Undertaking practitioner research – musings of a mentor

I’ve been fortunate enough to work as one of a small team of SDN mentors on the ETF’s Outstanding Teaching, Learning and Assessment programme (OTLA) over the last year. The phase of the programme I support covers apprenticeships, at a point in time when we are collectively evaluating what outstanding apprenticeship provision looks like.

This makes the projects particularly challenging and interesting because of the reforms which we are immersed in.

Based on our experiences of engaging apprenticeship practitioners in research, I will share what I hope are practical considerations which can be used to support others to set up and undertake meaningful research in their own work-setting. The insightQ Enquiry module is designed to underpin collaborative action learning. You can find out more about it here.

Good practitioner research is most concerned with the creation of reflective space to explore existing problems and challenges, consider why they may be occurring, and test new ideas which may result in a different outcome to that which we currently experience.

It can be an individual pursuit or in the case of the projects, one that engages a group of practitioners undertaking research in their work context. The 10 practitioner research projects are being conducted by a range of organisations: colleges, independent training providers, local adult education, universities and end-point assessment organisations. Whilst the individual focus for each project differs, the collective aim is the pursuit of new knowledge which can inform outstanding apprenticeship delivery. Their outputs and research case studies will be published in March.

  • Understanding of what practitioner research is and how to go about it is variable. Seek to open this conversation in your own organisation and amongst your peers. Where they exist, discuss and address insecurities amongst those who see research as being an intellectual activity only undertaken by academics. The cornerstone of practitioner research is that every professional involved has a valid and worthwhile contribution to make. Leaders and managers can do a great deal to ensure this position permeates throughout their organisation; permission to explore, innovate and fail.
  • One of the most challenging aspects of the OTLA programme, for those new to practitioner research, was defining the research question. Yet the process of defining it is, a learning opportunity. It moves a statement of intended output, such as ‘we will produce a new individual learning plan template’ to one of inquiry; ‘how could we better support our apprentices to make effective progress throughout the programme?’ or ‘what are the reasons our apprentices aren’t making effective progress on-programme?’. Give yourself and others the time and space to frame your question correctly. Avoid leaping to the solution to quickly.
  • Set a realistic expectation about the time, effort and energy it will take to set up and undertake research. The project teams have grappled with competing priorities within their individual organisations, the politics of working as a cross-provider group and the different cultures of organisation type in our complex world of apprenticeships, even the perceived shifting sands of apprenticeship policy. I’m sure there are others I’ve missed. Whilst we can’t wave a magic wand to remove any of these challenges, take the time to explore what your own constraints might be at the outset and consider the four dimensions of scope, timeframe, resources and quality as part of your research brief development. If you are leading a research project, consider how to manage the risk of the bulk of the work falling onto you, if input from other participants falls away for whatever reason.
  • Consider using the Professional Standards for Teachers and Trainers as a means of identifying and reviewing individual development when conducting research. I’ve found this particularly interesting during the OTLA programme. Using the standards as a CPD baseline at the outset has resulted in participants debating the relevance of them in an apprenticeships context. I hope this has produced the added value of organisations less familiar with the standards considering how they can be used to inform HR practice as well as providing valuable feedback to ETF colleagues as they enter a period of asking the sector about the standards and their use.
  • We’re busy people and it is hard to keep up-to-date with the plethora of data, publications and information that’s out there. My advice, however, is to lift your head up and see what else might be out there which might inform or support your research brief. It avoids us either reinventing a wheel or presents the opportunity to test out models and ideas in our own context, which others have willingly shared.
  • There is a danger in feeling that we need to aim for a glossy-ending; an airbrushed version of research which smooths over some of the challenges and barriers in pursuit of producing outputs. The confidence to fail is critical if we are to encourage exploration without limits. Learning from and sharing the results of your research is always of value. Too much focus on the creation of an end-result, risks research becoming a vehicle for tactical change rather than a rich dialogue about what outstanding provision looks like and how it can be best achieved. We need to consider this within organisations, to ensure we are culturally aligned with honest, meaningful self-assessment, as well as our own individual mindset.

This article first appeared in the Society for Education In Tuition magazine. For more details on the great work of SET click here

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