Benjamin Strawbridge led Sawtry Village Academy’s participation in our WE Lab Classrooms programme, on the metacognition strand. The programme supports teachers to trial evidence-based, 2-for-1 teaching practices from the EEF toolkit in their classroom or department and measure the impact. You can find out more and watch spotlight interviews on the programme page. Here he reflects in detail on the action research cycle.
This pair of blog posts describes the development of a classroom-based, practical, action research project, led by a small team of teachers and teaching assistants, which sought to investigate the extent to which different metacognitive strategies could be taught as part of the existing science and learning-support curricula. Due to the closure of UK schools during the COVID-19 pandemic, the research was not completed.
This first post explores the beginning of the action research cycle, including a summary of what is meant by action research, the development of a purpose and focus for research, and a research question. The second post describes how a rough plan was developed, colleagues were recruited, and the research was designed.
It is written from the perspective of a science teacher, working in a non-selective, state-funded, secondary school in England, for anyone who would like to read about one teacher-researcher’s experience of designing action research to investigate metacognitive strategies in the classroom.
Considering undertaking action research
During the drive home, after Whole Education’s 2019 ‘Lab Classroom’ launch day, my head was whirling with all the different metacognitive strategies I could try in my classroom. Like any teacher, I am always reflecting on my practice and making changes, whether they are while I am planning a lesson or as I am teaching it. Each day, a teacher may make hundreds of on-the-spot decisions about how they teach and interact with students, have several insightful conversations with their colleagues or students, and make countless observations about what happens as a result of their interventions. Almost none of these personal reflections, the discussions one has with colleagues, the changes one makes as a result of them, or how students respond to them, are documented: there would not be time to document and systematically reflect on every thought and every happening during the school day. Although one may develop and refine one’s practice, a lack of documentation makes it harder to accurately share with others the learning journey which has led to one’s current approaches, which in turn makes it harder for others to evaluate or attempt to replicate what one has done.
Whole Education was keen for us to share what we learn with others at the follow-up conference in the summer. To help focus our efforts, they asked us to complete an action research project.
Is it worth trying?
These may include a chance that it may help my practice (and by helping my practice, help the children I teach), or it may be something that saves me time.
This cost may be in terms of money, time, and/or mental freshness: sometimes I have the time to do something but feel so exhausted that I cannot work productively. Finally, if I am going to do something, I consider when it might be most opportune to do it.
Based on the information presented at the WE Lab Classroom launch, I felt there could be a good chance that explicitly teaching metacognitive skills could benefit my students. However, the extent to which developing an education research project could help me and my students would depend on the project design. For the second question, that was something I needed to consider carefully: having completed a few education research projects before, I knew that social sciences research can be extremely time consuming. So, filled with enthusiasm, some experience, and plenty of optimism (that I would be able to design a research project that fitted into the time I had available), I began to think about planning the research.
What is action research?
Whole Education asked us to complete an action research project, a research method I had used before. Nonetheless, I thought it would be wise to remind myself of exactly what action research is. School-based Research describes action research as a form of practitioner enquiry, where “it is the role of the teacher to engage in the process of self-reflective enquiry so that they will understand and improve their own practice”(Wilson, 2013b, p.234): it is a template for evaluating thinking. This template is an iterative cyclical or spiral process which may continue ad infinitum: a “…feedback loop in which initial findings generate possibilities for change which are then implemented and evaluated as a prelude to further investigation” (Denscombe, 2010, p.126). This loop is often, though not always, presented as an iterative, four–step cycle of: plan, act, observe, reflect (Wilson, 2013c).
Action research is not restricted to the classroom, and Kemmis, McTaggart and Nixon (2014) provide an overview of action research in different settings. They categorise action research in the classroom as ‘classroom action research’, and highlight that the nature of this research is practical (as opposed to being idealistic), often qualitative in nature, and primacy should be given to teachers (who have professional knowledge which they use to assess and act on situations) (Kemmis et al., 2014). They further divide the types of research a person may undertake, and describe practical action research as being “guided by an interest in educating or enlightening practitioners so they can act more wisely and prudently” (Kemmis et al., 2014, p.14). This is achieved through the project having self-direction and giving those involved in the project a voice: the subjects are not objects, but people with important opinions, who will live with the consequences of the intervention.
In action research, the outcomes or consequences of a project are not known in advance, and the practitioner primarily responsible for the project should consider the potential longer-term outcomes and consequences of a project and question them. While one practitioner may decide the direction of a project and what practice will be examined, they must consider the views and responses of others involved to ensure there is a “symmetrical, reciprocal relationship between the practitioner and others involved in and affected by the practice” (Kemmis et al., 2014, p.15). An exploration of how this may be done ethically can be found in my next blog post.
In summary, action research can be thought of as a formalised template for building on and recording many of the things that reflective teachers do as part of classroom practice anyway. As an activity, its goal is to help those participating in the research to solve a problem or improve practice through ensuring that everyone involved in the research has a voice and an opportunity for others to reflect on their views and opinions. It also gives value to teachers who have expert knowledge of their classroom setting that outsiders may not have, while not just accepting, but embracing their individual subjectivity within the research process. In my opinion, action research is ‘teacher friendly’ in that it empowers a teacher, provides constructive feedback, and draws on much of the mental work that a teacher is doing in the classroom anyway. These descriptions of action research proved helpful later while designing the practical, classroom action research I was about to undertake. These points are revisited in more detail in my next post.
Framing the research process
As previously stated, the process of action research can be described as an iterative cycle that is often presented as having four key steps: plan, act, observe, reflect (Wilson, 2013c). Wilson also presents a five-step cycle for doing action research, which breaks down the ‘plan’ phase into two sub-divisions. For the purposes of this blog, I describe my journey using this five-step cycle, which I list below, and cover the first step for the remainder of this post:
1. Identifying the area of study
After the Whole Education Lab Classroom launch, I knew that I was going to study metacognition in the classroom and had lots of ideas about what I could do. However, I was still not sure about what I would do, so I turned to Chapter 2 of School-based Research. Here, Wilson presents a thinking template that can be used to explore one’s ideas before narrowing down a range of ideas into a specific, clearly defined, research area and question. Wilson strongly advocates the use of literature to help in this refining process. Consequently, I spent some time writing up my notes from the conference day and did some extra reading around questions I had thought of since. To focus my efforts and help me assess whether or not I understood the material, I made a PowerPoint presentation for colleagues, which I knew would test whether I could convey concepts in a logical, simple and coherent way. During this time, I contemplated two questions which emerged: ‘What is the purpose of my research?’ and ‘What do I want to find out?’ (Wilson, 2013a).
Developing the research purpose and focus
After reflecting on my new learning (including linking it to my professional practice and school environment) and sharing what I had learned with colleagues and listening to their views and ideas, I met with my Vice Principal. He was keen to know how metacognitive learning strategies could be used at our school to help student learning. He shared that he would like to use some classroom-based research, conducted at our school, to develop whole-school policy on metacognitive learning. This meeting answered Wilson’s question about the purpose of the research and gave some direction about the research focus, and provided a direction for study design (that interventions would be delivered within the existing curriculum and timetable: something I discuss in more detail in the next post).
Although this meeting gave me direction regarding the research focus, I still did not have a clearly defined research question: the field was still too broad. Helpfully, Wilson describes how you can use ‘drilling down’ to explore what you are thinking about by writing down and examining thoughts from different perspectives, to develop your ideas into a research question. This process involves clearly defining what you mean, asking yourself what you could measure and whether that would help answer your question, and discussing your intermediate ideas with colleagues and/or students to gain additional perspectives and insights. It seemed logical that if metacognitive activities were going to have an effect, they needed to be taught effectively. By effectively, I am referring to whether students learn the techniques so they can use them. Assessing the effect of the techniques on student performance can only happen once students have learned the techniques and can use them. Because of this, before any quantitative assessment of the techniques should be undertaken, a purely qualitative investigation to explore and develop how the techniques could be taught seemed to be appropriate. Therefore, my main research question became clear:
‘Can we teach metacognitive learning strategies to students at our school within existing science and learning-support curricula, and, if so, how?’
In order to answer this, I developed the following sub-questions:
1. How do students use taught techniques?
- How do students use taught techniques in the sessions?
- How much do students recall taught techniques from one session to the next?
2. How does the teaching of techniques enhance or detract from the teaching of curriculum content?
3. Does the teaching of techniques place unreasonable planning or training demands on the teacher? If so, how?
4. How does the teaching of techniques affect student self-perceptions?
With these tentative questions in mind, I began on the next step: designing the study and deciding what would be feasible to investigate. This is described in my next post.