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 Capacity building resources

Practitioner Research                

Anne Campbell

Anne is Professor of Professional Learning at Leeds Metropolitan University.

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Aims of this resource

Practitioner research is located in the field of practice-based or applied research which covers all research about and into practice. Furlong and Oancea (2005:1) suggest it is, like applied research, ‘an area situated between academia-led theoretical pursuits and research-informed practice.’

Practitioner research is often used as an umbrella term for a large number of research- based activities undertaken in the fields of practice in education and social and health care. It implies that practitioners will learn from their research into practice which is not always the case in other forms of research. It also aims at improving rather than proving as an approach to research. Groundwater-Smith and Mockler (2006:107) argue that in the field of practice based research, ‘those involved in practitioner inquiry are bound to engage with both ‘theoretical’ and ‘practicalknowledge moving seamlessly between the two’
To define practitioner research we must turn to Stenhouse (1975), Elliott (1991), Cochran-Smith and Lytle (1993) and Ziechner and Noffke (2001) and their work which promoted curriculum reform and teachers as researchers of curriculum and the practice of teaching. They foreground:

  • teachers’ work and teachers themselves as a basis for research;
  • critical reflection and systematic study of practice;
  • practitioner control and ownership of research.

These are key reference points for practitioner research. 

Practitioner research is closely related to, and draws on, the methodologies of the ‘family of action research’ described by Kemmis and McTaggart (2005:560) as including: participatory research; critical action research; classroom action research; action learning; and action science. Practitioner research does draw on methods from a wider field than action research allowing practitioners to undertake small scale research in case studies, ethnographic studies and to be eclectic in their use of methods, as suggested by Campbell et al (2004:80). Narrative, story and fiction methods are also valuable tools for practitioner researchers.

Within the school context, recently Dadds and Hart (2001); Bartlett and Burton (2006); Campbell and Jacques (2003); McLaughlin et al (2006) described and discussed a variety of initiatives where practitioners undertake research. Saunders (2004) was guest editor of a double edition of Teacher Development which evidenced teachers’ engagement with and in research and celebrated their success in a peer reviewed journal. A number of TLRP projects promote practitioner research approaches, for example, Evidence based practice in science and Learning how to learn, which encourage cultures of inquiry and professional networks.

Teachers’ professional learning as a result of engaging in practitioner research produces a complex web of skills, types of knowledge and professional dispositions and attitudes that are the anatomy of teaching and constitute professional knowledge. The importance of context is paramount. Collaboration and networking are central to success.

Ken Zeichner (2003: 319) identified several conditions under which school-based teacher research becomes a transformative professional development activity for teachers as the following:

  • creating a culture of enquiry and respect for teacher knowledge
  • encouraging learner-centred instruction
  • teachers developing and controlling their own foci for enquiries
  • engaging in collaborative work and study groups for intellectual challenge and stimulation

In the UK, the Best Practice Research Scholarships (BPRS) programme, was one of the most recent examples of practitioner research funded by the DfES.  Initiatives such as: the National Teacher Research Panel and its conferences for teacher researchers; school university partnerships across the country; the development of university programmes to support practitioners’ research in the Postgraduate Professional Development programme; the Creative Partnerships initiative funding research and evaluation in schools; websites such as the GTCe’s Research of the monthand The Research Informed Practice Site  (TRIPS) on the Standards website; the Centre for the Use of Evidence in Education; British Educational Research Association (BERA)  Special Interest Group and its national and regional practitioner days; and the TLRP Learning How To Learn project demonstrate the rise of practitioner research in the last ten years or so.

Research partnerships between universities and the field of practice

Findings from an investigation of higher education and network links for the NCSL Campbell et al (2005), indicated that higher education offers most when it is either through tradition and experience or through being structurally organised, able to be responsive to networks agenda and when the leading protagonists possess the necessary personal skills to facilitate a network’s activities and can win trust.  By far the most popular model of collaboration between schools and universities was one that gave support for action research. This combined research training and support with bespoke, tailored professional learning in context.

Two important issues, ethics and quality must be addressed in any consideration of practitioner research. It could be argued that a consideration of ethics and trust must be undertaken in order to achieve quality. The topics covered in Campbell and Groundwater-Smith (2007) An Ethical Approach to Practitioner Researchserve to highlight the major ethical issues facing practitioner researchers today:

  • Managing research ethics committees in universities that are themselves ethical and responsive
  • Developing cultures of inquiry in schools and higher education settings
  • Managing the tensions in collaborative work
  • Confronting dilemmas in professional and research values
  • Researching with rather than on practitioners
  • Finding secure procedures for research with children, especially those who are vulnerable or have special educational needs 
  • Using field based stories and dilemmas to illustrate the ethics of research
  • Realising that ‘Everything’s Ethics’


There have been many debates as to the quality of educational research and the Teaching Learning and Research Programme (TLRP) was itself a response to concerns about quality in education research see James (2006:366).

It is also important in the current audit and high accountability culture to support and maintain the critical faculties of practitioners and to require practitioner researchers ‘to problem set as well as problem solve’, Blackmore (2002) and preserve a level of autonomy and professional judgement. 


Bartlett, S. and Burton, D. (2006) Practitioner Research or descriptions of classroom practice? A discussion of teachers investigating their classrooms, Educational Action Research, 14 (3) pp 395-405

Blackmore, J. (2002) Is it only ‘What Works’ That Counts on New Knowledge Economies? Evidence-based Practice’ Paper given to The Challenging Futures Conference, University of New England, Armidale, February 2002

Campbell, A. and Jacques, K. (2003) Best Practice Researched: expectations of the impact of doing research in their classrooms and schools, International Journal of Teacher Development, 7 (1)

Campbell, A. McNamara, O. and Gilroy, P. (2004) Practitioner Research and Professional Development in Education, Paul Chapman: London

Campbell, A., Keating, I., Kane, I. and Cockett, K.  (2005) Networked Learning Communities and Higher Education Links Project Report, NCSL: Nottingham (

Campbell, A. and Macgarvey, L. (2006) Producing and applying professional learning from recent initiatives promoting teachers as researchers: some illustrative and illuminative cases from the field, Paper for British Educational Research Association Annual Conference  6-9 September 2006, Warwick University, UK

Campbell, A. and Groundwater-Smith, S. (2007) (Eds) An Ethical Approach to Practitioner Research: Dealing with issues and dilemmas in action research, Routledge: London

Cochran-Smith, M. and Lytle, S. (1993) Inside –Outside: teacher research and knowledge, Teachers College Press, New York

Dadds, M. and Hart, S. (2001) Doing Practitioner Research Differently,Routledge Falmer: London

Elliott, J. (1991), Action Research for Educational Change, Open University Press: Buckingham

Furlong, J. and Oancea, A. (2005) Assessing Quality in applied and practice-based educational research: a framework for discussion,

Groundwater-Smith, S. and Mockler, N. (2006) Research that counts: practitioner research and the academy, in Counterpoints on the Quality and Impact of Educational Research, Special Edition of Review of Australian Research in Education, Number 6

James, M. (2006) Balancing Rigour and responsiveness in a shifting context: meeting the challenges of educational research, Research Papers in Education, 21 (4) pp365-380

Kemmis, S. and McTaggart, R. (2005) Participatory Action Research: Communicative Action and the Public Sphere in N.K. Denzin and Y.S. Lincoln (eds) ( 3rd Edition)The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research, Sage:London

McLaughlin, C., Black-Hawkins, K., Brindley, S., McIntyre, D. and Tabor, K. (2006) Researching Schools: Stories from a Schools-University Partnership for Educational Research, Routledge: London

Saunders, L. (2004) Editorial Teacher Development Special Double Issue, 8 (2 & 3) pp 117-126

Stenhouse, L. (1975), An Introduction to Curriculum Research and Development, Heinemann: London

Ziechner, K. and Noffke, S. (2001) Practitioner Research in V. Richardson (ed) Handbook of Research on Teaching, 4th edition, AERA; Washington, D.C.

Zeichner, K. (2003) Teacher Research and Professional Development, Educational Action Research , 11 (2)


How to reference this page: Campbell, A. (2007) Practitioner Research. London: TLRP. Online at (accessed )

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