Why every school should embrace international collaboration and action research

Debbie Hill, GDST Trust consultant teacher for educational research, talks about the benefits of sharing research both home and abroad

As Professor Rob Coe reminds us, “Learning happens when people have to think hard.” This statement applies to teachers as learners as much as it does to the students in our classroom. As classroom practitioners, we engage in reflective practice daily: we seek to improve the quality of our teaching and the learning experience of our students. It lies at the heart of effective teaching and meaningful professional development as we strive to meet the needs of our students.

Are we, as teaching staff, encouraged to try new approaches? Has this been tried before and where can we find more information? How do we know these initiatives have been successful?

The research-engaged school

Educational research can mean many different things and the term ‘research’ can seem quite dry and offputting. The way we talk about research, the language we use to describe it, is important if we want teachers to be evidence-informed and feel confident about carrying out their own projects. Many of our GDST schools have professional book clubs, aka staff learning lunches, TeachMeets, and research breakfasts.

Recently, I attended an afternoon ‘tea-search’ where we discussed the possibilities afforded by action research projects. These informal and social opportunities create safe and inclusive spaces for colleagues to share their work, without feeling overwhelmed by the more academic connotations the word ‘research’ carries.

The research-engaged school will cultivate an ethos where staff are encouraged to become ‘consumers’ of research

The research-engaged school will cultivate an ethos where staff are encouraged to become ‘consumers’ of research, where professional development time can be used to engage with wider educational literature, reading books or blogs by some of the influential voices in education or a research paper in a specialist field, and then to think about how we might take some of these ideas and use them in our own context.

However, gaining access to research, much of which sits behind a paywall, can be a challenge. All research champions in GDST schools have Chartered College of Teaching membership, enabling them to access a wealth of research papers and publications. This is an integral part of being a research-engaged school, allowing teachers to consider the wider academic research available, and then reimagining what this might look like in one’s own setting.

Action research & collaborative inquiry

The next step is moving from a consumer to a producer of research. Practitioner/action research (Mertler, 2019) places teachers in the driving seat of their own professional learning, and allows the creation of a systematic, robust and relevant piece of classroom-based research. Let us not forget this is what teachers already do: action research is just a more systematic way of doing exactly what we do on a daily basis.

It is so much better for reflective practice to be a collaborative endeavour rather than a lone experience: professional dialogues about classroom practice allow tacit practitioner knowledge to surface and be shared with colleagues.

Many arguments are made against practitioner research engagement: it is too expensive and too time-consuming; it will have little impact. Classroom-based research is time-consuming, even if it is a strategy you might have tried anyway and some data is already available. There will be project design, the collection, analysis and interpretation of data and the sharing of findings, in whatever form, with a wider audience (local, regional, national and, indeed, international).

However, those schools who embrace this form of professional development recognise this and ensure a degree of flexibility in training requirements, safeguarding time to plan, deliver and reflect, and facilitate meaningful and high-quality professional conversations. Ideally, teacher practitioners will have the opportunity to work with a mentor.

The sharing of research findings is key, whether that is within one’s own school setting or more widely through programmes such as the Global Action Research Collaborative (GARC), a project spearheaded by the National Coalition of Girls’ Schools.

Whatever the platform, there is huge potential for these classroom-based projects to resonate with attendees and enable them to take away new ideas and possibilities for similar projects in their own educational settings. It is important to share findings not only within your subject area or within your local setting, but with all who have an interest in practitioner research.

I have never met anyone who regretted undertaking an action research project; it can get messy, overwhelming at times, and the data might not show what you had anticipated. But the whole process is such a rich form of professional learning, deepening one’s own reflective practice as well as one’s own classroom teaching.

Debbie Hill speaking to some students


The importance of international teacher collaboration

Over the last 18 months, I have worked with an international cohort of teachers on their action-research projects and this experience has made me appreciate just how important it is to collaborate with teachers around the world. The international perspective to the action research process has allowed us all not only to gain a better understanding of the different challenges and nuances of educating girls across the globe, but also to recognise just how much we have in common as we strive to prepare our students for their future role as ethical, globally-minded citizens.

For example, when one GDST teacher examined ethnicity and identity in post-colonial fiction against the backdrop of the Black Lives Matter movement, she observed differences in the way ethnicity is explored in UK and US schools. Interested to find out more, she invited an American fellow cohort member to join one of her departmental meetings to explore these differing approaches.

At a time of enormous reflection and reimagining of the education landscape, we can start to truly embrace… global teacher collaboration

Now, at a time of enormous reflection and reimagining of the education landscape, we can start to truly embrace this level of global teacher collaboration, made easier by the possibilities created in online communities, merging our advances with technology with our pedagogical expertise for the benefit of the global teaching community.

Less visible, but no less enriching, are the relationships developed within this global community, which will extend beyond the life of the current projects. Relationships which are founded on a shared belief in the value of classroom-based research and a shared vision in educating our students to be the global citizens of tomorrow.

My hope is that every teacher will have the chance to be part of a community like this and carry out their own action research.

Debbie, and other GDST Research Fellows will be attending International Coalition of Girls’ Schools’ Global Forum on Girls’ Education® III which is taking place in Boston from June 27– 29.

You might also like: The why, what and how of improving learning: lessons from international schools

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