How to develop a school culture of research

Published:

Principal Linda Marshall discusses how we can support our teachers to carry out research and build a culture of evidence-based practice across our schools.

A personal perspective

Ten years into my teaching career, I decided I wanted to return to professional studies, and began to enquire about an MA. During an informal chat I was asked “what are you reading at the moment?” “Postman Pat’s Windy Day” was my glib response! I left the meeting embarrassed that I hadn’t read a research paper since joining the profession in 1982. The reality of life as a full-time teacher, mother and relatively new leader, meant that research and development was far removed from the daily grind of school. 

Fast forward to 2002 – I had the opportunity to leave teaching and work for an educational publisher as a full-time trainer and facilitator. For the next four years, I learned from, and worked with, some of the prominent educational thinkers and researchers at the time. 

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to give each teacher a year out of school to reflect, research, renew, before returning to school to implement their learning?

In 2007, that’s exactly what I did. I returned to the profession as vice-principal at Bradford Academy tasked with establishing a professional learning culture based on research and development. I was determined that research and development would also underpin all professional learning and development at the academy. In other words to ensure that “Learning (is) at the heart of the academy both for learners and staff” (Ofsted 2009).

A school perspective

Ofsted returned to the academy in 2013, and judged us to be a good school. So how did we use evidence-based practice to transform the school? Here are the top tips to embed evidence-based practice.

Keep it simple

Use the mission, vision and values of the school as well as its school development plan as the basis for any evidence-based practice.

Lead the way

Ensure that the headteacher is the lead learner in the school and that he/she models the expectations for evidence-based learning. Build research and development into the job description of at least one senior leader in the school so that they keep up-to-date and disseminate the latest research into leadership and pedagogy as well as statutory responsibilities of the school.

Expectations

Create a culture where all adults in the school expect to be given the responsibility to use evidence as the basis of their practice. We used the research by Professor John Hattie, Visible Learning: Maximizing impact on learning, to underpin the development of our Visible Learning Community. Using the motif “teachers, know thy impact” has shifted the focus of our professional learning to ensure that all adults who work with our students reflect on how they maximise their impact on learner progress.

Visible community

Create a “visible leadership community”, with strategic senior and middle leaders working together to use evidence to improve their practice. Use existing research from Prof Hattie and the Sutton Trust to review what works. Encourage colleagues to share what they are reading, and raise their profile and status by asking them to report on their recommendations and involve them in subsequent policy changes and evaluation – excellent for getting people on board as well as identifying future leaders.

Risks

Encourage colleagues to take risks and to experiment with strategies using “empirical creativity” – see Great by Choice (weblink in further information). 

Job descriptions

Ensure all leadership job descriptions and performance management targets raise the importance of evidence-based practice, and provide time for colleagues to do this. Widen opportunities for colleagues to conduct research, ideally in pairs, such as by visiting other schools, peer-observation and shadowing, research time, teach meets etc. Then ensure that colleagues are accountable for implementing their learning and measuring the impact.

Research focus

Ensure that any professional activity, whether it be a training course or a meeting/external network has a research focus. For example:

  • What is the essential question that you want to explore as a result of your attendance at this course/meeting?

  • Why is this question important to the school?

  • What data have you used to inform your question?

  • What have you learned as a result?

  • What will you do as a result and how will you measure impact?

  • How will your learning be disseminated to others?

This promotes a wider use of evidence-based practice and is also more time efficient.

Opportunities

Develop a talent-management strategy that recognises the value of evidence-based practice at all levels in the school and then provide opportunities for colleagues who have a real interest to research. We are establishing a research and development group, made up of lead practitioners but open to colleagues at all levels. Make sure that any new entrants to the profession are schooled in the use of evidence-based practice.

Partnerships

Connect with your local higher education provider/Teaching School Alliance to raise the profile of evidence-based practice. Provide opportunities for colleagues to gain professional qualifications – higher level teaching assistant status, foundation degrees, MAs as well as professional qualifications through the National College for Teaching and Leadership.

Involve students

Where possible, involve students as co-researchers in the school. At Bradford Academy, we use student teams to provide feedback on their learning and to work with colleagues to inform their practice.

A system perspective

The growth of Teaching School Alliances, wider opportunities for professional learning and an increasing number of collaborative partnerships have created the potential for deep collaboration and a greater implementation of evidence-based practice to improve outcomes for learners at a system level.

There has never been a better time, as an educator, to teach in Bradford. The centre of town is being filled by shops and cafes, the football team has been promoted, and we have the Bradford Partnership, a formal partnership of 28 local secondary schools. Key features of the partnership include:

  • Bi-annual peer reviews to provide objective feedback to schools on their performance – these reviews are frequently used by Ofsted to provide evidence of external validation as well as informing self-evaluation and school improvement planning. 

  • Leadership training through the Teaching Leaders’ TL Teams programme, which uses evidence-based practice to underpin the development of English, maths and EBacc leaders across Bradford. 

  • Appointments of special leaders of education, who work across Bradford schools to support practice and develop leadership.

  • Visible Literacy Conferences where colleagues from all schools, including partner primary schools, focus on existing research into “what works” with literacy, and use joint practice development to implement strategies to raise standards of literacy for year 7 students in Bradford.

  • An annual headteacher conference, where heads use evidence-based practice and research to further develop their deep collaboration.

  • Teach3 – an innovative approach to recruitment, retention and talent management for colleagues choosing to begin their teaching career in Bradford. 

Conclusion 

Using evidence-based practice saves time, creates focus, provides opportunities for professional learning and collaboration, and ultimately leads to better outcomes for learners. Schools are no longer separate units, but have opportunities through the wealth of networks and collaborations to work creatively and embed strategies based on robust research and development. Our system can only improve if we embrace this brave new world, provide real time and focus and create a profession which is reflective, re-energised and makes a difference to our students.SecEd

  • Linda Marshall is all-through principal at Bradford Academy which is a Teaching Leaders Teams School. Teaching Leaders is an education charity whose mission is to address educational disadvantage by developing middle leaders in schools in the most challenging contexts. Visit www.teachingleaders.org.uk

Further information 


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