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Left-handed research

Carrying out research during probation was a success for Stella Pratt-Smith.

Flexible Route probationer

It was in November 2007 that I learnt I had won the Estelle Brisard Memorial Prize for the research project carried out during my probationary period.

At first, carrying out research and learning how to be a teacher seemed an impossible task. In the end, completing the project improved my understanding of the educational system and, most importantly, the issues facing pupils in schools today.

Classroom experiences 

My project came about as a result of several classroom experiences with left-handed pupils. One of these was with a second-year pupil, bright enough to be in a fast-track class, who had to produce written work in pen for his assessed standard grade portfolio.

This pupil's handwriting was barely legible for his assessments to be read and, when he had to write at any length, his behaviour would quickly become disruptive.

He objected to writing with anything other than pencil and, when he could be persuaded to do so, his difficulties became even more starkly apparent: not only did he write much more slowly than his classmates but he struggled to write at length.

Although he created numerous smoke-screens to disguise it, clearly and genuinely he fatigued very quickly. He complained repeatedly that he hated handwriting and, while using computers was an option for his assessed work, this was neither convenient nor something he wanted to be seen doing for everyday class exercises.

In considering what factors might be contributing to his problems, I happened to notice that he was left-handed so I asked whether he had ever tried using a pen specifically designed for left-handed writers. I bought a Yoropen and gave it to him to see if it would help.

To my interest, he was wildly keen on the pen, claiming that it was much better than other pens he had tried and insisting on using it in every subject. His new enthusiasm for writing was a pleasure to see and helped him produce his portfolio work much more easily.

Within a couple of weeks I noticed a significant improvement in his handwriting and his behaviour was calmer.

Without any preconceived answers, this prompted me to consider not only what overlooked predicaments other left-handed pupils might be encountering but also the possible effect using such pens might have.

Expanding the research

Rather than proving any established point I aimed to investigate through a pilot study, which could form the basis of further research by looking into what resources and assistance might be offered to left-handed writers and how they might influence pupil performance.

My scheme intended to build on the work of the 1970s educationalist Margaret L. Clark, who suggested that "though left-hand writers are not inevitably slower or poorer than right-hand writers as a result only of using the left hand, the conclusion should not be drawn that there are no left-handers whose writing is suffering either in speed or in quality". (Margaret M. Clark Teaching Left-Handed Children, University of London Press Ltd: London, 1974: 13)

Over the Christmas break (once I'd finished marking the end of term essays, of course!) I began some tentative background research, to see what had been written on it already, what data was available, and how feasible a case-study might be.

By February, I had the project outline approved by my NQT mentor, Anne Chalmers, and was helped by the other teachers in the department to identify all left-handed boys in their first-year classes.

I gathered them together (with a roughly equal number of right-handers as a control group) and gave them a letter to their parents/guardians, written with the Headmaster, explaining what the study was for and what it would involve.

Putting in the hours

The study itself took place in lunch hours, a week apart, with lots of chocolate provided as an incentive for them to turn up the second time!

After the project was complete, adopting the old adage of 'nothing ventured, nothing gained', I entered the project for the Estelle Brisard Memorial Prize competition in July 2007, as it was advertised on the Scottish Educational Research Association (SERA) website.

In November, I was delighted to learn that I had won the prize, which, in recognition of the very different research undertaken, was split between myself and Shagufta Shafqat Chandi for her paper "An episode of change: using systems based model in biology teaching".

Apart from building on my past academic experience, the award gave me a new and truly empowering sense of myself and my expertise, not only as a teacher but also more broadly as a educational professional.

That self-perception is invaluable for the future; for me, moving into teaching nineteenth-century English Literature at tertiary level, research and publications are central. However, all teachers, in all levels of education, are highly skilled professionals who too often feel unheard.

Reporting and sharing classroom experiences constitutes the voice from the real "chalk face" of education; for the researcher, schools, and the teaching community, at all levels of experience, that has real, intrinsic and lasting value.