The Aerodynamics of Research

Formalising the everyday informal research

How do you feel about flying? For me, it’s a little petrifying. Whenever travelling, I make a conscious effort not to think about how a tin can manages to stay up in the air for sustained periods because it seems impossible that humanity has the capacity to make that happen; my lack of understanding of how this marvel is possible leaves me bewildered and frightened.

Flying, fear and researchers So, how does a paralytic fear relate to research and the educational community? I have watched the developing conversations surrounding the direction of research and who should be leading it with interest, particularly in the bubble of social media which has created a space for people who wouldn’t necessarily cross paths in reality to intersect. This offers opportunity to see a range of perspectives on issues currently faced by education, one of them being research.

I’m not sure when or why research became a hot topic, just that it has and conversations have turned into a kind of tussle for ownership of the direction it should take, often discussed as a Higher Education vs. practitioner stance. Dialogues can appear terse with groups taking up opposing positions, each trying to persuade the other of their view. There is a fear of what a research-informed profession may look like and even more so of what a Teacher-led research-informed profession will yield. Just as being in a tin can hurtling through the air leaves me unnerved, the unknown plain of teacher-led research has sparked whispers among the educational community with ripples of fear casting doubt on the credentials of those involved in the act of research.

The academic position

Until recently, research has traditionally been designed and carried out by universities and HE individuals with qualifications. Some of the arguments I’ve seen for a more academic-led research arena include knowledge, experience and time. An interesting point is that those involved in academia are subject specialists; if Teacher research becomes as valid as academic, how does this reflect on them? What does this say about the years of effort, money and time they have given to their fields? Those employed within HE have worked hard for their positions, often dedicating themselves to years of study that have focused on an area of interest in considerable depth. They have developed critical and analytical skills when reading and are well-versed in methods of research and measurement.

Although Teachers may have the potential to develop the same kind of skills and understanding, it is worth reflecting on whether they will be able to do so or apply this at the same level as those who work in HE.

The engaged practitioner position

Yet here, in 2015 we are sitting on the crest of a wave that is inevitably changing not only the relationships between schools and academic institutions but also the expectations of them from each other and by society. With routes into teaching such as Teach First, School Direct, BEd and PGCE’s offering practical research skills on their courses Teachers are becoming more able to utilise the skills learned in their own settings.

Perhaps Teachers have always carried out informal research, perhaps the passion for research in schools is fuelled by their efforts not being recognised or having the same merit as an academic paper, who knows? The supposition is irrelevant. The fact is not only we have teachers more openly and systematically researching, but we also have schools developing roles such as Research Leads and clusters creating Research Hubs to cater to and formalise the growing interest in this area. There is no doubt that the profession generally is seeking to take more ownership of practice.

The aerodynamics

At 2000ft in the air I had an epiphany, which may have been fear-induced, but nonetheless, it was an epiphany. As I gripped the steering column with more might than The Hulk, the instructor noted that the pitch needed correcting or we’d nosedive; pitch is a wonderful term in aviation that essentially means the plane’s balance. In order to maintain a steady, comfortable course, the plane holds a neutral position made possible by elevator flaps on the tail that cause a drag effect in part, to counteract the surging force of the nose. Whilst it’s important to consider whether you want to be part of the surge or the drag (unfortunate terms) it is imperative that there is both respect and understanding for the part each plays in ensuring something continues to move forwards. The drag is not a negative force; it facilitates motion and keeps the nose focused forwards. Likewise, the surge isn’t negative either; it cuts through the air, holds energy and drives the power of the plane.

Applied to research, the teaching profession needs to recognise that both academia and practitioners have value and are needed in order for sustained, steady progress. In theory, they are each able to conduct research independently of one another, but without access to each other’s knowledge and resources, research produced is in danger of becoming relevant only to certain sectors or within a given setting. More Teacher agency is certainly a good step but it will not be of use without the support and expertise of those with experience in the HE sector.

When working in tandem, it is likely that leadership from those involved will vary. For example, Teachers may be more apt to lead within schools, rally teams and offer insightful observations based on knowledge of setting and pupils whereas those who are institution based may be more apt to lead on networking schools, selecting relevant studies and analysing findings. This is not to say Teachers and Academics shouldn’t be involved with the things the other takes the lead on, far from it; the whole process would work best collaboratively but with each playing to their own strengths. If discussions become focused on whether research should be practitioner-led or institution-led this will be impossible and resentment will brew, leading to the research element in our sky of teaching dropping out of the air!

It is positive that the profession is becoming aware that research is not for HE only; surely this can only lead to improvements in practice? There are some fantastic partnerships existing already such as Leicester’s rapidly growing networks for Lesson Study, SLOW education and various action research projects and Glasgow’s strong links with LEA’s. Whilst the ambition for more teacher-led research shows promise, it is important to remember that academic institutions have been designing, conducting and overseeing research for a significantly longer period than schools; it would be foolish to think that one could conduct sound, informed research without the other.

This article was first published in the August 2015 Edition of UKEdMagazine. Read the magazine freely online by clicking here.

Kieran Dhunna Halliwell is a Primary Teacher currently based in Milton Keynes. She likes to explore different approaches to education and has undertaken research projects. Find her blog at

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