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Developing personal and public knowledge about education

It is pleasure to add this editorial to the third volume of JoTTER, which has now become well established as a place to publish some of the best of the school-based research carried out by the graduate students on Cambridge's PGCE (initial teacher education) programme.

The value of small-scale research

There are many reasons for publishing in JoTTER. For one thing, most of us get a 'feel-good' factor when we see our work published and our name marked as a published author. In terms of future career, we know that for many teachers progression in teaching often involves accepting management roles, and for these higher degree work, and the acknowledgement of the value of our work brought about by publications of our writing about teaching and learning, are among the most useful c.v. entries. However, there are also other reasons that publication can be worthwhile, that are less about the author her or himself.

A key issue concerns the nature of knowledge about education, and the distinction between public and personal knowledge. The research we undertake in our own professional work can directly inform our own practice, and for this it does not need to be widely reported. Indeed, the nature of much classroom-based research is highly contextualised, such that the issues and problems addressed are often tied to specifics of our own professional context. Teaching contexts vary greatly, and indeed because of this 'public' knowledge in the form of general principles and theories may not always be readily seen to apply to all contexts.

Publishing our work in a journal such as JoTTER can be valuable in a number of ways. The need to engage with research literature and general theory requires us as teachers to reflect upon our issues and problems in our own professional context in relation to more abstract, general ideas. This is important for us, as it makes sure that we are being critical of the way we understand what is going on in our practice, and that we are admitting into our own ways of thinking perspectives that others from outside of our own limited context and experience have found useful.

However, in writing about our research, and relating general principles and theory to our own specific context, we also add to the wider literature in ways that help others. We allow other teachers to look at how we have made sense of general ideas in our specific context, allowing them to ask questions to support reader generalisation: is the context described in this paper similar to my professional context? Can I learn form this research - does it offer indications of what might/might not be worth trying in my own teaching? (Chapter 6, Taber, 2007). Moreover, the research of different teachers, exploring and developing ideas in various educational contexts, helps test the 'range of application' of principles and theories, and to suggest modifications that make such theoretical knowledge better able to support our professional work. Given the complexity and diversity of educational contexts, most educational theory can benefit from nuance, critical interrogation, and exemplification. Doing our own classroom research can draw upon public (academic) knowledge and develop our personal (professional) knowledge, but publishing our work in a research journal requires us to engage with existing theoretical ideas at a depth (Chapter 10, Taber, 2007) that can further the wider body of theory itself.

Of course, most small-scale classroom studies only have the potential to make minor contributions to public knowledge. But then, that's the case of research in general: it tends to be cumulative, iterative, and to proceed in small steps. And in education, with the exception of some major funded studies that can access a wide range of schools and classrooms, research reports normally derive from data collected in one or a few particular teaching and learning contexts.

The diversity of studies into classroom teaching and learning

The present volume includes a range of studies contributing to our understanding of an interesting variety of topics related to classroom teaching and learning.

Jason Lang (2012) looks at the effect of gender on the way younger and older primary students perceive their teachers: does it matter to the pupil if the teacher is their own or the opposite gender? Not surprisingly for an educational question, Lang suggests that the answer to this simple question may depend upon a range of factors.

Amy Dawe (2012) looks at children's own ideas about learning and knowledge, something that is highly important given the role of metacognition and self-regulation in effective learning. If we are to support our pupils/students in becoming better learners we not only need to know about learning ourselves, but also appreciate their current ideas on the topic. The famous adage that the most important thing for a teacher to know is where the learner is starting from (Ausubel, 1968), is as important in this area as in any other.

Elizabeth Rutherford (2012) reports a study undertaken in the particular context of a faith school, and looking at the pupils' own perceptions of collective worship. Given Rutherford's findings, it would be interesting to compare her results with a study from a school with no strong religious affiliation.

Christopher Payne (2012) looks at a subject specific issue - the notion of proof in mathematics. As with a number of other studies in the volume, Payne focuses on the perceptions of the students themselves, and argues that the current curriculum is not sufficiently supporting learners to develop a robust understanding of this important mathematical skill area.

Elizabeth Walsh (2012) tackles an issue which must be of concern to many music teachers: how lessons can be productive for both those students who are keen extra-curricular musicians and the majority (in many classes) who have no involvement in choirs, or instrumental playing etc. outside of the formal curriculum. Walsh seems to have made good progress with her two case study learners, raising the issue of whether similar approaches could be more widely applied.

Leonora Dowley (2012) undertakes a case study of one class of 12-13 years olds to explore whether seating arrangements influenced participation in, and enjoyment of, lessons. Dowley is clear that it is not possible to assume what was found in this class will necessarily apply elsewhere, but she reports outcomes that will influence her future practice, and which way well find resonances with other teachers' observations of their own classes.

Amy Mottley (2012) reports a creative study where she used sign language in teaching a class of hearing children. This seems to me to be one of those idea which most of us would not have thought of, but which immediately suggests possibilities. Mottley claims she found signing to have a positive impact, and she recommends it as a technique to be considered by other teachers. This certainly seems an example of a small-scale study worthy of being followed-up in other classroom contexts.

Rosanna (2012) Smith explores senior primary school students' perceptions of intelligence. It is known that intelligence is widely considered to be something fixed, rather than developed, and that such beliefs can have a strong influence on how learners respond to challenging work. Smith is only able to look in detail at a small purposeful sample of six pupils, but her study suggests that this is an area well worth teachers exploring with their own students.

Laura (2012) Whitwood looks at primary age pupils learning a second language, and – in particular - by introducing a second language earlier than is usually the case, explores whether age is a strong factor in student perceptions. As with other studies in the volume, it is inappropriate to generalise from Whitwood's findings, but her study does suggest that earlier introduction of foreign language learning is something worth exploring more widely.

Contributions to both personal and public knowledge

Volume 3 of JoTTER, then, continues the pattern of the earlier volumes in offering a diversity of studies, on a range of interesting themes. As with the earlier volumes, the reports published show that graduate trainee teachers are well-positioned (and well able) to undertake small-scale classroom research with considerable potential for professional learning that can inform their practice. However, the studies in JoTTER do more than this: for by engaging with theory, and by carefully considering the methodology they apply in their research, the authors here are able to make a wider contribution to public knowledge. Each of these papers, at the very least, is able to offer insights and provoke questions that could be valuable for other trainees and classroom teachers. Beyond that, some of the papers published here offer intriguing suggestions for follow-up work that could potentially contribute to developing our theoretical understanding of classroom teaching and learning.

Keith S Taber
Cambridge, 2012


Ausubel, D. P. (1968). Educational Psychology: A cognitive view. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Dawe, A. (2012). Children’s awareness of learning and knowledge: a study of Year 3 pupils’ perceptions of the knowledge they need and how it is acquired. Journal of Trainee Teacher Educational Research, 3, 31-62.

Dowley, L. (2012). A critical investigation of whether seating students by gender affects participation in discussion-based learning: a case study with a Year 8 class studying death. Journal of Trainee Teacher Educational Research, 3, 221-242.

Lang, J. (2012). My ideal teacher is…: Teacher gender preferences in Year One and Year Six children. Journal of Trainee Teacher Educational Research, 3, 1-30.

Mottley, A. (2012). The use of signing with hearing children as a means to communicate and manage behaviour: A study into the perspectives of children in a Year 2 classroom. Journal of Trainee Teacher Educational Research, 3, 243-286.

Payne, C. (2012). High-Attaining Year 10 pupils’ conceptions and learning of proof: A critical analysis. Journal of Trainee Teacher Educational Research, 3, 93-158.

Rutherford, E. (2012). Pupils’ Perspectives of the Purpose and Value of Collective Worship: A Case-study of 10-11 Year Olds in a Faith-school. Journal of Trainee Teacher Educational Research, 3, 63-92.

Smith, R. (2012). Barriers to learning: exploring the relationship between year 5/6 pupils' attitudes towards intelligence and how they cope with challenge. Journal of Trainee Teacher Educational Research, 3, 287-326.

Taber, K. S. (2007). Classroom-based research and evidence-based practice: a guide for teachers. London: Sage.

Walsh, E. J. (2012). Bridging the Gap: a study to enhance the learning of extra-curricular musicians within a mainstream Year 9 music classroom. Journal of Trainee Teacher Educational Research, 3, 159-220.

Whitwood, L. (2012). ‘Does age matter?’ - A study of Year 6 and Year 2 perspectives on learning Modern Foreign Languages as a new subject. Journal of Trainee Teacher Educational Research, 3, 327-360.