1 When does ‘good practice’ become ‘research’?
A good teacher will evaluate their own practice and reflect on how they can improve. That evaluation will almost certainly involve analysing data, and assessing the work students produce. It may also involve talking to students about what they enjoyed, or found difficult, or asking them to complete a short questionnaire. It may involve asking a colleague to observe you teach, or you observing someone else’s lesson. The results of the evaluations will influence your planning and hopefully, will encourage you to try new things. So when does ‘good practice’ become ‘research’? And what are the advantages of engaging in research?
‘Research’ is defined by the Chambers dictionary as: ‘systematic investigation towards increasing the sum of knowledge’. This definition provides some clues. It is suggested that a piece of enquiry, evaluation or development work becomes ‘research’ when the following apply:
- the work involves capturing data
Conversations or lessons might be recorded so that they can be used outside the context in which the events took place. Students’ work might also be used as evidence.
- participants are being asked to do something out of the ordinary
You might ask people to take part in a focus group, or an interview that disrupts their normal routine in some way.
- the output is public
If the output is public then it can contribute to the ‘sum of knowledge’. However, if the results of the piece of work are to be made public, people need to be confident that this new knowledge is based on reliable evidence, that the conclusions are valid and that the research has been carried out properly.
The advantage of conducting research is that it is systematic and contributes knowledge to the field, which in this is case is ‘education’. The ‘knowledge’ is based on evidence, can be defended and explained, and is therefore likely to be taken more seriously than accounts of personal experience. A piece of research is also likely to take place over a significant period of time, and if conducted properly will help you to consider what works and also provide insights into why it works.
If these conditions apply, then the work that you are undertaking does constitute ‘research’. This has further implications:
- The work should take account of other studies in the field. Studying the literature will also give you some ideas about how you might tackle the issue that you are concerned about.
- The work should be systematic and purposeful. It should be underpinned by a clear philosophy and set of beliefs. There should be specific research questions and an ethical design that will give reliable results that are likely to be considered to be valid, by others.
The activities in this unit will help you to think about how to design good research – starting with thinking about what you might research.
Activity 1: Thinking about research questions
Choose an areas of particular interest to you and answer the following questions:
- What do you want to find out more about and why?
- What could you focus a piece of research on?
- Suggest a working title for your study.
- Write down two or three specific research questions.
A piece of research is a relatively long-term undertaking so it needs to be something you really care about so that you keep motivated. It might be something related to one of the classes you teach – or it might be a whole school issue or problem that you feel needs investigating. At this stage, it might be helpful to complete Activity 1 for more than one topic.
Activity 2: Starting research
Spend about 30 minutes searching the internet for material related to your chosen area or topic and begin to explore other work in the field. The aim is to become familiar with the field as this might affect the questions you want to consider.
The extent to which you need to consider other work in the field will depend on the exact nature of your study. For a small-scale study that you might be undertaking with colleagues, with colleagues in your own school, then the information available on the internet or in books that you have, will be sufficient. If you want your work to have credibility, and you are hoping to publish the findings – perhaps in your subject association journal – then you do need to consider what is already known and a brief review of the recent literature is needed.
If you are considering undertaking a Masters degree or a PhD then you will need to do a more extensive review of the literature, drawing on journals available through a university library.