14 SES 04 B, Rural Schools and Communities: Challenges and Opportunities across Countries
This paper explores the expectations, perspectives and outcomes of a participatory action research project in two rural island education authorities in Scotland, UK, between 2015 – 2018. A researcher from the University of the Highlands and Islands worked with two employing education authorities to design and run a professional learning programme for practicing teachers to develop their leadership of the school curriculum.
The project was consciously place-based (Gruenwald, 2003) in each extended island community, working with local island values that are embedded in the school system and referenced in each school building and community (e.g.Tingwall Primary School, n.d.). As defined by Wildy (2010) place in this project worked at three levels engaging with people, the system and self. The focus on place included all education staff, the system of professional learning and the teachers themselves. This focus on the specifity of teacher professional learning in a rural island community challenged the metro centric view (Green and Reid, 2014) of professional learning for teachers in Scotland (Education Scotland, n.d.) and used regional knowledge to design and provide a new programme. The place of this programme in the Island authorities provided the conceptual resource (Thompson, 2000) and supported a critical consciousness approach (Freire, 2000) to challenge the traditional structure of professional learning in the authorities.
The research and development was funded through the Scottish Government funds for Masters Level Learning for Teachers (Scottish Government, 2016) to offer a locally based professional learning opportunity at masters level without the requirements of a University based programme. The project was designed through a critically conscious approach (Friere, 2000) to challenge the status quo of professional learning provided by local authority employers and empower and encourage all teachers to ‘lead’ where they had knowledge and expertise. The aim was to support teachers to explore their role as leaders in the classroom and school community, connecting teachers between the two island communities. The programme connected the island values with the values in the professional standards of the General Teacher Council for Scotland (GTCS, 2012) and asked teachers to lead a curriculum development in their own setting. The theoretical analysis of the project was based on the ecologic framework of teacher agency (Priestley et al, 2015). This framework was established through a Scottish based study of teacher agency that examined the interaction of teachers past histories (iterational dimension), current context (practical evaluative dimension) and future orientations (projective dimension).
The project was led by a design group based in one island authority. This group included a professional learning officer, the Headteacher of a primary school, the Headteacher of a junior secondary School, the local authority lead officer for professional learning and the university researcher. The programme was shared with the second authority and the programme was delivered to a group of teachers in each island authority in 2016 - 17. A second group of teachers participated in the programme in the lead authority in 20117 -18. Data was collected through documentation of the development, including personal notes, and working documents created in the programme. Discourse analysis (Rogers, 2004) was used to identify outcomes for the joint development and inform the content of the programme. Data was collected from participants through presentations and individual interviews. Participant data was analysed through the framework of teacher agency (Priestley et al. 2015). The analysis demonstrated the tensions existing between the expectations and perspectives of the design group and those of the teacher participants. The key outcomes was that island values used to structure the programme directly informed practice and supported teaching values.
This research was established from an understanding of action research as a method to support action and research carried out together, in a participative way (Coghlan and Brannick, 2010). The focus of the research is on the organizational context, the design and provision of a developing leadership programme, that supported teachers to improve their own professional practice (McNiff and Whitehead, 2011). As a participatory action research project (Gray, 2014) the development group and programme participants were immersed in the research, data collection and analysis. The university researcher worked in a democratic structure with the developers, where the research was seen as the agent of change. Data was generated from the direct experiences of the design group and participants, demonstrating the connection between action research and constructivism (Lincoln, 2001). Participatory action research follows a cyclical process of planning, taking action, observing and reflecting but unlike other action research approaches it includes critical reflection by the participants as part of the research cycle (Gray, 2014). In this study the use of critical reflection enabled the design group and teachers following the programme to critically reflect on the role of place in the political and cultural context in which the project was situated. The methodology provided a structure in which individual participants developed an understanding of the relationships and power structures between the design group, those delivering the programme and the individual teachers participating. The project was a small scale study, with five in the design group, two delivering the programme and two groups of teachers. Six in the lead authority and ten in the second authority. The cycle followed began with critical reflection by the design group of the issue and a series of meetings to plan the content and structure of the programme. Action was taken through the delivery of the programme in each local authority, linked by internet-based discussions groups. The participants and programme leads contributed to the data collection, analysis and reflection that then informed a second group following the programme in the first authority. The data used for the first phase of analysis was the documentation of the development, including personal notes, and working documents created in the programme. This formed a first layer of analysis and provided the researcher with a series of issues arising from the critical reflection to structure individual interviews with the teachers who were part of the first two groups following the programme.
This participatory action research project designed a new Developing Leadership programme for class and subject teachers in small rural island schools. The programme was designed to work from a starting point of shared community values (e.g.Tingwall Primary School, n.d.) to explore professional values (GTCS, 2012) and support teachers to lead a curriculum project in school appropriate to their knowledge, skills and setting. The participatory structure of the research provided data that the programme met the expectations of the design group, those delivering and the teachers participating in the programme. The teachers were, ‘encouraged’ and ‘supported’ to take a leadership role with the curriculum and understood ‘the opportunity’ offered in the programme. This met the aims of the design group to open leadership opportunities to all teachers. For the participants the programme provided a focus for their professional learning that used their existing skills and curricular knowledge. The perspectives of the participants were that the programme was an opportunity to participate, ‘in something new’ that supported their career development. They particularly welcomed the ‘authorisation’ to lead practice in their own school setting. The outcomes for the three groups who participated in the programme were identified as meeting teachers from across the authority, with a working space to discuss and share ideas, leading to wider connections. The participatory action research structure supported the design on an inter-authority professional learning programme that ‘opened the possibilities of further study’ and supported participants to carry out and then share the outcomes of the development work they led in school. The focus on community values was welcomed by participants because they were, ‘relevant to our island communities’ and linked directly, ‘to our GTCS values’. This reinforces the importance of place-based design and direct relevance of the programme to the professional learning of teachers in those communities.
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