Evidence-Based Learning at School

Swedish teachers and school leaders as researchers within their own practice

Katina Thelin (presenter) & Hans-Åke Scherp, ECER, Porto, 3 september 2014

This paper reports findings from a Swedish school development project in which the development process was designed and structured as a course in systematic-knowledge-building based on day-to-day issues. The concept knowledge-building is frequently used in the presentation and denotes learning processes in which the learners are active co-creators of knowledge by acting as researchers. Findings suggest that teachers’ motivation to engage in the work is dependent on their choice of questions to work with and how they construct these questions. As a more general result, we found that variation plays an important role in these processes and that teachers’ capacity to handle and make use of variation when learning together is essential. On the basis of these findings, it is suggested that school leaders at least to some extent take on the role of a research leader within their own school.

Keywords: Course based school development, Knowledge-building, Leadership for learning, Learning organization, Problembased school development, Professional learning community, Variation


During the last decades, researchers and leaders have emphasized the importance of schools developing into learning organizations (see for instance Argyris & Schön, 1978; Senge, 1995) or professional learning communities (Stoll & Louis, 2007) as a way to cope with the accelerating pace of changes. There is also strong agreement among researchers that school improvement is most evident where teachers and school leaders are dedicated to research and to learning in and about their everyday practice. By building on their self-produced research results, teachers and school leaders become the main actors in knowledge-building about how children’s learning and development can be influenced in the best possible ways (Hattie, 2009; Holtapples, 2009; Robinson, 2007; Scherp & Scherp, 2007; Timperley, Barrar & Fung, 2007). In Sweden, this view coincides with the political ambition reflected in the new Education Act, which stipulates that education must be based on both scientific premise and proven experience (Chapter 1, § 5).

This paper reports findings from a Swedish school development project in two schools in which the development process was designed and structured as a course in systematic knowledge-building based on day-to-day issues. The concept knowledge-building is frequently used in the presentation and denotes learning processes in which the learners are active co-creators of knowledge by acting as researchers.

The model and structures used by the project has its origin in a school developmental approach, known in Sweden as problem-based school development (Scherp, 2003).
Learning organizations and Problem-based school development
In a learning organization, the bottom-up perspective on school development is emphasized and co-workers’ empowerment is strengthened. A learning organization is characterized by being more conscious of and systematic in experiential learning at the individual, group and organization level than other organizations. ”Organizational learning is changed organization capacity for doing something new.” (Watkins and Marsick, 1993 p. 148). In their review of research literature on learning organizations Mitchell and Sackney (1998) found that they are characterized by reflective self-analysis about tacit assumptions and beliefs, understanding systemic influences and relationships, sharing information openly, honestly examining current practices critically, experimenting with new practices, and understanding the inevitability of disagreement and conflict. By managing differences of opinion through inquiry and problem-solving, they develop common understanding and language patterns as well as.

Teachers claim that their own experiences are the most important factor for their way of teaching, followed by dialogues with colleagues and students about these experiences (Dalin, 1993; Hultman & Hörberg, 1994; Richardson, 1994; Scherp, 2003; Scherp & Scherp, 2007). Teachers and school leaders need to learn about and deepen their understanding of the nature of the problems if they want be able to improve their school. However, there is a problem with experiential learning in connection with development. Learning through one’s own experiences risks reinforcing existing conceptions regardless of how well or poorly they reflect reality (Argyris & Schön, 1974).

More time is needed for learning in and from daily activities. Sarv (1997) and Sandberg & Targama (1998) stress that we need to encourage critical thinking in the organization and also institutionalize questioning by establishing routines for this.

Professional learning communities are the core in learning organizations. Stoll and Louis (2007) define a professional learning community as an inclusive group of people, motivated by a shared learning vision, who support and work with each other, finding ways, inside and outside their immediate community, to enquire into their practice and together learn new and better approaches that will enhance all pupils’ learning. The learning organization perspective puts emphasis on how experiences from different learning communities can stimulate new solutions. Some recent studies show that work in learning communities is one successful way to enhance student outcomes in schools.

Timperley et al (2007) have conducted a meta-study based on 97 empirical contributions about the impact of teachers’ professional development on the outcomes of the students. They conclude that participation in some form of professional learning community in which prevailing discourses were challenged led to improved results. Effective school leadership was characterized by organizing environments to promote teachers’ learning opportunities. Robinson (2007) confirms these results in another meta-analysis of 26 empirical studies which measured the relationship between type of school leadership and student outcomes. The results showed that the largest impact on student outcomes was reached when school leaders were involved in promoting and participating in teachers’ learning. The main task of the school leader was to organize sense-making learning environments for teachers that help them to a more profound understanding of complex and puzzling everyday problems.

Sarv (1997) points out that it is not enough to concentrate on traditional competence development to accomplish emancipatory learning in an organization. Two dimensions, challenging leadership, and listening and responsive leadership are features in a learning oriented leadership, which is emphasized in connection with school development based on a learning perspective (Scherp & Scherp, 2007).

In Sweden the concept problem based school development has developed from an attempt to introduce and incorporate the ideas described above into school practice. Within the Swedish context, the acronym PBS refers to a national research and school developmental network that was active from 2003-2012 as well as a developmental model based on a practice developed in the network (www.kau.se/pbs).

As in action research (Rönnerman, 2011; Somekh & Zeichner, 2009 among others) and other practice based and learning oriented approaches, developmental work based on this model is seen as a problem solving process (Scherp, 2001; Hameyer, 2001). Learning from participants’ former experience and in particular the variation in their ways of seeing the problem and the situations where it emerges is at the core of this process. Identifying and describing different ways of seeing and acing is therefore considered an important part of the work, providing a basis for learning (For a deeper insight to the role of variation in learning, see, for instance, Marton & Pang, 2006). The emphasis on variation in the process makes the work carried out in the project closely related to practice developed within the learning study tradition (See for instance Holmqvist & Mattisson, 2009; Pang & Lo, 2011; Runesson, 2006). However, in problem based school development, learning is not oriented towards a certain way of seeing claimed to be more effective or powerful than the current ones (Marton, Runesson & Tsui, 2004), but rather towards new or other ways of seeing that can be shared, tried out and evaluated as part of the process. The fact that there is no intended object of learning (Marton, Runesson & Tsui, 2004) turns learning into an open-ended sense-making (Weick, 2001), or knowledge-building, process.
Systematic knowledge-building in two Swedish schools
From 2007-2011, schools in Sundsvall1 participated in the PBS network. In addition to participating in the PBS-network, the politically appointed education governing body decided to further emphasize systematic knowledge-building in one primary and one lower secondary school by inviting the staff of the two schools to participate in a university course called Systematic knowledge-building based on everyday problems. The course workload was 25 percent of fulltime for a teacher and was given 15 credit points.

The primary school has about 250 students from first to fifth grade (7-12 years old) and the lower secondary school has about 250 students in grades seven to nine (14 -16 years old). The two schools were the least attractive schools in Sundsvall when it came to school choices of the students. The lower secondary school had the lowest student outcomes in the municipality according to the statistics of the National Agency of Education in Sweden. There are no corresponding statistics for the primary school. Both schools had students coming from homes with low socioeconomic status. There is a high rate of immigrants in both schools. 46 percent of the students were born outside Sweden.

The two schools were given extra economic support to make it possible to use substitute teachers when groups met during teaching hours and to appoint development leaders on a half-time basis.

Altogether sixty teachers, two school leaders, two developmental leaders and the research team, in which the authors of this paper had an instructional and a tutoring role, were involved in the project.


Course design
The process of systematic knowledge-building that the staff at the two schools learned to use during the course followed five steps:

1.Definition of a problem or a learning domain followed by formulation of a research question;

2.Determination of how to obtain reliable data that form the basis for the learning process;

3.Detecting patterns in the obtained data;

4.Understanding and explaining why the patterns look like they do;

5.Examining the validity of the knowledge by testing it in practice.

Participants were assigned to inquiry groups. In each a group leader was chosen to coordinate the work of the group. Groups met one and a half hour every second week and were often given extra time during common study days. As the groups progressed in their research processes, lectures were given to support the participants in the different phases. Tutoring from the university complemented the course. The course and the tutoring were coordinated to create continuity in the participants’ systematic knowledge-building.

These problems, questions and dilemmas were made target for a parallel learning and knowledge-building process, in which the authors of this paper worked in collaboration with school leaders and developmental leaders with the purpose of both developing our own and contributing to others’ understanding of school development based on systematic knowledge-building and how such processes can be lead and supported. This group met once every month during the first year, and continued to do so since the course finished.. The findings presented in this paper are based on the work carried out in this group.
Qualitative research methods were used in analyzing the data produced within the project. Data consisted of group documentation, notes taken by the tutor, the developmental leaders and the school leaders during meetings with the group leaders, as well as formal papers written and presented by teachers and school leaders at annual learning conferences during 2009-2012. The data was analyzed with focus on variation in ways of reasoning and acting among the groups.
Earlier studies (see Scherp, 2013) within the project described in this paper have shown that the course in systematic knowledge-building functioned as a scaffold in the school development process, helping the participants to focus on and be persistent in their improvement. Systematic knowledge-building based on the five step research process was also considered to have positive effects on cooperation between teachers and strengthening teacher-school leader relationship.

A vast majority of the teachers, 85%, totally or partially agreed that their work with systematic knowledge-building had increased their interest in other ways of seeing and acting as well as increased their motivation to continue to learn in a systematic way about teaching and learning. 75% agreed that the learning activities had supported their everyday work and 78% that it had deepened cooperation among the teachers.

However, as researchers, lecturers and tutors, we were also able to identify some problems related to the groups’ knowledge-building processes as well as variations in the
results of their work. The identified difficulties served as a starting point for the study presented in this paper.

One of the difficulties and problems stated by both the teachers and the school leaders was the workload. Managing a very intensive and demanding school workload while finding the time needed to research one’s own practice was very challenging. More specifically, we found that some of the teachers had difficulties finding out what was most important for them to develop knowledge about. Difficulties in separating process and result or goal also made it hard to pose research questions about the relationship between their way of teaching and what the pupils achieved. Another difficulty was formulating a research question that was possible to study in a scientifically reliable way. These problems were found closely related to other difficulties such as obtaining reliable data, finding patterns in data, and formulating conclusions based on the results of such activities.

In the following section findings relevant for problems faced within teachers’ collaborative work with systematic knowledge-building in inquiry groups are reported.
Choosing and constructing a research question
From our analysis and from collective reflection in tutorial meetings as well as in the school leader group, we learned that motivation and ability to progress were to a great extent dependent on what happened early in the process. Beside a general difficulty to shift focus from planning (new activities) to learning (from different activities) in order to develop new ways of seeing with greater potential for handling problems encountered in everyday practice, we found systematic knowledge-building to be more or less challenging depending on teachers’ choice of matter to work with. In fact many of the problems encountered throughout the process were in one way or another related to this issue.

In general, groups that chose what was considered a genuine problem such as student lack of motivation or truancy were often found more motivated than groups that had posed a question based on a general interest such as student learning environment or a specific method or instructional model, like genre pedagogy.

Furthermore, the construction of the question seemed to be important, not only for the quality of the work, but also for group engagement and motivation. When comparing and reflecting upon questions constructed by the groups in joint tutorial sessions, some attempts emerged as more fruitful than others. For example, it was found helpful if the question was built up around a process oriented verb such as organize, arrange, communicate, etc. related to teacher activity and a result oriented object such as (student) ability to communicate (i.e. mathematic problems) or understanding of (i.e. a problem solving process). In addition it was found be helpful if the question contained a subject,
preferably we. For example, How can we create a learning environment that helps students develop mathematical reasoning? was more meaningful than just learning environment or mathematics, as was first formulated in one of the groups. Likewise, How can we use computers to stimulate students´ writing? was more helpful than just writing or computer technology, which was among the first suggestions coming from another group.
Dealing with variation
As a general result, we found that teachers’ capacity to handle and make use of variation when learning together varied in a way that appeared crucial to the process. Differences appeared for the first time early in second step (Determination of how to obtain reliable data that form the basis for the learning process), which usually started with a learning dialogue (Scherp, 2003a). In these dialogues teachers shared their understanding of and experiences relevant for their question. This particular activity can be seen as one way to obtain data. Informed by variation theory, the teachers had been taught to pay attention to and especially to elaborate on variation in ways of seeing as well as in ways of acting towards different situations brought up in the dialogues. Nevertheless, we found that variation was handled very differently by the various groups.

By analyzing the strategies used, we were able to identify three clearly distinguishable ways of dealing with variation in a group. One was to simply ignore it, or pretend it was not there. Another was to deny or explain it away: “We might use different concepts and talk about them in different ways, but we really do mean the same”. A third, and this turned out to be the most common way of dealing with variation, was to acknowledge and thus accept it as a matter fact: “We think and do things differently”. The acknowledgment, however, did not have much impact on group learning since variation was often justified in statements like “There is no right way” or “No way is better than another”. Not one group was able to deal constructively with variation without tutoring.

Having stressed the importance of variation, we were eager to learn more about how to use variation as a basis for knowledge-building. According to our understanding, finding patterns in variation is an important task related to this matter. Detecting relevant patterns in the data was, however, found to be difficult. In some groups, pattern finding in itself became an exciting activity, irrespective of its relevance for their matter of inquiry. This problem in several cases appeared related to groups’ ability to handle variation.

The following is a simplified example based on several dialogues held in one group working with the question of how to create a learning environment that helps students in developing mathematical reasoning. In learning dialogues, the teachers had shared and documented their individual conclusions based on former experiences relevant to the matter as illustrated below:

Teacher 1: Students are more active when they do laboratory work.

Teacher 2: Children use mathematical thinking when they are confronted with authentic problems, for example when we bake at fritids (after-school center).

Teacher 3: I have learned that students’ mathematical reasoning benefits from group work, because then they have to explain their ideas to others. At the same time, they tell themselves how they are actually thinking.


When asked to report their shared group learnings at one of the monthly tutorial meetings, the teachers’ individual conclusions were listed, one by one, which made it very difficult for them to move forward as a group.

Therefore, in tutorial meetings, this and other groups in the same situation were asked to either formulate one conclusion based on their different contributions or to choose one for further elaboration. In this particular case, the problem was solved by integration of arguments:

Group: Students’ mathematical is stimulated if they get opportunity to solve real problems together with other students in an authentic elaborative setting.

Without this help, groups were often eager to move on to the next step and start to do interviews or observations, just to find the same or a similar pattern of variation within the next set of data.

After having given this some thought, the school leaders were able to provide the teachers with some guidelines and a supporting structure based on learnings drawn from experiences of handling the difficulties encountered.

Figure 1. Problem defining structure.
As shown in the Figure 1 above, problem defining and formulating a question of inquiry is not done all at once, but is rather a process based on several activities. First groups are asked to describe the problem as it appears in their everyday practice and explain why it is important to learn more about it by, for instance, pointing to a general or specific instructional goal. Then the problem is turned into a learning question constructed as suggested previously. This question is taken as starting point for a learning dialogue, in which the groups explore their gathered experiences and various views with the aim of formulating either one answer to the question based on common conclusions or a few different answers for further elaboration (integration or choice). Before moving on to the second step in the process (Determination of how to obtain reliable data that form the basis for the learning process), the answers are transformed into one or more research questions.

At the end of the first year, this structure became part of common practice as it was integrated in documents used for planning systematic knowledge-building processes.

To some extent this new practice also changed the conception of problem defining. From being seen as a well-defined task related to the first step in the process, it came to be seen as a part of the learning, or knowledge-building, process.
The results of this study add to knowledge gained in previous research carried out within this and other projects based on the same perspective and contribute to an understanding of practice-based learning and knowledge building processes. Results also contribute to an understanding of leadership by illuminating the school leaders’ role in relation to these processes.

By learning from and about the work of, and by working with teachers engaged in systematic knowledge-building, the participating leaders developed their leadership in some important ways. From simply being facilitators in the beginning, they became more learning leaders as they developed their ability to lead a systematic knowledge building process.

On the basis of these findings, it is suggested that school leaders at least to some extent take on the role of a research leader within their own school. This is, however, a suggestion that needs to be further elaborated and discussed in relation to other aspects relevant to matter. Given the heavy work load and already demanding task of a school leader, this is a real challenge. It also draws attention to the potentially problematic role of the teacher acting as a researcher following steps and using methods similar to those applied within research, without the deeper understanding of the professional researcher (Carlgren, 2003; Tiller, 2009).
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