Creative thinking

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Engaging teachers in research to inform best practice can unleash untapped creativity and sustainable improvement, says Gareth Mills.

Schools in England are entering a period of professional freedom unlike anything that has been seen since the introduction of the first national curriculum. Academies, for example, have no requirement to follow the national curriculum and those schools that do have been promised less prescription and more scope to innovate. How will we make the most of these freedoms? 

The old adage “if you do what you always did you’ll get what you’ve always got” presents both a challenge and opportunity to those hoping to use these new flexibilities to design more compelling learning.  

In education, as in all other fields of human endeavour, there are always new ways to enhance what we do. How as teachers, for example, do we respond to the emerging evidence about how the brain works? How do we design learning to equip young people for life in an interdependent globalised world? How do we exploit the creative potential offered by technology? 

With increased freedom, however, comes increased responsibility. As professionals we need to act ethically and rationally in the best interests of learners. This is why, I believe, we are seeing a growing call for more evidence-based practice and for new opportunities for teachers to engage in and with educational research. 

It is important that education change is not driven by opinion or passing fad but by the informed expertise of professionals. Perhaps one of the most droll observations made by Professor John Hattie in his book Visible Learning is that a selective reading of research would suggest that “everything seems to work”.

As a result of 15 years’ work and a synthesis over 800 meta-analyses of research studies, Prof Hattie has built up an authoritative evidence-informed picture of the key influences on student achievement. Teachers engaging with his work can make informed judgements about teaching strategies based on a credible weight of evidence.

Dr Andreas Schleicher is not a household name in the UK, yet in a speech this year, education secretary Michael Gove suggested that he could be one of the most important figures in world education. Dr Schleicher is the special advisor for education at the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development and is passionate about using evidence to support school improvement. Earlier this year he published Building a High Quality Teaching Profession: Lessons from around the world.

Looking at international best practice in teacher development, Dr Schleicher notes that high quality is most likely to be achieved when teachers are “active agents in school reform, not just implementers of plans designed by others”. He calls for “a culture of research and reflection in schools so that teaching and learning can be based on the best available knowledge”. His work shows that while you may mandate compliance, you need to unleash excellence.

So how might it be possible to engage teachers as active agents in innovation and enquiry, unleashing their energy and imaginations to create better learning for children and young people?  

There are a number of professional development programmes helping teachers to bring innovation into the classroom and inspire learners. An increasing number of schools in the UK are using enquiry-based methods as an important part of their approach to CPD and school improvement. These schools are engaging with action-research, not as an academic exercise, but as a means of developing teachers as reflective professionals and driving improvement in lessons and learning.

Among those supporting this growing trend, is Futurelab at the National Foundation for Educational Research, where we have developed a practical seven-step toolkit for managing school-based enquiry and evidence-informed practice. And evidence is emerging that schools joining this Enquiring Schools Network are beginning to see the benefits of using research-based methodologies.

Staff at City Academy Norwich have all chosen very different areas to research – from enquiry-based drama to the development of Assessment for Learning techniques. 

All have identified success indicators, and in order to document any change they are looking at where the students are now and what differences they want to see. Once their ideas are put into action in the classroom, they will be guided in looking for evidence of improvement and links to current research. 

Hannah Swain, a teacher at the academy, found the experience useful. She explained: “The programme is helping me to focus on teaching and learning in a new way. The format has given me a powerful structure for innovating and tracking the impact of change. I really value the opportunity to take a step back from my routine practice and spend time reflecting on where we can improve.

“It has given me the confidence to move our curriculum forward in new and exciting ways. It is having a hugely positive impact on my practice and on the development of our team.”

At Copland Community School, enquiry-based research is being used not only to improve standards and transform teaching and learning within the school, but across its challenging location in inner city London. Headteacher Graeme Plunkett said: “The work we have done with the Futurelab programme is central to our mission: to transform learning and teaching by engaging students. There is so much potential here that has, in the past, been untapped, but now the ingredients are in place to create something innovative and unique.”

Alongside a robust methodology, it is important to feed research evidence into a school’s development programme in a timely and accessible way. This is why it is important to have a credible research organisation as a partner. Schools can move forward reassured that their innovations, whatever their particular priority, are incorporating strategies “most likely” to have an impact on pupil outcomes.

Educational research can often be dense and full of academic jargon so it is important to produce “research insights” that capture the key ideas in an accessible way for busy teachers.

Wilmington Grammar School for Boys in Dartford is seeking to develop a disciplined approach to enquiry-based innovation within the curriculum. Denise Jackman, assistant head, explained: “We decided to join the programme to make sure we adopt a rigorous methodology into school development and improvement. Our chosen development is ensuring that all staff and students know what is needed for them to become outstanding learners.” 

The school is working with students in developing a powerful learner voice to inform and support teachers creating resources for lessons.

The test of true professionalism, in teaching as in medicine, says Professor Robin Alexander, is that the practitioner “is able to justify his or her actions by reference to evidence, aims and principles”. 

Similarly, Professor Dylan Wiliam cautions that: “Too often, education policy, and teachers’ practice, is driven by fads and fashions. Research can never tell teachers what to do, but it can suggest the directions that are most likely to lead to improved student outcomes.”

Undoubtedly, the movement for evidence-informed practice is growing. At a time when schools have a real opportunity to innovate it is important that we are guided, not by narrow dogma or the unsubstantiated claims of the “salesmen”, but by research and the evidence of successful professional practice.  

Engaging in and with research will increasingly be seen as an important part of what it means to be a professional educator. Here at Futurelab and across our family of enquiring schools everyone is a learner – and that means teachers as well as students.

The NFER Research Programme

Research-led practice is one of the types of teaching development featured in the NFER Research Programme’s report, What Leads to Positive Change in Teaching Practice?, published in June 2012.

This report is one of a pair of studies that consider creating change in schools through workforce development. It presents the findings of a study in which NFER maps the key research evidence about what leads to positive change in teaching practice in schools. 

A number of recent reports have emphasised effective teaching as a crucial element in securing positive outcomes for young people. NFER will be trying to evaluate the impact of such practice in schools in a more formal way and is interested in hearing how others have tackled this.

Developing the Education Workforce is one of three themes in the NFER Research Programme, that focuses on important undeveloped research areas within education where it feels its research skills and depth of subject expertise offer a valuable insight.

  • Gareth Mills is head of learning and innovation at Futurelab at the National Foundation for Educational Research.

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