Becoming a research-informed school

One of the biggest educational ideas in recent years is that schools should be informed by research; they should be ‘research-informed’ (sometimes called ‘evidence-informed). Apparently this idea could revolutionize teaching, making it more scientific (i.e. more systematic & less subjective), and less subject to fashions and ideology. If teaching were based on the findings of science (it is said), school teaching would stop being seen as something that anyone could do, and teaching would therefore have increased status as a profession.

Ten years ago, this idea was rejected by most teachers. Surveys such as Gore and Gitlin (2004), Borg (2009) and Shkedi (1998) found that teachers rarely engaged with research for practical reasons, including a lack of time and inclination. There were also more fundamental reasons: most teachers believed that teaching is essentially about personal interactions, and that all pupils have unique approaches to learning, which means that research on one group of pupils could never be applied to another group.

But times have changed. Meta-analyses of educational research (e.g. Hattie, 2008) are growing in sales and influence, whilst a teacher-led movement called ‘researchEd’, founded in 2013 by the ex-teacher and journalist Tom Bennett, has caused a ‘quiet revolution’ by connecting thousands of teachers and researchers through conferences and online conversations. The Educational Endowment Foundation’s ‘Toolkit’ (a list of research-informed strategies for education) is used by 59% of schools in England, and the EEF’s own research has involved over 10,000 schools (EEF 2018).

So the ‘quiet revolution’ claimed by researchED has some substance. Nevertheless, there are problems with this new enthusiasm for research. In some cases, this is what happens:

  1. Teachers read an account of research on social media or elsewhere
  2. They think of a way to implement the research in their teaching
  3. They forget about the idea due to pressure of other issues

Obviously this is not being ‘research-informed’! But how can teachers actually become research-informed? My research, involving nine collaborative research projects with 153 teachers and school leaders in 85 Primary, Secondary schools and Further Education colleges, has generated four steps:

  • Identify an issue that's worth spending some time on
  • Identify high-quality research that will help improve the issue
  • Plan and implement change
  • Evaluate the change robustly

1. Identify an issue that's worth spending some time on

Being research-informed takes time. That’s a major disadvantage. So it’s important not to jump into spending time on problems that you don’t really have. On the other hand, teaching isn’t an exact science, so all teachers, no matter how good, no matter how experienced, can improve in at least one way. So ask yourself:

  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of your teaching?
  • Is there one thing that would improve your teaching?

If you really can’t select one aspect to improve, select one lesson for deep scrutiny. After the lesson is over, jot down the answers to these questions:

  1. What did I do?
  2. What did the pupils do?
  3. What did they learn?
  4. How worthwhile was it?

Repeat this activity with the equivalent lesson in the following week, and then in the week that follows that. After 3 or 4 lessons, you should see patterns emerging: maybe your explanations aren’t as clear as you’d like, or your questions aren’t well thought out, or maybe you don’t really know how much your pupils have learnt. Choose a single topic to improve and stick to it.

2. Identify high-quality research that will help improve the issue

Several search engines can be used to search for research; the simplest is probably Google Scholar(it’s also free of charge). Put in your search terms (e.g. teacher questioning science), click ‘return’ and you’ll get a page like this:

 

Clicking on the titles will usually take you to a summary of the research (the abstract); clicking to the right of the title (e.g. wiley.com) often takes you to a full-text version of the article. Either way, you’ll be able to see if the research is potentially useful to you. The ‘cited by’ figure tells you how many times that particular research has been cited by other researchers – in general, the more citations, the better the research (although recent articles will not have been published long enough to be cited many times).

Ideally, you should aim to read 3-5 articles about your topic and often, the most useful information will be in an early part of the article, where the researchers summarise what is already known about the topic under discussion. Sometimes you can find whole articles which do this; they usually say that they are ‘reviews of the research literature’. They are particularly helpful because they synthesize lots of other research.

3. Plan and implement change

Although helping teachers is not often the main purpose of research, it’s quite likely that it will give you some practical ideas to try, and perhaps others to avoid. To plan your changes as clearly as possible, it’s helpful to draw up a ‘theory of change’. Essentially, this answers three questions,

  • What will I do?
  • How do I expect the pupils to respond?
  • How will they improve?

You can set it out like this:

4. Evaluate the change robustly

Use the Theory of Change to assess whether the change has happened as you hoped.

For each stage, work out a way to answer each of the above questions objectively. For example, you stated ‘I will …’ (e.g. I will ask more challenging questions and wait longer for the pupils to think about their answers). Objectively, did this happen as you hoped? (An audio recording of your lessons might help you to critically examine your practice.) How did the pupils respond? Did they all respond as you hoped, or only some of them? Did this lead to improvement in their learning? How do you know?

Conclusions?

Teachers have improved their own practice by taking the steps outlined above. Several detailed analyses of such improvements appear in my book, Becoming a research-informed school (see below). When groups of teachers are working together in this way, sharing what they have learnt and encouraging one another, we can say that their school is research informed.

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