I love the Research Ed movement and wish that this opportunity had been available to me as an early career teacher. I am keen that we make research and reflective practice a sine qua non for teachers. It is the only way that a teacher can master their craft. It’s engaging and it is a life long journey. Let’s push for more.
Some might say that research is first and foremost a state of mind. It starts with curiosity and a desire to understand and then it moves on to a quest for more certainty around your area of investigation.
I started researching from the moment I started teaching. I was fascinated by why some children found the learning process so straightforward and why others didn’t. I read voraciously, talked to colleagues and also experimented with strategies in my own classroom. No one told me to do it and no one measured my success. I just felt compelled to reach a better level of understanding and every small step forward and every frustrating setback simply increased my desire.
In this phase I began to make use of research findings from the big researchers but it was exasperating. Researchers disagreed with each other and for the most part cited only fellow researchers who supported their theories. Not only that, I wanted to have impact in the classroom and context plays a big role so not everything was relevant for my school. It was like navigating without a compass and I floundered. But on the journey I did find some new ideas which challenged my thinking about how pupils develop and about what was important in learning. I also began to find the names of researchers whose work I admired and to follow their development. Finally, I discovered that I was a ‘constructionist’ looking to help pupils construct meaning. At last I had a way to conceptualise how I went about the process of teaching and a better basis for discussions with colleagues.
But the thing with research is that whilst you set out looking for a clear and easy answer, what inevitably happens is that you find the answer turns out to be more complex than you expected and it sets you off on another voyage of discovery. I started researching into how the most successful learners function with a view to understanding it. Some 35 years later I am still working on that problem. I know a whole lot more than most people about this but not everything. I never will. You just keep taking the next step and increasing your knowledge.
I moved from early experimentation in my classroom to undertaking more formal research. I engaged in further study so I could learn more about research methods and I became a reasonably competent Practitioner Researcher. It would be wonderful if all teachers became Practitioner Researchers. It is just so fulfilling. The difference between the ad hoc classroom investigations I had been doing previously and the research I was now doing was that it utilised the relevant literature base more fully and better designed investigations helped me to actually reach some limited conclusions. But my research was small scale and so embedded in my school that it was difficult to generalise about its wider applicability. I needed collaborators to work with and that came by finding others who were also using the same literature base of cognitive researchers that I admired. Together we could make progress and we did.
As I moved into the university sector I had the opportunity to undertake larger scale research studies and to formally codify the literature base through meta-analysis. I learned more and faster and my findings were more generalizable. I became one of the researchers that practitioners and fellow researchers follow in the UK and globally and that is exciting.
But I also supported budding Practitioner Researchers in their own research and involved them in my research. This led me in 2004 to create the concept of Structured Tinkering (borrowing the term ‘tinkering’ from Karl Popper1) which is a way to help teachers to ‘tinker’ with their own practice in a systematic way and hence have a greater appreciation of whether the interventions were effective. In effect, creating a classroom that is responsive and self-regulating. In this approach I was suggesting that, as a teacher or group of teachers, you find a problem you want to explore, find out what other people have learnt about it and then set up an intervention designed to fit your own context. I did this with many teachers who wanted to use aspects of my work to explore their problems and I helped them to use the Structured Tinkering 3 step approach to do this. In turn their findings strengthened my overall research proposition. Maybe I was an early exponent of Professional Learning Communities.
Over time I have regularly researched, used the research of others and helped colleagues in their research. Right now I am working with schools to help them investigate effective implementation of the latest thinking of advanced cognition – High Performance Learning. We use a Professional Learning Community approach and encourage research through Structured Tinkering. I am actively engaged in bringing research into schools and working with them to both utilise it and also to create more understanding. All this in a quest to improve outcomes for students and to normalise high performance.
In all schools, creative and thoughtful teachers unearth new knowledge daily and one job of the professional researcher is to help them codify it. Research is practical, it’s rewarding and it’s engaging. It is for everyone, not just for the specialists - but high quality research is the only research worth doing. Let’s provide the infrastructure that makes it possible for all schools to be real research schools and all teachers to be Practitioner Researchers. Plus let’s make sure that academic and practioner researchers work in harmony. It’s not a case of some do research and some use research; it is that we all do both but in our different ways.
Deborah Eyre (Professor), March 2018
 “Piecemeal tinkering combined with critical analysis is the main way to practical results in the social as well as natural sciences.”