Action research and its link to UK PSF

How does action research link to UK PSF?

Action research can be a useful strand within a learning and teaching staff development strategy.

How specifically though does this type of practitioner research link to UK PSF?

This is useful to articulate so that

i) Staff developers can be conscious of how to advise colleagues
ii) Those undertaking action research can link their work to the national recognition framework
iii) Colleagues undertaking action research may use the links with UK PSF to further enhance their reflections.

The ways in which I think action research and UK PSF are linked are as follows:
1. A self-review using the Dimensions of Practice can help to inspire topics for focus in an action research project. Effectively the framework can help identify areas of practice or understanding that could be usefully progressed. While self-development is a potential motivator for action research, care must be taken that this aim does not trump the needs of students.
2. Areas of Activity (A1-A4) can be directly enhanced through action research (and with direct benefit to students) e.g. a project to develop inclusive online learning spaces (A4)
3. The act of action research can be a way of contributing to professional development (A5) – although this does require a degree of openness in the outlook of the researcher. Without this open mindedness the project simply becomes a problem solving exercise, rather than something that really impacts individuals and their development.
4. Knowledge ‘about’ practice can be developed through reconnaissance phase of the action research project. This stage is the initial scoping research that helps determine an effective course of action once an issue is identified. It may involve a literature review, collegial discussion and student engagement.
5. If action research is collaborative, as ideally it should be, then the process can facilitate a better understanding of the needs of individual students (V1); this can ultimately challenge personal beliefs about what we think our students like or need.
6. Action research is a direct contributor to ‘V3’ which relates to pedagogic research and scholarship.
7. Sharing action research can start to contribute to the process of influencing others, as is a requirement of Senior Fellowship. This might be through internal institutional events, papers, or other forums (although if you do this, don’t forget to gather evidence of impact as you go … what effect did your research have on others?).
8. Given the link between theory and practice in action research, this form of scholarship is one way to demonstrate point V on Descriptor 2 (Fellowship) and Descriptor 3 (Senior Fellowship).
9. The exploration of ethical dilemmas related to action research can the research to the wider context (V4). For example questions about data usage and data protection have origins and implications beyond a practitioner research project.
10. Action research can assist with progression in UK PSF. Themes and issues that might be considered in a small project can be built up in to a bigger body of work with more impact and influence. A small project can sow seeds for something greater.

A UK PSF compatible framework for professional reflection

One ongoing challenge I have is around how to increase the depth of reflection on teaching practice (or indeed other professional practices) within the context of formal development programmes. Sometimes we use models of reflection to assist, including Gibbs, Johns and Greenaway’s models. However existing models, and even free flow writing, have not always yielded in-depth reflections. Based on my own experience of supporting reflection across different professional groups I have summarised three limitations of existing models of reflection.

1) A tendency to focus on iterative improvement with less emphasis on validation of practice

Models tend to steer the reflector to assess any issues that require a change in approach (plan-do-review and variations thereof); change is king. Based on experience, sometimes colleagues find that they don’t need to change but instead they can take value from affirming their practice and recognising what they do as effective or good. Affirmation and confidence in practice are as important as identifying points for change and development.

2) A limited engagement with the idea of governing variables

Reflection models can tend to encourage single loop learning as critical incidents are located and considered. I always encourage anyone reflecting to consider what is within their remit and control, and to focus their attention accordingly rather than locating issues within the practice of others, particularly when this leads to a sense of blame or the shifting of responsibility for personal practice. Nevertheless, it can be very useful for some attention to be given to the constructive consideration of challenging the status quo and the operational norm. New(-ish) practitioners can often assess the context in perceptive ways as they have not necessarily been acculturated and institutionalised. To encourage a focus on the constraints and context of practice is very different than shifting the focus of a micro reflection to others because it may be easier than examining one’s own practice. It means standing back and asking what are the things around me that I need to challenge? (challenge is key here, and the answers may not be to hand, challenge – not change). Possible areas to challenge include policy and established ways of working. Whilst senior staff may be able to act on these realisations, new lecturers (or practitioners in other fields) may be less empowered or confident to take action. However, if institutional staff development is joined up, then the issues raised through these reflections can filter through course leaders and assessors for discussion elsewhere.

3) A tendency to focus on incidents rather than wider periods of personal transformation and growth.

A third issue with existing models of reflection is that they tend to focus on an incident by incident basis i.e. take a critical incident and consider it in depth, resulting in a learning or a change. This approach can be simplistic and fail to make connections between a range of events and practice. The resulting reflection therefore tends to be overly descriptive and sometimes forced. Instead I am now encouraging a ‘compound reflection’ – to look back over a series of events or a time period and consider the resultant personal and professional growth. This is especially powerful for identifying personal learning about practice, and the recognition of evolving beliefs and values. It should also provide a chance to review meta-learning, asking what happened across this period to assist my learning? I am not convinced that this depth occurs on an incident by incident basis.

I am proposing an alternative reflection model to capture some of the points above. Essentially this encourages the focus on either an event/incident or a period of time identified by the reflector (e.g. across one term, or after a CPD programme). In the model focus is drawn to three areas, which align to the UK Professional Standards Framework Dimensions of Practice. Individuals should separately  attend to their activities/practice, knowledge and values/beliefs. The actual dimensions of practice can be used to further frame thinking. For EACH of those three areas stimulating questions can be asked to encourage external or internal conversation. Affirmation, challenge and meta-reflection are all evident.

reflection model

Of course this is an early attempt at shaping up a framework to assist reflection, so any thoughts by reply are very welcome.


Download the model reflection modelhere.

Senior Fellowship (SFHEA) readiness assessment

To help colleagues assess whether they are ‘really good’ Fellows, or instead ‘Senior Fellows’ I have created a three step self assessment exercise. This tries to encourage teaching and learning practitioners to think about the scholarly or evidence based approaches that they use, the values that underpin their own practice and critically the ways in which they exert leadership and influence over others. Please feel free to use it if useful.

Download the SFHEA readiness exercise