Make research make a difference in the classroom


Practitioner-led enquiry is increasingly being seen as crucial to becoming a successful school. SecEd is supporting the new NFER Research Mark that aims to help schools promote teacher research. Graham Handscomb explains.


School-based enquiry and research are now being seen to make an important contribution to self-evaluation, improvement and the professional learning of staff.

For teachers who have engaged in researching their own school and classrooms it has not only brought new insights, new levels of understanding and new challenges, but has enhanced the quality of teaching and learning at the same time.

In these schools, research covers a wide range of activities, rooted in the day-to-day life of the classroom and the on-going business of the school and its relationships with its community (as is shown in the case study below).

Just as teachers encourage their pupils to engage in enquiry systematically and with a developing understanding of what constitutes “evidence”, so teachers themselves observe these principles for their own learning. It is about turning intuitive and spontaneous judgements into more systematic investigations, starting with the everyday questions that teachers ask themselves:

  • Why do children behave the way they do?

  • Why do some children seem unable to learn?

  • Why is my teaching sometimes effective and at other times not?

  • What would make for a happier, more productive classroom?

Some time ago I worked with Caroline Sharp from the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) on a government-sponsored exercise to see what difference research can make. The question we wanted to ask was: did research activity make a sustained impact in schools over time? 

So we revisited some years later a number of schools that had been engaged in action research. Was there any lasting improvement effect? Did each school continue its active involvement in research? We found that research had made a difference and that the schools continued to invest in it. 

From this evaluation, we teased out the factors that seemed to help schools in sustaining this enquiry journey and maximising the impact of action research. These are:

  • Establish a school culture that is supportive of collaboration, enquiry and calculated risk-taking.

  • Build action research into staff development activities, seeking opportunities for groups of staff to work collaboratively.

  • Link action research explicitly with developments in learning and teaching.

  • Find a way of aligning individual, departmental and whole-school interests when selecting a topic for research enquiry.

  • Seek out opportunities to foster pupil/teacher dialogue through action research.

  • Ensure teacher-researchers have access to mentoring and expert advice.

  • Consider how best to share the process, capture the learning and use the outcomes of the research within the school and the wider community.

  • Plan for the longer-term development of research engagement within schools and in the wider community.

  • Be ambitious and confident about using action research to secure gains in pupil achievement.

The NFER has recently launched its Research Mark, designed to recognise and celebrate the work of schools, colleges and early years settings which have made a real commitment to doing and using research to improve their practice. Organisations applying will have to provide evidence in three main areas. 

1, An enquiring, learning community

  • Vision, values and goals – for example, how is research related to the organisation’s aims?

  • Research climate and ethos – how does the organisation encourage professional learning?

  • Leadership and support – how is research led and supported?

  • Research communities and collaboration – to what extent has your organisation collaborated with others involved in research?

  • The research journey – can you give an example of a research project in your setting?

2, Improving pedagogy

  • Enhanced teaching and learning – how has research impacted on pedagogy?

  • Research and professional learning – how does research contribute to professional learning?

  • Reflection and self-evaluation – how does research contribute to self-evaluation?

3, Impact on children

  • Benefits to learners – what is the impact on children and other learners?

  • Impact, improvement and sustainability – how will you ensure research engagement is sustained in the future?

An enquiry journey

Trained assessors will study the applications, visit all applicants to gather further information and provide useful feedback. Organisations which meet the criteria will be awarded the Research Mark for a period of three years before they need re-apply. The NFER will feature the successful applicants on its website and publicise their research.  

About a decade ago, John MacBeath and I proposed that schools can become research-engaged by placing research and enquiry “at the heart of the school, its outlook, systems and activity”. Since then, a good deal of evidence has emerged that such research engagement helps school leaders to develop their schools and make them exciting places to work, with widespread recognition of the huge difference it can make to staff, and collaboratively across school alliances. 

Research in action – a case study

At this 11 to 18 school a decision was taken that being a research-engaged school would be at the core of its identity. This meant that everyone – headteacher, staff and pupils – would be active enquirers. 

As well as using its own resources for research, the school has secured additional funding to support a range of activities. The headteacher now feels that the number of staff with research experience has reached a “tipping point”, with approximately 45 of the 60 teaching staff (including himself) having completed a piece of action research. 

All research projects are designed with impact in mind. Staff work on an issue of their own choosing and implement new approaches to bring about improvements. Teachers find action research interesting and motivating. 

The head of technology said: “It’s not just the research and how it affects your teaching; it’s also the fact that you are stretching your mind into an area other than your normal everyday teaching.”

When completed, each piece of research is reported in a short written account in the school’s Learning Lessons research publication. These are made available to staff, parents and governors. 

A fee of £100 is given to any member of staff willing to write up a colleague’s research (where the writer interviews the teacher-researcher and then produces a draft report of up to 1,000 words, focusing on the applications of the research to practice).

Each research project is designed to have an impact on the lives and life chances of young people. For example, one head of department focused on helping students to improve their essays. The new approach included writing frames, coupled with coaching using online instant messaging. This enabled students to achieve better results in their history exams and to transfer their skills to other subjects. 

Similarly, a science teacher wanted to improve exam revision and asked students in year 11 to identify effective revision strategies. He then introduced a range of techniques to make revision more targeted, active and collaborative. 

This included encouraging peer-tutoring, asking students to give immediate feedback on any difficulties they were experiencing with the material, and encouraging students to use a wide range of approaches to record their revision. The group using the new revision techniques out-performed their peers in their A levels.

The school is actively involving students as co-researchers, such as in a development where teachers ask students to help evaluate new teaching approaches by recording their reactions in learning logs. 

Teachers’ research engagement has a positive effect on students in general. The headteacher said: “Students benefit from enthusiastic teachers who engage in active dialogue with them.”

He added: “Research engagement has become an expectation: it has attracted staff to apply for posts at this school.”

  • Professor Graham Handscomb is an NFER research associate.



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