Students as partners in developing our practice

We are delighted to welcome John Webber as our guest blogger this month. John is the Project Manager for Learning Innovation and Technology at Sussex Downs College and his Blog focusses on how students, through practitioner-led research, can become partners in developing effective teaching and learning practices. John writes from experience, having undertaken practitioner-led research with SUNCETT. It was during this time that he met Frank Coffield, which led to him being invited to contribute a chapter to Frank’s most recent book ‘Beyond Bulimic Learning: Improving Teaching in Further Education‘ published by the Institute of Education in 2014.

Students as partners in developing our practice

OK I admit it, I used to believe in training. It seemed obvious. An expert would convey all they knew about some aspect of teaching and I would then use this in my practice. I would attend an inspiring workshop or conference and come away convinced that I held the key to becoming as expert as they were. The fact that it didn’t work was clearly my fault. I lacked the skill or perseverance to make the change. Year on year my teaching did improve but it was a haphazard process of trying an idea and adapting it, trying it again.

Reading Michael Fielding et al (1) and Joyce and Showers (2) relieved me of that sense that this was personal. Their research showed that training, however well designed, didn’t work, at least not on its own. Professional learning, at least as much as the learning of our students, is a complex process that can be quite unnerving.

Real innovation in our practice takes us out of our comfort zone of familiar competence into areas where we will often feel much less confident and indeed may initially become more incompetent. To achieve real and sustained development of practice, we need to work with colleagues in a relationship of mutual trust which allows us to take risks, to honestly reflect on failures, celebrate successes and keep learning. Joyce and Showers called it ‘peer coaching’. Fielding et al called it joint practice development (JPD).

Whilst participating in the SUNCETT programme (which like the emCETT programme promotes action research and collaborative enquiry) I came to see that the theory of, or at least my conception of JPD and action research, needed to be extended to include our students.

Teaching is nothing without learning, and a teacher is not a teacher if there are no learners. At the core of our profession is a partnership, between us and our students. Any change in our practice is a change to that partnership. It can be as uncomfortable for students as it is for us. They too can suddenly feel less competent in this new terrain. So let’s involve them. Let’s consult them. Let’s talk to them about what we are trying and why. Let’s ask them for their views at every stage on the journey.

Listening to students reflecting on teaching and learning, especially during their transition into College or when colleagues are trialling a new approach, I have come to really respect and value the insights they offer. Even when a group of students argues that we should stop our teachers wasting their time with approaches that we know from research or experience can be very powerful (such as peer assessment) listening to their reasons can show the way forward.

So I encourage you, when you are seeking to develop your practice through action research, to remember that your students aren’t subjects of a controlled experiment. They are partners with a vital role to play. Consult and engage them and they are much more likely to work with you, tolerate the discomfort, ride the failures and celebrate the successes as a mutual achievement.

That’s what I call ‘joint practice development’!

(1) Fielding, M., Bragg, S., Craig, J., Cunningham, I., Eraut, M., Gillinson, S., Horne, M., Robinson, C. & Thorp, J. (2005) Factors influencing the transfer of good practice, research report no. 615. London: DfES

(2) Joyce, B. & Showers, B. (2002) Student Achievement through Staff Development, VA: ASCD