When teachers and students work together, they can learn a lot about learning. In a ‘Learning Together’ project at seven schools, students and teachers researched the link between pupil behaviour and learning

The ‘Learning Together’ project
This article describes an approach to teacher-led collaborative research that can be used to develop capacity in schools; help schools to find out what works; help teachers to work together; find ways to lever change in a department; make better use of the resources available in schools; effectively involve pupils and others in development; and take forward a particular agenda such as inclusion (O’Hanlon, 2003).

Teachers know how much difference they make to young people. They see it reflected in the efforts and energy that go into the school inspection system, and in the noise that the media make when some teachers withdraw their labour for a day. They detect it in the systems that operate to train teachers, and in the selection, appraisal and promotion systems that aim to reward good practice. They hear it in the talk that goes on in schools about assessment for learning, VAK, learning outcomes, lesson structures, curriculum review, and about the countless initiatives that descend on schools in the form of educational challenges, targets and improvement partnerships.

Most of all, though, teachers experience their own impact in their lessons. They know how it feels when a class is engaged and focused, or when a pupil lacking in confidence gets praised for a good effort. They know that, in the end, nearly all attempts to improve schooling come down to the way pupils relate to their teachers and vice versa, and whether the relationship is one through which learning takes place. They know they need understanding and answers to questions such as: what makes a pupil choose to try, to engage, to take seriously – or to give up and look for a diversion?

Collaborative action research
But knowing that one makes a difference and having ownership of one’s professional development are two different things. In the research that we discuss here, we invited groups of teachers to take joint ownership of the issues that faced them when they considered the engagement of pupils in their lessons. We gave them support in using action research as a process with which to identify and pursue strategies to improve pupil engagement. Most professionals, including teachers, have relatively little experience of using research as a method of developing their practice. But those who have used it often find that it is a valuable addition to the range of approaches that they have available to them (Armstrong and Moore, 2004). It is an approach best placed in the hands of teachers themselves; it can fit with realistic expectations of busy teachers, and it can be carried out (for example) in one department of a secondary school.

We give great emphasis to the need for ownership and collaboration by a group of teachers. Collaborative research should start from and builds on teachers’ concerns, rather than being driven by national agendas, or even by management concerns in the school, so that they themselves are more likely to become engaged in their own learning about the young people they teach (Howes and Davies, 2007) and to address more fundamental aspects of their practice. The value of ownership has implications for the way projects are supervised, and particularly for the way projects get started.

In this article, we draw lessons from our research about the conditions under which collaborative action research can draw more teachers into the exciting challenge of engaging all their pupils in learning. Besides ownership and collaboration, we identify one further principle for effective development using this approach: the need for teachers’ attention and reflection to the effects of their developing practice on pupils’ learning and participation. We found that all three of these principles (collaboration, ownership, attention and reflection) gained valuable and necessary support from an understanding facilitator.

The research project
Our research project involved secondary schools and universities in Wales and England, and was part of the ESRC’s Teaching and Learning Research Programme (for further details of the TLRP see page 8). Prosiect Dysgu Cydradd was about facilitating teacher engagement in more inclusive practice. The Welsh word ‘Dysgu’ means both ‘teaching’ and ‘learning’, while ‘cydradd’ means ‘equal’ – the stem ‘cyd’ means ‘together’. So the project title embodied an inclusive aspiration to learn and teach on equal terms, with and from each other. We took inclusion to be about ‘reducing the barriers to participation and learning’ (Booth, Ainscow et al, 2000). It involves those who work in education posing questions about the engagement of young people in their learning and then taking appropriate action in terms of the organisation of schools, subjects and lessons. It involves the ways a school adapts to and works with the diversity of the student population: finding out about and working with what young people bring with them to school, and taking account of what young people value in terms of education, rather than seeking only to engage more young people in existing school practice.

Conceived in this way, inclusion is not a quick fix, but requires ongoing dialogue between teachers and learners. It requires teachers’ active engagement, because inclusion and exclusion are processes that happen minute by minute and lesson by lesson (Benjamin, Nind et al, 2003). What action research provides is a workable strategy for achieving that sort of ongoing and developmental engagement by teachers.

The seven schools involved in the research (five Welsh, two English) were all state comprehensives, none of them with a large number of pupils at risk of exclusion, but nevertheless representing a wide range in terms of improvement and average attainment. In each school, a group of teachers was identified to work on the project. The group size and composition varied but often the teachers were from one department. In each case, the school’s educational psychologist (EP) took on the role of facilitator of the project, helping the group to establish a focus, and then to maintain and develop direction and purpose in their project. This turned out to be a complex task, and one for which substantial preparation and guidance was required. The box below gives a brief description of the five-stage process that focuses attention on the main areas of challenge faced by groups and their facilitators in practice.

 The five stages of ‘Learning Together’

1. Facilitating the process
As a facilitator, the first stage is to consider and reflect on what it means to facilitate this process. What decisions are yours to take? What should you do if nothing gets started? How do you guide without dominating?

2. Preparing the ground
The second stage is vital, but easily overlooked. A lot can be done in the setting up of a project to influence how successful and important it turns out to be. This involves everything from deciding on the group, to building up the commitment of senior staff to the project, to arrangements for practical support.

3. Shaping a project (deciding what to do)
This crucial stage involves the identified group in talking through and deciding on a focus, a timeline, sources of data, ways of working collaboratively. A range of tried-and-tested techniques is introduced.

4. Keeping it going
Schools are busy places, and often teachers have to react to particular events, so it is very difficult to maintain a constant level of input to this process all the time. However, it is possible to prevent a project from becoming engulfed and submerged by other agendas, and to promote its continuing visibility.  

5. Closure, sustainability and wider impact
The end of one project may be the start of the next one, involving a different group of teachers. Nevertheless, it is important to mark the ending, to celebrate and share what has been achieved, and to consider how to build into regular practice the main lessons that have been learned.

The process described is not meant to be complex. Teachers focus on an issue together, take some agreed action, and use data to adjust their practice to make it more inclusive. Nevertheless, confidence and practical know-how are vital for a facilitator of collaborative research with groups of teachers in schools. The process described here is designed to equip facilitators with a working knowledge of the processes involved. We are currently creating materials to help anyone facilitating such a process to guide a group through this process, by noting possible pitfalls, inviting reflection, and suggesting ways to sustain the changes made (for details see Facilitating teacher engagement in more inclusive practice).

Case study: Red Hill High School
Red Hill High School is a mixed comprehensive in an urban conurbation with a history of involvement in projects relating to inclusion. The process of identifying the staff to be involved in this action research project was worthy of note. In the first phase, departments were invited to bid into the project and the history department were selected. The history teachers focused their project on a group of Year 8 disaffected girls whose behaviour was of increasing concern to them. As they proceeded with the project, they focused increasingly on understanding the girls’ feelings and perceptions and developing tailored strategies to increase their participation. The facilitator of the project (the school’s EP) was increasingly motivated by the project, discovering that he could offer a valued contribution by promoting reflective conversations among the group of teachers, and probing their implicit assumptions in an unthreatening but thought-provoking way.

When this first project finished, an invitation to bid to participate in the second phase was announced, and a further three departments expressed interest. Some informal networking had gone on among the staff, so the when the maths department was selected, the head of maths had learned enough from the history department to be sure that the project would be useful for them. In the following section, two maths teachers give an account of their participation in the project.

Collaborative maths at Red Hill

When we were successful in our bid to the senior management to be involved in this project, we decided to limit initial involvement to the two more experienced teachers in the department – one a teacher for 12 years, the other a teacher for seven years who is also head of department. For both of us, this became a significant opportunity for professional development. After several years working in the same school, it was good to have the chance to extend ourselves, stand back a bit and focus in a different way on the basics of what it is to teach maths well. The work we did with University of Manchester is the sort of thing we do anyway, but it was good to be encouraged to focus more time on it and to see it as development work that could benefit us as teachers, the department, and the school as a whole.

We decided early on to target our intervention on the boys in our two Year 9 classes who were on the borderline of achieving a good grade at GCSE. From the start, we discussed the importance of emotions in the maths classroom. We suspected that these boys in particular had quite negative emotions about maths, and about themselves doing maths. In order to test this, we devised a short questionnaire in which the pupils were invited simply to circle a range of emotions and feelings that applied to them. They could choose from words such as bored, happy, excited, thoughtful, sad, friendly, angry, confused, enthusiastic, pleased and doubtful.

At this stage, and actually throughout the project, we decided against identifying any of the target pupils; we wanted to develop ways of teaching maths that would help all students, as well as making a difference to our target group, without imposing any labels on them. So we had our list, but we gave the questionnaire to all the pupils in our two classes. This was helpful too because we could see whether the target group answered differently from the others – they did, and they were more negative, but it wasn’t a big difference. One of the other questions we asked pupils was to rate their enjoyment of teacher-led lessons, group activities and pair work. We found that they felt most negative towards teacher-led activities.

As a result, we set out to change the way that we were working with pupils from the start of the project, to involve more group and pair work. What we did was to take the curriculum apart, asking ourselves how we would normally teach this, and how could we could teach it differently, in line with what they wanted more of. So for example with graphs, we made things big, more kinaesthetic. We created A3 laminated graphs, so that they could write on them, and they could wipe off. Between us we tackled algebra, shape and space, and graphs in this way. The development of resources was significant; we’ve now made resource-sharing a focus for development in the whole department.

The role of the facilitator was partly about keeping things on track – it helped to know that he was coming in and would want to hear about what we had done – but it was not just managerial. The facilitator was certainly important in getting the project started and in sustaining interest – but he did more than that. Being systematic and having a clear focus helped us a lot. Our discussions with Matt were very different from our discussions with each other. On our own, we were very task focused, and we talked about what sorts of lessons we wanted to develop, and we got on and did that, sharing our ideas and helping each other. But with Matt, his questions and enquiries led us down a different, more emotional, line. Asking why, when we thought something. Digging deeper. Although we could have carried on on our own, the discussions with him were very helpful. We wouldn’t often get the opportunity to speak to the EP in this way.

The way we see it is, you can’t get away from the fact that we are institutionalised. We work with people within this institution all the time. We may go on a one-day course or a two-day residential, but that’s as far as it gets as an outside influence. So it was great having the EP working with us. He was genuinely interested in what we were doing; he would ask probing questions; he would write down what we thought; he would look for reasons why we thought that. An example of that is given in the box below.

Conversation with the educational psychologist

Martin: I have one who just literally has absolutely no confidence – ‘I can’t do stuff’. That’s it. Generally ‘I cannot do it’. Like Ruth’s just had them now but it’s getting him to convince himself that’s all he can do.
EP: What sorts of things are you saying that he can’t do?
Martin: He doesn’t see that he is actually getting somewhere… expanding brackets today, he was fine, but there was still this ‘I can’t do it’.

That sort of discussion was really nice, and we would not usually get the opportunity for that. We talked about how the project makes us think about what we are doing more, and so how it improves our teaching. The project has focused us on the issues of what makes kids learn. It’s the reflective practitioner idea… in a time when it is so easy to stay in delivery mode, delivering the curriculum to the pupils. This is something that we might have done anyway, of course, but most of us don’t. Set up as a project and with a facilitator, it becomes urgent enough to focus on. Working to a deadline, and having someone ask the right questions at the right time, it refocuses you and brings it to the front of the mind. I think one of the most surprising outcomes of the project was how much enjoyment we ourselves got from doing it. It was really good having time to work together and to think in detail about our teaching, which we would not otherwise have done.

How did we know we were making a difference? We did several things. We gave a slightly different form of the original questionnaire to the pupils, asking them if they could say in their own mind what had changed in their maths lesson and whether it had helped them. The bottom question was the same as we’d asked them in the original questionnaire, about the kind of activity they preferred, to see whether they were more independent, and more confident. And the responses were quite positive, suggesting that we had made a difference to the pupils’ feelings about maths. We asked them whether they felt prepared for the exam, and they were positive, very positive. The point that we’re at now, is asking them: has it been useful, has it impacted on you, are you happy in maths? At the beginning of next year, we’ll do the feelings questionnaire again, and see if those results have changed.

The other thing we did was ask another colleague to interview a sample of the pupils about their maths lessons. An extract from the results of that interview is given in the box below.

Interviewing pupils about maths lessons

Interviewer: Has anything changed in your maths lessons this year?
Alan: The syllabus
Brian: We do more practical lessons… we work in groups, make things.
Chris: When we did probability, we did dice rolling. Then we had symbols on the board, and had to guess which one.
Interviewer: So you’ve done lots of games like that?
Alan: Every couple of weeks.
Interviewer: Is that the best bit?
Brian: Practicals are a bit more fun, if you can use that word
Interviewer: Do you like maths?
Brian: No (smiling)
Interviewer: But that’s quite fun when you do that sort of thing?
Brian: Yeah. It feels easier.

Interviewer: Can you give you me five more activities that you’ve done?

Brian: For gradient, we built a ramp along the wall of the classroom
Chris: Calculating volume, we built a box for Coke.
Interviewer: OK tell me about the ramp first.
Brian: Well we glued paper together, say it went along four, then up two, then we worked out the gradient, and rolled things down it to see how fast it would go.

Chris: For the Coke we had to calculate the shape of a box and then make it so that it would just hold a whole can of Coke.

Interviewer: Didn’t it all come out of the gaps?
Chris: No, we sealed it all with Sellotape. It worked. We got a prize.

Interviewer: Can you remember those lessons in detail?

Chris: When you use your hands, you remember it; when you use your brain, you forget it. It’s about meeting different learning standards.

This sort of data from pupils was very revealing for us, and very much confirmed the value of the process we’d gone through. It’s about doing something you enjoy yourself. For example, we took one of Martin’s activities on graphs to the LEA heads of maths meeting, and they got very excited about it, and it mushroomed into lots of different applications. It’s really helped us to be working together, keeping us motivated – working in isolation, things don’t move so fast. And that’s exactly what the pupils were saying to us at the beginning of the year. Collaboration turns out to be important to pupils and to teachers. This is a way of working that we would really like to carry on.

Reflections on the case study

For these teachers, action research was a sustained attempt by teachers to adjust their practice according to evidence of the impact on learners. It appears to be particularly useful with regard to the pupils that teachers know least about, often the relatively disengaged ones on the margins. These maths teachers were surprised at what they learned about those pupils – by how they lacked confidence, for example. The facilitator’s perspective on the project at Red Hill highlights how it depended on and contributed to a school culture of participation and engagement, instead of blame:

‘Action research is more likely in Red Hill, than for example in another school that I’m working in, where there is a lot more blaming and writing off of pupils, even though the intake is very comparable. Everything feels harder work in that school. The teachers don’t even look after themselves, or their colleagues, or the students… or visitors. There’s no chance of getting a cup of coffee there. That seems trivial, but it’s a reflection of the ethos… So it’s also about being a mentally healthy place to work, and to learn. You are more motivated as a teacher, if you can see that you are doing something worthwhile.’

Comparing this project with the other 12, considerable differences become evident, which we address here under three themes.

Developing ownership
A vital stage in all projects was the negotiation of an issue that was relevant and meaningful to the staff involved. An important tool for this proved to be a teacher focus group, used to explore practitioners’ theories of change (Connell, 1998). The facilitator invited the group to consider a group of pupils that they felt were disengaged in lessons; reflect on the nature of their concerns about those pupils, and then identify a range of strategies that might influence that situation. This focus group discussion provided a starting point from which the group and facilitator could decide on actions and ways of evaluating their effect. Finding a socially meaningful shared focus was not always straightforward, but it made a huge difference to a project. Some teachers expressed their own need to be included in the school.

The size of the group
Red Hill involves just two teachers, one of the smallest groups. The largest involved eight teachers, and the average group size was four. In larger groups, participants tended to have more diverse ways of framing the project, in the light of their personal history, skills, experience and career trajectory. This made the project more complex but potentially more developmental.

The role of management
The facilitative support of managers in the school proved to be a crucial factor. Facilitative managers protected staff time for free periods, listened and celebrated ongoing developments, and promoted the project by linking it to systems such as staff appraisal, for example. Such a managerial mode was challenging in some hierarchical schools, with the result that either a project received insufficient support and became unsustainable, or there was an opportunity for rethinking as to priorities. One teacher reported that ‘our headteacher has noticed the value that has been in it for us… and that not quite knowing where it is going, or what will come out of it, is a good, valid experience in itself. She has become aware that the process is very important, that it is quite complex, but if you allow it, if you trust in it, then you will actually see a difference… that will be longer lasting than some “quick-fix Inset”.’

The challenge of assessing impact
We cautioned against assuming the positive effects of changes to teaching and learning processes, and the need to reflect and test those assumptions. Teaching and learning is of course a very complex process, and pupils’ attitudes to a lesson are influenced by a range of factors, some of them personal to them as individuals, others relating to the processes and culture of the lesson, and still others related to the peer group that they are part of. We valued teachers’ own understandings of how developments changed the dynamics and feeling of the classroom, but we encouraged them to generate appropriate data in addition to this.

Looking across project schools, we can compare teachers’ methods of identifying the effect of changes made: for example, ‘dartboard’ assessments by pupils provided a quick, visual check on a class’s perceptions of learning; a pupil comment box provided an opportunity for individual, private, anonymous feedback; participation by pupils in a ‘subject council’ provided more sustained and representative reflection. In addition, we trialled a questionnaire (available online) called ‘What I think about school’, which aimed to find out what pupils ‘thought about their lessons’. This had two purposes. One was to provide feedback to teachers directly that they could use to inform further developments. The other was to provide a measure across the different schools in the project of how pupils’ attitudes changed as a result of changes that their teachers made. This aim was achieved by asking pupils to complete the questionnaire again after the teacher projects were completed. Findings indicated that teachers’ strong engagement in some schools, including the case study reported here, had a positive effect on the average pupil perception of those lessons, in relation to differentiation and inclusion.

Pupil focus groups revealed the clarity of their views about inclusion. They wanted opportunities for active involvement; to understand the work; to have and make choices; they wanted teachers who cared about their views, and a mutually respectful and warm relationship with those teachers. This research suggests that facilitated, collaborative action research is a powerful and practical means for teachers to take account of this pupil agenda.

The Teaching and Learning Programme

TLRP is the UK Economic and Social Research Council’s largest research programme and provides coordination for 700 researchers across about 70 projects throughout the UK. The first projects began work in 2000 and the last project is presently expected to end in 2011. The total budget in the summer of 2007 was some £43m and drew contributions from a wide range of UK government bodies.

TLRP’s overarching strategy has been to support research that is of both high quality in social scientific terms and of high relevance in terms of policy and practice. It aims to contribute new knowledge for the improvement of learning – but it also aspires to improve the quality of the educational research which will be available in the future.

The projects that have been funded by the programme have covered a variety of learning phases (primary, secondary, further and post-16, professional development etc) and a variety of topics. These are all listed on the TLRP web site and include outlines of the research methodology and the findings of all those projects that have been completed.

  • Project examples (some of which have appeared as articles in Learning and Teaching Update) include:
  • InterActive education: teaching and learning in the information age.
  • Consulting pupils about teaching and learning.
  • Improving the effectiveness of pupil groups in classrooms.
  • Lessons for learning: using research study lessons to innovate and transfer metapedagogy.

One of the early aims of the TLRP was to discover if any overarching themes and messages emerged when looking across all the projects. The first ‘tentative conclusions’ were discussed in issue 6 by Mary James, deputy director of the TLRP. She outlined the 10 principles for effective learning and teaching. Effective teaching and learning:

  • equips learners for life in its broadest sense
  • engages with valued forms of knowledge
  • recognises the importance of prior experience and learning
  • requires the teacher to scaffold learning
  • needs assessment to be congruent with learning
  • promotes the active engagement of the learner
  • fosters both individual and social processes and outcomes
  • recognises the significance of informal learning
  • depends on teacher learning
  • demands consistent policy frameworks with support for teaching and learning as their primary focus.

These principles are examined in detail in the commentaries ‘Improving Teaching and Learning’, ‘Science Education in Schools’ and ‘Personalised Learning’, which are all available to be downloaded from the TLRP website.

Find out more information about this project.