Action Research in Theory with David Powell – Universal Learning with Saj Mohammad
Please Note: This transcript has been slightly edited to improve readability.
Saj Mohammad: In this series, I’ll be talking to professionals inside and outside education, as well as parents, carers, and learners themselves about their experiences of inclusive practice.
I’m on a mission to discover as much as possible about inclusion, because I’ve been a learning support practitioner for over six years and I’ve come to realise that many of the adjustments we make for students with additional needs could benefit all learners. For example, making things easy to read helps dyslexic students, while using clear language can benefit autistic learners. So, shouldn’t inclusive practice be part of our normal routine when planning teaching, learning, and assessment?
In an ideal world, I’d like educators to stop thinking about inclusive practices as another chore to be added to an ever-expanding workload. In actual fact, I believe that inclusive practice can ultimately make life easier by making learning more accessible for all of our students.
This is the first episode in a two-part special on action research. If you haven’t heard of it before, action research is a term used to describe research that is done by practitioners themselves in the environments they work in. In other words, it isn’t academics doing experiments in highly controlled environments. It’s people like teachers and learning support practitioners trialling interventions in their own classrooms. I am a great advocate for action research as I believe that it can greatly improve our practice which results in better outcomes for students.
In the next episode, I’ll be talking to Jo Fletcher-Saxon about action research in practice. But in this episode, I’m talking to David Powell about action research in theory. David is a senior lecturer in teacher educator based at the University of Huddersfield and promotes the use of action research.
We begin our conversation talking about how David began his career as a second-generation FE lecturer as his father also taught in the sector. David moved into management and this led to his work in teacher education where he began looking at action research as a way to improve teaching and learning. He talks about how his understanding of action research began from a very technical point of view and how he had a breakthrough that made him focus more upon the ‘action’ element of action research.
He also talks about how action research is not just a methodology, but it is also a set of values. David discusses how we need to think about how we conduct ourselves and relate to others when thinking about researching. David also talks about the concept of practice architectures which describes how the places we work in inevitably shape the research we do, whether we like it or not.
We then move on talk about how action research can be used in organisations to open up communication between management and the wider workforce to think more critically. While change is risky, it is also vital if organisations are to survive and thrive. David talks about how working environments can be toxic and performative in nature where managers make their staff jump through hoops, but staff feel too disempowered to question why this is necessary or if there is a better way to do things. David says this leads to a passive culture of people waiting to be told to do things.
We then move onto David’s work with his colleague Anja Swennen on Brave Research. David talks about how our practice needs have moral and ethical dimensions and he talks about how action research can lead us close to a world worth living in. He mentions how Anja describes Brave Research as ‘Fighting for something that’s worthwhile’. David also mentions Sue Cowley’s idea of being ’10% braver’ as being a good place to start.
We round off our conversation talking about how the real world is messier than highly controlled environments like laboratories. He describes how action researchers should acknowledge and embrace messiness. He quotes Michael Eraut who says ‘Tidy maps of knowledge are usually deceptive’. David talks about sometimes things don’t go the way we expect in action research, but how we deal with this is still an important part of the process.
David concludes our conversation with a message to action researchers that quotes Greta Thunberg: ‘No-one is too small to make a difference.’
While David coves a huge amount of ground, you may still have questions about action research. So if there’s anything else that you want to know more about, do get in touch as I am planning to answer questions from listeners about inclusion in an upcoming episode. You can send in your questions via our website at UniversalLearning.education
So, this interview was recorded using Zoom and the quality is not always the best. However, you can read a transcript of this and every episode on our website UniversalLearning.education where you can also find links relating to each episode to help you discover how you can put inclusion into practice for all of your learners.
David has a real passion for action research and I had a wonderful time talking to him about it. I hope you enjoy listening to our conversation.
David Powell: My name is David Powell. I’m now a senior lecturer in Teacher Education at the University of Huddersfield. I do that for about one and a half days a week these days. As part of that work, I train university-based teachers to how to teach. I also I deliver the university’s action research module at M-level, and I supervise some doctoral students. In fact, I think I’ve got two action researchers on the go and somebody doing a virtual ethnography.
Saj: Just to begin with, if my research is correct, you are actually a second-generation FE practitioner?
David: Yes, that’s right. Well researched, Saj. Good start, a bit of documentary research there. My father taught in Further Education from ’65 to ’94. He was based at Stafford College. He taught actually Art and Design. He went there to teach on there, which was probably I think some level 3 fairly technical courses. Then he got involved with some higher national diploma work. Then towards the end of his career, which was just on the cusp of what was called incorporation, when colleges came out of local authority control, my father spent the last few years of his career teaching on the first diploma Art and Design, which was much more generic program. He inducted me into working in FE.
Saj: Was it almost inevitable you were going to work in FE or were there other areas that you have in mind?
David: Saj, if I hadn’t been talking to you this morning, I would have been working in the Fells. My degree was in Leisure and Tourism. That’s where I wanted to work, I wanted to work in the great outdoors, but I probably like many people, not everybody, but many people, I stumbled into FE. It was simply, at the time, I didn’t have a full-time job to go to. There was somebody at Stafford College, they were just starting Leisure Studies course, and they needed somebody to teach Tourism. I had done a module on tourism as part of my degree. I was actually just about to start a master’s at the University of Birmingham in MSc in Tourism and Leisure services.
I got asked to come and teach a module because they knew my dad and they knew that I was just finishing my degree. It’s that informality that enabled me to. My dad took me into the library at Stafford College from the age of 10 during the holidays. I’d go in, sit in there, and be inducted into the processes of the sector, but it was accidental really.
Saj: It was part of your upbringing, so almost by osmosis, you could say you were…
David: The accidental teacher, yes.
Saj: Absolutely. I know that feeling. How did you go then from being a practitioner to being more of a teacher educator?
David: Now that’s an interesting question. I want spent quite a lot of my career actually as a manager. Probably not a very good manager either, actually, if I’m absolutely honest. One or two people might call in with complaints about my management style, but in 2003, I decided I had enough of management, and I quickly started to step into where staff development, and I spent a year and a bit there.
Then this lady called Jennie Coates. The story I’m about to tell you is probably common to a number of people that have come into Teacher Education. She said to me, “David, we would like you to come and teach in the Teacher Education program at our college.” It was at Calderdale College where I was at the time. I started teaching what was called a 7307 Stage 1, which was the introductory program. I taught that. Initially, I have to say, this is a little bit of a story, I did say no to her. I said, “No, no, no. I don’t want to do that.” She persisted. She was very good at that, Jennie, very good.
If I would just namecheck a couple of other people, Art ActivistBarbie was one of Jennie Coates’ prodigies as well. There was another colleague Liz Dickson. Jenny was great at spotting people she thought could be teacher educators. I started there at Calderdale College. I was just doing it part-time really as part of my staff development role. Then, I got invited or offered a job at Craven College in Skipton to be part of their Teacher Education team, which was FE-based teacher education. I worked in an FE college, but that was working as a part of a partnership at the university. That was how I was inducted into the university. I moved to the university in 2009 really to join the BA Education Professional Development Program and contribute to the Teacher Education Programs.
Saj: That’s brilliant. We’ll move on. I think, Jennie Coates, you mentioned, I think these figures, that you come across in your career, they’re often so pivotal, that they were people who have some kind of vision or foresight, and they often become mentors of people as well. Would you say Jennie was one of those people?
David: Absolutely. Jennie, she was everything really. Like an older sister or whatever, and she just believed in you. She would come up and she gave you confidence. Equally, she wouldn’t put up with too much, but she just said, “I’d like you to do this.” When I said no, she didn’t just let it go. She was smart enough to come back at me from a different angle.
I wouldn’t be where I am without Jennie.
There are two other people that I would mention Linda Burgon who really nurtured me at Craven College as a teacher educator and put up with a few stumbles in my first year of teaching as a teacher educator. Then a colleague, Colin Finley at the university, he was like an older brother. He looked out for me in the playground when I joined the university, you know what I mean? “David, do this, do that.” That sort of stuff. “Now be careful there.” Those are three people.
The other person, or there’s probably two others to mention. One is Roy Fisher, he’ll supervise my thesis, and another colleague called Anja Swennen, my Dutch colleague who has been absolutely a role model for me about what it means to be a teacher educator. I take a lot of my guidance from her.
Saj: Excellent. I know that you’ve done some really interesting work with Anja as well around great research, which we’ll come onto in a bit, but before we get there, I first met you at the FE Research Meet, I think in late 2019 at Ashton Sixth Form College. You gave a fantastic talk with Sam from the Bedford College Group on action research.
I’m a great believer in action research. I always try and bang the drum for it as much as possible. That’s why I particularly wanted to invite you on the podcast today. In terms of your career as a teacher educator, at what point did you discover action research and how did you get into this sort of practitioner-led research?
David: There’s a story, Saj, because I was inducted into action research by having to teach it when I moved to Craven and I taught a module related to it. At that stage, I was teaching a very technical form of action research. I hadn’t really acquired those same students in relating that Kemmis and his research team would talk about, how to be an action researcher.
Anyway, so I spent probably three years muddling through what action research. Then I went and started my doctorate in 20… I did some coursework before that, but when I started my doctorate and put my research proposal together in 2010, I could see there was some scope to do some action research. Particularly because the work I did was with a group of teacher educators who did FE college. There was some literature which said that teacher educators do not normally work together as teacher educators as a team to explore their practice. They might do it individually, what you might call first-person action research or some people might call it self-study, which is like a break-off splinter group from AR.
I thought, “I’m going to try and work with this team to do a piece of action research.” I probably was going into a transition phase really there as such, and between a very technical understanding of action research and starting to become an action researcher and heading towards being an action. There’s a phrase that the northern Europeans and the Germans use, they’re called bildung, which is about how it’s that process of becoming like an apprenticeship. I remember now, I can remember it as clear as… It was an August afternoon, I’d been doing my thesis for a year. I was having some hiccups with my collaboration. I read Clem Adelman’s work about action research, and particularly, Kurt Lewin. It was as if metaphorically, the scales dropped off my eyes, and, “Aha, that’s what I should be doing.” Suddenly, I started to change my approach.
Now that was important. Alongside that, I started to go… I’d like to namecheck somebody called Bridget Somekh here. Now Bridget Somekh used to be the dean at the school I’m in at the university. She was there before my time, but she came back in 2012 to do a talk on action research. Of course, diligently, I trotted along to hear her because she’s one of our big hitters. She was part of the action research movement, and might when you come and read, she contributes quite a lot to some of the action research literature, Bridget.
Anyway, I heard her talk, and she talked about the Collaborative Action Research Network. Now there is something about me that means I’m interested in doing things. I said to my supervisor, “There’s this network, it’s called Collaborative Action Research Network. I think if I’m going to do a thesis on action research, I need to join it, I need to go there.” I remember going, I went down to Ashford, the conference was being hosted by Canterbury. I went down there, and it was again, I suddenly was hanging out with people who’ve been doing action research all their life.
I remember meeting Jacqueline van Swet, a Dutch teacher, educator, from Fontys, she may have retired now. I had this evening chatting to her, and it was like, “I cannot believe what I’m hearing here,” I’m just learning how to become an action researcher. I was spending time with some English action researchers and people who were teaching me. I’d namecheck Mary McAteer as well here because I met Mary for the first time, and I could see, this was different.
I remember somebody called Richard Winter who’s written quite a bit about action research. He was really pushed the action research movement in the UK in the 70s and 80s. I remember sitting down, being at a table for dinner with him and I just thought… I felt a sense of belonging, but I was still in transition. A year later, the next conference was in Tromso. Tromso’s up in the Arctic Circle. I don’t know if you know, it’s Norway. I went back, and I said to the university, “Look, if you’re serious about me doing a doctorate, a piece of action research, you have to send me to Tromso.” I must have had somebody’s ear because they did.
There’ll be moments in your life, Saj, the defining moments. Sad moments, happy moments. This was one of pure joy because I had the privilege of hearing two of the big hitters you cite Carr and Kemmis talk. Will Carr’s work is hard to read. That’s not a mess around, but I remember hearing it, it was like Radiohead. I like Radiohead by the way. I was just listening away, I thought, “This is fantastic.”
Then for a moment, I turned off and, “Oh, where is he now?” I had to really work to get back. Actually, it’s quite hard for some of the international audience, but I’d read some of his work, and I could deal with it. Then I heard Stephen Kemmis talk, and that was like a big hero moment for me. I suddenly started hearing about his work, and particularly, his work about the theory of practice architectures, which is about how sites shape the practices, including our research in practice as such. Suddenly, I really was moving quickly, and I’ve hung on to that.
Now, if I was to just turn stage left or right, I could pick up The Action Research Planner, Kemmis’ little red book with McTaggart and Nixon. That’s my go-to text. I’ve been doing that. I know I’ve been talking for a bit, but the story’s not quite finished. The following year, I went to Gateshead. Tromso, one year, then to Gateshead. We had a fantastic conference. Let’s namecheck Andy Convery, he’s done a lot for FE-based action research, he’s done a lot of work with Claire Collins, and promoting action research with the OTLA along with Vicky Meaby.
Andy, he just breathes it. It comes out, he must have action research for breakfast. What did you have? “Well, I have a dose of action research for breakfast, lunch, into… ” Anyway, why do I mention this? Well, partly, he took an action research conference to an FE college. That’s a brave thing to do. He also had a number of speakers there, one of whom was Tina Cook who talked. She’s really shaped my thinking. Tina was the first person who introduced to me the concept of messiness in action research. Massive messiness. I think she’s written two great pieces.
That was really critical moment for me. Then at the same conference, Mary McAteer ran a workshop Saturday morning. Saturday morning, sat in a workshop. The title was something along the lines of, “Is action research a methodology or a way of being?” Well, you’re nodding, Saj, that’s great. I just thought, “This is it. This is where it’s at.” In fact, my thesis now, and this morning, one of the reasons I’m a bit late, my head I’m preparing the action research module for the M-level students, with just tweaking things a little bit. For me, action research is about being, it’s about how we conduct ourselves. It’s what we say, what we do, and how we relate to people. The practice, really, of conducting research. That’s a long answer.
Saj: It’s a good answer.
David: Thank you.
Saj: I think a couple of things I wanted to pick up on. The first thing is you mentioned The Action Research Planner. Was this a kind, how would you put it, a foundational text or an ur-text for you, would you say?
David: Yes, it’s really my go-to text. A few years ago, I took two books with me on a trip. They’ve done a lot of air miles, those two books. The first is Kemmis’ Changing Practices, Changing Education text, which sets out the theory of practice architectures and the theory of ecologists and practices. The second is The Action Research Planner. There are a few big ideas in those texts that really shape the way I work with action research and the way I challenge them really. The first phrase is, “Action research is a practice changing practice.”
David: “Action research is a practice changing practice.” When I start my supervision, whether the doctoral, or M-level, I will say, “What practice are you seeking to change? Whose practice?” One of the other ideas it says is action research is about three things. Number one, better understanding our practice. Number two, changing our practice. Three, changing the conditions under which we practice. Just namechecking my colleague, Kevin Orr. He’s not particularly an action researcher. You might say, he’s a practitioner researcher. He’s done some work on FE-based vocational teaching on the subject, especially pedagogy.
Kevin would say… I heard him talk a couple of weeks back, he said this, he said, “The first thing as a researcher is to better understand what we are researching. If we want to change practice that’s the next thing we look at.” Or improve practice that’s building. They’re like in FE, improving practice, don’t they? There’s that better understanding. I really hold on to that. A couple of other things that I mentioned because I think they, in a sense, upset or disrupt our thinking. There are a lot of people who are wedded to the concept of action research cycle.
Kemmis says, “Well, just a sec. Actually, it’s not as neat and tidy as that.” He said, “It’s not as neat and tidy as trying to create new knowledge.” He said, “Action research should be about making history.” It might be making history in a small way. What Greta Thunberg said, you mentioned it as we chatted before, it might be a small change but it still makes history. I think this is also important. He says, “Action research should be about trying to make the world a better place to live and practice it, even in a small way. I think those become values that you live by as an action researcher. I think that that’s the message that, yes, it says, “Action research is about a set of values that you went at. Not a textbook you read and follow.”
Saj: Absolutely. That links what you were saying about it’s not just a methodology, it’s actually, it’s really a way of being. When I think of action research, it fits into a wider picture, I suppose, of being a critical practitioner, of being a reflective practitioner. How do we critically inquire into what we’re doing? How do we reflect? Who are we reflecting with as well, actually?
David: It’s interesting you say that such. Before I started teaching the action research module, they used to bring me in, the people who were teaching the module before him, “Oh, here’s somebody who’s trying to do a bit of action research. We’ll give you an hour with him for our mornings.” The first thing I said, and I always ask the students, whoever I’m working with, “What is the purpose of action research?” You know what they say? In fact, they say every time, “Improve my practice. Improve my practice.” Kinsler would suggest that we have institutionalised action research. We’ve tamed it.
We’ve tamed it for our own managerial sanctioned research. “Yes, I’d like you to do something, because that’s what I want you to do.” “No, I don’t want you to change the world David, Saj, Jo Fletcher-Saxon, no, no, no, I want you to do some research that’s going to enable us to,” whatever. Actually, I think that it’s become very technoised, and interestingly, some of the students I work with. Saturday morning, my colleagues and I work with a bloke called Pete Sanderson, who knew Stephen Kemmis. I would have been probably running around a pair of shorts at that stage, but Pete, he’s hugely experienced in action research.
Pete said… Excuse me, I’m getting a cup of tea delivered. Pete and I were talking last year with some of our students, we’re getting some pushback when we were asking them to be braver. One of the things that I have to acknowledge and we have to acknowledge is that actually, it’s not easy. You and I can talk about critical parts of great action research on Zoom, we can put it on a podcast. Yes, you try and do it. ou try and do it. You try and do it and your colleagues, that is whatever. Yes, that’s right. You try and live it.
Saj: Yes. Funnily enough, I was on Twitter last night on #UKFEchat. A really fascinating, wide-ranging discussion. I think I made a point, when it came to talking about effecting change, that FE settings are not conducive to iconoclasm. If you look at the ETF standards, there’s a standard that talks about, you should be questioning your beliefs, your values, your practices, but let’s face the facts. It’s like you said about action research being tamed. This is the inevitable consequence of managerialism – the language of quality, improvement, and KPIs.
I love the word the Situationists used to describe when dangerous revolutionary ideas were denatured and defanged. They called it recuperation. They said the Spectacle recuperates anything. That’s how you end up with Che Guevara posters, for example. They’re revolutionary chic artifacts that popped up over the years.
David: Well, don’t get me going about Che . I’m a huge fan of his. I think you really struck something there, Saj, about… I’ve talked about this theory practice architectures and it’s a very helpful theory when you’re thinking about action research, but it carries an 18-certificate. What I mean by that is, it’s hard. I don’t mind saying this, I worked with it in my doctorate, I produced a paper out of my doctorate, and I got told that actually I didn’t know enough about it. I’d spent six years trying to get my head around about it, but now I think I’m better now.
The point and I’m pleased, I don’t want to put anybody off because that’s what good education is grappling with hard ideas. Not trying to conquer them, but better understand them and work with them. I think that simplistically, very simplistically, the idea of practice architectures says this, that if we’re involved in any project, where we are, it’s a college, work- based training provider, university, school, whatever. Any project we might be undertaking, the project has got an aim. Let’s say it’s undertaking a piece of action research, where we want to work with a group of students, for instance. Maybe a group of students who resit Maths or English, or we want to work with learning support systems, to promote inclusion or something like that, that the site where that project is taking place will shape the project.
It will shape the project in three ways. Firstly, what are called the cultural discursive arrangements, which are essentially the ideas and the language of the site. They give permission to, what can be done and can’t be done. Second, the material economic arrangements. Those are the resources and the time. How much time do we have to do this work? Or, where might it take place? What support might be in place? What access to resources might be in place? If you’re thinking about teaching, it’s the same thing. What type of classrooms are we in? How are they set up?
Finally… That’s material economic arrangements. The third one is the social-political arrangements, and those are relationships. Those relationships, I think, could work at a lease rate level. The relationships between the managers and the staff involved in the project. The relationships between the staff and the staff involved in the project, and the relationships between the students and the staff involved in the project, and the relationships between the students and the students. That’s four. Okay, that’s numbers, isn’t it? You start thinking, “Oh, there’s a lot going on here,” which is how you get messiness.
Saj: Yes. I think this is the issue with theory, is that theory confronts the real world. We can make theory, we can make frameworks neat and tidy and transmissible and as you mentioned, the action research cycle earlier. The number of frameworks that I’ve been introduced to over the years like the Kolb Cycle and Universal Design for Learning. Actually, when they came to the real world, they often all of these fall apart, and they just don’t get used, actually, because they’re not useful in many forms.
I suppose what I’m saying is, if we want to arrive at useful frameworks, especially when we’re starting to work with action research, the couple of texts you mentioned, would you say that they are good ways in or are there easier ways in?
David: Well, I think the Kemmis’ Action Research Planner, the 2014 version. There was a 1998 version, which every now and again, students share with me, which I say, “Thank you, but the idea’s moved on.” [chuckles] I think that’s great. I think there’s some really powerful ideas. I would say that’s accessible, in my view. The other one I mentioned, which I tweeted about the other day, Vivienne Baumfield, I think it’s Kate Wall and Elaine Hall, which is to do with a classroom-based research. I’ve used that a lot. I think it’s really helpful, partly because it introduced some ideas that some of the other texts don’t use. I think Jean McNiff is terrific too.
I think that those are helpful scaffolds when you start doing your research. What I like about the Kemmis texts is that he flexes the establishment in a sense, and he says, “Well, actually, you need to think a bit differently about that.” He’s more flexible about how we think. That’s just my perception. Those would be my three, the three people I might go to, but you’ve got to find who you like, really. I have a bit of a thing about the Kemmis work from Australia because I think it’s very, very powerful. Very powerful. You can see how I’m quite- I’m just able to share the ideas because they have shaped my thinking since 2013. Completely thrown it up in the air and shaped it.
Saj: Absolutely. I think I was I was very lucky, my introduction to action research came by chance really because I did my diploma in education and training with a provider who had an action research module as part of their delivery. I don’t think it is common at all in DET courses. Carr and Kemmis actually was one of the first pair of theorists that I came across, and I read about this idea of emancipatory action research that actually part of what action research is, is actually identifying ways of working in our classrooms that promote, if you like, social justice.
That really spoke to my values, I think. I think, as well, something that I find when I talk to a lot of other practitioners working in FE is, if you like finding the bravery to speak up for learners and often the management cultures in FE, they create so many different layers of abstraction between the people making the decisions and the people who are affected by them, that it can make the culture difficult. When you have action researchers who have experienced those kind of cultural or organisational difficulties, what ways are they do you think of trying to break that logjam in cultures to make them more receptive to research?
David: What a great question. What a great question, you can just see it. I’m not filibustering yourself. I think you’ve got to open up some critical dialogue spaces or communicative spaces as Habermas would call it with the senior managers, and also the key people. Actually, I’ve worked with senior managers, I’ve been one. I’m pretty sure, pretty sure because of the amount of time I spend with them, that they’re absolutely committed to wanting to provide good education, they’re just caught in an absolute maelstrom of hyperactivity.
Look, I salute their dedication to what they’re doing and Stewart Rimmer’s just produced something. I’ve not looked a lot out but it’s a FETL report, you can see there’s a tension there. I think it’s about creating an open space to talk to them about how you would like to work. Now, you can knock on the door and what I mean, metaphorically via email, or maybe you are able to go into a college and talk to them, but there might also be sponsors in your organisation who will support you. You will enable things to happen, but I think it is about trying to help people better understand what you’re trying to do. This is going to be a bold statement because someday we’ll come back and say, “Oh, David, no, you’re absolutely wrong.”
I imagine that many of them when they started off as teachers, and most of them would have been teachers, but some would be managers, but they absolutely had fire in their belly to change this work because they wouldn’t be still in the sector. They had fire in their belly, and I suppose it’s time to reignite that in terms of, but saying, “Tell you what, let me do this for you, rather than you do it. You’ve got enough to do. Let me do this. Sponsor us to do it.”
I think that having a serious open conversation. It was a great piece by Jeffrey Elliot, and he’s quite old now. I’m going to say 86 or 88 or maybe 96. Sorry, I correct myself. I wrote a piece with Sam Jones about it, but we did something at the Reimagining FE conference where we spoke to people about doing research in the sector. Jeffrey Elliot said back in his paper, he noted that actually why is there not a lot of research going on? He suggested there was some fear, and I suppose in a very highly performative… that we all just look at what governments do to people who don’t follow their instructions and the public attacks they get.
If you’re ahead and things don’t go right, you’re absolutely battered. That must be very, very hard to deal with. I wonder whether there are some principals who think that action research is that there is a risk? It’s not a low risk. Do you know what I’m saying?
Saj: Research involving human participants, so there’s always going to be risks.
David: If we go back to the Kemmis idea that you better understand change, change the conditions. Woah. We’re going to have a management restructure, by the way, Mr. Principal? Oh, yes, there’d be a few changes, frankly. [laughs] Wow, actually, I think I’d say this, a few years back, I read a book someone called Jerry Collins, Good to Great. Nothing about action research, but it’s based on research and it looked at what made organisations great.
I think great leaders recognise that change is important and should be embracing it. There are different types of levels in leadership in the Collins book. I think the Level 5 one is somebody who says, “Actually, maybe things need to change and I might not be part of that change process,” or whatever. Talking about organisations that suddenly they’ve been really invested in one type of work and then move to something else because they realise that the work they’re in isn’t going to work any longer.
Seriously, I think having that conversation, opening that communicative space, getting people around the table. I think leaders, they can see the support for it. Students wanting to work with teachers, wanting to work with learning support, student services wanting to work with professional development, wanting to work with whoever else in the institution, I think that’s quite a persuasive argument.
Saj: Do you think that part of the issue as well is the top-down approach still dominates, that we must have a hierarchical strategy because things must start at the top and they must cascade down? We can’t have fomenting at the grassroots and then rising up.
David: I do think that we are in a highly toxic, performative environment. There is part of me, this is the manager, giving, “You go do this, this, this, this, and this.” What’s safe about that is you’ve thought it through, it’s clear, et cetera, et cetera, but it becomes quite technical. I remember talking about… This is linked to action research in a way when you hear the story. I remember talking to a group of senior managers in FE, and I wasn’t talking about action research, but after I finished my talk, I sat down and there were another great pair of presenters, and they were talking about these college that they were at, that have been at Grade 3 and now it’s Grade 2.
They were starting to move on. I just put my hand up in the air. I’m not surprised. I said, “Why?” I said, “Probably because when you’re in Grade 3, you’d have told them what to do.” People are not used to making decisions themselves, they’re not empowered. How are they going to move into the more expansive, exciting teaching that you want? They’re waiting for you to tell them what to do.
The thing is, and it still strikes me that. I think that’s one of the reasons why some of Matt O’Leary’s work about unseen observations is powerful because it is very much the teacher taking responsibility, but thinking through with critical support and friendship, how to teach rather than waiting to be told where you need to be. Somebody will tell me, “Oh, David, that’s all old-school stuff,” whatever. I don’t know. So, why it’s never been outstanding?
Saj: Interesting. You mentioned fear as being, if you like, the elements affecting change. I guess the antidote to fear is bravery and it’s something that’s come across a lot in the communities of practice that I operate in, that the other practitioners that they don’t have that sponsorship, if you’d like, encouragement inside their setting. This is often why communities of practice spring up is that people are looking outside of their settings and sharing best practice with others. I always face these peers in the sector. You will say to a student who’s not sure about doing something, you will say things to them like, “Fortune favors the brave.” Something that I often say to my students, but you always forget that for yourself, if you like. When I first heard you talking about Brave Research at the FE Research Meet, the work that you did with Anja Swennen, that really was a penny drop moment for me, actually. That, actually, being brave is very powerful.
Also, I think what I was interested in this idea that you developed with Anja Swennen, that the research needs to consider the context in which we’re existing. You mentioned this idea earlier of a world worth living in. I’m particularly interested, how did you and Anja arrive at this idea of Brave Research?
David: Well, there’s a question. Another question. I got an email from Anja. Let’s be absolutely open here to whoever listens to this. I live a very privileged life. University life is greatest. It’s hard work, by the way. Don’t anybody tell you it isn’t. I work incredibly hard. I think I work harder in university than when I did when I was in FE, believe it or not, because I have to publish. Part of that commitment to publishing means that doors open.
Anja and I have known each other well since 2012. We’ve got along well and gradually, started to do a bit of work together. Anyway, in 2017, I wanted to invite Anja to Huddersfield to spend a week with us, because one of the things we are able to do in universities is to invite visiting scholars to come and work with you. We’re talking about role models. My doctoral work is about modelling, teacher educator modelling to trainees. I knew we could invite people. I said to Anja, “Well, would you like to come?” The university said, “Yes, we’ll pay for Anja to come for a week.” About a week and a half beforehand, she contacts me and she said, “David, I have an idea.” I said, “Oh, yes. What is the idea, Anja?” “Brave Research.” It wasn’t really Flashdance at that stage.
Now, I’m going to let you in to a few things that had happened since. We’ve got the chapter. It’s been written. In fact, I was in the Netherlands… Actually, I wasn’t physically in the Netherlands, I was virtually in the Netherlands the other week talking about it, and Anja reminded me a bit about it. She came to Huddersfield and, in a sense, she floated an idea. I came in a bit towards the end and made a contribution to it as we tried to shape it. I think we use this phrase, Brave Research, as an umbrella really for research that is worth, I suppose, it’s… I’m trying to find the words that Anja used recently. I might just want to open a PowerPoint because she used a phrase in terms of that.
We started working it out and trying to move it beyond the phrase and a statement, to a set of ideas that people could work with. Yes, the phrase Anja and I came up with… Well, actually, it’s Anja’s phrase, “Fighting for something that’s worthwhile.” That’s what Anja talks about. We were trying to say, “How do we develop it? What does it mean?” Because when you’ve got a phrase, people say, “What do you do? How do you do it?” Because, of course, people want a little checklist, don’t they?
Anja had read a text From Safe Spaces to Brave Spaces, which I think is by Arao and Clemens. That was really talking about equality and diversity work, but in a sense, we’re interested in trying to reimagine why, how, and with whom we conduct our research. Making it more diverse and inclusive. Changing for the better, the world we live in. Perhaps even you’ll recognise that from Kemmis, McTaggart and Nixon. Kathleen Mahon is part of Stephen Kemmis’s team. Morally, ethically, and politically responsible research. Changing the world around us, even if only in small ways. Those are some of the ideas that we used when we were in the Netherlands.
Now, we were in the Bath Spa conference about a year and a half ago. The chapter hadn’t been published at that stage, but it was written. We shared it. Jack Whitehead, who was… You might recognise Whitehead. It was Jack Whitehead of McNiff and Whitehead. Jack Whitehead pushed back carefully and thoughtfully. Actually, what’s the difference with self-study? I think that the difference is there are different types of research. In action research, quite often, you fall into the technical type, which is just, you’re not really changing the systems. You might better understand your practice. You might change it, but you don’t look to change the conditions under which you practice.
We even tried talking about social justice. That’s when it becomes grey. Jack said, “It may be brave researchers.” Maybe there’s another chapter coming out. We can’t say anything yet, although you heard it on Saj’s podcast first. But might be we might need to go back and say, “Well, he’s a brave researcher.” People like ArtActivistBarbie. I don’t know how, if you follow that work, I don’t know. There are few people in FE who heard her talk perhaps?
Saj: Yes, I follow her on Twitter.
David: Well, I know ArtActivistBarbie. She’s featured in our chapter. There is some real bravery there because she is coming up against systems. She calls it. She publicly calls it. Fighting for something that’s worthwhile or worth fighting for. She absolutely knows what she’s doing. She might call her work practitioner research. That’s absolutely fine because it doesn’t… We’re saying it’s an idea, not a methodology.
The other bit that we caught on, and thank you, Sue Cowley. Goodness me. I saw this text. She wrote something in the Times Educational Supplement about… She’d written a chapter in a book on women’s leadership about being 10% braver. The idea that, actually, it’s not easy to try and push over, push a lot of changes, but try to be 10% braver. That’s what I think we were saying really. For people to be 10% braver in their research. To be brave researchers. I think that that really works.
Anja was… She talks about 10%, 30%, 50%. Well, once you get to 10, your target might be 30. We all like targets, don’t we? [chuckles]. It’s developed. I think having to write it out was very, very hard, actually. Brave Research. “Oh, that’s a great idea then. It’s [unintelligible].” I remember I had to go away for four days to try and write it up. That was just the start of it.
Saj: I think you’ve really hit the nail on the head, I think, with this idea that you mentioned of Sue Cowley’s to being 10% braver. I came across that idea in the last year myself and I know a lot of other peers in the sector. We’ve obviously had to adapt and cope with the pandemic. For me, personally, it’s been participating in things like the Ideas Room, the Thinking Environment with #JoyFE, hosting chats on #UKFEchat, doing this podcast series. These are all things that I would never have contemplated doing years ago when I started working in FE. As I said before, I came to the realisation that I tell students, “Do this, do that,” and then… It’s like the doctor that smokes. It’s like the practitioner that hands out the advice, but doesn’t follow it. I think that, actually, the 10% braver precept, I think, really is something we should all be living by probably.
David: Yes, it might be less threatening to managers.
David: I’d not thought of that until listening to you talk, Saj. It might be less threatening to managers as well. All of them are at 50% braver, you’ll be quaking in your boots when that comes along. Because you know what 10% felt like.
Saj:10%braver. That sounds like a feasible KPI.
David: Well, it feels as if you could just go out and almost still be touching the side, but I know that you couldn’t just scamper back in, but you’re not putting your whole head out for a long exposure. We have to be realistic. We have to be realistic about change. We do have to have people who can inspire us, but at the same time, we have to work with people. We have to work with people to make change happen.
Saj: Absolutely. That leads nicely onto my next question. Talking about the clarity of theory versus the messiness of the real world. When it comes to action research, I’ve certainly come across more than one teacher practitioner who has gathered a lot of data, and then they’re like, “Oh my God. What do I do now? I’ve got a lot of data. It’s in an unwieldy form. I’m not quite sure what I should be doing with it.” For those particularly new to action research or those who are carrying it out, what do you think we should have in mind when we’re designing? When we’re conceiving our action research? We can’t eliminate messiness in the real world, obviously, but what could we do to clarify, and hopefully make our research a little bit easier?
David: Well, there’s attention there, isn’t it? Doing meaningful research. What does that entail? What might that mean for you? I think you start off with a realistic aim and research questions. You need to start off with that. Now, whatever you do, you cannot eliminate messiness in research. The thing is, most people don’t document it. I wrote a chapter a while back, which was really as a result of my experience of massive messiness in my doctoral study. It was called Collaborative Inquiry by Teacher Educators: Mess and Messiness. I can send you a link, Saj. Maybe if people want to follow it up after the podcast. It’s an open-access text. It’s not hidden behind some paywall.
I spent a lot of time thinking about this because I find it very disorientating. I’m fairly well organised. I can do lists, more lists, and I could work through them meticulously. My dad taught me that. When you engage with in an organisation that might be going through change, restructuring, or a merger, when you work with people who have messy lives… We all have messy lives. Very few people have neat and tidy lives. Those might be your students, those might be your participants, they might be you as the researcher. When we start to try to enact our research, that is when we go out into the surf of messiness.
A few years ago, Pete Boyd, who was one of the editors with Agnieszka Szplit, who encouraged me to write about the chapter about messiness. I remember him talking about surfing. He was just talking about surfing Neoliberal policy, actually. Well, I just nicked his idea. I haven’t had an original idea in my life. I nicked it from Pete. I just thought about surfing the waves of messiness. Now, why is that a powerful metaphor? Well, because, actually, you have to learn how to do it. That comes back to that idea of Bildung, acquiring the know-how of doing research. You can’t tidy it up.
Now, if you have good research aims and good research questions, that should help you manage how much data you collect. What it won’t help you manage is people, policy, the site. Because that happens. I can think of, in my study people’s lives changed, their disposition into the research changed. I filmed people in classrooms. Teacher educators. I saw no problem with that, but some of the teacher educators in the study did. They didn’t like it. They were worried about it. I actually think if you’re really serious about your practice, you’ll open yourself up to filming yourself, but equally, I wasn’t working at that FE college when I was doing the filming. That was going to create pressure. I had people drop in and out of the study. “Sorry, I can’t carry on David. Life’s too complicated or whatever.”
Here’s one, just to show how inept I can be. Early on in the study, I’d spoken to the people I was going to film. The first person I was going to film, everything was set up. I was actually working in China at the time doing some teaching in China, so some of it was done by email. The person said, “Well, can you come and film me this day?” I said, “No, I can’t do that. I’ll be back in China on this date. Can you?” “That’s fine.” I said, “Okay. Right. We’ll set this up. Can you speak to the students about it?” What I really should’ve done is spent more time getting to know their students.
To cut a long story short, filmed the class et cetera, et cetera. Great. I left after that. Came back the following week. We did the stimulated recall interview, and then I was going to do a focus group with the students. I wanted to get their perspective from the class. Anyway, I did feel it was quite hard work, that focus group. I left the consent forms. I believed I’d gotten verbal consent, but I needed written consent. Anyway, I contacted my colleague who was participating in the study with me. He said, “Oh, sorry, David. Some of them weren’t very happy with the way you conducted the focus group.” “Oh, really?” I thought. “Really?” Because I’d actually had two of these which were fine.
What was it? Well, it comes down to one moment, I think, probably. When I asked the question, because the students didn’t know me, they weren’t used to how I ask questions. Suddenly, the trust that you needed wasn’t there. I should’ve spent more time working, getting to know those students. I wasn’t doing my own practice. I was working with other people. I did that. That’s where some of the messiness came in. Simply, here it is. The question was, “How did so and so model… ,” or “To what extent did so and so model questioning?” I used the idea of wait time to wait. One of the students thought I made them look stupid. No, I didn’t. I just waited. I now wait quite a long time even though I know I waita long time. I learned.
Any of the groups I work with, I’ll just spend longer. I guess the message is, don’t rush it. Take as much time as you can. Part of my messiness, I was working in China, came back, wanted to collect the data, maybe I should have spent more time. You live and learn. The result of which, by the way, for those of you who are interested in action research is, I had to exclude that data. I couldn’t include it because they wouldn’t sign the consent forms. I had to write it up in the study, dah, dah, dah, dah, dah. Reflexively. Recognising that I was powerful. I’m the teacher educator, all of that stuff. To present it like that. It didn’t stop me passing. It was just part of that challenge. That’s quite a long answer, really, but I hope it illuminates just some of the things that go on.
I think the final thing I would say, Saj, which is really powerful. There’s a couple of things that are really powerful for me in terms of thinking about messiness. One of which is the fact that Michael Eraut talks about, “Tidy maps of knowledge and learning are usually deceptive.” I’ll say that again for effect. “Tidy maps of knowledge and learning are usually deceptive.” If you don’t have any messiness, or you don’t write it up, I’m struggling to believe that you didn’t have it. I don’t want to patronise you or anybody else, Saj, but I imagine, when you’ve done some research, things have not gone perfectly.
Saj: Absolutely. Yes. Our research is taking place in the real world.
David: That’s right. Yes. Did you write that up? Did you say it? Did you own up to it?
Saj: Yes, I did. Yes.
David: Good for you.
Saj: I did self-evaluate the issues that I’d encountered.
David: You said, “Well, this didn’t go well. That didn’t go well.” I think it’s really powerful when you do that because more people need to know that it doesn’t need to be perfect. Another idea that I think is quite powerful. Avner Segall talked about Second Text, which is the method of inquiry, which is informed by Patti Lather’s work, which addresses this idea that it’s very, very difficult to narrate an untidy world. We live in an untidy world. The idea of Second Text is sometimes to invite your participants to comment on your study and how it was done. I did try and do that in my study, actually. It didn’t work as well as I’d hoped, but I tried to do it. To open up your text to a companion commentary so it’s not just David Powell telling the story. That’s quite brave, I think. I think more of us could do that.
Saj: Excellent. Well, I think that is an excellent point, I think, for our discussion to close. Is there anything else that you want to say before we finish?
David: Yes, Saj, we’ve gone well over time, haven’t we? Didn’t help that I was a bit late joining you there.
Saj: Luckily, it’s an open-ended podcast so it’s not a problem.
David: I think the other thing to mention, which we talked about a little earlier, but just to mention that. You and I were talking before we started about the two books that I reviewed last weekend, which have been written by Stephen Kemmis and some of his team, which will be coming out by Springer press over the next couple of years. They’re really now trying to move on this theory of practice architectures to ask students the questions to what extent do we live well in a world worth living in? I think that is a really important question for us as action researchers. To what extent are we preparing our students to live well in a world worth living in? I think that’s important.
You mentioned, Greta Thunberg, didn’t you as well? Her book, which I was just looking for as well, which I have around is No One is Too Small to Make a Difference. Remember that. That’s my message to any action researcher. No one is too small to make a difference and no research is insignificant. I think that was probably all I’d want to add, Saj. I’ve very much enjoyed chatting with you and covering quite a lot of ground. Thanks for all those questions. We hadn’t covered them beforehand, but it’s the absolute treat. You can see how much I love AR.
Saj: Absolutely. I think anybody listening will hear your passion for action research coming through. Hopefully, we’ve given some inspiration and a little bit of direction to practitioners. Just before we finish, you’ve mentioned a few organisations that you’ve been involved in over the years. For the novice in the field, are there any professional organisations that you would particularly recommend?
David: I think if you could, to join CARN, the Collaborative Action Research Network. I think it’s probably worthwhile doing that. I would really like to see an association run by the sector to try and support it. Now, the CARN association’s very diverse. It’s not just educators. It’s people working in health and social care settings. You learn a lot from that too. But I’d like to see the sector create its own association really. There’s an invitation to somebody.
Now, the ETF would like to do something like that, but, actually, it needs to be separate from the ETF. It needs to be separate from the ETF. The ETF does enough. It does enough. It’s got its fingers in many, many parts in the sector. It doesn’t need to have them in every part. Otherwise, it might be misinterpreted. It needs to be run by the sector, by people from the sector in a very democratic way. I’m afraid an institution like the ETF, there’s a danger of domesticating it.
It needs to be led in the way that the Ideas Room, #JoyFE, #UKFEchat. It needs to be something like that. There might be ways to get that support. The challenge is, of course, finance, but I think that you need to have the space because those associations can create a space for people to meet. That would be my idea. Maybe something that the FE Research Meet movement could get behind. How’s that help?
Saj: There you go. That’s the gauntlet thrown down then.
David: Absolutely. I’ve told people who shouldn’t be involved.
Saj: Excellent. That’s a wonderful way to end our discussion there. I’ve really enjoyed talking to you, David. It’s always a pleasure to hear from you. Thank you very much. I really appreciate it.
David: Thanks for inviting me, Saj.
Saj: Thanks again to David for talking to me about how action research can help to create that world worth living in.
You can find David on Twitter @DavidPowellHud.
If you want to know more about action research, don’t miss the next edition of Universal Learning where I’ll be talking to Jo Fletcher-Saxon about action research in practice.
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