What is Practitioner Research?

What is Practitioner Research for Educators?

There are many descriptions and definitions of practitioner research. In the context of our work, it is synonymous with teacher research. Practitioner research is any intentional inquiry that is conducted to learn more about a particular educational issue (BERA-RSA, 2014). The best and simplest definition comes from Stenhouse (1981): Practitioner research is ‘systematic inquiry made public’ (p. 104).  

How is practitioner research different from reflective practice?

Using the definition from Stenhouse, we can see that practitioner research has three defining characteristics:

  1. It involves inquiry investigating to gain new knowledge and understanding. This new knowledge may not be new to the world, but it is likely to be new to the practitioner researcher.
  1. It is systematic, which means it involves approaches that are rigorous, structured, and defendable. This is important and it is something that clearly distinguishes practitioner research from everyday reflection on practice.
  2. Its outcomes are shared – like any other type of research, the outcomes of practitioner research must be shared. Otherwise, it only benefits the person doing the research. There are various dissemination methods, some of which are more formal, e.g., a conference or poster presentation or a journal article. Other more common and informal ways of sharing research results are through staff meeting presentations or workshops for colleagues.

How does practitioner research benefit educators?

Research shows that high performing educational systems are characterised by inquiry and evidence-based decisions. The educators in such systems engage with and in research as part of their practice. Research also shows that practitioner research is a highly effective form of professional learning because it allows educators to focus on a topic or area of practice that they have an interest in learning more about. The professional standards for teachers expect teachers to engage with and in research, especially at the advanced stages of their careers. Some researchers have suggested that research literacy is an essential element of teachers’ identity alongside practical experience and pedagogical and content knowledge (see Figure 1). Teachers we have worked with have identified improved practice and professionalism, empowerment, and the capacity to participate in evidence-based decision making as professional outcomes.

Figure 1. Dimensions of teacher effectiveness and teachers’ professional identity
(BERA-RSA, 2014, p. 10)

Why should educators conduct research?

In many fields, such as medicine, science, or engineering, it is the practitioners who conduct the research that contributes to the development of that field. In contrast, most educational research is not conducted by practising educators in schools. When educators in schools conduct research in their own context, it allows them to

  • Communicate within the educational research field
  • Link practice to theory or bridge the practice – theory divide
  • Find solutions to classroom problems / questions / issues
  • Compare their practice with what others are doing
  • Explore current and cutting edge approaches to teaching and learning
  • Base their practice on more than tradition, habit, or trial and error
  • Contribute to decision-making at a school level

Another very important reason that practitioner research is so important is that teachers are under-represented as producers of knowledge about teaching. Teacher research helps to address the current deficit of studies that connect with everyday practice in schools.

What does practitioner research involve?

In many ways, practitioner research is the same as any other research – it involves the identification of a robust research question, the use of rigorous methods to collect and analyse data, and the sharing of the findings. Some people regard practitioner research as the same as action research. We believe that while action research is appropriate for some teacher research, it is equally possible and sometimes more valid to use other forms of research, such as case studies, exploratory studies, or quasi-experimental approaches. The methods used depend very much on the nature of the research question and the context in which the educator is working.

What skills are needed to conduct teacher research?

Not all teachers have been trained to conduct research and this can make them feel that research is not something they can undertake. We have found that with coaching and support, teachers are highly skilled and capable of achieving remarkable research outcomes. Our programs are designed to help educators to learn how to research in a manageable way and at a teacher-friendly pace while they are investigating a research question of interest to them. Click here to view a sample program.

The most important thing is that anyone who engages in research has the time, patience, and flexibility to work through each stage of the research process. It is true that some additional time is needed to conduct quality practitioner research but, in our experience, the investment in time is well worth the rewards for both teachers and their students or colleagues. Research need not be a burden in terms of time – as long as the research question remains doable and manageable, it is possible to make research compatible with the everyday work of educators. It is more important to be adaptable and to view research as an opportunity to grow as a professional educator.

What are the challenges of practitioner research?

As with any research, there can be challenges. Some challenges are unforeseen (e.g., a curriculum change may impact on a planned investigation), but most can be avoided with careful planning. Schools are messy places in which to conduct research. The work of educators is very busy and not always predictable. Practitioner researchers sometimes find that the timing can be tricky, although this is less challenging with planning and forethought. Obtaining permission from participants is a requirement of ethical research, so practitioner researchers need to ensure they plan this component into their time frames. In general, the challenges that are common to practitioners are easily addressed and our workshop programs are carefully designed to support our participants to avoid or minimise the possible challenges.

Conclusion

We believe that practitioner research is rewarding and fulfilling and we are passionate about helping educators to develop their research skills. Effective teachers are lifelong learners. The ability to engage with and in research allows teachers to continue to learn about their own practice and to enhance their students’ outcomes. While research is not always plain sailing, the challenges are absolutely outweighed by the many benefits.

References

  • BERA-RSA. (2014). Research and the teaching profession: Building the capacity for a self-improving education system. Retrieved from https://www.bera.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/BERA-RSA-Research-Teaching-Profession-FULL-REPORT-for-web.pdf
  • Stenhouse, L. (1981). What counts as research? British Journal of Educational Studies, 29(2), 103-114.

Selected publications