Teaching & learning communities: a vehicle for action research

Teaching & learning communities: a vehicle for action research
Date17th Apr 2023AuthorDebbie BogardCategoriesTeaching

This piece was first published on the BERA blog on 14th March 2023 here.

Over the past eighteen months, our teaching and learning community (TLC) has been working on an action research project designed to develop metacognitive strategies and cultivate self-directed learning with our further education students.

Teachers have developed a range of strategies in the classroom, with the aim of encouraging students to consciously think about and reflect on how they are learning. In addition to developing resources, teachers have facilitated student focus groups, encouraged students to complete regular structured reflections, and taken part in reciprocal peer observations. All of this work has been widely shared, contributing to an ongoing feeling of continuous professional development and learning.

Over the course of this action research project, we have met semi-regularly to discuss and reflect on our practice and have created a partnership with a local university to develop as teacher-researchers. We have continuously shared our work on the TLC virtual forum as well as through teacher-led presentations in professional development (PD) sessions. This has all contributed to an emerging ground-up research culture, characterised by collaborative learning and a willingness to take risks and trial innovative strategies, modelling the kind of behaviours we seek to inculcate with our students. For example, teachers have begun to experiment with the concepts of freewriting and diagrarting (Gilbert, 2022); the latter being a combination of diagrams, dialogue and art and a new form of writing and drawing to develop thinking.

Communities of practice (CoPs) are an excellent place to situate action research as, when done well, they are in themselves rich opportunistic sites for learning (Wenger, 1998). From our experience, we have found that our TLC as a CoP has inspired feelings of ‘competence and autonomy’ (see Ryan & Deci, 2000), led to greater opportunities for critical reflection, and contributed to a climate of experimentation and innovation. For example, we are currently building an equivalent student learning community, training our students to become peer mentors and act as lesson observers.

In terms of competence and autonomy, the fact that involvement in action research is predicated on being a practising teacher automatically shifts the power dynamic away from established hierarchies and towards a ground-up learning culture, as the focus becomes the teachers and students within the classroom conducting the inquiry. Observations can become developmental and teacher-centred, contributing to a democratic and non-judgmental form of professional learning.

In relation to critical reflection, Brookfield (2017) identified four lenses through which to critically review practice: personal experience, students’ eyes, colleagues’ eyes and through the lens of theory. For Brookfield (2017, p. 97), ‘of all the pedagogic tasks teachers face, getting inside students’ heads is one of the trickiest.’ The methodical nature of our action research has opened up a space for dialogue, with ourselves, our colleagues and our students, around how we learn and how we feel about the processes of our learning. These learning conversations have contributed to a growing sense of agency over our practice. For example, teachers keeping reflective journals and having trusted and confidential discussions with co-peer mentors has created rare and valuable opportunities for critical reflection.

Crucially, positioning action research within our TLC provides the antithesis to the hyper-accountability deficit model prevalent in so many institutions. Arguably, the focus on compliance and accountability leaves little room for making mistakes, less still for promoting creativity and innovation that should underpin professional learning. Conversely, as a site for learning, our TLC has provided fertile ground for risk-taking and experimentation, leading to increased motivation and active engagement in the co-construction of professional knowledge.

Going forward, we hope to replicate the TLC model within departments, with subject specialisms conducting action research relevant to their curriculum area. This work can then be disseminated at future PD days, contributing to the building of a whole-college CoP underpinned by teacher and student-driven research. Our experience of action research within a TLC has given us a blueprint for how we want to be seen and understood as teachers: ultimately, as self-directed learners working within a self-regulated profession.

Debbie teaches history and politics at City and Islington Sixth Form College in London and leads on professional development and practitioner research.


Bolton, G. (2018). Reflective practice: Writing and professional development (5th ed.). Sage.

Brookfield, S. (2017). Becoming a critically reflective practitioner (2nd ed.). San Jossey Bass.

Door, V. (2019, May 15). Creativity, criticality and reflexivity: A gentle approach to action research. BERA Blog. https://www.bera.ac.uk/blog/creativity-criticality-and-reflexivity-a-gentle-approach-to-action-research

Gilbert, F. (2022). Diagrarting: Theorising and practising new ways of writing. New Writing: The International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writing, 19(2), 153–182. https://doi.org/10.1080/14790726.2021.1963288

Konstantinou, I. (2018, February 26). The teacher-as-researcher: Making the case for research in schools. BERA Blog. https://www.bera.ac.uk/blog/the-teacher-as-researcher-making-the-case-for-research-in-schools

Ryan, R., & Deci, E. (2000) Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.55.1.68 

Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning and identity. Cambridge University Press.

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