Achieving education innovation through action research CPD: a school, professional organisation and industry partnership

A blogpost by Christina Preston, member of the Naace Board of Management


We’re living in a time when things are moving fast. The rules of the game are changing. Science is changing. Technology is changing. Geo-politics is changing. Learning fast is the only mode of survival. But here’s the crazy thing: our models of learning have not kept up.” Wenger 2014(1)

As a member of the Naace Board of Management as well as the founder of MirandaNet, it is interesting to look back at developments over the years and see how they inform current thinking in schools.

Naace members whose professional lives stretch back to the 1980s like me know that the gurus of education technology have been complaining about the lack of change in classrooms for four decades – since the UK government first introduced the National Grid for Learning in 1997, and before.

Naace(2), ITTE(3) and MirandaNet Fellowship (4), all communities of practice, were formed at much the same time in the expectation that as expert academics, educators and practitioners we could all make a difference.

In 2010 I met Wenger (1) who invented the term ‘communities of practice’. In relation to MirandaNet he said that communities of practice in education have more chance of making progress than those in business because sharing is core to teaching professionals ethos. This observation is, of course, equally relevant to Naace.

The enthusiasm to share is palpable amongst us, the evangelists. Since I founded the MirandaNet Fellowship in 1992 our community of practice has grown from fifteen teachers in England who saw themselves as thought leaders in education innovation to one thousand members in eighty countries. We attract more than 64,000 visitors a year who read up to 11 pages of teachers’ research.

ITTE and Naace have similarly grown and matured – adapting to new forces by encouraging many more school leaders to join them.

But until the last couple of years most of the expert enthusiasts in each of these three influential communities would agree with Wenger that our models of learning have not kept up with the potential offered by learning technologies.

What has changed?

Michael Fullan(5) is another guru, a long term expert in systemic change management in education. He cites three new forces that are converging to open up learning possibilities. The first force, ‘new pedagogies’, springs from the new learning partnerships that emerge between and among students and teachers when digital tools and resources become pervasive. The second, ‘new change leadership’, merges top-down, bottom-up and sideways energies to generate change that is faster and easier than anything seen in past efforts at reform. The third, ‘new system economics’, makes the powerful learning tools and resources that accelerate the first two forces more affordable for all.

In our research in schools in the last couple of years have seen the evidence of a significant change in professional attitudes now that many teachers own smartphones and tablets. Because of their personal competence and understanding of the potential for of technology for teaching and learning, teachers at the grassroots are beginning to expect and embrace change.

To dampen Fullan’s optimism, there has been a profound change in the  government’s enthusiasm and capacity in England to fund this revolution as they used to and to lead the change centrally. Some of us are still around who were inspired in the 1980s by government agencies like the National Council for Education Technology (NCET, which subsequently became Becta) and organisations like MAPE (later to merge with Naace becoming Naace Primary) that they funded. This government support gave UK plc significant strengths and much that was developed in teachers’ garages was exported around the world.

In terms of exports, colleagues in other countries consider the UK to have had major support in terms of the British Education Suppliers Association (BESA). This organisation that was founded at the same time as Naace, MirandaNet and ITTE has published a longitudinal report about the history of industries involvement and how in the UK, computer technology  played a central part in the drive to raise standards in schools to meet the new challenges (6).

In this climate of expansion the technology industry was also keen to play a part in professional development. As an English and Drama teacher my first engagement was in a professional development project, where Professor Margaret Cox at Education Computing Unit, King’s College, London, invited a group of practising teachers to develop curriculum software to support learning in the new curriculum subject, Information Technology. We were a motley bunch, English, Domestic Science and History experts, who had had no training in computers and certainly no access to them. But we could see that children were highly entertained and motivated by the adventure games that were emerging commercially. We could see the potential learning value and went on to develop Scoop, the first education game for the 8-bit with pictures – black and white of course.

The program was internationally popular as information technology was new and this was an adventure where a journalist had to use information technology devices to gain a Scoop. We all piloted this in our classrooms and wrote the the notes for teachers learning much about how adventures could be used to improve learning and achievement.  To this day it can still be seen in some classrooms.

Based on this project and the many we have been involved in since, I  do not agree with Wenger that businesses do not want to share. It’s true that they do not want to share with each other on sensitive commercial information but we have had a good reputation in the UK for education’s partnership with education.  British Telecom’s part in this project illustrated the best of partnership. We all gained professional development and shared our research knowledge into what teachers and pupils found valuable in these new digital artefacts.  How proud we were of this achievement …and this group of teacher co-researchers who started MirandaNet and have been evangelists for Computing in schools in all its forms ever since: Digital Citizenship and Digital Literacy also being high on our list. At the same time Naace was a growing influence with a membership from 1984 of those early computing advisers, teacher-advisers and policy makers, particularly those in Local Authorities.

How was this professional development and research funded? Well in England in the 1980s teachers were entitled to funding for M.As and Ph.Ds as well as 21 day course opportunities. So drawing on these professional development funding I was seconded to King’s to author the educational adventure game and research the value for a year. The teachers in the development group were seconded on a twenty-one day course entitlement that allowed teacher to pursue an interest related to their teaching and researchers at King’s were funded by BT to draw the larger research information from this intensive project.

Much has changed since then…In these days of austerity the UK government has closed Becta that commissioned most of the valuable research in this area (7); much smaller professional development funds have been devolved the schools who largely use this for training staff in how to use products and services (8); funds and time for involving leaders, advisers and trainers high level training is difficult to find outside of the CPD opportunities afforded by MirandaNet’s action research for teachers, iCatalyst, and Naace’s ICT Mark. This perennial problem has been documented widely since the National NOF programme 1999-2003 (9); companies struggle to reach enough schools to demonstrate what they can do and to continue their involvement once a product is installed; opportunities for objective research in this area through external funds are significantly reduced; applying for project funding is onerous and few submissions win – however good they are.

Despite these negative conditions, the World Bank advice for any project holds good: 50% on hardware and software and 50% on training for teachers – I would add for the leaders and advisors. Training could be interpreted as learning how to use the tool. But competence in using a tool does not have the same impact on achievement as a professional development programme where theory is referenced, the pedagogical value are defined by the teachers themselves and systemic change is discussed.

Over the years Mirandanet has evolved two solutions to combining a research and professional development agenda, Sprint and iCatalyst (10). Based on extensive research and practice, these programmes provide an opportunity for the industry, the professional communities of practice and the schools to work together for mutual benefit. At the core of these programmes is the action research method in which teachers themselves plan and develop the data collection methods so that their observations are central in the research reports.

Participants in Sprint work towards a short research report, developed in about one term, focusing on the value of one product or service. The study is undertaken by teachers as co-researchers with the support of selected advisors and researchers from the professional communities. iCatalyst is a longer project where teachers collaborate over a  year to look in depth at how they are using digital products and services and how they can boost achievement.  The focus is systemic change based on local evidence. Leaders of these groups can work at Masters level with members of De Montfort University. Some of the mentoring takes place online and through Skype.

All those involved benefit from a well-organised programme:

  •   teachers and senior managers gain a deeper and shared understanding strategies they might adopt to introduce systemic change and improve pupil achievement. The agenda is generated by the staff and they can use the results in their strategic planning as well as their reports to governors, Pupil Premium and OFSTED; teachers also gain accreditation and can publish for a global audience in a range of modes;
  • leaders, trainers and advisers are also supported  in developing these action research programmes that draw on theory as well as practice;
  • company representatives who also join the projects as co-researchers gain professional development and valuable research and development information. A learning company uses this knowledge to improve their understanding of education as well as for marketing their product and for evidence of their learning in entering for awards.

Roger Turner, LightSpeed, a MirandaNet associate who has commissioned a Spring report (12), said that the gains were ‘testing prototype and next developmental stage products in the classroom with teachers skilled in research providing feedback from themselves and their students. This has  resulted in modifications to products based on a wider sample than just ideas generated in the design and development lab of the company’. Roger adds, ‘Now more than ever, education needs to work in close partnership with industry if the potential improvements in learning outcomes new product development can help deliver are to be realised’.

Models of funding for this professional development model vary. Sometimes the company funds the whole project through their managed service and at other times they subsidise the school’s professional development costs with free resources and trainers.

Schools can also commission a study where they identify the technologies they want to explore in terms of teaching and learning.

Teachers who have enjoyed Naace’s PD courses, especially TOTAL, are likely to have begun relevant research, and useful publications are to be found via MirandaNet and Naace research publications (11).  

Watch this space for exciting news of the PD agenda as partnerships develop with Naace and ITTE.  In particular MirandaNet and Naace hope to be working together using the iCatalyst action research method on training for trainers (with discussion on the 6th November at the sponsors’ conference) We hope to have further opportunities for discussion at the Naace Annual Conference taking place on Thursday 24th March 2016.

MirandaNet Spring conference

Look out for news about MirandaNet conference we will be running on Saturday February 27th at De Montfort University, Leicester, where all the teacher participants in iCatalyst will be telling their action research stories. Or get in touch if you want to be a participant:


  5.     Rich Seam report by Fullan and Treadgold

  1. BESA report

  1.  Miranda is reassembling the Becta research. Do you have a copy of a report you would like to see up?

  1. The last study Pachler and Preston et al. undertook about ICT professional development for Becta indicated that the CPD landscape in CPD was already very fragmented. We also looked at the reasons why some good teachers were reluctant to use computers in the classroom. Their reasoning was sound.

Pachler, N, C. Preston, J. Cuthell,  A. Allen and Pinheiro Torres (2011) The ICT CPD Landscape in England Becta download here.  This report contains a section about teachers who are reluctant to use learning technologies in classrooms that you can download here.

  1. Christina Preston published the TTA NOF evaluation in 2004 that has many lessons that are valuable today
  2. The Sprint and iCatalyst programmes and the action research approach are explained here


Further resources

Examples of associate-funded Sprint and ICatalyst publications are here

Examples of ICatalyst projects are here

MirandaNet publications relating to professional development can be found here.

Some examples of the pedagogical models that the teachers use to measure their progress in systemic change at Masters level can be found here


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