselves, those with weak social skills could benefit from help. The teacher is best placed to observe pupils’ interactions, form links with home, model and explicitly teach children how to interact, ensuring opportunity for scaffolded practice and individualised support towards mastery.

Opportunity to engage in research offers teachers widening of their approaches, learning more about specific issues. Literature provides ideas. Research methodology offers teachers a battery of resources for learning about practice, allowing a bank of situated, context-relevant knowledge to be created. Not everyone has time or interest to undertake research, but it can offer a stimulating form of CPD for those who do. Involving pupils offers an added opportunity for building a school-wide culture of enquiry. However, teachers and pupils are busy. If new approaches are to be tried, they need support from the top.

Implications for school managers

School ethos determines the effectiveness of interventions. Enthusiastic individuals may stimulate piecemeal changes, but without support from those capable of making structural changes, they are unlikely to be sustained. If research-informed policy is to impact on pupils, fears of work intensification must be exorcised by management’s genuine recognition of the value of time spent, for example, on pastoral matters.

Pupils benefit when school values are clearly expressed, but my research showed that, even in The Forest, a school with a strong ethos and a staff sharing similar values, approaches differ. Opportunity to reflect and articulate values, compare attitudes and perceptions, as proposed in this study, seems likely to form a valuable exercise for CPD.

Managers would do well to consider the place research actually holds in their school. Are research reports debated amongst staff or do they wing towards management filing cabinets? And do teachers undertake research? Is practitioner research permitted as a necessary part of attaining accreditation for promotional reasons, or encouraged for its potential to benefit the school?

The Swanlington interviews emphasised the fundamental challenge for the practitioner researcher: data collection must occur in the context of working classrooms with all the diversions and unexpected occurrences of school life. Teachers do not have time for extensive networking, writing up or dissemination activities and they need support.

Implications for researchers

Practitioner researchers can examine situation-specific experience in micro-studies that academic researchers are rarely free to do. However, if practitioner research is to fulfill its potential, the following questions require attention.

  • What standards should be used to evaluate practitioner research? How might qualitative data be rigorously but meaningfully synthesised?
  • How can researchers probe patterns of causality in ways that take account of the uniqueness of school contexts, the moral and normative dimensions of education and the slow pace of worthwhile change?

I concluded that, if school research is to serve theoreticians and practitioners, it should appeal to professional curiosity; recognise and build on school knowledge; link theory, both quantitative and qualitative, with practice; be pragmatic and context sensitive; clearly written; intrinsically motivating and detailed enough to be relatable to particular situations but also maximise objectivity, being rigorously systematic and clearly focused. 

The possibilities inherent in using research methods to stimulate change also deserve consideration: to what extent can a research instrument stimulate transformation and what elements are fundamental to such a process?

Challenge to research

Funding for practitioner research sprang from the increasingly questioned belief that evidence-based practice would raise pupil achievement. However, instead of being challenged to reaffirm collective professionalism by researching their own contexts, as Harris points out in a number of journal articles, hard-pressed schools, disadvantaged by rapid staff turnover, poor facilities, limited resources and socio-economic problems, are stigmatised by accountability measures. If the appearance of the next education policy trend leads to axing of funding for school research initiatives, unsupported networks may well dissolve. Academics are increasingly reluctant to undertake poorly funded, low-status work supporting practitioner research. Without external impetus, schools risk losing the collaborative space for top-down/bottom-up reform.

Happily, however, one Swanlington academic has suggested there is  a growing independence amongst practitioner researchers. As their confidence grows, teachers are adopting research methods as professional tools, creating knowledge to expand practice for themselves.

Funders, policy makers and seem unlikely to abandon focus on results, establish new high-status seats for school research, or include Athens e-journal passwords with teaching certificates, but why should teachers abandon a tool for professional development? There will always be an external agenda to pursue, but nothing is to stop the independent teacher setting another, internal agenda. Teachers can band together to test things for themselves, rather than waiting passively for the next initiative. In the face of government agencies’ takeover of curriculum development tasks, research keeps professionalism alive. If you haven’t tried it, I’d recommend you do!

1. I discuss relevant issues in ‘Pupil Voice and Research: A Narrative Review’ (available at