Two approaches to research centers at the high school level

Paul Magnuson with Timothy Scott

Timothy Scott joins Paul to compare notes during a week spent discussing and dreaming about research centers embedded in schools.

Meeting a colleague traveling a similar path is always a good opportunity for reflection. So it is with pleasure that I reflect together with Tim, Research Fellow at the Barker Institute of Barker College in Hornsby, Australia. 

Tim and I are both members of high school level initiatives to leverage research in teaching and learning. During Tim’s April 2023 visit to Leysin American School (LAS) as a visiting scholar (for a history of our visitors, see LAS Educational Research), we are comparing our center’s origins and goals –  and our hopes for the future.

Leysin American School Educational Research (LASER)

It’s been a 10-year journey under the banner of LASER, our research department at the Leysin American School. And it’s been 15 years, actually, since we introduced the first professional learning programs that led to LASER.

A few important philosophical strands have survived the test of time. From the start, our purpose was supporting self-regulation. Originally our focus was squarely on teachers, given our early programs in professional development for our faculty members. But class observations, and the apps we developed in our early years, took into account student behavior, too. We began wondering more frequently about the extent to which creating a culture of teacher self-regulation helped promote student regulation, and if this was indeed a part of lifelong learning.

Over the years we began speaking more about teacher – and student – agency, and in the past few years, about teacher and student self-efficacy.

From the early days to the present, LASER has focused primarily (though not exclusively) on teacher action research. We have been careful when including experts from the university. We aim to support our own teachers doing their own action research as professional development. While we know we can learn from our university colleagues, we try not to start by having them tell us what we need to do. The discovery process is important, even if at times it affects the quality of our research. 

The Barker Institute

The Barker Institute’s story began at roughly the same time as LASER. Formally established in 2014 at Barker College in Sydney, Australia, The Barker Institute became a natural home for the different research-engaged programs and initiatives that had emerged at Barker from as early as 2008. We bring together and work with Barker’s rich intellectual resources to facilitate learning and growth throughout the school and the wider community. One of the older school-based educational research centers in Australia, since we started, we have worked to empower teachers and school leaders through the research we pursue.

Supporting teacher agency and self-efficacy has remained an important part of our storyline. For example, we support professional learning by encouraging faculty and staff to write for our journal, Learning in Practice. We published our first volume in 2017 and, six editions later, Learning in Practice continues to be a space for reflection, professional learning, and development through engaging in the research process from conceptualization to dissemination. The journal encourages independent and collaborative research, which we support and share. 

As we developed the journal and other research programs, we realized that there was an important dynamic at play, a distinctiveness that positioned us differently from other educational research centers. Namely, that our research was taking place in the context of a community whose constituent members were simultaneously experienced educational researchers and experienced practitioners. Our work benefits from a perspective informed by the interplay between understanding educational research discourse and being in the classroom as a teacher.

Understanding perspectives of learning, and what that means for teacher and student alike, is deeply ingrained in our work. An example is the Barker Journey, a decade-long longitudinal study of learning, teaching, and schooling from the students’ point of view. The Barker Journey research project records students’ voices over time, helping to identify what the next generation of students’ value and contributing to mapping what effective learning and teaching may look like in the future. While the generation that constitutes the current Barker Journey cohort is still revealing their own key attributes and characteristics, social researchers have identified five emergent traits: global, digital, mobile, social, and visual (McCrindle, Buckerfield and Fell 2021). This information has implications for how education might develop to meet this generations’ needs authentically.

Looking Ahead

Leysin and Barker share interests and experiences in “close to practice,” school-based educational research. There is a great deal in common in what motivates us as educational practitioners and researchers: the role of classroom practice in the research agenda and the role research has in supporting what happens in the classroom. In comparing notes on the journeys that each of our schools have taken, we have seen how there are different angles to understanding and implementing close to practice educational research in schools. Where the Barker Institute seeks to pursue research that informs, LASER lifts the professional learning of teachers into shared research. To understand the two different approaches, consider these paired questions:

  • Do the teachers do research to inform the organization?; or 
  • Does the organization do research to inform the teachers?

Of course, there are some of each in both our cases. Another paired formulation might be helpful:

  • Is the first purpose to be a vehicle for personal professional development, that might transfer into learning for others as well?; or
  • Is the first purpose to be information that transfers to others, through the professional development that the research engenders?

Perhaps teachers working with LASER and The Barker Institute meet in the middle as pracademics, a term we learned from Trista Hollweck (2019). She borrows from Walker (2010) to define a pracademic as someone who “spans the ethereal world of academia as a scholar and the pragmatic world of practice” and notes that the term pracademic is gaining traction in a number of fields, including, slowly, education.

Original research is not only for the university, nor is the presentation, adoption, and critique of that research reserved for professors. Research is what we engage in as curious, motivated educators, as moral people trying to do the best for our students. Our common goal, and of this we are sure, is to benefit them – our students – by offering teachers the best possible learning culture in which to thrive.

References

Hollweck, T. A. (2019). A Patchwork Quilt: A qualitative case study examining mentoring, coaching, and teacher induction in the Western Québec School Board. (Publication No.) [Doctoral dissertation, University of Ottawa], https://ruor.uottawa.ca/handle/10393/39919

McCrindle, M., Buckerfield, S., & Fell, A. (2021). Generation Alpha. Sydney, New South Wales: Hachette Australia.

Resources

Barker Institute and Publications

LAS Educational Research

Research Invested Schools

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