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Approaches to teacher classroom enquiry

It is a pleasure - but also a challenge - to prepare an editorial for Volume 9 of the Journal of Trainee Teacher Education Research. It is a particular pleasure because the journal has demonstrated itself to be sustainable - showing it is valued by trainee teachers prepared to invest time and effort in preparing their studies for publication. Such sustainability has depended upon support from the partnership teaching team on the Cambridge PGCE programmes - staff working in both the schools themselves and the University Faculty of Education - and in particular on the enthusiasm and hard work of the team of editors: Drs Julie Alderton and Fiona Maine working
with authors from the early years and primary programme, and Dr Libby Jared working across the range of subject routes within the secondary programme.

However, such success also brings a challenge: What is there to comment on within an editorial that has not already been discussed before? Such matters as the role of enquiry in the work of the professional teacher; the value of a small scale research project in preparing new teachers; the importance of the partnership model in providing a teacher preparation model that moves beyond notions of theory and practice; the nature of teacher research as a form of research activity; the potential value for the trainee teachers of getting their work into the journal: worthy issues such as these have all been covered in previous editorials.

Selecting between two methodologies

So in this editorial I thought it might be useful to reflect upon approaches to classroom research that might be suitable for teachers. My motivation for this focus is reflecting back on some of the issues informing teacher education at the time when JoTTER was first suggested. The PGCE at Cambridge has long included assignments that have involved collecting and analysing classroom data (even if they may not have been primarily conceptualised in the language of research).
However, the point at which universities were asked to formally assign their PGCE courses as professional graduate or, at master’s, M, level, post-graduate programmes - and when it became more common for such courses to offer credit towards a master’s degree - focused minds on the importance of the research aspect of the PGCE year. That is, research skills, knowledge, and capacity, are invaluable to the teacher graduating from such an M level course - and the teaching and learning of research concepts and methods during the PGCE is understood as critical when
that is now for many students the first year of their master’s degree, and so important preparation
for the research thesis project that would be undertaken in their second (part-time) year of MEd

At that time there was a feeling among many teaching on the PGCE course that trainees should be provided with strong guidance about how to proceed with their research assignment (the study-in-depth as it was known on the secondary programme) which both recognised trainees’ status as learners, and highlighted and recommended research approaches that were likely to be viable for a small-scale project in school. Whilst many graduates on a PGCE programme have higher degrees, and many have completed research theses, these are often in their own specialist subjects where research methodology may not be congruent with enquiry in education, or at least
not with methodology congruent with practitioner classroom enquiry (Taber, 2013). Indeed I remember that the secondary teaching team suggested to trainees that they should either select an action research approach (when they wanted to evaluate some kind of intervention) or a case study approach, exploring some aspect of teaching and learning in some detail as a means to understand it better in that particular case (see figure 1).

Figure 1: Suggesting two approaches suitable for small scale trainee teacher projects

Of course all choices of methodology have limitations. Action research offers a very powerful approach to addressing classroom issues and challenges where we want to improve a situation, but is intrinsically iterative, so is best suited for when the teacher has opportunities to repeat and refine an intervention or innovation until it is optimised: something seldom possible in the timescale of a trainee project.

Case study is considered to be a kind of naturalistic research - exploring how things are, rather than seeking to change them. That limitation is important for the external researcher entering a school or other educational context. Yet a teacher-researcher (or trainee teacher-researcher),seeking to try things out and to innovate teaching as part of the ‘natural’ context of the professional work of the teacher - so wearing their metaphorical researcher hat - may undertake a case study to evaluate some some innovation they wish (with their teacher hat on) to introduce.

Case studies are well suited to the trainee’s professional context - as they have an opportunity to focus on their selected case. Case study involves the study of one instance among many (say one instance of teaching a class of 13-14 year olds about Judaism, or of supporting a sixth form group putting on a performance of Brecht’s life of Galileo, or of investigating how a group of eleven years olds experience their first trip abroad, or how a class of seven year olds respond to an intervention on bullying). Case studies only directly tell us about that particular instance, although they can offer insights into other cases that we might judge as similar in relevant ways.
Importantly, a trainee teacher is working at below a qualified teacher’s workload, giving time for planning and evaluating an intervention, or for collecting and analysing in depth data from some case of teaching and learning. One of the great strengths of the PGCE programme is the flexibility it gives to hone the trainees workloads according to individual needs and progress, and to balance up different kinds of productive learning activities at various stages of the process. In some respects, the trainee is in a better position than the qualified teacher to focus on enquiry into practice.

Diversity and individual differences

Yet looking at the range and quality of work produced by trainee teachers (such as represented in this journal), often drawing on perspectives and approaches they bring from their diverse disciplinary backgrounds, I wonder now if we underestimated the potential of many PGCE students to draw upon the wide range of approaches and perspectives used in educational work (and which are reflected for example in the spread of master’s theses presented in the Faculty of Education). Trainees are for example often quite capable of, inter alia, drawing upon ethnographic approaches, phenomenology, and elements of design research.

This raises two issues I would like to offer for consideration by readers. One is whether teacher research should encompass a more restricted set of approaches than are used by those  who are primarily educational researchers (working for universities for example). The second is whether offering trainee teachers guidance that channels them towards a limited selection of methodological approaches is educationally sound.

My suggested answer to the former question is ‘yes, but’. Busy classroom teachers, working within a particular professional context, will sensibly not usually be adopting from the full range of research approaches used across the field of educational research. However, this is because the types of approaches suitable to respond to issues in professional practice are likely to be more restricted than the range of approaches applicable to the different kinds and purposes of educational research more broadly. That is, this is simply an issue of what might be useful and
appropriate in addressing particular issues. So randomised field trials have a reputation as a kind of gold standard for testing pedagogical approaches, but - even if such a reputation is considered deserved, and there are good reasons to be sceptical (Phillips, 2005) - they are only sensible when they are on a sufficient scale to include wide variations of practice and context, when they can offer an indication of what works best ‘on average’ (if not in particular schools or classrooms).

To take another example, grounded theory (Glaser & Strauss, 1967) is often name-checked as a superior approach to social research (even if it is contested, so there are different versions promoted by different authors) as it is said to offer an open-ended approach to research which is based on rigorous methods of analysis, allowing theories to be developed that are genuinely ‘grounded’ in data. When undertaken properly, grounded theory does promise considerable rigour. It is however of little value when a teacher has a specific idea to test out - for example
when they have already developed a hypothesis about the key issue or problem or variable, and so can set up a study designed to enquire specifically into this. But in situations where one has an issue or problem where there is an open agenda for understanding it, grounded theory offers a powerful approach to exploring how to best understand matters. It avoids the danger of undertaking what has been labelled ‘rhetorical’ research: where instead of strictly testing an idea, a researcher simply convinces themselves it has relevance.

A hypothetical example of rhetorical research might be a teacher who reads about mind sets, and suspects that disappointing student attitudes to challenging tasks in her class are due to students having a fixed mind set about their intelligence and ability. It would be very easy to interview students, and identify comments they might make that seem indicative of a fixed mind set - “I’m not clever enough to solve these problems”, “I’ll never be good at this subject”, etc. These comments might be relevant, but could also be incidental to a more important issue. Finding
some examples of talk reflecting fixed minds sets is not in itself strong evidence unless the teacher also looks for (and finds many fewer) examples of statements indicating a growth mind set, or compares the frequency of ‘fixed’ mind-set statements in the focal class with those from a comparable class where students engage more productively with challenges.

The advantage of being an insider

Grounded theory is very challenging. It usually involves extensive time in the research context,and ongoing, iterative cycles of data collection and analysis. A teacher may lack the experience of working with complex, usually qualitative, data sets that can help develop the ‘theoretical sensitivity’ that this type of work is said to need. However, many grounded theory studies are compromised because the researchers cannot afford to spend extensive periods of time in the field with an open-ended timeline. From that perspective, a teacher makes an ideal researcher,being in the context for as long as is needed to complete the study.

A similar point may be made about ethnographic work. Ethnography is a specialist approach that
most teachers will not be trained in - unless their degree subject was in a subject like anthropology. Yet one of the major requirements of ethnography is spending extended periods in a research context getting to be familiar with the particular culture there. Teachers with the right background and skills are ideally placed to undertake such work.

Teachers who stay in the same school over a number of years may also be in a position to undertake longitudinal studies - a form of research under-represented in the educational literature because of the pragmatics of research. Most funded research projects are limited to about three years, which usually means that by the time the preparatory work is undertaken, and time is allowed for analysis and writing-up, time in the field is probably limited to about a year. This limitation need not apply to a teacher in post, who has the opportunity to study changes over a number of years.

So it seems teachers may not be in an ideal position to undertake all forms of research, but when they have the right skills and aptitudes, they may actually be well placed to contribute to some forms of research - and not just through approaches like lesson study and design research that are commonly recognised as suitable for involving teachers.

A flexible pedagogic model

Consequently, what kind of approach to preparing trainee teachers for classroom enquiry is indicated? Trainees on a PGCE are a diverse group, with different disciplinary backgrounds, (and so their own individual funds of knowledge linked to particular research approaches commonly used in their own disciplines), and they come to the PGCE with different levels of research experience. Therefore, a differentiated approach is indicated, allowing for the diversity of the student group

Many trainees will however be novices in terms of engagement with social science research approaches, and for these an introductory framework for thinking about classroom research, commensurate with their existing levels of knowledge and understanding, is appropriate. Teaching such trainees about case study and action research may offer a suitable basis for their first forays into classroom enquiry, and provide a suitable stepping stone to meeting a wider range of perspectives and methodologies later. However, given the wide range of knowledge and skills
different trainees bring to their PGCE course, it is important to consider such an introductory model (e.g., figure 1) as a means to support the beginner, and not as a device to limit what is possible, and exclude other trainees from building upon their own diverse disciplinary backgrounds and particular personal strengths.

Keith S. Taber
Cambridge, 2018


Glaser, B. G., & Strauss, A. L. (1967). The Discovery of Grounded Theory: Strategies for qualitative
research. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.
Phillips, D. C. (2005). The contested nature of empirical educational research (and why philosophy
of education offers little help). Journal of Philosophy of Education, 39(4), 577-597.
Taber, K. S. (2013). Classroom-based Research and Evidence-based Practice: An introduction
(2nd ed.). London: Sage.