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Just a fling... or a long term relationship?

Mary Hamilton looks back at the Practitioner-led Research Initiative and forward to where it might lead

It is February and there is snow on the ground - but there is a warm atmosphere inside the Northern College. A group of practitioners and researchers from around the country are deep in animated discussion. We are puzzling over how to work with older adults' oral history stories about their experiences of numeracy. We talk about the challenges of gathering the experiences of homeless adults, how to make sense of a pile of interview transcripts, and the ethics of assessment. We discover how easy it is to use blogs and do-ityourself interactive video to collect reflections from both tutors and learners. We also learn how to record increases in confidence and other 'soft outcomes' from a programme of reading for pleasure in a way that reflects tutors' gut feelings about the value of a course but will also be convincing evidence for auditors and funders. During the day and a half we spend together there is a lot of laughter, questioning and hard graft as well as some anxiety about whether it will all work out. Evening conversations in the bar are an essential ingredient.

The PLRI

This workshop was part of NRDC's Practitionerled Research Initiative (PLRI) which has enabled small groups of practitioners to carry out ninemonth research projects, co-ordinated by a team from Lancaster University. Groups were invited to pose researchable questions that would be useful to them, their employing institutions and their local communities. Each group was endorsed by a senior manager in their organisation; funding paid for cover time and someone offering on-the-spot research support. The idea was to draw in a new constituency of novice practitioner-researchers by offering a chance to step back and reflect on practice and to explore systematically day-to-day issues arising from the Skills For Life policy. Three broad themes were explored by the 18 projects that have been funded over the past three years:

■ new ways of engaging new learners;

■ understanding purpose and perseverance; and

■ creativity in teaching and learning.

This initiative was designed to publicise and support one of the key underpinning strategies of the NRDC, that of engaging practitioners in the work of the Centre. The hope was that projects would produce insights into adult literacy, numeracy and ESOL by providing accessible, grounded findings to complement large-scale surveys and other traditional research, as well as knowledge about practitioners' and learners' perspectives and concerns. The projects were also designed to strengthen networks between practice, research and policy.

It takes more than the enthusiasm of a handful of converts to change the culture 

How did it work?

Project groups were offered a set of structured activities and milestones to help them negotiate the tight deadlines and unfamiliar demands of managing research. We learned what worked best as we went along. All groups attended an initial briefing day, the mid-project networking event and a dissemination event at the end as they were writing their report. The co-ordinating team helped to solve issues like how to manage too much research data, or not enough of it. Each group worked differently. One project hoping to evaluate a Skills for Life course found that most people had dropped out, leaving them with very little data. After the initial panic, they re-focused the project to follow up those who had dropped out; this revealed the barriers to basic skills training, including practical issues and managers' attitudes, that existed within the organisation.

We found a particular need for help in corralling large amounts of data into a readable research report. We worked hard on new ways of presenting findings using visuals, music, and multimedia presentation. We developed innovative formats with posters, videos and interactive workshops. The 'Appletite for Learning' project organised a memorable workshop, lubricated by cups of cider, with contributions from employees, employers, practitioners and researchers involved with a workplace programme in rural Somerset.

The 'Appletite for Learning' project organised a memorable workshop, lubricated by cups of cider, with contributions from employees, employers, practitioners and researchers involved with a workplace programme in rural Somerset. 

New metaphors

Projects have generated powerful new metaphors, often based on learners' own words, to communicate key issues about literacy, numeracy and learning. For example, in the Broadway project in London one learner described her fear of joining in with group work as being like 'putting your hand into a pool of dark water and the thought that there might be a snake there'.

Practitioner research: can it last?

Has it been worth it? For those involved and their immediate organisations, the answer is emphatically 'yes'. For the wider field of practice, the jury is still out. It takes more than the enthusiasm of a handful of converts to change the culture so that evidence gathered by learners and teachers can inform policy-makers, as well as the other way round. Funding to extend the kinds of opportunities we have been able to offer through the PLRI is hard to find. Is it possible to sustain the momentum,enthusiasm and links that have been made during this initiative? Doing research takes time and the funding is at an end. I have three observations.

Three observations

First, we must spread the word about the difference a relatively small amount of research funding can make to individual practitioners and their organisations, as a spark to further work. Participants have told us that practitioner research offers validation of their status and knowledgebase, visibility, levers for funding locally, and ideas to feed into training and management strategies. It shows other practitioners what can be accomplished through small-scale studies, and it encourages their interest in research. It validates the findings of more traditional research, and offers ideas for new research angles. Second, embedding an enquiry-based approach into initial teacher training and continuing professional development courses, perhaps building on existing project-based work, is an obvious way to extend the reach of practitioner-led research. A number of participants in the PLRI have training responsibilities and they are taking their experiences to others. Third, the developing networks created through this initiative should link up with existing ones such as Research and Practice in Adult Literacy (RaPAL). Networks are not just UK-wide. Practitioner research is part of an international movement and, although this initiative might be at an end, similar activities are continuing elsewhere.  

Positive educational change is accomplished locally...we need all kinds of research and deliberation, scientific and non-scientific. And we need practitioner research...the knowledge of practitioners and of research specialists must grow together in new ways. (Erickson and Gutierrez, 2002)

A state of mind

Practitioner research is a state of mind as well as a set of activities. It is opportunistic and works creatively around traditional boundaries and obstacles. It carries the excitement of activism. It often challenges or ignores 'proper' research guidelines, presenting arguments about how and why it is necessary to do things differently, especially to achieve real collaboration with learners. Evidence from America suggests that practitioners engage best with research if they have first-hand involvement in the process, and that they are more likely to take notice of, and value, research that involves other practitioners. I feel privileged to have worked with the PLRI groups. I am looking with interest to see where they lead next.  

Mary Hamilton is Professor of Adult Learning and Literacy at Lancaster University.

To find out more about the NRDC Practitioner-Led Research Initiative, look on the website.

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Sources of funding for practitioner researchers - by Jenny Wedgbury

Three projects...


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