Giving research a helping hand: the Teacher-led Innovation Fund

Issue: Volume 93, Number 19

Posted: 28 October 2014
Reference #: 1H9csV

Applications for the $10m Teacher-led Innovation Fund open in November, with funding available from the middle of next year. But what does this mean for teachers?

Ask almost any teacher how to improve teaching practice, and he or she will have plenty to say. Those who are teaching have always had lots of good ideas about what works and what doesn’t. The challenge is how best to translate those ideas into practice and how to spread that practice around the country to the benefit of all students.

Current research funds such as the Teaching and Learning Research Initiative are led by academics, working with teachers. The new Teacher-led Innovation Fund turns this model on its head. Groups of teachers will inquire into their own ideas on how to improve practice, with academics, researchers, and community experts working alongside them to build a robust process. They will then share the results with their colleagues, assisted by the Ministry of Education.

The desired result is to spread successful innovation quickly to improve learning outcomes, particularly for Māori and Pasifika students, those with special education needs and those from low socio-economic backgrounds.

“This is an exciting idea,” says Graham Stoop, deputy secretary at the Ministry of Education.

“We want it to generate exciting ideas for raising student achievement as well. The whole point is to come up with something new and potentially ground-breaking and have the means to explore it thoroughly.

“George Bernard Shaw once said he was not a teacher: ‘only a fellow traveller of whom you asked the way. I pointed ahead – ahead of myself as well as you.’

“That’s exactly how we want teachers to use this fund: pointing ahead of themselves into areas of inquiry that could really make a difference to students around New Zealand.

“We want to give them the space and time to inquire into the puzzles they encounter in their classrooms and go deeper into that inquiry than they’ve been able to before.

“From a professional point of view, teachers will get the opportunity and support to work on an innovative project with their peers in a structured way, with the expertise they need backing their efforts.

“The fund is a chance to engage in research that will help teachers make real changes to how they work, their practice and effectiveness.”

Teachers will be funded to carry out their projects, including release time away from the classroom and engaging external experts if required.

One of the teachers who responded to a recent Ministry survey gauging interest in the fund described it as “a wonderful opportunity for research into raising student achievement and focusing on real issues in schools. The fact that it can be a collaborative project will strengthen communication and sharing practices between schools instead of us being in competition with each other.”

Floating on a sea of inquiry

At the fund’s heart is the concept of innovation – but how to define this? Ask Graham Stoop and he replies with another quotation.

“Professor Helen Timperley of The University of Auckland wrote a paper with Linda Kaser and Judy Halbert that said innovation ‘floats on a sea of inquiry, and curiosity is a driver for change’,” he says.

“I love that imagery, and for me, it sums up exactly the spirit of inquiry we’re trying to foster,” he says.

“But in the concrete terms we need to help people applying for the fund we’re saying that innovative projects involve inquiring into new practices or applying existing practices in new contexts and investigating in a systematic way whether they result in improved learning outcomes.

“I see innovation as a continuum: at one end is taking something that has worked well in one set of circumstances and applying it somewhere else. At the other is taking a completely new approach to a problem or a need to be addressed.

“Either can be equally effective.”

From concept into reality

Turning an idea into a funded project is a two-step process. From November, groups of teachers will be able to submit project concepts. These do not need to be detailed, but they must lay out the puzzle or research question the teachers are looking to answer and why it is worth researching.

The concepts will be assessed by an expert panel. Teachers who submit successful concepts will be asked to provide a detailed proposal of their project, which will also be assessed by the panel.

Others will be assisted to adjust their concept, or if it relates to work already being undertaken, directed to existing research.

Successful applicants will be notified in early June 2015, and funds will be released once boards in the participating schools have given approval.

Graham Stoop says the reason for the two-step process is to help applicants get their concepts right.

“Putting together a proposal for the fund is a significant undertaking. We want to make sure nobody is wasting their time.”

Working with colleagues

Research projects accepted for funding are likely to vary in cost, size, and complexity, but one thing they will have in common is collaboration. At least three teachers must be involved, and the number could be much larger. Teachers may come from one school or from several.

The Teacher-led Innovation Fund is part of the Government’s Investing in Educational Success initiative, but it does not require participants to belong to a Community of Schools: teachers from any state or state-integrated school can apply for the fund.

The Ministry will be able to help connect teachers from different schools interested in similar areas of research. One survey respondent was impressed by this aspect: “I love the idea of the fund and the benefits that could possibly come from it. I am a firm believer that there is so much to learn off other teachers.”

Working with experts

However, while the fund is very much teacher-led, not all teachers will have the experience needed to carry out a structured research project. Similarly, specialist knowledge required for the inquiry – for example, specific cultural expertise – may not be found within the project team. The fund provides for the use of external experts to work alongside the project team to give them the support they need in drawing up proposals and carrying out research.

“This is the sort of expert assistance many teachers won’t have regular access to,” says Graham Stoop, “and it’s a big part of turning teachers’ ideas into teaching practice solutions.”

Of 663 teachers who replied to the recent Ministry survey on the fund, 63 per cent said they’d be interested in applying for funding for an innovative project. More than half of those reported they might need the support of academics and researchers or community-based experts.

Funding for a project can be used to pay for this support. The Ministry has recently written to PLD providers, academics and researchers, informing them of the fund and encouraging them to become familiar with it, and to assist with projects if asked. The Ministry guidelines for the fund, which will be available when applications open, will include a section on how to work with experts.

As one teacher who responded to the Ministry survey put it, “when collaboration and expertise is provided for a single project, it can potentially lead to a significant increase in achievement as teachers can better understand what would work well with our students by up-skilling themselves.”

Sharing the results

Finding a solution to classroom puzzles is one thing. Sharing it with schools around the country is quite another. As Andreas Schleicher of the OECD noted on a recent visit to New Zealand, “knowledge is sticky, particularly in a highly competitive school system. Knowledge of strong educational practice tends to stick where it is.”

Unsticking that knowledge and ensuring that advances in teaching practice can benefit students throughout New Zealand are crucial parts of the Teacher-led Innovation Fund. The Ministry can help teachers build networks to share the learning that results from their research.

Respondents to the Ministry survey on the fund had clear views about the best ways to share innovative practice and learning: almost two-thirds favoured using PLD providers and more than 60 per cent favoured seminars and use of a dedicated website. The survey findings have been used to help design the fund, and the Ministry is now considering these and other options for sharing both the processes and the findings from projects.

One survey respondent sounded an optimistic note about the fund: “it is always about making the ‘shift’ in teachers’ minds about the long term benefits. I look forward to seeing how this progresses.”

More information

The Teacher-led Innovation Fund will be available in three rounds over three years. The application, evaluation and sharing process is set out below.

You can find out more about the fund on the Ministry website(external link). Please keep an eye out for the guidelines, which will be posted when applications open in November, and read Education Gazette for further updates.

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 7:59 pm, 28 October 2014

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