Professional Development

Putting Practitioner Research At The Heart Of Learning In The Classroom

Vivienne Marie Baumfield argues that the debate about teachers’ research engagement needs to be cast in terms of their understanding of what has worked and not worked in the classroom and how this contributes to a body of knowledge. She sees the key to maximising this engagement as lying in partnership working.

Areas of agreement and dispute

What an individual teacher does in the classroom makes a difference; in fact, research on school improvement has shown it explains up to 75% of classroom level variance in pupil learning.

Confirmation of the importance of understanding how teachers decide what to do in their classroom has focused attention on provision for their professional development but without consensus on what is required.

Conflicting views on what teachers need to know and how they can learn what it is that they need to know reflect differences of opinion on what the work of a teacher actually involves. One source of disagreement is the role of research in the classroom and is the focus of this article.

Whilst there is broad agreement that teachers should use evidence to inform their practice, the extent to which this means engaging directly with educational research and if they do, whether this is as producers or consumers of knowledge is disputed. We can improve the situation by seeking better understanding of what might at first appear to be opposing points of view; such as the often polarised ‘what works’ debate.

Teacher Professionalism: understanding ‘What Worked’

Focusing on ‘what works’ is associated with an instrumental view of teachers’ work and the promotion of a technical-rationalist approach to teacher development. It is an association often seen as being in opposition to the idea of being a reflective practitioner and, therefore, diminishing the professionalism of teachers.

In fact, a concern to test an idea by seeing whether it useful in real classroom settings is an integral element of critical reflection on practice and to any claim to be a professional. The problem is not basing decisions on evidence of ‘what works’. What undermines teacher professionalism is reliance on external prescription without being able to evaluate its relevance in the context of their own classrooms.

Given the complexity of what happens in classrooms and the powerful effect of context on outcomes, teachers play an important role in mediating research and their perspective should be valued. Lawrence Stenhouse, an early advocate of the importance of teachers as researchers, characterised the relationship of academic research to teaching as offering intelligent propositions to be tested in action.

If this relationship is to reach its full potential, teachers need to be confident in their ability to engage with research, they need to develop research literacy, and work closely with academics who are willing to listen. Policy makers play a crucial role in facilitating productive relationships between researchers and teachers; they determine expectations and can support or hinder collaboration through the management of working conditions.

Shifting our focus to what teachers know, how they know and what they need to know offers a way of thinking about forms of knowledge that avoids simplistic theory versus practice binary oppositions, opening up different ways of thinking about the relationship between teachers and research.

Rather than advocating research as something external to teaching that teachers ‘use’ or which some teachers might ‘do’ as a bolt-on activity, we can ask how their understanding of what has worked and not worked in the classroom contributes to a body of knowledge for, in and of practice that any claim to be a profession requires.

The capacity of teachers to engage in research has been questioned in terms of the limited resources available, not least the demands on their time, and implications for the quality of any outcomes. We do, however, have examples of how such problems can be addressed by working in partnership.

School-university research partnerships

In 1997, the Teacher Training Agency (TTA) with the Centre for British Teachers (CBT) launched a School Based Research Consortium (SBRC) programme, which aimed to:

Improve the accessibility of the existing stock of knowledge; improve the quality and relevance if research; help teachers play a more active role in conceiving, implementing, evaluating and disseminating research.


Interest in the potential of school-university research partnerships gained momentum in England in the period following a number of reports highlighting a damaging gap between educational research and the practice of teaching. In 1998, the School University Partnership for Educational Research (SUPER) was established by researchers in the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge and a group of local headteachers.

The experience of the SBRC and SUPER demonstrated that building partnerships is challenging but it can be done and important lessons were learned. The fundamental principle is to find a shared interest in understanding a problematic situation and this is not difficult to do when the focus is on classrooms and finding ways of improving the educational experiences of students. Inquiry is the trigger; as the rocket scientist Werner Von Braun pointed out, ‘research is what I do when I don’t know what I am doing’.

It is the desire to find solutions that promotes collaborative effort. What is already known is not ignored, it is not about ‘re-inventing the wheel’ but it is by first engaging in research through inquiry that engaging with research is supported. This process of professional learning through inquiry is consistent with what we know about the importance of unsettling the taken for granted and bringing in new perspectives, making matters of fact matters of interest, for workplace learning.

Participation in a school-university research partnership creates a community of inquiry within which a common language for research develops. Inquiry opens up learning so that problems are interesting rather than threatening and participants speak of the ‘wow’ factor as they make new discoveries. It is not uncommon for everyone involved to emphasise that it is a rediscovery of why they came into education in the first place.

It would be misleading to suggest that working in school-university partnerships does not present difficulties. Working across institutional boundaries can be hard to sustain over long periods of time. Tensions also arise around the reconciling of what is learned from close study of specific contexts and what has more general resonance; between what participants themselves find convincing and what they think will convince others

But these are not issues confined to school-university research partnerships and indeed such ways of working can contribute to wider debate on the nature of evidence. Working together to resolve a problematic situation heightens awareness of research as a complex process requiring sustained reflection on methodology and the evaluation of evidence. It amounts to nothing short of the re-professionalisation of teaching as evidence informed. The key points to be learned from the experiences of teachers and researchers in the SBRC and SUPER are:

  • Teachers need access to tools for inquiry that can be integrated into their daily teaching practice
  • School leadership needs to promote a ‘safe to fail’ environment to support responsible experiments in practice
  • Opportunities to work collaboratively, within and across schools, are essential to teachers’ professional learning
  • Powerful professional learning environments require people with a diversity of expertise and perspective with a common interest in addressing real classroom situations.

Working in a Community of Inquiry

The greatest satisfaction I have experienced working in a school-university research partnership is from devising simple tools to support pedagogical inquiry. Useful sources for finding ideas to use and develop can be found in materials designed to promote student learning such as thinking skills or formative assessment. Many of the ideas can be incorporated directly into lessons and have a ‘mirror effect’ as encouraging students to inquire opens up learning and encourages teachers to inquire.

Lesson Study, an approach to investigating learning that originated in Japan and is now worldwide, provides a structure for embedding teacher research in the classroom. Mentoring and coaching promotes knowledge exchange and professional learning in collaborative networks


Whilst the impetus for putting research at the heart of learning in the classroom is the interest of individual teachers in inquiring into their practice, if it is to be a powerful professional learning environment it needs to be collaborative and include a diversity of perspectives and expertise.

Schools and universities share an interest in education and already work together. Faculties of Education and schools work in partnership to provide Initial Teacher Education and Continuing Professional Development. Universities are committed to widening participation and need good relations with schools to understand how to encourage a wider diversity of students to apply and support transition into higher education.

There are academics across the university with an interest in making connections between the school curriculum and their discipline and who want their research to have an impact. All of these aspects have the potential to promote partnerships to support teacher research.

In 2014 Research Councils UK and the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement commissioned the School-University Partnership Initiative (SUPI) Learning Project with the aim of learning from existing work on school-university partnerships and exploring the potential to improve their quality and impact.

The SUPI report concluded that working in partnership offered real benefits provided practicable and sustainable ways of achieving these could be found. The key to success is to challenge the dominance of the idea that universities produce knowledge to be applied by teachers, which creates hierarchies of knowledge and barriers. If we shift our attention to the role of inquiry in learning, and in professional learning in particular, we discover a powerful driver for research that is collaborative and generative.

Range of collaborative opportunities

Teachers today can draw upon a wealth of experience relevant to the development of teaching as a research informed profession. I have focused on what I know best, the potential of school-university research partnerships, and whilst I think these are still an under-used resource for supporting teacher research, there are other opportunities to collaborate. The Education Endowment Foundation supports teacher engagement in and with research through the ‘tool-kit’, research reports and access to funding.

The British Educational Research Association has a Practitioner Research Special Interest Group and funds grants for school-based research. In order to reap the full benefits of what has gone before we need to overcome the adverse effects of a tendency to forget and the proliferation of labels that obscure what we have in common. Access to what we have already learned needs to be improved but there should also be opportunities to test and discover new possibilities. Working together can help us to question what has worked, how and for whom and propose new intelligent proposals to be tested in action.

Top Tips

Build on what we know from the work of effective school-university partnerships to make optimal use of existing links between schools and universities.
Promote the sharing and development of tools for pedagogical inquiry
Work with teacher associations and unions to encourage policy makers to recognise the importance of spaces for inquiry in professional learning
Make optimal use of existing external networks by finding mutual interests in supporting classroom-based research.

Vivienne Marie Baumfield is Professor of Education and Director of the Centre for Research in Professional Learning at the University of Exeter.

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