In spring and summer terms 2021, two groups of seven–eight members each of the Learning Circle trialled a procedure for moving from discussion of important issues in our recent professional experience to developing small-scale inquiries into these issues.
The main aim of the initiative is to develop an approach that HE teaching staff with multiple demands on their time can adopt to engage in inquiry into teaching and learning, with ultimate benefits for improvement of student experience but also with immediate benefit to participants themselves.
We are repeating the experience with new participants in spring term 2022, for their immediate benefit and to further refine the approach.
More information about the approach we are developing
‘Exploratory Pedagogic Inquiry’ (henceforth, ‘EPI’) is a form of small-scale practitioner inquiry which is suitable for staff and students who are in challenging or difficult circumstances, and which offers a means to address the issues they are facing and/or build on the achievements they have gained. The approach builds on Richard Smith’s previous work with schoolteachers in Latin America and South Asia involving ‘Exploratory Action Research’ (e.g. Smith & Rebolledo 2018), an approach which has been shown to be useful, in practice, in situations where there are limited resources and where there are multiple demands on teachers’ time. Given the difficult circumstances of teaching in Higher Education during the global Covid-19 pandemic and the need to address difficult challenges in the short term, the Learning Circle adopted aspects of this approach during summer and autumn 2020/21, and participants have evaluated the approach highly.
EPI involves participants in identifying pedagogic issues they are facing, prioritising among them, reflecting on one issue further, and developing related, researchable questions, all within a context of mutually supportive peer-coaching. Weekly whole-group sessions (four in total) alternate with peer-coaching meetings (in randomized pairs) and individual reflection, and culminate in production of a plan for gathering further evidence in relation to the issue and research questions identified.
The approach we are developing involves a sequence of questions within a structured peer-coaching procedure. Adapting these questions, we have been producing and using a booklet (transferred to Moodle for summer term 2021), which provides guidance to participants and which can be worked through over a three-week period. On the basis of experience in 2020/21, we are intending to scale up the aspects of the process which are seen as being particularly useful within WIHEA and the university more generally.
This is, then, a type of practitioner inquiry with two main elements. Firstly, it is concerned with investigating personal practice in teaching and learning in Higher Education through reflecting on practice, answering questions, potentially gathering evidence and identifying ways of developing practice. Secondly, exploratory inquiry is enabled through collaboration, in particular through ‘peer coaching’ – a relatively non-directive approach to asking questions to peers, involving mutual encouragement and enabling deeper thinking. This involves active listening and allowing answers to emerge gradually rather than through directing/advising other team members (see Roxå and Mårtensson (2009), who indicate the potential for small groups of teachers in HE to work together in a spirit of mutual trust and intellectual intrigue, to learn professionally and to develop teaching related concepts).
Extensions of the approach
Colleagues who experienced and helped develop the EPI approach in spring term 2021 are currently taking it further by meeting together to document and write about the approach and its effects on them. Both spring term and summer term 2021 groups are also considering implementing (aspects of) the approach in different ways within their respective departments. For example, in April, Leticia Villamediana Gonzalez led a session with PGR students who are teaching in Hispanic Studies, using this handout, based on the materials shared in spring term. Finally, a working group has been established to consider the ethics of practitioner research, with a view presenting a new proposal for ethical approval in this area. The overall goal of the Learning Circle in 2021–22 is to continue to develop and gain recognition for a format for EPI (via online materials, etc.) which can be easily and feasibly adopted for professional development in different parts of the university.
Roxå, T., & Mårtensson, K. (2009). Significant conversations and significant networks – Exploring the backstage of the teaching arena. Studies in Higher Education, 34(5), 547–559.
Smith, R. & Rebolledo, P. (2018) A Handbook for Exploratory Action Research. London: British Council.