Teacher researchers as agents of change? A Scottish case study

  • Anna Beck (Speaker)

Activity: Talk or presentation typesOral presentation



In recent years, Scottish education has witnessed a great deal of change in a number of interlocking policy areas including teacher education, professional learning and leadership; school curriculum; and teaching standards and accountability.

At the heart of this wider policy move is ‘Teaching Scotland’s Future’ (TSF; Donaldson, 2011), a fairly recent teacher education policy. This policy document highlighted the importance of ‘teacher quality’ for student attainment, and proposed a radical redesign of teacher education provision in Scotland. However, its overarching aim was to ‘reinvigorate’ teacher professionalism, in order to allow teachers to develop as “reflective, accomplished and enquiring professionals” (Donaldson, 2011, p. 14). Central to this vision is the claim that teachers should be “agents of change, not passive or reluctant receivers of externally-imposed prescription” (Donaldson 2011, p. 18), and this increasing focus on ‘teacher agency’ also appears in recent curriculum policy in Scotland and internationally (Biesta, Priestley and Robinson, 2015; Priestley, 2011).

At the heart of Donaldson’s vision of teacher professionalism is the drive for teachers to engage with educational research. Arguably, this can take many forms, but is most often aligned with the concept of ‘professional enquiry’. Shortly after the publication of TSF, the General Teaching Council of Scotland (GTCS) introduced its new standard for career-long professional learning (CLPL) as well as a programme of Professional Update (PU). Both the PU and the standard for CLPL require teachers to engage with research, whether that be reading research articles, engaging in Masters level study or conducing their own teacher research. This requires a significant culture shift within the profession, but we are starting to see some changes.

One example of where this has been put into practice is Hutcheson’s Grammar School, which is a private school based within the city of Glasgow. They have developed their own research centre (Hutcheson’s Centre for Research; HCR), which provides a structure and additional support for teachers and pupils to conduct independent research. The HCR can be seen as an example of a system that supports teachers to develop the skills they need to become researchers, to put this research knowledge into practice and to begin to ask critical questions about the nature of educational reform, and thus provides an excellent site in which to explore issues around teacher engagement with research.

This paper draws on research carried out within the HCR, which is being conducted in partnership between the University of Strathclyde and Hutcheson’s Grammar School. The overall aim of the project is to explore the development of teachers as researchers. This paper will shed light on the following questions:
1) To what extent do those teachers who participate in research see themselves as ‘researchers’?
2) What are the drivers and barriers to teacher engagement with research and the development of teachers as researchers?
3) What is the relationship between teacher research and professional learning? To what extent can this knowledge be put into practice?
4) To what extent do those teachers who engage with research consider themselves as ‘agents of change’?

This paper is framed in part by Archer’s (1995) realist social theory and draws on the work of Emirbayer and Mische (1998) and their conceptualisation of agency as a configuration of forces from the past, future orientations and present engagement. This paper has also been influenced by the recent work of Priestley and colleagues (e.g. Biesta, Priestely and Robinson (2015, p. 624), which theorises teachers’ agency as “their active contribution to shaping their work and its conditions”.

Methodology, Methods, Research Instruments or Sources Used
An online questionnaire will be sent to teachers at the beginning of the research project in order to gather base-line information on involvement with school-based research and engagement with educational research more widely.

The majority of data will be collected through interviews and focus groups with teachers. The teacher participant group will include those who are considered as ‘research active’ and those who might be at the early stages of becoming ‘research active’. Interview and focus group questions will be formulated around models of agency.

Conclusions, Expected Outcomes or Findings

Teacher education reform has become a global policy trend. Countries across the world are reforming their systems of teacher education. Although this travelling policy agenda has been enacted in different countries in different ways, programmes of teacher education reform appear to share the assumption that teacher engagement with research, as a form of professional learning, is positively associated with teacher quality. The outcomes of this research will therefore hold relevance not only within a Scottish policy context, but internationally.

This research is ongoing, but it is expected that outcomes will include the identification of barriers and facilitators in the development of teachers as researchers within a school setting. This research will also show whether there is a relationship between teacher engagement with research and the extent to which they identify themselves as 'researchers', as well as the implications of this. In addition to this, this research will illuminate the nature of the relationship between teacher agency and teacher engagement with research as a professional learning activity.


Archer, M. (1995). Realist social theory: the morphogenic approach. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Biesta, G., Priestley, M., & Robinson, S. (2015). The role of beliefs in teacher agency. Teachers and teaching: theory and practice, 21, 624-640.

Donaldson, G. (2011). Teaching Scotland’s Future: Report of a Review of teacher Education in Scotland. Edinburgh: Scottish Government.

Emirbayer, M., & Mische, A. (1998). What is agency? American Journal of Sociology, 103, 962-1023.

Priestley, M. (2011). Whatever happened to curriculum theory? Critical realism and curriculum change. Pedagogy, culture and society, 19, 221-237.
PeriodAug 2016
Event titleEuropean Conference on Educational Research 2016
Event typeConference
LocationDublin, IrelandShow on map
Degree of RecognitionInternational


  • teacher research
  • teacher professional development
  • teacher professional learning
  • practitioner enquiry
  • action research
  • teacher agency