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.
Designing the study
Still using School-based Research, I felt it was now time to consider another question from Chapter 2: “What can you realistically manage in the time available to you?” (Wilson, 2013b, p. 24). Considering this question is important in any project, not least because one wants to make sure one completes what one sets out to do, but one must also have time to properly analyse and evaluate data. I have found in previous research projects that small increases in scope have often resulted in vast increases in time being spent on data-processing and evaluation, in addition to the extra ‘design’ time. Given the scarcity of time during the school day and the reality that the majority of this work would end up being done at evenings or weekends, I knew I had to make sure I was not overly optimistic with how much I planned to do.
During the meeting with my Vice Principal, who was keen to use classroom-based research to inform school policy, he suggested that collecting information across a range of year groups would be more helpful than collecting data for any single year group. I agreed, though in science (where classes are streamed) this would mean data would need to be collected across multiple sets to give a fuller picture for any year group. While streaming or setting is a topic which some teachers hold passionate views about, in subjects where there is content disparity between the different course routes available, streaming as a means of determining course route (with the possibility of moving streams) is one method of helping students decide which course to study, while avoiding having to teach multiple courses (each with multiple layers of differentiation) within one class. My Vice Principal was also interested in the potential benefit to the SEN department at our school and, to that end, asked if I could liaise with our Special Educational Needs and Disability Coordinator. It was clear that I would not be able to collect all this data on my own: I would need to recruit colleagues.
Recruiting colleagues would have benefits beyond just enabling more classes to be involved in the research: colleagues would bring their own professional experience, teaching approaches, and interpretations. Involving colleagues in the spirit of action research, where everyone has shared ownership of the project and is empowered to share their thoughts and opinions, would help in designing the study and making sense of the experience.
When considering which colleagues to recruit, I decided to limit recruitment to science and/or learning support teachers and teaching assistants: immediate colleagues and those with whom I had already shared my learning from the Whole Education Lab Classroom Launch. My decision not to reach out to other departments was based on not wanting a team that was larger than 7, in case the ‘reflection’/’making sense of the experience’ phase (Wilson, 2013a) might become unmanageable: every extra person would increase the time each individual would need for reflecting on others’ findings and the length of time meetings would take if each person were to contribute fully. Furthermore, science, as a subject, requires students to use a range of skills (literacy, numeracy, reasoning, problem-solving, practical, and factual recall, but to name a few), so I felt that restricting the study to science and learning support colleagues would not unduly restrict the range of types of activity where metacognitive learning strategies could be taught.
Because this research was voluntary, and no additional timetable time would be given to complete it, I knew I needed to minimise the effort and time required for the successful completion of data collection by my colleagues, while at the same time giving them autonomy over what they do in their sessions and avoiding overly-prescriptive data collection methods. Furthermore, to increase the chance of my busy colleagues participating, I would undertake the administrative aspect of the research, such as: organising and facilitating meetings to ensure that everyone would be able to contribute fully, making and distributing minutes of meetings, collating and sharing participants’ data, drafting the report (based on everyone’s contributions), and ensuring that everyone would have the opportunity to reflect on and change the draft report.
Although many of my colleagues said they would take part in the research even before I went into any detail about what it was about, having thought through everything described above did seem to help some to make up their minds. While I spoke to each colleague briefly about the outline for the project, I also ascertained their availability during our lunch break, to find when might be a convenient time to schedule a meeting to describe the proposed project in more detail. This next meeting would also provide an opportunity for colleagues to share questions and withdraw before committing any further time to the project.
The first meeting: a more detailed outline
Despite organising a meeting with more than a week’s notice, aside from the colleague who had scheduled training, two of the four who had said they would attend were not able to attend due to unforeseen circumstances. This was not entirely unexpected given the unpredictable nature of school life, and I had planned to catch up with anyone who missed the meeting afterwards (by sending them the PowerPoint presentation for the meeting and meeting notes, and then speaking to them in person). Consequently, the first meeting went ahead with two out of my five colleagues who expressed an interest.
We began the meeting by discussing the research questions I had drafted and, after thoughtful consideration, we concluded that the fourth sub-question, ‘How does the teaching of techniques affect student self-perceptions?’ would be beyond what we could realistically manage in the time available. Therefore, we decided to continue with the main question and the first three sub-questions:
Can we teach metacognitive learning strategies to students at our school within existing science and learning-support curricula, and, if so, how?
- 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?
- How does the teaching of techniques enhance or detract from the teaching of curriculum content?
- Does the teaching of techniques place unreasonable planning or training demands on the teacher? If so, how?
After this, I shared with my colleagues my interpretation of action research (which can be found in my previous blog post), and shared how I thought we instinctively used a form of action research as part of our daily reflective practice as teachers, and that anything we undertook as part of this project would be little more than documenting the thoughts we are having and acting on anyway. I suggested that each teacher could undertake their own action research spiral, where they used one metacognitive learning strategy per teaching group (with the exception of groups which had students who received small-group literacy or numeracy intervention, in which case those students could be being taught up to three different strategies at any one time). Each teacher would seek to improve the deployment of their metacognitive learning strategy through each research cycle, and through that process answer the three research sub-questions. After half a term of each teacher doing this, either individually or in conjunction with one or more colleagues, then all participating teachers would come together and collectively reflect on everyone’s data and individual conclusions before drawing overall conclusions and developing recommendations…