I am a big advocate of teachers researching their own practice and over the past few years I have shared my own research and supported and encouraged others to do the same. I have always had a clear objective when I have done so: for the work of FE practitioners to inform the policy of individual teaching organisations and the sector in general.
What became evident to me was that if you wish research to inform anything, it needs to meet certain warrants or standards if it is to be underpinned by the types of reliability and validity required to be useful.
This concern ledDr David Powelland myself to lead a discussion group on this subject at #Re-ImagineFE19, a non-conference at Birmingham City University, where people got together to talk and develop ideas. It was a perfect platform to get people together who were interested in moving forward the conversation of what quality FE research may look like.
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Within the session, we developed the idea of individual organisations starting with a rolling definition of quality that evolves with practice and experience in the sector.
Within each organisation, research advocates could support individuals in creating work that meets an individual organisation's definition. This would allow it to be disseminated internally through time-efficient means such as blogs and audio-journals, the strongest of which would be shared with external networks on an annual, free-to-access basis.
As these researcher-practitioners moved through organisations, we could imagine the sector itself beginning to become research-literate and, hopefully, engaged.
The good news is that there have been steps taken in this direction. My own college has recently created its own definition of quality research as a starting point:
“The Bedford College Group is committed to supporting and producing good quality research that leads educational development within the college and the sector as a whole. The college believes that good quality research starts with well-framed research questions that draw upon a review of previous research. The researcher will choose a methodology and data collection methods that are congruent with the research’s aims and questions, showing an awareness of the research tradition. The research will seek to explore contexts within and around the college, seeking to research and develop areas where little is understood about professional practice in the college or the further education sector. In this respect, we would expect good quality research to draw on other datasets from within the group and the sector more broadly.
"All primary data will be collected following the college’s research ethics policy. The college believes good quality research explains how data has been collected and analysed. This includes well laid out answers to the questions posed, clearly presenting the data on which conclusions are drawn and also exploring different ways in which the data may be interpreted. All research will be published or presented in a manner that can be understood by its intended audience and that allows for critique by colleagues within, and whenever possible, outside the college.”
Within this are the “big five” of quality research. The first is well-framed research questions that draw on previous research or what is already known – for us this includes the practitioner work we hold as well as more formally published work. Next up are ethical issues which, as we are dealing with grey publication, includes the ethical use of practitioner work as well as the protection of participants.
Thirdly, we look for a methodology that is justified in terms of collecting the data best suited to answering the research questions. Number four are conclusions based on clearly displayed and explained data. Our fifth and final requirement is dissemination through academic posters, videos or in writing with teams across the college and beyond. As an example of this, this yearwe shared our teacher ed poster conference both inside and outside our college.
While the statement and the big five attached to it may require adaptation and change over time and within context, we believe that they represent a marker in the ground for us.
If we are working towards the practitioner research influencing policy at the organisational and national level, we need to begin to consider that our voices have more than just passion. We need to ensure that our voices, experiences and conceptualisations meet the requirements that others will expect, so our work can be respected and engaged with. In this respect ensuring the quality of the work we produce has to be central to our next steps as a sector.
This article is written with thanks to Dr Jonathan Tummons for his support to develop the Bedford College Group’s definition of quality research.
Sam Jones is a lecturer at Bedford College, founder of FE Research Meet and was FE Teacher of the Year at the Tes FE Awards 2019