Researching local learning systems: three methodological questions

Schooling in England is complex and evolving. Our previous blog posts (here and here) begin to explore some of this complexity. This post focuses on some of the issues we have wrestled with as we have sought to study ‘Local Learning Systems’ amidst all this change. How exactly does one learn about complex and rapidly evolving human systems? What tools might researchers, practitioners, and leaders in education employ to develop nuanced accounts of these dynamic systems?

Using primary mathematics as a case study, our research team is attempting to answer ‘to what extent, and how, do Local Learning Systems (LLS) provide high quality, inclusive professional development and learning for schools?’ Each of these concepts – local, learning, and systems – need to be problematized, and we intend to dedicate future blog posts to discussing these terms. However, driven by the requirements of real-world research funding and project timelines, we have had to get on and design our study. We outline here three strategic questions that we have discussed as we have done so and the associated research design decisions we have made, whilst acknowledging that in each area we have had to balance sophistication with pragmatism – and that our decisions could always be rightfully challenged! 

Which ‘bit’ of the professional learning system should we focus on?

A starting point for the project was to recognize that Continuing Professional Development and Learning (CPDL) for teachers occurs through combinations of formal and informal learning, meaning that we are interested in the messy reality of how teachers learn in practice, not only in what happens on INSET days or externally run programs. Equally, we are interested in ‘learning systems’, which we interpret as requiring a focus on an area of practice that is sufficiently discrete and systematic to enable meaningful study and comparison across diverse contexts. Our choice was to focus on CPDL in primary mathematics, although we see this as offering a case study lens, rather than a singular focus. This decision reflected the fact that mathematics is a core curriculum subject, meaning that all primary teachers require career-long, mathematics-specific professional learning. In addition, mathematics was the first subject to establish a hub model for professional development, in 2014, with a network of Maths Hubs led by the National Centre for Excellence in Teaching Mathematics (NCETM) complementing a wider offer provided from a range of sources. We argue that these aspects make mathematics an ideal case for study, affording a well-embedded hub model nested within existing and new systemic structures and involving a range of national, regional, institutional, and individual actors who collectively shape LLSs.

What counts as ‘local’?

Our second blogpost explored the relevance of the local, arguing that although the Department for Education continues to rely on local authority (LA) boundaries in many areas of policy, and despite the government’s wider ‘levelling up’ agenda, the geographic demarcation of place in education is becoming less clear cut as new regional, national, and non-place-based entities shape how and where teachers and schools engage in CPDL. While acknowledging these shifts and fully recognizing the wider ways in which technology and networks are opening up new possibilities for CPDL, we remain convinced that place will continue to be important in shaping professional learning for teachers and schools. But how should we define ‘local’ for the research, and how could we select a sample that is representative of England’s diversity? We decided to focus on three diverse localities across England. One is within a city, another is a town, and the third – shire – includes a mix of rural villages and more densely populated centers. Each locality has around 60 primary schools in total, meaning that it is smaller than most LAs and much smaller than a Maths Hub region. We will visit six schools and academies in each locality, reflecting our view that accessing 10% of the total number of schools will allow us to develop a reasonably representative picture. Importantly, while Maths Hub and LA boundaries did factor into how we defined these localities, the research is not intended as an evaluation of Maths Hubs or a study of LA ‘systems’.

Who can (best) help us to understand any particular ‘local learning system’?

We have had various discussions regarding where knowledge about ‘the local system’ might be held. We knew that ‘system leaders’ – such as Maths Hub and Teaching School Hubs leads, LA leaders, Ofsted regional directors, Regional Schools Commissioners, and leaders of former teaching schools – could all offer valuable perspectives, as they would most likely be involved with system design and/or implementation. We have interviewed these types of system leaders across our three localities. However, we recognize that they can only provide one set of perspectives.

What about school leaders and subject leads within individual schools who are tasked with identifying CPDL opportunities, attending external training, and disseminating learning among school staff? What about the many classroom teachers who particulate in school-led initiatives and who frequently seek out their own professional learning opportunities as well? How do these school practitioners make sense of a fragmented CPDL system? Ultimately, we have decided to interview four groups in each locality: system leaders, school leaders, subject leads, and classroom teachers. We hope this diversity will allow us to construct a nuanced picture of a system or collection of systems that enable access to CPDL.

Future blog posts are dedicated to taking deeper dives into the concepts of local, learning, and systems. Please comment below to engage with the research team or follow the EQuaLLS project on Twitter @EQuaLLS_Notts to receive future posts.

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