Dr Jo Neary, a researcher with the Network for Social and Educational Equity explains here how collaborative action research can be applied in school settings to reach groups that may otherwise miss out.
Collaborative Action Research (CAR) is an evidence-based enquiry model that can be applied to all educational settings and to all improvement areas.
Typically, it asks practitioners to follow an Assess-Plan-Do-Review (APDR) model to create a small enquiry project. Practitioners first assess their setting and context using existing knowledge and data to look for evidence that suggest a certain group of learners may require additional support.
Activity and intervention
Then, drawing on this new knowledge, practitioners will develop a small activity or intervention that aims to tackle the learning needs and challenges of the target group of learners. This activity will be focused on a specific ‘enquiry question’ and the more focused this question and activity is, the easier it will be to design the intervention and assess any impact.
As the activity is carried out, the practitioners collect a range of appropriate evidence to monitor how well the change to their practice works, and to respond to any challenges as they arise.
In the final stage, practitioners review their evidence to assess the impact of the intervention and modify their practice in the light of their findings, sharing the learning from their CAR with colleagues in the school and, ideally across other schools.
Promoting educational improvement
CAR has been found to promote educational improvement within the classroom, at departmental level, as a whole school approach and between schools (either within or between local authority areas).
While the CAR approach may be more common within and between schools, there are other useful arrangements that can involve other key colleagues and groups that can collaboratively help you make a positive difference to learners and their communities. Collaboration with Education Officers, Pedagogy Team, Speech and Language Therapists, or Educational Psychologists
Depending on the needs of learners and the context of your school, your CAR project may look to include a new method to support children and young people that draws on the expertise, knowledge and resources of colleagues across your local authority.
For example, rather than devising new approaches yourself, you may look towards what is currently occurring elsewhere in your local authority, elsewhere in Scotland, or even internationally, but that might be translatable to your setting.
Working with colleagues in your school, and informed by your inquiry question, you can reach out to local authority colleagues, advisers and your networks (including education officers, the Pedagogy Team, speech and language therapists, educational psychologists and Education Scotland).
Working with colleagues from partner services to help support the development of an in-school approach led by you could, through early intervention, reduce the need for children to attend specialist services, or provide complementary support for them, particularly if learners have to wait for specialist support.
Collaboration with school leaders
CAR works best when it is led by classroom teachers who are responding to a perceived need, rather than devised solely by senior management. This can mean there is a shift in leadership, whereby you are empowered to take the lead to devise and run a CAR project.
This does not mean that senior management should take a back seat. Instead, their role is to listen to your ideas, enable you and colleagues, follow your progress, and look to implement any positive changes you have seen as a result of the CAR project.
This may include involving more staff in running CAR projects in their own classrooms, extending your CAR project to different classrooms, or ensuring you are able to share your experiences with others (both in terms of dissemination, but also in mentoring others who may wish to get involved).
Collaboration with other staff within the school
Whether you are leading your CAR project or have a key role in its design and implementation, it is good to consider how other school colleagues can play a role in this activity. For example, depending on the focus of your CAR project, others such as learning support staff, classroom assistants or home-link workers can make very valuable contributions.
Their knowledge, skills and insights regarding how the activity is being run, how the identified group is responding, and any potential issues arising from the activity, is often vital.
You may find that the conversations with these groups are key in the future development of the activity, with their feedback providing a new lens through which to look at your identified challenge. This will enhance the professional dialogue and collaboration in your school, which should further benefit learners.
Collaboration with non-participating staff
One crucial element of CAR is communication. This can include communicating with your enquiry team, but also with non-participating staff. CAR works best when the whole school is aware of its purpose and how it fits with the school’s planning and aims.
You may find that you can talk about identified issues or lessons from the CAR project at staff meetings where you ask for ideas or inputs, or when you are talking with colleagues when reflecting on the process.
Where CAR has become embedded within staff culture, the lessons from CAR to are more likely to be incorporated into improvement planning and reflected in professional behaviour.
Informal collaboration with others doing CAR projects
In local authority settings where multiple schools are conducting CAR projects, there should be opportunities for you to talk with other participating teachers about your projects. One of the most valued collaborative activities that promotes professional learning is when teachers can visit one another’s school to share ideas and see other examples of CAR activity in action.
You may also find that teachers in another school have the same challenge as yours but have devised a different approach to their CAR project. This could lead to you both comparing experiences and lessons learned from your projects – could you do a shared project next cycle? Could you try their approach?