‘It’s an opportunity to lift your head and look around.’

A collaborative blog for PD North from the online Practitioner Action Research Group

Our PD North Practitioner Action Research Group is an online community of practice, where practitioners from across FE come together to share and discuss practitioner-led research in our sector. 

Over the course of the year, we’ve focused on various aspects of action research. Topics have been wide-ranging, including, for instance: research conceptualisation and design, developing meaningful research questions, ethical considerations, methodological approaches, practical applications of FE-based research and strategies to support writing and dissemination. 

During our meeting today, we explored the following 2 questions:

1. What have we learnt/ are we learning about practitioner-based research in FE that we would like to share with others?

2. How does our engagement with online communities of practice support and develop our own research practice in FE?

Discussions took place at a lively pace, and our thoughts and ideas travelled in interesting directions. Here are some of the things we had to say:

What have we learnt/ are we learning about practitioner-based research in FE that we would like to share with others?

  1. FE-based research is alive and well, but we need to get better at coming together to share and write about our findings. 

‘FE has been like Cinderella at times, it’s nice to see that we are finally coming together to formally share and discuss our ideas.’

‘The word formal is important here, because FE-based research has been happening for a long time.’

‘It has, but a lot of it goes on in silos. One of the challenges is bringing everything together.’

  1. We need to address the lack of confidence and ‘imposter syndrome’ that can at times hold us back from sharing our research findings with the wider world.’

‘I’ve heard some people say ‘I’m not a part of a university’ so I can’t do research. We need to change the narrative here and help build confidence across our sector to engage in research and to share our findings.’

‘It can be a daunting task, but it’s very important that we speak up. For example, as part of our PD North and OTLA work with the Education and Training Foundation, we’ve been involved in research that challenges some of the HE driven, grandiose education theories – we need to share our findings and say to colleagues that these big theories or interventions may not work in your context – don’t take them as gospel, do your own research with your learners into what works best for them. 

‘There can be a risk of FE-based research becoming re-territorialised and placed under the HE banner.’

‘This is why we need to write about our work, to own it. It’s about understanding the merit of what we produce for our sector. Drawing on research from HE is of course important, we can use it to broaden our understanding. But it’s not better quality research just because it’s come from HE. As FE practitioners, we have tacit, contextualised knowledge about what works and what doesn’t work for learners in our settings. 

‘FE has its own language.’

  1. FE-based research often strives towards cultural change, and this begins with critical reflection in relation to our own practice.

Through my research into my practice I usually eventually arrive at the realisation that I am what needs to change.’ 

‘You have to have lived experience to be able to write authentically about FE, and that means continually questioning your practice… be confident in your practice, but question it too. I think the two can work together.’

  1. Action research shifts conventional understandings about teaching and learning.

‘I learn as much as the people that I am teaching.’

‘Participatory research approaches have hugely impacted my own understandings of teaching and learning. For me, I feel that if I really want to improve my practice, I first need to understand the impact of my teaching from my learners’  perspectives. The insight learners have shared with me has been invaluable.’

  1. That researching your own practice can be an emotional experience.

    ‘I never escape from my self-doubts for long.’

‘You have to be very self disciplined to maintain your project against some very demanding things elsewhere’.

‘Having time to step out and look in is very important. You need the headspace to really understand where your research is taking you and what your findings mean.’

  1. That practitioner research can be empowering, supporting wellbeing and encouraging autonomous practice. 

‘There is still a culture of consultant-led, one off approaches to CPD. In our college, we offer practitioner-based research as an alternative approach for staff. Staff have been able to explore areas of teaching and learning that they really want to develop, rather than being directed by us to attend a particular training session.’

‘As practitioners, we can be very in the moment, head down, really busy getting everything done. Action research gives you permission, gives you that opportunity to lift your head and look around. It gives you time and space to ask questions and reflect upon your practice.’

‘You always want to get better. Action research can help.’

‘Engaging in practitioner-led research can be really empowering. It keeps people in the sector at times I think. It gives you a sense of autonomy over your practice.’

How does our engagement with online communities of practice support and develop our own research practice in FE?

  1. That social and other online networks help facilitate relationships with other FE-based research and researchers.

‘Through our group, and more widely, through eduTwitter, I’ve met and shared ideas with people who I would have been unlikely to come across otherwise. FE practitioners from all over the UK, and further afield.’

‘Online spaces can be a really helpful way of facilitating shared interests, whether that’s developing a reading culture, embedding skills for digital literacy, or learner wellbeing… you’ll find others who share your interests and who have useful ideas to share.’

  1. That connection with others through communities of practice can build research resilience and support well-being.

‘Being part of a network is invaluable to help you keep on track and to learn from your peers. In fact the more people you involve the more likely you are to develop the resilience to continue. Tutors in our sector face a lot of challenging issues and it takes determination to see your research through.’

‘Forums such as this one, and other, social media driven forums can be really useful places to talk about your research if it doesn’t go well. You may not always want to highlight what went wrong in your workplace, so it’s good to have places where you can share and learn and ask advice from others.’

‘It’s important to find spaces of trust, to know that people have your back.’

  1. That having a variety of platforms, and sharing across them, brings diverse communities of practice together.

‘Different platforms suit different people. Some love Facebook or Whatsapp, others will prefer to engage on Twitter or a face-to-face meeting like ours on Zoom. Others will really not like a platform like this and will not engage… some will stick by a traditional email to get in touch and make a connection. There is value in multiple platforms because you’ll get different engagement where people feel comfortable.’

‘It’s a great way of blending silos of practice, in essence a snowball effect. For example, people now come along to this PD North Group who run their own forums, and members of the PD North team have been to those events and presented their research, so we’re growing connections with others in our research community all the time.’

‘6th form provision can sometimes be ostracised from other areas of FE. Online forums can help those from across diverse areas of FE contribute to the conversation.’

  1. That engagement in online groups and forums can be active or passive.

‘I see myself a bit on the outside, looking in. I’m a lurker. It can be hard to break in sometimes, and sometimes I find it hard to put a contribution into writing. But I really get interested in what others are saying, so I get something from it. I’d like to become more actively engaged.’

‘I didn’t contribute to an online forum for a long time. I watched and read what others were saying. And then the topic of education for social justice came up on FE Chat, and I thought I really did have things I wanted to say, so that gave me the confidence to get involved.’

  1. That engaging in online communities of practice is often the first step towards meeting and engaging with other FE-based researchers face-to-face.

‘People I’ve met on Twitter or other social media platforms I’ve now met in person too as they’ve come along to events like FE Research Meet or PD North celebration events to share their research.’

‘It’s important to remember that engagement online is not always an end in itself, it’s often the first step towards a face-to-face connection. The online connection helps facilitate face-to-face communities of practice, where people are actively coming together to present their research and share practice.’

  1. Online forums can be a useful place to learn about other FE-based research projects and FE-produced educational theory. It is also a useful place to share your own research.

‘I’ve found online forums and groups such as our PD North group an incredibly useful place to learn about other FE-based research that’s happening.’

‘There can be really helpful discussions about educational theory, and good access to, and recommendations of, literature that can support you with your own research.’

‘They can be good places to share your own writing and research findings, and have some feedback from other FE-based practitioner researchers.’ 

Would you like to contribute to this conversation? Perhaps you have fresh ideas or a different perspective to share? If so, you are warmly welcomed to join our group. Please complete our booking form here: PD North Practitioner Researcher Booking Form.

We also have a Padlet Board, where we have been building and sharing our ideas as a group. To visit our Padlet, please click here: PD North Practitioner Researcher Padlet.