Questions to help you engage in classroom research

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How can schools engage with research successfully and what makes for an evidence-informed school? Tami McCrone and Matt Inniss advise.

Engaging with research gets you thinking, it challenges you and makes you evaluate carefully your teaching methods and the reasons behind them” (comment from a teacher).

“Evidence-based teaching” – is this simply the latest in a long succession of fads and buzz-words around education policy, or is there much more to it? 

While there have been efforts to encourage research engagement in schools and teaching practice before, the current interest is worth investigating.

From Dr Ben Goldacre’s controversial call for Randomised Controlled Trials in education, to the Education Endowment Fund’s effort to find out “what works” using such trials – there’s a burgeoning interest in providing an evidence-base to support the efforts of our teachers.

But perhaps the most interesting development has been from the ground up. Teachers coming together through social media to critically engage in their own professional development. The ever-growing “ResearchEd” conference movement is a tangible result, for instance.

At the NFER, we wanted to explore further what evidence-informed practice really means to teachers today. What better way to do that than to work directly with teachers on a project.

In partnership with United Learning, a group of around 50 schools across both the state academy and independent sectors, we designed and conducted our own investigation into how schools within the group use and create their own research.

Partnership between academics and teachers was key – we wanted the work itself to reflect this wider potential change in attitude and approach, where the dividing lines between practitioners and researchers are reduced. The main purpose of this exploratory research project was to investigate how teachers use evidence in the classroom, and what they feel are the most effective approaches to engaging with research and using it to inform practice.

All in the mindset

Teachers and senior leaders interviewed in seven case study United Learning schools believed that one of the main potential benefits of engaging in research evidence was improved pupil achievement and attitude. Additionally, using research evidence was perceived to:

• Encourage teachers to reflect more deeply on their teaching practice.

• Provide new and innovative ideas to inform teaching and learning.

• Encourage teachers to look beyond their school and gain a wider perspective.

• Provide a valuable source of CPD.

• Provide insights into the most effective teaching strategies.

• Give teachers confidence to implement new approaches.

• Contribute to improved behaviour, attainment and attitude in the classroom.

Senior leaders highlighted some whole-school benefits they believed engagement in evidence brings – for example, to resource allocation decisions, the introduction and justification of school policies, the drive for whole-school improvement, and staff training and development. The illustration below provides an overview of these perceived benefits.

Cultural evolution

So, what to do next to create more evidence engagement in your school? Here are some questions:

How would you assess the current position of your own school with regard to the use of evidence and research to inform your practice?

  • How many teachers or other members of staff are using research in some way to improve their practice?

  • How many staff members are conducting or accessing external research? What support do they receive?

  • What part does evidence play in your decision-making process on whole-school teaching and learning?

  • What opportunities are there for your staff to discuss evidence? 

How do we make evidence-informed practice a priority?

  • What incentives do you think your staff needs to engage with or conduct their own research?

  • What are the best ways to create the right environment and the time and space to do this?

  • Who should lead on the use of evidence within your school? A senior leadership team member? A “knowledge champion”? Individual heads of subject or heads of department? How would their role work?

  • What structures and support do you need to put in place to make engaging with evidence a priority?

How do we translate research resources into better teaching and learning in class?

  • Research priorities: what are the big research questions we still need to know more about to really understand how children learn?

  • What level of expertise do individual teachers require in order to make good practical use of (and to challenge or conduct) research? Do they need access to external research organisations/universities?

  • How do we measure the effectiveness of research-based approaches in developing teaching and learning?

  • How can we encourage action research findings to be shared, both within and between schools? How do we make best use of external research evidence? Does such evidence need to be routinely accompanied by practical interpretation for the classroom?

  • Whose job is it to translate “research jargon” into everyday language?

Getting started

Ensuring your school is engaged in research evidence is challenging. The following menu of potential “enablers” or building blocks for developing a research-engaged school culture is by no means exhaustive, but is based on the experiences of the case study schools and may provide some tips to get you started.

  • School-based funding for teachers’ own action research projects.

  • Subscription to subject association journals as a source of context-specific research

  • Appointing a “knowledge champion”, who takes the lead on finding and disseminating relevant evidence/material or co-ordinating action research.

  • Providing access to academic library catalogues or online research resources.

  • Modelling research – providing examples of how new ideas could be implemented in practice. This could include lesson plans, schemes of work or sourcing case studies/filmed content from other schools.

  • Moving to a model of Joint Practice Development or Lesson Study for in-house CPD – encouraging groups of teachers to develop their own research agenda and using lesson observations to track progress.

  • Research-focused discussion during subject/department meeting time on a regular basis.

  • Sharing research projects across schools in similar contexts via subject networks or excellence visits.

  • Timetabled space for “action research” projects within a school’s CPD programmes.

  • Developing a whole-school approach and structure for defining, implementing, tracking, sharing and celebrating small-scale action research or Joint Practice Development projects that culminates in “light-touch” outputs for the classroom (reflection videos or training materials, for example).

Identifying what works

Engaging in evidence can really help to identify what works and, as one headteacher pointed out, can “save time” because you know what the evidence says. As for the future, a model of teachers and researchers working together (as in this piece of research) to identify where the research needs to be done is, we believe, the way forward.

This research project was just the beginning; exploring the current state of play – how teachers make use of research, what are the perceived benefits and, most crucially, what are the most important enablers that either allow research-engaged schools to flourish, or the barriers that can stop it from getting off the ground.

There is much more to find out. If we understand what makes evidence-informed schools successful in some settings, how can this be successfully replicated elsewhere in different ones? 

And can we measure, with greater rigour, the impact of all this effort on pupils and students? 

But for now our full report, and the accompanying practical guide for establishing your own research-engaged culture, will hopefully provide an effective starting point for those senior and middle leaders looking to promote this agenda in their own schools. If you want to get more involved in producing or interpreting evidence, please do get in touch.

  • Tami McCrone is research director in NFER’s Impact Team and Matt Inniss is the subject leader for history and an economics teacher at Paddington Academy in Westminster. Email enquiries@nfer.ac.uk

Further information
  • Creating a Research-engaged School: A guide for senior leaders: www.nfer.ac.uk/IM2
  • Teachers’ Use of Research Evidence: A case study of United Learning schools: www.nfer.ac.uk/IM1


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