The Research Hub

Interview with Andrew Townsend

Dr. Andrew Townsend is an Associate Professor in Education Leadership within the School of Education at the University of Nottingham. Starting his career as a teacher and Head of Department, Andy now lecturers at the university and is coordinating editor of the journal Educational Action Research. He is also a member of both CARN (the Collaborative Action Research Network) and BELMAS (British Educational Leadership Management and Administration Society)[1]. In the past he has edited the SSAT’s resource packs. His research interest span much of the issues affective educational leadership including action research in schools, leadership and change.

Tell me about your career so far…

My job at the moment is Associate Professor in Educational Leadership and Associate Head of School for the School of Education in the University of Nottingham. So my research interests, very broadly speaking, have been around how you change schools and people and how you achieve that change and development though participatory means. It does go inevitably broader than that as we work in quite competitive times and no one person works in one single interest, but that’s the heart of it.

A lot of my research interests come from my work as a Head of Department and teacher in schools. I was able when I was I was in my second school to get involved in an action research network and the idea of the network was to establish a number of researchers in schools who could then develop their own work, their own practice, their own organization and identify a means for which to improve them. This was a programme called IQEA which at the time was organized by the University of Cambridge and from then, what I’ve done is built on that over the years, dealing with research as well as facilitating it and evaluating it.

So I’m going to ask you about how teachers within the Hatton Teaching School Alliance can engage with research. In your opinion, are teachers engage with educational research enough and what do you think are the major barriers to teachers using research in their day-to-day practice?

I think the generally answer would be, basically not enough, or not as much as I would like. As an action researcher I would like to see all teachers having research as a component of what they do and that certainly is not happening at the moment. But it is in some people’s practice. Some people are very much engaged, others less so. I think it’s a systemic problem. The way that teaching is thought of, is not really having a research component to it. That means that the way that people’s practice and employment don’t include research as a part of the system. That’s why I mean by it being a systemic failure.

I think where it happens is dependent on whether people find themselves at the right place at the right time, like I did when I got involved in action research whilst teaching, as well as having the drive to do it. There are pockets of where it is happening, things like teach meets and ResearchEd conferences are helping to promote that. Although these do have a different flavor to what I have been involved in, sometimes they can miss some of the history of researchers trying to involve teachers also.

I’d like to see more involvement, more teacher learning communities, and more research in classrooms, more active partnerships between schools and universities or independent researchers. International links as well, there are some organizations are attempting to do this, but the challenge is that the way that teaching is ‘set up’ doesn’t have research as a component to support that work.

Some people say that teaching and research can be problematic ‘a little knowledge is a dangerous thing’ – how can we overcome this as a profession?

Everyone who works in educational research has a limited understanding of research. No one has a complete and comprehensive understanding of research, it’s impossible to have as its too big, too diverse and too varied. I sort of understand the point, but a part of me feels distinctly uncomfortable talking to a group of teachers and telling them not to do it unless you have a full understanding of research, because no one does! Everyone has their own specialism. What I think probably is needed is to foster an environment of skepticism and doubt, a reliance of systemic and sustained inquiry. Being critical of context and setting to overcome the problems of bias that are common in all forms of research. I think as a principle that helps and it stops people from latching on to their favourite little bit of information and promoting it at all costs.

These issues are true for all researchers, not just teacher researchers, but all kinds of researchers. It would be good to have teachers more heavily involved in training and part of research communities to give them a greater and wider understanding of methodology. I do understand why people may be concerned, but I don’t think that’s a reason to say, OK so we aren’t going to do any research because we don’t have a full understanding of it. Where would we draw the line? Should people with a PhD do it? Well I know people who have a doctorate that have some fundamental and concerning misunderstandings about research in my view. The same is true for some senior professors, whilst there are teachers who have a much more sophisticated understanding of research than people with research qualifications.

I think that systematic and sustained inquiry with skepticism, doubt and inquiry is important, but it’s not easy as it requires people to live with uncertainty. Now education, as a system, does not want people to live with doubt or uncertainty, they try and legislate them as much as they can.

That’s a really good way of putting it, ‘being comfortable with uncertainty’ or saying that we don’t know the answer to something. In the current educational climate, you’d have to be very brave to say you’re not sure yet.

Absolutely, or we’re going to try this initiative and when we’ve completed it, we’ll evaluate it to see if it has worked because the pressure is for everything to work. You might be asked why would you do it if might not work? Well, the point is, if there isn’t the chance that it isn’t going to work, then you’re not really undertaking an inquiry, are you?

You have to positively welcome failure, because you may learn something from it.

I think it’s a problem at the minute, education does try to mitigate and control against failure.

Sometimes teachers can be deterred from carrying out action research because they are unsure about using large amount of data, numbers, graphs etc. What other data/ research methods can teachers collect to help improve their practice?

I think that the first thing to say is that the reason why research makes use of tables, graphs and other kinds of data is because the researchers are people undertaking research in a setting they don’t understand. For people actually working in the same place that they want to research and understand, they are actually embedded in that and there are heaps of data, anything can be considered to be data, that can inform on the workplace or practice you want to understand. The question is, how do you think of data? You could say that everything that happens in a classroom could be considered data, it just depends on how you look at it. The difficult thing is collecting that information in such a way that enables to step back from it and cans see it ‘with fresh eyes’. But you can do that, you can build this stuff into your daily practice, you don’t have to say “right, what we need here is a separate form of data collection, the kind of things researchers would do if they came into schools.” Instead, you look at how we can find out the kinds of information we need from what we do daily that would allow us to understand how we can deal with these issues and develop these practices.

The point is, there are already opportunities for people working in schools which aren’t available to researchers, so we have to find out ways of getting that data or information.

I think sometimes people are put off with what is seen as ‘proper research’ and how to record data. I told a trainee teacher once to record how she felt at the end of a particular lesson over a period of time. She didn’t seem to think it was ‘real research’, but if you do that for a while with a focus, you actually have quite a lot of data to work with.

I think that’s a good point I mean, something like sustaining a series of observations and recording it, and that could be video recording or an audio journal, recorded somehow – it could be anything, will allow you to build up a set of data over time which is what Bridget Somekh referred to when she talked about the teacher being the research instrument as they are the person in there, doing all of this all the time anyway. It’s about how you formalize that process and produce something that is useful to [teachers], in a way that helps people develop what they’re doing.

So, journaling, when you are journaling, what you’re doing is you’re recording observations. If you record observations and reflections and you continue to do this over time, it gives you the chance to see how your own observations have changed, as well as the things you are observing. What is the difference between that and having an attitudinal scale of a questionnaire? If you do an attitudinal questionnaire, what you’re doing is turning someone’s attitude/ideas in to a number. If you are writing in a journal, you are recording the attitudes and perceptions then. It’s the same kind of data. It’s just that numbers seem to have a currency beyond comments or quotes. You could take a journal, and then analyses it quantitatively, you can still convert it into numbers doing the same job as an attitudinal scale. That would achieve the exact same thing, but it is done after the event, after the data is collected.

There is this problem, I think, in education, that if it’s not a number, it’s not meaningful.

Ideally you need to be thinking about what those numbers represent, that opens up lots of new opportunities about data.

How can schools such as Hatton ensure that the action research we carry out can hold up to academic scrutiny and make a difference to learning?

Those are two slightly different things, of course. To hold up to academic standards of research, you need to be engaged with academic communities somehow. I don’t think you can understand what those standards are or what the methodological standards that hold up to scrutiny are unless you’re a part of that community. You can do this through membership of organizations that bring together researchers and teachers/ school leaders together. Places like CARN or BELMAS[2], both of those organizations are located within the universities, as that’s where the space is often available for that kind of administration, but they have members which are teachers, school leaders, consultants, researchers, writers, retired people who want to stay in touch. What it almost always entails is that you are able to demonstrate a rationalized systematic approach to your inquiry which allows you to collect data. To have a ‘disinterested interest’ is a nice way of thinking about it, although it’s not my quote sadly! It’s a study or a topic that you are interested in, but that you are distancing yourself from to avoid conflicts of interest or bias. It’s also in-depth and rich and informative – and this something that people in school have that researchers have to fight tooth and nail for and that is that you are in the setting. So you are creating is an in-depth story that are informed by a systematic approach can really capture people’s attention. There is an issue there with trying to be something that aren’t. These sorts of studies are not a kind of data generations that will cover entire countries or thousands of schools in the way that researchers would. There is no reason why schools couldn’t do that, but it’s not what is at your fingertips. Demonstrate that you have looked at your situation systematically and you are explaining the richness and the context of what you’re looking at, it can help to hold it up to scrutiny. What that leads to is a greater understanding of your work as a teacher, what it means for the children and other people within the school, then it can benefit them. And I would like to make one more point, which is to give children the chance to be researchers as well. That is very motivating for them, it changes the way they can relate to school, the way in which they feel about their school. This can have an impact on them; including their voices in research and involving them in the change process as well and that can be very beneficial to them.

Further Reading

· TOWNSEND, A., 2014. Collaborative Action Research. In: COGHLAN, D. and BRYDON-MILLER, M., eds., The Sage Encyclopaedia of Action Research 1. Sage. 116-119

· TOWNSEND, A, 2013. Action research: the challenges of understanding and changing practice Maidenhead : Open University Press.

· TOWNSEND, A., 2013. Rethinking Networks in Education: Case Studies of Organisational Development Networks in Neoliberal Contexts Interchange. 43(4), 343-362

· TOWNSEND, A, 2013. Action research: the challenges of understanding and changing practice Maidenhead: Open University Press.

· HOBSON, A. and TOWNSEND, A., 2010. Interviews as Research Method(s).. In: HARTAS, D, ed., Educational Research and Inquiry: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches. Continuum.. 223-238

· DAY, C. and TOWNSEND, A., 2009. Practitioner action research: building and sustaining success through networked learning communities. In: NOFFKE, S. and SOMEKH, B., eds., The Sage handbook of educational action research Sage. 178-189

[1] Both of these organisations are open for teachers and school leaders to join

[2] If you would like to talk more about BELMAS and CARN, please email – I am a member of both and can show you the range of resources/events they have on offer

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