LEADING LIGHTS     Issue 2 | 2019

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The value and importance of being a researching practitioner

Article by   Juliette Hayes

Reflective practice becomes practitioner research when it is written up and shared publicly to give a local context to national policies and reforms.

In Issue 1 2019 of Leading Lights I discussed the role of the reflective practitioner. In this issue, I continue to explore this concept through the further step of formalising practitioner research for educational leaders.

Practitioner research engages the skills and tools of reflection in a systematic method in order to lead change for school improvement, from the perspective of the leader. This practice can lead to valued and important outcomes for both the individual and the system, “offering possibilities for change or transformation” (Grogan & Simmons, 2012, p.40). Practitioner research can face challenges from some traditional views of the educators’ role and what constitutes appropriate research, but the field has gained credibility and even encouragement from those, such as Robinson, et al. (2009) in New Zealand, who recognise the value of professionals learning from their practice and disseminating their experiences for others’ consideration, or insisting on systemic change for social justice and equity.

The researching leader builds on critical reflections in a systematic research process, moving beyond traditional professional development to active learning, ultimately leading to organisational improvement (Lofthouse, Hall & Wall, 2012). Ontologically, the practitioner researcher believes “the actions we take are intentional and we can explore the effects of our actions against those intentions as a way of assessing our success or failure” (Lofthouse, et al., 2012, p.172). The practitioner takes a critical stance in research in order to challenge the status quo: “not just to describe or understand social phenomena but also to change them” (Grogan & Simmons, 2012, p.30).

Practitioner research systematically examines the complexity of the leader’s work, deriving from the professional interests of the leaders themselves, and “involves the individual making sense of [his/her] experience” (Murray & Lawrence, 2000, p.28). It enables them to explore the effects of their intentional actions as leaders in the field, providing an emic view of the school or system that theorists cannot necessarily do.

Reflective practice becomes practitioner research when it is written up and shared publicly to give a local context to national policies and reforms. As Campbell (2013) points out, teaching is traditionally conducted without an audience of peers, so, unlike many other professions, the best practice of educators can be lost if it is not observed, theorised and shared. Practitioners’ research can help to create a “history of practice” by providing “knowledge about their classrooms and students that outsiders cannot” (p.7), where “high level reflective writing moves from description of action to explanation with consideration of ethical, moral and political issues” (Yost, et al., 2000, p.45). However, few leaders’ inquiries do appear in print, perhaps because “[leaders] are not always interested in what their fellow [leaders] are doing or studying” (Bullough, et al., 2016, p.321) despite the finding that often sharing research results strengthens commitment to both inquiry and learning communities. Leaders’ inquiries tend to be shared more informally, in blogs or “sharing sessions” (p321), or disseminated through projects written up by university faculty (Bullough, et al., 2016), rather than published by the practitioners themselves.

Despite this reticence, Coleman (2007) identifies benefits of practitioner research to the individual, including learning to make sense of one’s own experiences and challenge one’s assumptions; increasing self-confidence and a willingness to exercise professional judgement; and the improved use of research skills that could lead to further qualifications. Research also expands the practitioner’s professional networks when it builds on collaboration with colleagues beyond one’s own setting, including those in higher education (Coleman, 2007). The benefits can be personally satisfying too:

“For the habitually thoughtful practitioner, one whose identity is linked to inquiry, the aim is not just solving practical problems in the moment, but of growing into the practice and of finding ever deeper pleasure and interest in it and the challenges it presents” (Bullough, et al., 2016, p.307).

There are challenges to the validity of practitioner research by academics who may believe they have a monopoly on knowledge production (McWilliams, 2004), threatening the “balance of power between academics and practitioners when it comes to defining what counts as educational research” (Roulston, et al., 2005, p.181). Denzin & Lincoln (2011) disagree, asserting that “theory can best be generated in practice and can be properly tested only in practice” (p.28). It can be obstructed by system leaders who are threatened by educators who strive for autonomy and will critique policy (Murray & Lawrence, 2000). There are also those who consider practitioner research scope to be too narrow in scale to offer generalised learning (Coleman, 2007) and therefore to be valid, while others believe that “understanding one classroom helps us to understand all classrooms” (Campbell, 2013, p. 5). A challenge to undertaking research within one’s own organisation is the convenience and “taken-for-granted assumptions” (Coleman, 2007, p.492) that the practitioner might rely upon in researching within their own setting, and the personal outcomes, or “cognitive dissonance” (p.493) of challenging the thinking and systems they work within. Further, the time and expertise of the busy leader as emerging researcher can present problems, as they juggle competing demands along with the potential conflict of interest between the role of being the setting’s leader and that of time taken to research that setting (Coleman, 2007; Murray & Lawrence, 2000).

Despite potential barriers, practitioner research is important. It can serve to challenge the status quo through research that is “living and breathing” (Roulston, et al., 2005, p. 179), ultimately leading to change in the way leadership decision is made or how school policy is informed, offering “possibilities for change or transformation so that those who have been marginalised and disenfranchised by current policies and practices will be better served” (Grogan & Simmons, 2012, p. 40). The New Zealand best evidence synthesis of leadership practices considers leader researchers to be essential and encouraged, to inform policy makers about “the value of alternative policies, the capacity of leadership to implement policies, and the impact of policies and initiatives in leadership capacity and student outcomes” (Robinson, et al., 2009. P.211). Finland is an example of a system that embraces and develops practitioners as researchers, with a focus on research skills throughout training, and time for research and reflection built into their work schedules. As a result, Finland is considered to have a highly effective education system within the OECD (Sahlberg, 2011), where practitioner research is highly valued and recognised through higher qualifications.

Both reflective practice and practitioner research have value and are important to education. Taking critical reflection into a formal inquiry process should be an important part of every leader’s practice. Practitioner research, taking guided personal problem solving along with structured research and theory into the public domain to be examined and critiqued, can ultimately inform wider practice and improve schooling. The benefits to the leader are both personal and professional. New Zealand educational leaders are to be encouraged to share their practice by engaging their critical reflections with current theory and the tools of inquiry in order to develop a system where this is accepted best practice.

NZEALS provides several avenues for practitioners to share their research, including Leading Lights, Journal of Educational Leadership, Policy and Practice, and the biennial conference. NZEALS also provides mentoring for practitioners aspiring to publish their work.

It is of value and importance for educators to be reflective and researching practitioners so they can best serve their ethical responsibility of ensuring social justice and equity in their practice in New Zealand schools.

NZEALS provides several avenues for practitioners to share their research, including Leading Lights, Journal of Educational Leadership, Policy and Practice, and the biennial conference. NZEALS also provides mentoring for practitioners aspiring to publish their work.

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References:

Bullough, R.V. & Smith, L.K. (2016). Being a student of teaching: practitioner research and study groups. In J. Loughran & L.M. Hamilton (Eds.), International Handbook of Teacher Education – Volume 2. (pp. 305-351)Singapore: Springer Singapore.

Campbell, K.H. (2013). A call to action: why we need more practitioner research. Democracy & Education, 21 (2), pp 1-8.

Coleman, A. (2007). Leaders as researchers: supporting practitioner enquiry through the NCSL Research Associate Programme. Educational Management Administration and Leadership, 35(4), pp 479-497.

Grogan, M. & Simmons, J. (2012). Taking a critical stance in research. In A. Briggs, M. Coleman & M. Morrison (Eds.), Research methods in educational leadership & management.(pp. 29 – 46). London: Sage.

Denzin, N. & Lincoln, Y. (2011). The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Lofthouse, R., Hall, E. & Wall, K. (2012). Practitioner research. In A. Briggs, M. Coleman & M. Morrison (Eds.), Research methods in educational leadership & management.(pp. 170-188).

McWilliams, E. (2004). W[h]ither practitioner research? The Australian Educational Researcher, 31(2), pp. 113 – 126.

Murray, L. & Lawrence, B. (2000). Practitioner-based enquiry: principles for post-graduate research. London: Falmer Press.

Robinson, V., Hohepa, M. & Lloyd, C. (2009). School leadership and student outcomes: identifying what works and why. Wellington: Ministry of Education.

Roulston, K., Legette, R., Deloach, M. & Pitman, C.B. (2005). What is research for teacher-researchers? Education Action Research, 13 (2), pp. 169-189.

Sahlberg, P. (2011). Finnish lessons. New York: Teachers College Press.

Yost, D.S., Sentner, S.M. & Frelenza-Bailey, A. (2000). An examination of the construct of critical reflection: implications for teacher education programming in the 21st century. Journal of Teacher Education, 51(1), pp. 39-49.