How Can I Improve My Practice As I Prepare Students For Teaching?

Jane Renowden

Senior Lecturer in Education

St. Mary’s College

Twickenham

A paper to be presented at the symposium

‘How do we explain the significance of the validity of our self-study enquiries for the future of educational research?’

at the

British Educational Research Association Annual Meeting,

University of Warwick, 8 September 2006. 

This paper presents the claim to knowledge put forward in the dissertation I have recently completed as part of an MA in Education. A copy of my dissertation can be obtained from renowdenj@smuc.ac.uk The research involved an examination of my practice as a Senior Lecturer in Education on the BA ITT programme at St Mary’s College, Twickenham. My practice involves working with undergraduates and post-graduates to prepare them for teaching in primary classrooms. In the longer term I also prepare them for their first appointment. I interact with the students in a variety of contexts including large lecture halls, tutorial groups, seminars and one-to-one sessions. Over the last two years I have come to question the effectiveness of some of these interactions from an educational perspective. This led me to an ongoing interrogation of the values surrounding my teaching and I came to realise that these values are sometimes compromised and denied in my practice (Whitehead, 1993).

 

I chose to use a self-study action research methodology because this is compatible with the democratic and emancipatory values I hold around education. As a practitioner working in education I am concerned with finding practical solutions to dilemmas that arise in my practice and my work engages with a living educational theory approach. The idea of a living theory tradition is now well established in the literature (Whitehead and McNiff, 2006.) It considers that personal and social worlds are best viewed from the perspective of the individual. The qualitative research I have been engaged in aims to understand my own and other people’s perspectives on the world in which we live. My own ontological position assumes that the researcher is influenced by people around them and in turn influences others. Researchers bring their own values to the research work, including their ontological stance and epistemological values. I believe that humans can initiate their own actions and as an educator much of my working life is spent developing this ability in the children and students I have worked with. This engages with the position espoused by Arendt (1958) in her idea of natality. I seek to encourage those I work with to develop their capacity for self-development and self-determination (Young, 1990) within a context of development as freedom (Sen, 1999.)

In action research terms validation comes through the process of the submission of your work to a group of significant others for their critique, as you are making a claim to new knowledge (McNiff, Lomax & Whitehead 2003: 8). I look for my work to be judged as valid if it is relevant in guiding practice (Lomax, 1986). As I seek to validate my claim to know what improves my practice I will seek self-validation, peer validation as I make the work available and learner validation through the establishment of the learners’ understanding of how my practice influences their learning.

 

Standards of Judgement

The work I have done includes a claim to knowledge that is justified by my seeing my practice in relation to my values, by my intentional critical reflection, by my conducting a disciplined inquiry and by my interpretation of my own practice. This claim to knowledge will be judged against criteria and standards of judgement linked to my values. I have articulated what gives meaning to my work or what gives it validity. This identification of standards of judgement is part of the generation of evidence and is essential for this research to be considered both valid and good quality. The standards of judgement I put forward are aligned with those suggested by Whitehead (1989) as questions he asks when judging the validity of a claim to knowledge.

  • Was the enquiry carried out in a systematic way?

The dissertation is an account of my systematic enquiry into my practice.

  • Are the values used to distinguish the claim to knowledge as educational knowledge clearly shown and justified?

In Chapter 2 I articulated my educational values.

  • Does the claim contain evidence of a critical accommodation of propositional contributions from the traditional disciplines of education?

I have, throughout the dissertation, considered a range of propositional contributions from different traditional educational disciplines.

  • Are the assertions made in the claim clearly justified?

I have justified my claim to knowledge through these standards of judgement.

  • Is there evidence of an enquiring and critical approach to an educational problem? (Whitehead, 1989: 41-52)

The dissertation is the evidence I am putting forward that I have engaged in a critical enquiry into the educational problem, ‘How do I improve my practice?’

In making a claim to knowledge I am articulating my embodied values, which will become my criteria and standards of judgement. To be able to say that improvement has taken place I needed to be able to meet these criteria through my data analysis. Habermas (1971) put forward a theory of social communication that identified four criteria, which I have used to test the effectiveness of the way in which I have communicated my claim. He said a statement must be true, presented comprehensibly by an authentic speaker in an appropriate situation for these things to be said. I am claiming that the way I have communicated the research processes I have undertaken meets these criteria.

My Claim to Knowledge

In asking the question ‘How do I improve my practice as I prepare students for teaching?’ I am holding myself accountable for the production of evidence in support of my claim to knowledge. My claim to knowledge is that I know and understand my practice and educational development and know how to begin to improve it. I have learnt something new about practice and my own learning. In writing an account of my practice and the values that inform it and asking how I can improve it, I am generating a living educational theory of professional practice (Whitehead, 1989.)

The goal of my research was an improvement in the quality of my practice as a lecturer on the teacher-training course at St. Mary’s. The dissertation offers descriptions of what I did and explanations for why I did it, which together become my theory of practice (McNiff, 2006:149). The standards of judgement I used to judge my claim were linked to my values as articulated in Chapter 2. As well as satisfying the standards of judgement required to gain an MA I ask that my work be judged according to whether it has answered the following questions:

  • Have I clearly articulated my values around practice and am I demonstrating a commitment to them?
  • Am I demonstrating an understanding of my practice that deepened as this work progressed?
  • Have I demonstrated an increased understanding of the learning of myself and my students?

I have deepened my own insights around the issue I have been investigating. I know how to begin to improve my practice and I know how to enhance the deep learning of my students. This work has enabled me to evaluate my practice and alter the way I deliver content to enable students to learn more effectively. I have an increased knowledge about myself as a teacher and learner and my colleagues have been able to learn from the work I have done. I know why the lecture format is potentially problematic and this enables me to improve my practice by doing the following:

  • Emphasising the link between theory and practice;
  • Facilitating an increased understanding in the students of their own learning needs;
  • Modelling good practice by introducing more practical tasks and opportunities for reflective dialogue.

This is work I am engaged in at the moment and it is ongoing.

Through Winter’s (1996) six key principles of rigour in action research, I have challenged my thinking. Through reflexive critique I have become aware of my perceptual biases. I am aware that I may see things with lack of clarity because of the way I am positioned. Through dialectical critique I have begun to understand the context in which I work and the phenomena within it. Collaboration has become even more valuable to me and indeed I have come to realise that the viewpoints of others contribute to my own understanding of situations. Winter calls my understanding of the ideas I took for granted as risking disturbance. Doing this work has offered them up for critique. I have worked towards creating plural structures by offering up my account as one of many and I have begun internalising and articulating the links between theory and practice.

I have become more confident professionally and this has been developed because I have been able to draw on more informed judgements (Grundy, 1987). I have become empowered as a professional educator and I have raised the volume of my voice within the institution in which I work, allowing me to take more control of my working life. I feel myself to be a participant in a change situation rather than an observer. By demonstrating how practice can act as grounds for generating new knowledge I am contributing to new forms of practice-based professionalism grounded in communicative action.

Personally it has also been a positive experience. I have experienced the growth in my self-esteem that comes from the success of work undertaken. I have deepened the collaborative working relationships I value and my understanding of the needs of my students has developed through my work. I have used this work as the starting point for my doctoral studies, which I hope to complete by 2009.

References

Arendt, H. (1958) The Human Condition. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

Grundy, S. (1987) Curriculum: Product or Praxis. Lewes, Falmer.

Habermas, J. (1971) Knowledge and Human Interests. Boston, Beacon Press.

Lomax, P. (1986) ‘Action Researchers’ action research: a symposium’, British Journal of In-service Education, 13 (1).

McNiff, J. & Whitehead, J. (2006) All You Need to Know about Action Research. London, Sage.

McNiff, J. & Lomax,P. & Whitehead, J. (2003) You and your Action Research Project. London, Routledge Falmer.

Sen, A. (1999) Development as Freedom. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Whitehead, J. (1989) ‘Creating a living educational theory from questions of the kind, ‘How do I improve my practice?’, Cambridge Journal of Education, 19 (1): 41-52

Whitehead, J. & McNiff, J. (2006) Action Research: Living Theory. London, Sage.

Winter, R. (1996) Some Principles and Procedures for the Conduct of Action Research. in O. Zuber-Skerritt (ed.) New Directions in Action Research. London, Falmer

Young, I.M. (1990) Justice and the Politics of Difference. Princeton NJ, Princeton University Press.

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