What methods of enquiry can I use to live out my democratic values more fully?





A Methods of Educational Enquiry project by

Mark Potts












In this Methods of Educational Enquiry assignment I aim to illustrate the stages through which I progress in conducting an educational enquiry using an action research approach. I justify my approach in terms of my own democratic values. I purport to show that my approach to action research is based on democratic principles and that video can be used in a to carry out a democratic evaluation of my account of learning. I will need to pay close attention to my approach to enquiry and the means that I use to improve my professional practice, so that I can better understand my role as Deputy Head within power relations that are hierarchically organised and at the same time live out my democratic values more fully.









A Common Thread


I feel that I have come far as a teacher researcher in the past three years. From my initial assignment on influencing others through accelerated learning, through a second assignment on developing Guidelines for Effective Learning, to my more recent research on developing links with a South African School and on use of formative assessment, I recognise that I have been seeking to live out my values more fully in my practice. I reached this conclusion after a conversation that I had with Simon Ratcliffe[1], captured on video, about the values that underpin formative assessment and how I seek to live them out. Democracy is the common thread and the extent to which I live out my democratic values in my practice is the measure against which I judge my actions. I make the claim in this assignment that I can demonstrate how I can live out my democratic values through the process of engagement in an action research approach. I consider the use of digital video as a tool for reflecting on my own professional practice in terms of the extent to which it can embody my democratic values. In doing so I can plan an enquiry that will enable me to explore, understand and enhance my own practice as a democratic teacher, whilst at the same time enquiring further in to my relationship with others for whom I have some responsibility as Deputy Headteacher.




Why Action Research


In this section, I seek to illustrate through my narrative the stages through which I progress in my approach to educational enquiry. I refer to the influence of Jack Whitehead and Sarah Fletcher in particular in understanding this process of enquiry. With reference to the words and writing of Jack Whitehead, Sarah Fletcher, Jean McNiff and Moira Laidlaw, I make the claim that I am adopting an action research approach. I justify my approach to educational enquiry on the grounds that it embodies my democratic values.


In defining what I strive to be as a democratic teacher Shechtman helps:


“Democratic teachers (i.e. those who value freedom, equality and justice) tend to be self-transcendent and open to change rather than self-enhancing and conservative. They tend to be more co-operative and affective than oppositional; influence is shared with students rather than dominating them. They are more understanding and friendly rather than strict and admonishing in their behaviour” (Shechtman 2002)[2]   


Through my narrative I demonstrate that I am open to change. Through my dialogues with others I am acting on their advice, recognising their educational influence and re-shaping my enquiry in the light of their contributions.


As Donald Schon says:


“The problems of real world practice do not present themselves to practitioners as well-formed structures. Indeed, they tend not to present themselves as problems at all but as messy, indeterminate situations.” (Schon 1987)


For me an action research approach to enquiry helps me to make sense of the messy subject of my research. I have ideas and share them with others. I reflect on their validity. I change my ideas in response to others comments and suggestions. Through dialogue I develop a democratic framework within which I can develop my educational values. In this process I am living out my democratic values. I am sharing my insights and my knowledge. I am open to the influence of others and I am modifying my practice in response to them. To me action research is not a theoretical construct that sits idly in isolation from practice. It is a democratic process of developing and learning.


“ Remember that things do not often proceed in a neat, linear fashion. Most people experience research as a zigzag process of continual review and re-adjustment.” (McNiff 2002)


My narrative is an attempt to communicate the incoherence of the process in a coherent way. I have learned the need to give myself space to reflect on my learning amongst the myriad responsibilities that I have in my professional and personal life. For me the beauty of action research is that it is consistent with improving the way that I conduct my professional and family life. I illustrate my own approach to action research by indicating how I arrived at this narrative (See Appendix 1)[3]. In doing so I claim to demonstrate:


“The democratising potential of dialogical focus in an action enquiry” (Laidlaw 1994)


It will also serve to demonstrate


The methodological inventiveness of the teacher” (Dadds and Hart).


Whilst engaged in action research my methodology emerges as I carry out the enquiry. 


9th April 2003 First draft of question for Methods of Educational Enquiry Unit

How can I plan to demonstrate my influence as Deputy Headteacher on the learning of others through the use of the video?


I went away and read an article by Jack Whitehead and Sarah Fletcher[4] from Teacher Inquiry, Living the Research In Everyday Practice[5] on the use of video to improve the professional practice of teaching.


30 April 2003 – Second draft of title for MEE unit

How can I plan to use digital video to understand the extent to which I am living out my own embodied values in my interactions with others?


Reflection and dialogue on the article by Whitehead and Fletcher led me to incorporate “embodied values”. The intention now being to communicate these embodied values and use them as standards of judgement against which I can measure my own practice. This would require clarification of the fundamental values that I bring to my own practice.


“Using our own values as standards of judgement will put us at the forefront of educational enquiry”. (Whitehead 2003)


7 May 2003 – Third draft of title for MEE Unit

“How can my own democratic values as a teacher be represented through my use of digital video?”


Through dialogue with a colleague in the Westwood Teacher Research Group, Simon Riding[6], I started to clarify my fundamental values by incorporating “democratic values” in to my title. I also removed the “I” from the title as in his words: “It seems to contradict the democratic value being espoused”. (Riding 2003)  We also discussed digital video as a tool for enquiry and started to use democracy as a means of judging the appropriateness of different tools, an idea that I develop later on.

This session was captured on video (see Appendix 2)[7] and as I watch the video of myself making public my own thoughts about this assignment, I see myself outlining my own understanding of the process of democratic evaluation when I say that by showing some video evidence to the group they would be able to see a representation of events. This is strengthened by Jack Whitehead who adds: “by giving my own interpretation of the data, they can compare my claims with the data. This will transform it into evidence.” (Whitehead 2003). I can then create a more democratic form of evaluation which helps to test the validity of my account and strengthens the living out of my democratic values.


So evidence would be needed. I decided to video a training session that I was due to lead with a group of Newly Qualified Teachers and Graduate Trainee Teachers at Westwood St Thomas School on Thursday 8th May. As Deputy Head teacher responsible for the Quality of Teaching, I have responsibility for professional development and this was the title of the session that I was planning. I asked the professional tutor to video the session so that I could reflect on it afterwards. (Appendix 2)[8]. This would allow me to use the video to validate my own claims.


14 May 2003 – At this meeting of the Westwood Teacher Research group I showed an extract from the video as a validation exercise to consult with them about the development of my own professional practice. This led to a lively discussion around notions of democracy and the extent to which I was living out my democratic values by being fair and empowering others in delivering the session. In the absence of a video recording of this validation I took notes and I was able to reflect on the points made and the extent to which I had moved my practice forward in my own terms of living out my democratic values.  

That evening I developed my fourth draft of the title for my MEE unit

“How can I use action research methodology to investigate the use of video in demonstrating my own democratic values as a professional practitioner?”


11 June 2003 - I started work on this title and whilst the work was in progress I showed it to Sarah Fletcher[9] as my research mentor. This began a dialogue about the relationship between action research and the use of digital video. It became apparent to me that I was writing about video as a tool and how it can be a part of an approach to an action research enquiry. This led me to another draft title:

“How can I use video as part of an approach to an action research enquiry in to improving how I live out my democratic values as a professional educator?”


14 June 2003 – By showing my work in draft form to the Westwood Teacher Research group again[10], I was able to engage in further discussion about my claims. Doubt was cast on my claim that video was a democratic tool for educational enquiry. Simon Ratcliffe: “Video is a tool, it is not inherently democratic. How does video work when someone with democratic values uses a camera?” (Ratcliffe 2003)[11]. This made me re-think my section on the use of video. The comments of the group also made me act to strengthen the emphasis on the methods of enquiry. A title suggested by Jayne Stillman was “How can I use video to influence my democratic values as a professional educator?” (Stillman 2003)[12]. This was close to my final title:

“What methods of enquiry can I use to live out my democratic values more fully?”


By showing how I arrived at my title my narrative illustrates the stages that I go through in conducting an enquiry. It serves to show the nature of dialogues that have taken place, and how they shape my enquiry. Through the validation process I am able to democratise the process and demonstrate my living out of my democratic values in my professional practice. I make the claim that it also exemplifies an approach to action research as “ a process of improvisatory self-realisation” (Winter ). I realise my own values as I improvise my way through the enquiry.


I have come to my understanding of action research as a process of educational enquiry mainly through the works of Jack Whitehead and Sarah Fletcher. In addition, I have found the work of Jean McNiff helpful in explaining this approach:


“Action research is open ended. It does not begin with a fixed hypothesis. It begins with an idea that you develop. The research process is the developmental process of following the idea, seeing how it goes, and continually checking whether it is in line with what you wish to happen.” (McNiff 2002)


As you read my narrative you see that I begin with an idea that I develop. I follow the idea, engage with relevant literature and engage in dialogue with others. I seek to validate claims that I make to check that it is in line with what I want to happen.


Using video as a tool for democratic evaluation within an educational enquiry.


In this section I discuss how I can use video to carry out a democratic evaluation of my account of learning as a part of my enquiry. This will enable me to explore how I could use video as a tool to model democratic teaching. Again I return to Schechtmans definition of democratic teachers as “self-transcendent and open to change…..and more co-operative and affective….. as sharing influence with students .…more understanding and friendly in their behaviour” (Shechtman 2002)[13]. This inspires me to develop a set of criteria to enable me to reflect on the dialogue that followed the showing of the video footage of me leading the session on professional development. I can then judge the extent to which I am living out my democratic values in delivering the session:

Š             Was I treating everyone fairly?

Š             Was I encouraging everyone to respond?

Š             Was I encouraging self-accountability? This in response to Simon Riding’s response in watching the video:

“Those teachers were walking out of the room with the idea that they are self-accountable, not accountable to you as their line manager”. (Riding 2003)

Š             Was I encouraging people to reflect on their own practice and consider how to improve? Stuart Jones[14] response to the video was that I was getting people to recognise their responsibility for their own learning. Was I being democratic in the way that I approached this? Was I understanding of any resistance to my request that the members of the group reflect on their own practice?


Š             Was I providing a means to improvement? This in response to Bob Ainsworths[15] comment that empowerment as a component of democracy requires that people understand the range of options available to them and how to access them. My interpretation of this is that new teachers need to be made aware of the ways in which they can improve their practice.

Š             Was I encouraging dialogue? Jack Whitehead’s response was that during the paired discussion phase of the session democratisation was being practised.

Š             Was I actively seeking the views of the participants? In Jack Whiteheads words I was trusting in the creativity of the group, giving them time and space to respond.

Š             Was I creating an atmosphere that was conducive to the sharing of ideas? Simon Ratcliffe[16] mentioned the hesitancy with which participants responded to the invitation to share their thoughts with all members of the group. This was in stark contrast to the readiness of participants to share their ideas with each other in pairs. It was suggested that responses might have been more forthcoming if I had engaged in more open dialogue with the group in the earlier phase of the session.


Sarah Fletcher and Jack Whitehead have helped me to recognise the importance of a democratic evaluation of my account of my learning. Sharing this video footage with the Westwood group enabled me to gain perspectives other than my own on my relationship with this group of teachers.

In understanding the value of using video to make judgements I find it helpful to quote Whitehead and Fletcher:


“We are exploring the implications of living our spiritual, aesthetic, and ethical values as the living standards of judgement to which we hold ourselves accountable and the possibility that we can communicate meanings of our values as standards for testing the validity of our explanation for our own learning” (Whitehead and Fletcher 2003)


“I am particularly interested in using digital video in multi-media accounts of educational influence to understand the ways in which the experience of embodied values can be transformed into living standards of judgement and practice” (Whitehead 2003)


For me this means using video as a method for judging my own professional teaching work against my democratic values. It is these democratic values against which I am holding myself accountable. Communicating the meaning of my democratic values as a dialogical focus in an action enquiry, as I did earlier in the section on my approach action research, sets a standard against which I can judge my own practice. I would agree with Fletcher when she says:


“I am sure I would lose an understanding of how my internal and external dialogues interplay without using video as a stimulus to reflection and without its lens to confront me with the reality of my practice.” (Fletcher 2003)


My hierarchical position as Deputy Head puts me in a position of power with the potential to influence this group of teachers in their own professional practice. As I explain my influence with the group it is important that I am democratic in the way that I evaluate my influence. I recognise the need for further evidence to judge my claims of living out my democratic values, thus I could ask the group if they would be willing for me to share the video footage of the session with them and discuss their feelings at certain stages of it. I plan to use video as a tool for reflecting on my own practice and encouraging others to do the same as this group of new and trainee teachers become teacher enquirers.


If using video is such a powerful tool for reflection and analysis on our own professional practice, what prevents other practitioners from using it. As I seek to explore the use of video further with Newly Qualified Teachers and Graduate Trainees, it is important that I understand the ethics of using video and the factors that prevent teachers from using it more widely as a tool for professional development.

Susan Sontag in her book On Photography says:


“To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting

oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge- and

therefore, like power” (Sontag 1977)


This presents a difficulty for me in my desire to use video as a

democratising tool. In my position as Deputy Head I am already at a disadvantage in terms of my position in the hierarchy giving me power over others and now, according to Sontag, the method that I am intending to use more to conduct educational enquiry is adding to that power. She goes on to say:


“The act of photographing is ….. a way of at least tacitly, often explicitly, encouraging whatever is going on to keep on happening. To take a picture is to have an interest in things as they are, in the status quo remaining unchanged, to be in complicity with whatever makes a subject interesting” (Sontag 1977)


My response to this is that Sontag is only considering the act of taking an image here, she is not considering the use of the image. The potential for using the images to carry out an analysis for improvement is not considered. Thus Hopkins[17] talks about how collaboration improved teaching:


“Watching the video together proved to be immensely valuable as my colleague was able to identify what was wrong with my questioning technique and to suggest changes to the activity which would encourage more of a discussion. The results of our collaboration were immediately apparent in the next lesson” (Hopkins 2002)


The key point here is the use that was made of the video to analyse the evidence and convince the teacher that trying a different technique would improve outcomes.


Hopkins is aware of the limitations of video when she says;


“It is true that video will inevitably miss out on some aspects of the lesson owing to technical problems such as sound accuracy or the camera angles yet it will still paint a more complete picture than an observational narrative can ever do” (Hopkins 2002)


It is this completeness of picture that appeals to my democratic values. Of course, it is important to recognise that the person making the video acts as interpreter of events and chooses what to film. This can be overcome by setting the camera on a tripod with sight of the room so that it captures all events.


The power relations evident in a hierarchical School system can lead to teachers being fearful about using video to analyse their practice. Watkins[18] discussion on feedback between teachers says:


“Most teachers fear if they allow a video of themselves to be made it will be held up for scrutiny by colleagues and used as a form of assessment without their knowledge” (Watkins 2000)


In these days of performance management and evidence of competency, it is not surprising to me that teachers are concerned about how the video will be used, who will see it and what judgements will be made. This makes it vital that senior managers like myself, make very clear to trainees and teachers what the purpose of the video is and what the context is in which it will be seen. They can then make an informed choice about whether or not they wish to participate in the video. The choice must be theirs. In addition, as in a Governor’s meeting when there may be some things said “off the record” and not recorded in the public minutes, the participants should be asked whether they would like to have any part of the video erased before it is used. Clear guidelines should also be given to those watching the video so that the purpose for making the video in the first place remains the central focus. Given the potential value of video as a tool for improving professional practice, it seems vital to me that it is used sensitively and purposefully to overcome teachers fears. Another way to overcome this fear is for the observers to make themselves vulnerable by allowing one of their videos to be observed first before watching anyone else’s. I did this at a Training Day on formative assessment at our School and it helped to create an atmosphere of trust which encouraged other teachers to open up their classrooms to the observation of others.


Embarrassment is another reason why teachers are reluctant to allow themselves to be videod. Hopkins identifies three stages to a pattern of response by teachers when watching a video of themselves teaching. The initial focus is teacher centred and is mainly concerned with teacher behaviour. Thus Margaret Parks[19] when she watched herself teaching on video for the first time says, “The thing I noticed was how much I waved my hands and arms about” (Parks 2003) (See Appendix 3)[20]. The second stage that Hopkins identifies is when the focus tends to be pupil-centred and concerned with what the pupils are doing. Again Margaret’s comments are interesting in that she says, “The second time I videod the lesson I was much more at ease, but the camera got knocked and was focussed on a small group of boys…This was interesting to watch because whenever I was near them they were on task but when I moved away they were chatting, poking each other and not working” (Parks 2003). She goes on to say how she changed the classroom environment to reduce opportunities to be off task. This seems to be consistent with Hopkins analysis of the second and third stages because Hopkins identifies a third stage of use of video when the focus returns to the teacher and the concern is with how the teacher’s actions impacts on the pupils. This developmental model of using video is useful in understanding the value of using video repeatedly and persisting with it despite initial embarrassment. It indicates the importance of giving the teacher control over how the video will be used and who will watch it, so that they grow in confidence and develop an interest in what the video is telling them about their teaching.


The need to become familiar with using video in the classroom extends to the participants as well. Using video in a teaching situation changes the group dynamic. People recognise that they can be held to account for what they say and do. The video remains as a record of actions. This can impact on individuals in different ways. For some it may inhibit contribution, others it may encourage to contribute more. Being clear about the purpose of the video with all the participants, the students as well as the teacher, is important for this reason.


Triangulating Evidence

Sarah Fletcher and Jack Whitehead have helped me to understand that action research is wider than a method of research. It is an approach that draws on a flexible range of methods appropriate to the context. If my democratic values are the standards against which I am judging my own professional practice, then consistency requires that I choose democratic forms of evaluation to make claims about my practice. What other tools are available to me to support claims made through the use of video?


In an interview I would shape the questions and responses would be shaped by the questions. Body language would not be captured. 


In a Journal I would record my own voice and not necessarily the voices of others. I could incorporate the voices of others but again it would not capture the body language, nor would it confront me with the reality of my practice.


Using questionnaires enables me to capture the voices of others and I have used them to enquire in to teacher of concerns about the use of video (See Appendix 3). Once again, I shape the questions and the voices of others are captured only in response to the questions that I ask. They do however provide me with another useful way of evaluating my claims.


These methods can be integrated in to my enquiry where it is appropriate to do so.



Use of the video for an action research enquiry allows reflection on the internal and external dialogues that democratise the enquiry. In using video you are increasing transparency by exposing yourself and your values. It enables democratisation of the validation process as the footage can be played to others who can then offer their views on the situation as you hold yourself accountable to your own values through your professional practice. This validation exercise sets in motion dialogues that democratise the process further. This is why I engaged in a validation exercise using video footage when conducting this enquiry. 


Through my discussion with Simon Ratcliffe[21] I came to realise that whilst the value base for our School’s actions regarding teaching and learning has been made explicit, there are other areas of School management, such as behaviour management, that have not been rooted in values. This is an area that I should like to explore further using video within an action research approach. Prosser talks about the value of “visual sociology” in helping people to “confront their cultural assumptions which allows them to begin to change the culture of a school” (Prosser 1999). Pupil behaviour and teachers approaches to behaviour management are a major part of school culture that would be worth investigation.


As I have responsibility for a group of graduate trainee teachers next year, I could discuss with them the use of video in building a record of their professional and personal development, using it to provide evidence of their own progress towards the Initial Teacher Training Standards.


These are the kinds of ways that I might go with my enquiry. Given the unpredictable nature of the action research approach, as I have narrated here, it is difficult to forecast the direction in which my enquiry will develop.

































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[1] Conversation with Simon Ratcliffe on Thursday 5th June 2003 at Westwood St Thomas School.

[2] From “Validation of the Democratic Teacher Belief Scale” in Assessment in Education, Page 364

[3] Appendix 1 contains my notes from sessions attended at Westwood St Thomas School led by Jack Whitehead of Bath University.

[4] Jack and Sarah from Bath University have tutored the Westwood St Thomas School teacher research group.

[5] Article - The “Look” of the Teacher. How can I use digital video to improve the professional practice of teaching? 2003.

[6] Simon is Head of English at Westwood St Thomas School

[7] This video footage was taken by Sarah Fletcher and appears on the second part of the tape, about one hour in to the tape.

[8] Appendix 2 is the video of the session. This footage is on the first hour of the tape.

[9] Sarah Fletcher from Bath University acts as my research mentor for this Unit.

[10] This was a meeting that took place at Bath University on Saturday 14th June. The comments that were made can be verified by other members of the group and they were captured on a video of the session.

[11] Simon Ratcliffe is Second in English at Westwood St Thomas School and a member of the Westwood Teacher Research Group.

[12] Jayne Stillman Head of Art at Westwood St Thomas School and a member of the Westwood Teacher Research Group.


[13] From “Validation of the Democratic Teacher Belief Scale” in Assessment in Education, Page 364

[14] Stuart Jones is Deputy Head (Quality of Learning) at Westwood St Thomas School and a member of the Westwood Teacher Research Group.

[15] Bob is a teacher of Business at Westwood St Thomas School and a member of the Westwood Teacher Research Group.

[16] Simon Ratcliffe is the Second in English at Westwood St Thomas School and a member of the Westwood Teacher Research Group.

[17] Patricia Hopkins – The Role of Video in Improving Teaching and Learning 2002

[18] Watkins, C “Feedback between Teachers” 2000

[19] Margaret is a Maths teacher at Fisherton Manor School and a member of the Westwood St Thomas Research Group.

[20] Margaret Parks gave me permission to reproduce this response from her questionnaire. Appendix 3 is the collection of questionnaires.

[21] This discussion took place at Westwood St Thomas school on Thursday 5th June.