Who is on hand to assist a teacher to undertake enquiry into their practice in order to improve it? Sarah Fletcher explains the role of the research mentor
With a recent advent of funding from the Training and Development Agency for postgraduate professional development, there has been an upsurge in interest in teacher research. With some 35,000 funded places available with PPD funding the nature of research undertaken in school is radically changing. Furthermore, the new Professional Standards introduced in 2007 by the TDA puts enquiring into one’s practice as a means to improvement as well as being opened to mentoring and coaching as core standards. Theme five of the new standards illustrates this point:
‘… teachers have a responsibility to take an active part in identifying and reviewing their own performance and professional development needs so that they can develop their practice and improve their effectiveness through adopting critically evaluated ideas and approaches and sharing and adapting effective practice.’
Core standards reflect the increasing focus in teaching on systematic enquiry and how mentoring and coaching assist personal and professional development to teachers. How should a teacher who is reviewing, identifying and seeking to implement ways to improve their practice decide on a suitable focus? Do they start with a problem, the conventional approach in action research? Do they start from a strength, where they simply want to improve what they already do quite well? An affirmative enquiry approach (Cooperrider, 2005) might be more appropriate. Who is on hand to assist a teacher to undertake enquiry into their practice in order to improve it? A research mentor is the logical choice… This might be a colleague in school or perhaps a freelance teacher research consultant or a university-based academic researcher.
Research mentoring: a personal perspective
Sometimes, a teacher will write to me indicating that their school is involved in a partnership with a local university which offers PPD funded study at Master’s level. Some of the ideas would make a marvellous PhD study in their own right or several and others are a focus that a teacher has had suggested to them by senior staff about which they feel less than a heartfelt commitment. This extract from an email I received recently embodies the enthusiasm many teachers feel for research but also the need to define a narrower focus for their enquiry if this is to become viable.
‘I have subsequently begun my Master’s at a local university, this is a part time project, linking my school with the university. The first year will require me to write a literature review based on the substantive topic that I should consider for the focus of my research (in the second year). I have so many ideas flying round my head but need to make a start! Most of my work involves staff training and thus my focus must be on continuing professional development in some way.’
My role as a research mentor should help this teacher refine and define the area of study that will be of direct use in helping to improve her own work in a classroom. Sometimes, a school employs me as a research mentor when my role is to assist in the collection of data in a sustained and systematic piece of research undertaken by the teachers with one another and with students to improve learning. Working closely with the headteacher at the lower school recently, I was asked to use video to help her understand how the culture is of learning is evolving in her school. She is working towards achieving her own goal of gaining a doctorate while many of her staff, including the teaching assistants, are involved in MA-level studies with a local university. Some of the teachers are not seeking university accreditation to their work and are opting for recognition through the Teacher Learning Academy’s scheme. From working with the reception class using action research to improve how they tidy up their play area to videoing how the children and the teachers start each day with a mini-aerobics session to get their bodies as well as their brains in gear my role was to capture on film what lay behind their resounding success in Ofsted inspections. CARA funding administered by Cape UK enabled me to work with a group of pupils as researchers in a selective grammar school alongside their teacher as a researcher. With our encouragement and support they develop their skills as research mentors for one another and so generations of people researchers began to emerge where sixth-form students and then mentored Year 9s who, in their turn, mentored their peers. Research mentoring can be organised on a formal or informal basis. It may be that you find your research mentor has already been assigned to work with you as part of the arrangement for accessing PPD-funded accredited study through a university. It is important to distinguish between research mentoring and research tutoring, which it complements. Mentoring should unblock the ways to change by building self-confidence, self-esteem and a readiness to act as well as to engage in ongoing constructive interpersonal relationships. Research mentoring and coaching should be concerned with personal as well as professional development where research tutoring is much more geared to achieving predetermined ends in an accredited programme. It is vital to work with a mentor you trust as well as one who has in-depth experience of undertaking school-based research for their own development. You will be collaborating with your mentor to develop your professional values, professional skills, as well as your professional knowledge and understanding and you need to have face in their capacity to coach you in research techniques and support you personally as you do so. This does not mean that they become your therapist or that personal agenda will dominate discussion. You should expect to feel confident and comfortable with them. You may choose a mentor from outside the school or from among your colleagues. In Donna Chipping’s and Rachel Gregg’s account of their research at www.teacherresearch.net you can see how they selected one another for support alongside the research mentor funded by Creative Partnerships. As in any mentoring relationship, it is important to understand what you hope to achieve and plan to ensure that each session is used as productively as possible. Many teacher researchers find it useful to approach research mentoring as they would plan a lesson, thinking about their objectives, the resources available, how this fits within their scheme of work and how each session will link from previous ones and to others to come. Starting from a positive reinforcement of what has already been achieved in working together to consider what needs to be improved as your research project evolves, it is crucial to structure the time available just as you would in a mentoring session in initial teacher training for example. Each session needs to have a focus that will enable you to develop your own learning and teaching in school. It may be that you are working towards a specific performance management target in a systematic way, in which case the conversation needs to focus closely on helping you to achieve that goal. In the early stages, there should be an exploration of the several possible ways in which you might, for example, enable Year 10 to improve their coursework in your lesson together on a Friday afternoon. You and your mentor will explore possible strategies that you could try out and how you will keep a log of your mentoring sessions and a diary of how each of the strategies you try assists or impedes learning in class.
How much time does research mentoring to take?
There are no hard and fast rules and a few well focused moments of discussion in school can be supplemented with emails and phone calls – and why not try video conferencing?
Do I need research mentoring or do I need coaching (or both)?
Many teachers regard ‘research’ as something outside their experience but in fact they already possess skills that will enable them to undertake systematic enquiry. They need encouragement as much as coaching in how to research although it is important to understand that in a school were not looking at a parallel to laboratory conditions. You may need help in how to collect data or to avoid drowning in it when you’ve collected too much… Synthesising the data you collect to provide evidence of any claims you make to have learned something, is an important skill where you may need coaching. Similarly, learning to write up your research in a concise and well argued fashion, drawing on others research to situate, inform and assists the flow of your own ideas, is an important skill that research coaching can help you to develop. A research coach helps you choose the best research approach to enquire into your own practice.
What else might a research mentor do for me?
In addition to helping you refine your research question and assist you in choosing a suitable method for undertaking enquiry into your own practice, a research mentor can critically engage with what you have written and suggest relevant literature to broaden and develop your ideas. S/he should be able to introduce you to colleagues undertaking similar research and invite you to present your work at research seminars. Research mentoring conferences like one organised by the Mentoring and Coaching Special Interest Group for BERA (British Educational Research Association) held in Milton Keynes in September 2007 will help you to develop your ideas. Disseminating your ideas within your school and also at a regional, national and international level is a key part of undertaking school-based enquiry. The KEEP Toolkit templates at www.cfkeep.org developed by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching enable you to embed text, video and audio as well as digital still images in research accounts. A research mentor can help you to represent your research online. Web-based technology well used captures and communicates the dynamic learning interactions that occur in school. Imagine the scenario where teachers work with a research mentor to create web-based accounts of their research. These are linked to a school website, which is part of a national database for teacher research. A pipe-dream? I hope it will soon be reality. Academic and teacher research complement one another. We need a comprehensive data base to enable this synergy. Beside academic research we would access teachers’ research accounts like these: I worked as a teacher in schools for 23 years and I remember being told then that I was paid to teach rather than to research. Fortunately, the teaching tide is turning… There is a realisation that teachers who research, whether for accreditation or just as a means of developing their own learning and for their own enjoyment, are very much involved in what ‘teaching’ is about in schools. This is happening not only in the UK but globally. Rieko Iwahama expressed this so well when she talked to me about why she undertakes research in her kindergarten classroom in a school in Kobe, Japan: ‘My aim is not to do research, but to develop the education of children. I need to do research to help me improve my teaching. When I explain my practice, I can reflect on my thoughts so I can understand my children more.’
Sarah Fletcher is an education consultant, specialising in research mentoring. She convenes the
Mentoring and Coaching SIG for BERA.
- Chipping, D and Morse, R (2006) ‘Using a Supportive Mentoring Relationship to Aid Independent Action Research’, summary commissioned by the National Teacher Research Panel for the Teacher Research Conference 2006
- Cooperrider, David L, Peter Sorenson, et al (2005) Appreciative Inquiry: Foundations in Positive Organization Development, Chicago: Stipes Publishing
- Fletcher, SJ (2006) ‘Technology-Enabled Action Research in Mentoring Teacher Researchers’, Reflecting Education Journal, Vol 2 (1) pp50-71
- Fletcher, SJ (2007) ‘Educational Research Mentoring and Coaching as Co-creative Synergy’, International Journal of Evidence-based Coaching and Mentoring, Vol 5 (2)
- Fletcher, SJ (2007) ‘Mentoring Adult Learners; Realising Possible Selves’, in Rossiter, M (ed.) New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, pp75-86, New York: JossyBass