Think like a researcher

By Becky Swain, Head of Learning and Participation at Arvon

Easter break has already begun for some, and an appetite for seeking time and space to write seems to be in the air. On route to a residential this week at the Lumb Bank Arvon Centre in West Yorkshire, teacher and writer Ben Bransfield, sent a tweet that read: ‘12 yrs ago @arvonfoundation I wrote about my granddad’s greenhouse. Wished I’d showed him. It’s now being published as I take my own students up to write.’ 

It strikes me this week that the Teachers as Writers (TaW) research project has allowed for conversations and reflections on Arvon’s own practice of working with writers and teachers. It has helped us avoid making assumptions about what aspects of our work are most effective, and it has enabled us to adapt and improve programmes based on learning, weaving in new content to our next course for teachers this Easter.

In conversation with one of the research team this week, I was reminded of the importance of thinking like a researcher, rather than rushing to decide whether something is a success or failure. As a project manager, your focus is often on delivery rather than discovery, and if you are not careful you can miss the gems of change and unexpected outcomes which are right in front of you. In research mode, as I was reminded, ‘you can’t set out to find evidence of what you want to be true.’ 

With that thought still in mind, I looked up the definition of ‘research’ – as you do. It read, ‘a detailed study of a subject, especially in order to discover new information or reach new understanding.’ One American dictionary site defined research as ‘careful, systematic, patient.’

Discovery and new understanding is about right. Being patient is about right too, as we appreciate that change can take time. It might take one writing exercise, it might take a week, a year. It might take 12 years, or it might take a lifetime.  Change means different things to different people and context is everything.

I have appreciated that for some teachers and pupils, fear of failure prevents them from engaging in learning and, perhaps most importantly, from having agency over their own learning. My own experience of being on an Arvon course is that the conditions created at each centre encouraged me to take risks in my writing –  to try not to focus too early on whether it is a success, or how it compares to someone else’s writing, but instead to try new approaches without fear of failure. Teachers involved in the project have also been encouraged to ‘show not tell’ in their writing and to ‘lean on your life,’ to write from personal experience. We have also been reflecting on the principles behind activities and ideas and asking, ‘What have we learnt about writing?’

Coming to the end of this phase of our research into whether writers’ involvement with teachers and students has impact on student outcomes, we are beginning to appreciate what is happening in this work. We are starting to understand how we can best support teachers to think like a researcher, to be an investigator of their own writing, and in their dual role as teacher and writer, to focus on what Teresa Cremin described in one of the first blogs for this project as ‘the need to pay attention to the art and craft of writing and to children’s attitudes, preferences, pleasures and perceptions of themselves as writers.’

A tweet from author Jacob Sam-La Rose this week about sums it all up for me:

‘Slow your rush to affirm/confirm what you already know. Be more comfortable with *not* knowing, but discovering.’

We’re looking forward to sharing the TaW research findings next month. If you are interested in receiving a copy of the Executive Summary of the Teachers as Writers Research Report, then do email us at learning@arvon.org. If you subscribe to this weekly blog then we will be posting the Executive Summary and Final Report in June.

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