By Alex More
Read time: 5.2 mins
Teacher led research is powerful in creating new knowledge. In this blog, I plan to give all teachers a simple guide on how to create a small-scale action research project that has the potential to improve your practice and teach you new things in the process.
If you follow EduTwitter feeds or read TES blogs and articles you might be aware of the replication crisis that is raging in psychology research. This stems from a view that some research fails to replicate when tested in the same conditions, a basic framework that underpins research models and eventually papers. Furthermore, it has been suggested that the validity and in some cases the reliability of the said research is now in jeopardy, hence the ‘crisis’. This has given EBR (Evidence Based Research) a bad name and led to the EEF (Education Endowment Fund) to review every single one of their studies conducted in the UK. Don’t panic though, and don’t dismiss everything you thought was sacred in our field. Why not conduct your own research, it’s liberating, insightful and not as difficult as you might think!
So, why run a small scale action research project?
- It can be liberating and teach you new things about your practice, pedagogy and students you teach. Ultimately, it makes you a better educator!
- It will sharpen your knowledge in a specific field which can have a whole-school impact and reach out to the education community.
- It can connect you to new ideas, thinkers and others in research who share your passion and ideas.
- You might have some gained time in the summer term so dedicate a little time to research
- It helps you solve a problem (or start to …). This is often a question you have asked yourself but never really explored. This is the most powerful reason!
So, the last point is the best starting place; finding an answer to a question you might have about a specific pedagogy, idea, concept or group. I have found there really are discrepancies between what teachers believe is evidence based research, and reality. A great example of this is VAK learning styles, left and right brain thinking and the view that we only use 10% of our brain at any given time. All of the above have been debunked as ‘neuromyths’, a welcome benefit of neurologists working with educators to help teachers on the front line understand the pedagogies that really improve learning.
What question do you want to answer?
As teachers we often wonder what if? … Action research provides a platform to explore this curiosity.
Step 1 – Create your research question
Decide a teaching group you wish to conduct the research on. It helps if it is a group or group/s that you see on a regular basis. I would advise a class you teach 2-3 times per week as ideal.
Decide on your focus. Investigating or illuminating a type of pedagogy is a simple way to get started and will help people understand what you are doing and the reasons why. To give some context this could be; growth mindset, flipped learning, CLT (Cognitive Load Theory), collaborative learning, STEM based learning, gamification, using Bloom’s SOLO taxonomy etc. Once you have decided on this, it’s time to create a research question.
How to write a research question?
Don’t stress too much about this. The question needs to simply explain what pedagogy you are investigating and who you are investigating (teaching group). This will help others understand the what’s and why’s and help you secure the permissions you need on the ethics side of things. Below are some examples suitable for small-scale teacher led research projects.
Do classroom teachers have lower expectations of female students?
Does the use of operant conditioning (behaviorist) techniques help when working with children who have an attention deficit?
Can achievement by children with attention deficit syndrome be helped by reducing distractions for them in the classroom?
Is there a relationship between class size and student achievement?
Step 2 – Ethics
This is an important step but don’t let it scare you. Once you have a research question, just add a short description (similar to an abstract). This helps when presenting your research idea and justification, both essential in getting your idea across. Let’s breakdown the process into simple sub-steps;
- Identify the group you want to conduct the research on.
- Meet with the Gatekeeper. The Gatekeeper is a cool term for the person in the establishment / school who will authorise your research project. 90% of the time, this is the Head teacher but sometimes governors of schools or CEO’s 😦
- Meet with the group of students you plan to conduct the research on. This is really important, they have to be consulted and involved in the rationale for the research. I also write to the parents outlining: the research question, reason for the research, time-frame (testing window), what I plan to do with the data and how I’ll safeguard the students involved and protect their anonymity.
- Decide on a testing window. In educational research this is normally fixed to 8 – 12 weeks depending on your time and resources. The window needs to be at least 8 weeks to monitor any changes in the variables.
- Notify all involved when the research project will commence. In some research designs, the researcher implements a pre-test. I’ll discuss this in Part 2.
And, now for the fun part; Creating a hypothesis …
Step 3: What is your hypothesis?
In scientific terms a hypothesis is a tentative statement about the relationship between two or more variables. It is a specific, testable prediction about what you expect to happen in a study. So, it’s a prediction (not a guess) as it is assumed you’ll have sufficient background in education to formulate an opinion about what your research question will uncover. Don’t worry too much about this part, have fun with it as it really doesn’t matter if your hypothesis proves to be inaccurate, it can actually help validate the authenticity of your research.
Step 4: Start to think about your research design
So, you have completed steps 1-3, you have a clear research question outlining what you want to investigate. You have shared this information with the relevant people involved in the research and created your hypothesis. In the final part of this blog, let’s focus on some key terms that will strengthen your research.
You won’t be able to do very much in research unless you know how to talk about variables. A variable is any entity that can take on different values. OK, so what does that mean? Anything that can vary can be considered a variable. For instance, age can be considered a variable because age can take different values for different people or for the same person at different times. Similarly, gender in education can be considered a variable because a person’s gender can be assigned a value. The most common variables you might work with in a classroom small-scale research project are; age, gender, academic ability (contentious), special populations, prior knowledge, prior attainment and setting. You could also add a pedagogical approach (flipped learning, growth mindset) as a variable. It’s worth knowing that there are 3 types of variable:
- Independent variable (IV) – can be controlled or manipulated. This are of greatest importance to the research as he/she can mould these to suit to research question and design
- Dependent variable (DV) – we hope will be affected by the changes we instigate on our IV (independent variables).
- Control variable (CV) – what we hold as constant during the testing process. For example; same subject being tested, same group, same duration of lessons etc.
Research design is a plan to answer your research question. A research method is a strategy used to implement that plan. Research design and methods are different but closely related, because good research design ensures that the data you obtain will help you answer your research question more effectively. Part 2 will focus on this specifically as this will involve thinking about how you will collect the data; qualitative vs quantitative, mixed methods and triangulation.
Special populations (SPs) are any minority group that populates our sample. The sample is the group or groups you wish to conduct the research on. SPs can offer really intriguing insights within the research as you can compare how specific groups within the sample performed / experienced under the same conditions. The most common SPs in the school setting are;
- Academic starting point
- EAL (English as an Additional Language)
- PP (Pupil Premium)
- SEND (Special Educational Needs)
- G&T (Gifted & Talented)
- FSM (Free School Meals)
This is not an exhaustive list as there are many more. These are the most common and can add weight to your analytical narrative.
Right, part 1 done! I have tried to keep it light and easy to digest. In part 2, I will explore the world of research design, methodologies, data collection and how to write up your research project for maximum impact.
References and additional reading
Cohen et al (2011) Research Methods in Education
Denscombe, M (2016) The Good Research Guide
Maxwell et al (2019) Is psychology suffering from a replication crisis … link