An Education Teaching Union and University Partnership to Promote Practitioner Action Research

By Robert Henthorn; Kevin Lowden; Karen Mcardle

    An Education Teaching Union and University Partnership to Promote Practitioner Action Research

    About the Author

    Robert Henthorn; Kevin Lowden; Karen Mcardle
    EIS Learning Co-ordinator; Univ. Researcher; Emeritus Professor
    Glasgow, SCT, GB
    1 Article Published
    Robert Henthorn; Kevin Lowden; Karen Mcardle

    Robert Henthorn – Rob Henthorn is the Professional Learning Co-ordinator for the Educational Institute of Scotland, leading on the provision of high-quality development opportunities for teaching professionals across all levels of Scottish education. This includes developing and delivering a wide range of courses and programmes for EIS members, recruiting and coordinating a network of union Learning Reps, and engaging with national and international policy and guidance regarding career-long learning for teachers and lecturers. Rob’s professional background is in education policy and activist development across Europe, including roles with the European Students’ Union, NUS-UK and the Quality Board for Higher Education in Iceland. Rob’s interest in practitioner research is led by a commitment to trade union values and community power through self-education, based in the traditions of workers’ inquiry and democratic organisation.

    Kevin Lowden – Since 1987, I have been involved in research that has had a focus on understanding what difference educational approaches and innovations can make to learner outcomes, including their achievement, life opportunities and wellbeing. From 1987 to 2002 my work at the Scottish Council for Research in Education (SCRE), an independent research centre, entailed research that was largely evaluative to inform local and national educational policy and practice. The objectives and values of SCRE included a commitment to using research and knowledge to improve educational practice in partnership with teachers, local authority/ district officers and government. Since 2013, with the establishment of the Robert Owen Centre for Educational Change (ROC)many of the aims of the SCRE Centre have been reinvigorated within ROC, including developing a model of collaborative action research within our Network for Social and Educational Equity. I am currently part of a team of university researchers in this Centre who work as critical friends to support practitioners and others in the educational community to develop enquiry-informed practice to improve the lives of learners and their communities.

    Karen McArdle – Professor Karen McArdle, FRSA, is Emeritus professor of Education at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. She is a member of the CARN Co-ordinating group (Collaborative Action Research Network) and is Scotland Convenor of the Workers’ Educational Association. She is also on the organising group for a CARNival, the CARN 2021 conference to be held in October 2021.

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    Since 2017, the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) has supported members to undertake year-long action research projects which contribute to their own professional learning. This EIS Action Research Grants (ARG) scheme offers up to 20 EIS members each year a small financial grant of £500 per-project to facilitate their research, and additionally supports those members with guidance, peer discussions and engagement with academic partners as a research cohort. Grants are awarded to research proposals which investigate aspects of pedagogy and the dynamics of teaching and learning to enhance practice, inform EIS policy development, or support the efficacy of teacher trade unions and professional associations.

    The ARG scheme maintains an important element of the EIS’s role as a professional association. Founded in 1847, making it the oldest teaching union in the world, the EIS has been fundamental in championing a culture of teacher-led educational research throughout its history. ARG projects contribute to the EIS’ understanding of Scotland’s education sectors, including how practitioners from early years to higher education are engaging with current challenges and innovations in teaching, learner support and educational leadership. EIS researchers go on to present their findings at national and international events, and via publications including the Scottish Educational Journal, ensuring that EIS members play an active role in creating and disseminating new knowledge and innovative practice within the teaching profession.

    The ARG scheme also contributes to the EIS’ role as Scotland’s largest trade union for education professionals. As a whole, the scheme furthers the EIS vision for teacher empowerment and professional agency, positioning practitioners as experts and leaders in their own context. By supporting practitioner research on key topics, the EIS is additionally equipped with detailed and contemporary knowledge about teachers’ working conditions, professional identities and support needs. In combination, this approach strengthens the EIS’ representative and campaigning functions by arming the union and its members with relevant insight to effectively shape Scotland’s education sectors at every level. This reflects the EIS’ ambitions for integrating professional learning and organising, such that ‘teacher’ and ‘trade unionist’ are mutually reinforcing identities founded in the practical and reflective capacities of education professionals.

    CARN Collaboration with EIS

    A number of academic staff contribute to the programme as mentors.  One of these, Professor Karen McArdle, University of Aberdeen, was nominated by the Collaborative Action Research Network (CARN). CARN was founded in 1976 in order to continue the development work of the Ford Teaching Project in UK primary and secondary schools. Since that time, it has grown to become an international network drawing its members from educational, health, social care, commercial, and public services settings. CARN aims to encourage and support action research projects (personal, local, national and international), accessible accounts of action research projects, and contributions to the theory and methodology of action research. CARN seeks to generate visibility for action research, visibility:

    • for action research that requires critical inquiry into past, current and future practice
    • for research that involves active involvement with practitioners and participants
    • for inquiry where practitioners actively contribute to the generation of knowledge and theory
    • for approaches where community development works to engage with and support critical, collective action for social justice
    • for approaches to professional development that takes into account the context of institutional practices and structures as well as wider political, social and cultural forces
    • for action research that aims to bring about change both inside and outside of institutional spaces.

    CARN also provides support for action researchers working both individually and in collaboration with others:

    • for anyone wishing to set up action research activities as part of ongoing developments, new inquiries, research projects, community engagements, etc
    • for anyone who is interested in developing collaborative, critical and creative dialogue between practice and inquiry; research and practice, theory and experience
    • CARN’s main focus is networking through sharing accounts of action research, on the CARN website, in the Educational Action Research international journal, and through other CARN publications
    • through attentive personal encouragement and critical feedback
    • through regional events, study days and at the CARN annual conference.

    University Collaboration with the EIS and Its Network of Practitioner Researchers

    Colleagues at the Robert Owen Centre for Educational Change (ROC) at the University of Glasgow have been involved with supporting the EIS Action Research Grants programme (ARG) for 5 years. The team has over 30 years’ experience of conducting research, evaluation and working with practitioners, local authorities and policy colleagues to help improve education systems. Since 2013, much of this work has focused on working with stakeholders at school, local authority and regional levels to support their use of Collaborative Action Research (CAR) as part of their strategies to enhance professional learning to promote positive learner outcomes and to contribute to systems change. The team has drawn on this experience in our work with the EIS Action Research programme.

    The Importance of Action Research

    There is evidence that action research and evidence-informed critical enquiry can enhance practitioners’ pedagogical skills and promote positive learner outcomes. The concept of the teacher as researcher emerged in US in the 1950s (Corey, 1949) and thereafter developed in the UK to recognise the importance of teacher/educator agency and reflective and reflexive practice (e.g., Stenhouse, 1975). Reeves et al. (2010) found that practitioner research improved understanding of learning theory, improved analytical skills, reflection and increased attention to issues of evidence and pupil learning. De Paor and Murphy (2018), state that ‘teacher research has been identified as a transformative model of continuous professional development’ (p. 169). Research has shown that practitioners who engage in such action research to enhance their professional learning are key in promoting positive educational outcomes, irrespective of socioeconomic background (Hamre and Pianta, 2005; Opper, 2012; Rivers and Sanders, 2002).

    While individual practitioner research is valuable, making it part of a systematic collaborative learning activity in, between and beyond schools provides even more potential for positive change. The literature argues that having educators collaboratively engaged in inquiry is critical for professional learning and educational improvement (Ainscow, 2012; Chapman and Hadfield, 2010; Elliott, 2009; Hadfield and Ainscow, 2018; Hargreaves & Fullan, 2012). Where action research involves teachers and like-minded professionals working collaboratively, they can maximise the impact of their shared inquiry by sharing lessons learned across their systems. Such collaborative learning networks informed by practitioner research are even more important as the system moves to cope and recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.

    Supporting Educators to Develop Their Action Research Skills

    While the benefits of using evidence and adopting action research are evident, practitioners often report the need for support and advice to enhance their skills and knowledge in this area (Lowden et al., 2019). In Scotland and elsewhere, educators’ roles have developed to incorporate a greater focus on research engagement and practitioner enquiry as government and the research literature stress that practitioner engagement with research is crucial for educational improvement (OECD, 2015; Scottish Government, 2017).

    Since 2013, the ROC team at the University of Glasgow has worked closely with practitioners, local authorities, other Higher Education colleagues, professional associations such as the EIS and policy colleagues in Scotland to develop practitioners’ action research skills (Lowden et al., 2021). This is a key part of the mission of the ROC, which sees collaborative practitioner inquiry as integral to promoting educational and social change to promote equity.

    The ROC team has drawn on their collective research knowledge and skills to provide a particular model of professional learning to enhance practitioners’ action research skills and abilities. Part of the ROC team’s work is the Network for Social & Educational Equity (NSEE); this work aims to enhance collaborative inquiry among support practitioners and educational leaders as part of their work to tackle the poverty-related achievement gap in education.

    Our team works with practitioners and other partner services to co-produce approaches that promote practitioners’ action research skills to enhance their classroom practices, build leadership capacity and support organisational development. This programme of work involves working with a number of local authorities across Scotland, including consortia of local authorities known as  Regional Improvement Collaboratives (RIC)s. This approach is also being developed with our international partners including higher education colleagues in Chile, to support practitioner action research as an integral part in professional learning systems for educational improvement.

    Personal Reflections on Participation in the EIS programme

    Professor Karen McArdle, CARN, University of Aberdeen

    My interest in Practitioner Research is personal and professional.  Personally, prior to my academic, career I was engaged in professional practice in Australia where I used action research to underpin practice in rural Western Australia with young people.  Subsequently I undertook action research to explore disadvantage and education in the textile, clothing and footwear industries in Victoria. This led me to understand the direct link and importance for practice.  My values of supporting adults in an educational context contributed to my decision to support individuals doing practitioner research. This personal motivation of mine is linked to the personal involvement of those doing practitioner research where the values, choices and knowledge and skills of the researcher are central to the inquiry; the inquiry reflects the complexity, interdisciplinarity and emergent character of researching practice.

    My professional research interest is in ethics and values and how they underpin research.  I am very interested in challenging orthodoxy in research.  Orthodoxy interprets quantitative research with its reductionism as being more rigorous, robust and therefore more valuable than the more complex qualitative practitioner paradigm (McArdle, 2018).  Yes, there is a place for this quantitative research, but it does not affect directly the practice of the individual educator.

    My motivation for working with the EIS and their action research projects is because of my delight in supporting others to find out about what they do; my delight in finding out myself about practice; the wonderful diversity, idiosyncrasy and challenges of the projects; and the freedom for the researchers to inquire with criticality away from the orthodoxy of practice.

    Kevin Lowden, Senior Researcher, University of Glasgow

    Since 1987, I have been involved in research that has had a focus on understanding what difference educational approaches and innovations can make to learner outcomes, including their achievement, life opportunities and wellbeing. From 1987 to 2002 my work at the Scottish Council for Research in Education (SCRE), an independent research centre, involved research to inform local and national educational policy and practice. SCRE had a commitment to using research and knowledge to improve educational practice in partnership with teachers, local authority/ district officers and government. Since 2002 I have worked at the School of Education (SoE) at the University of Glasgow. In 2013, the SoE established the Robert Owen Centre for Educational Change (ROC), led by Prof. Chris Chapman. The Centre has developed a model of collaborative action research within its Network for Social and Educational Equity (NSEE). Within this programme, myself and other researchers work as critical friends to support practitioners and others in the educational community to develop enquiry-informed practice to improve the lives of learners and their communities.

    An important development in this work has been our collaboration with the EIS to support their practitioner action research programme. The goals of this programme and the EIS stance regarding the role of research, have aligned with my own research and values. I believe that adopting a participatory and collaborative approach to research has a moral component that compels researchers to see their role as building capacity, agency and empowerment within the communities they work with to improve lives. There are many barriers to equity in society and education, but by using collaborative practitioner enquiry to support collective agency I believe we can contribute to positive systems change.

    Robert Henthorn, EIS

    From the perspective of co-ordinating professional learning activity for the EIS, the ARGs programme provides invaluable insight into various aspects of members’ professional practice and development. Whereas the preponderance of centrally-organised and national-level EIS professional learning opportunities bring together members interested in a specified topic, or specific groups of members based on their specialism or career stage, the annual cohorts of grant-supported EIS researchers are diverse in terms of participants’ interests, experiences and learning objectives. For the purpose of supporting professional learning which is practitioner-centred and relevant to emerging need in the sector, even receiving members’ project proposals is extraordinary helpful.

    Moreover, engaging with these researchers over the course of their self-directed year-long projects gives myself and other EIS staff a chance to understand that cross-section of members in their full complexity, as they articulate ambitions for themselves and their practice, encounter challenges and opportunities for development, and reflect on their progress as a coherent learning experience. A clear example of this in recent months has been ARG participants reflecting on the challenges of undertaking action research during the COVID-19 pandemic, where collaborative discussions about research activity has been a catalyst for participants collectively interrogating their role, and the role of teachers’ professional learning, in building a resilient and self-improving education sector.

    Professional learning within the EIS is an area of work which seeks to align teachers’ professional identity with trade union values, counter to the managerialist perspective that trade unionism is irrelevant to (or even contradicts) good teaching practice. The ARGs scheme is a window for EIS staff on learning-oriented ways in which this plays out in practice, as members demonstrate leadership of learning, professional judgement and autonomy with confidence inspired by their union’s support. In so doing EIS researchers themselves give shape and substance to those sometimes-abstract concepts, bringing a complex notion of teacher-trade unionist identity to life.


    This partnership of university advisers, working with EIS specialists to provide support at periodic meetings of the EIS action research group, as well as with bespoke individual advice where required, during each cohort of the programme is a key part of the ROC university team’s work and CARN’s work.  It aligns with their ethos and ROC’s commitment to promote teacher agency and activism as an integral part of positive educational change to tackle educational and social inequity. It accords with CARN’s interest in supporting and promoting action research for professionals from a wide range of backgrounds in education and community, as well as other professional disciplines.  Indeed, practitioner action research can support educational development, including in challenging contexts, but only if it facilitates agency rather being a top-down imposition (Cochran-Smith and Lytle, 2009). Furthermore, Chapman et al. (2011) argue that, in a school context, improvement that is informed by action research and that tackles inequality is much more likely to emerge as a result of collective capacity that empowers teachers, rather than through centrally driven, top-down mandates, underpinned by accountability mechanisms. Experience has shown that collaborative action research as professional learning can provide an approach that is practicable, robust, sustainable and makes a positive difference to learner outcomes.

    Practitioners, through their collaborative inquiry, can be activists, adopting research that is participatory, transformative and potentially challenges the power dynamics in their systems. This enables teachers to play a more empowered role in tackling educational inequity; using evidence and collaborating with other professionals and in partnership with the communities and families they serve. Having such an empowered and skilled teacher community that works in partnership with university, professional association colleagues, other services and stakeholders, including their communities, is all the more important in times of economic austerity when there are cuts in the numbers of key local authority advisers and specialists who would normally provide advice and move knowledge around their system.


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    To cite this work, please use the following reference:

    Henthorn, R., Lowden, K., & Mcardle, K. (2021, May 30). An education teaching union and university partnership to promote practitioner action research. Social Publishers Foundation.

    Copyrighted by Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

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