Ten principles for using research in the classroom

Written by: Alex Beauchamp | Published:
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How do we engage teachers with research? And how can we turn this engagement into impact? Alex Beauchamp offers 10 principles for research-informed professional learning

Pupils deserve the most effective teaching; disadvantaged pupils, especially, need it to thrive. For too long, practitioners have employed teaching approaches based on assumptions, fed to them as gospel in their early years of teacher training and development.

We now know many of these approaches – such as learning styles, the learning pyramid and brain gym – are not supported by robust research evidence and have since been debunked as edu-myths.

But how do we engage teachers with research? And how can we turn this engagement into impact? As Hendrick and Macpherson state (2017), “teachers have been given answers to questions they didn’t ask”, so we need to juggle engagement, evidence and relevance if we are going to have research-informed CPD that really works.

Thankfully, we are now in an age when we can stand on the shoulders of giants in our field, able to view learning through a critical lens of evidence and collective academic agreement. But are leaders engaging with this wisdom? Is research evidence being used effectively in schools to help shape the professional direction of our teachers, ensuring that their decisions in the classroom are based on empirical foundations, and not just supposition?

Engaging staff with research through professional learning

The good news is that there are many collaborative models of professional learning that:

  • Embed dialogue around pedagogy.
  • Are embedded through deliberate practice.
  • Encourage open reflection.
  • Have the mobilisation of research at their centre.

Effective CPD models include Lesson Study, embedding formative assessment through Teacher Learning Communities (TLCs), and Professional Learning Groups.

Of course, it takes considerable time to find the right model to fit a school’s context – each one requires thought and training to have impact. However, commitment to one model can lead to substantial gains.

At my school, Hunter’s Bar Junior School in Sheffield, we have faithfully employed the TLC model as a vehicle for embedding formative assessment (EEF, 2019) over the last 10 years. The result is a sustained and transformative shift in culture where staff routinely engage with research and evidence to inform their pedagogical and leadership decisions.

As Professor Dylan Wiliam said of the school: “They have taken charge of their own professional learning in a profound way. It is an impressive story, a wonderful example, and, best of all, I suspect that the best is yet to come.” (Beauchamp, 2018)

One model really can open doors to a new culture, especially if it is underpinned by the principles of autonomy, choice and flexibility.

Using research-informed approaches within CPD delivery

We can design more durable learning that gives staff first-hand experience of research-informed practice. This is strengthened by using cognitive load theory, retrieval practice, spaced and interleaved learning approaches directly into CPD delivery. Here, modelling from CPD leadership is crucial to help teachers transfer their own research-informed professional learning towards the learning of their pupils. For example:

  • Teachers can answer low-stakes retrieval quizzes on prior professional learning, set at the start of a CPD session.
  • CPD delivery could take advantage of the cognitive benefits of dual coding by using diagrams alongside precise verbal explanations.
  • Principles at the heart of direct instruction, such as providing clear explanations, giving concrete examples, non-examples, using formative questioning and live modelling, could all be applied equally in CPD training sessions as well as in the classroom.

School leaders now have full access to the wisdom and tools necessary to help staff engage in research and to re-align their compasses towards practice that has the best chance of succeeding. Here are 10 ways leaders can begin this journey:

  1. Appoint a “research leader” in your school. Ideally, this could be a teacher with a passion for educational reading and pedagogy. Look at Tom Bennett’s report The school research lead (2016) as a great starting point to learn about this pivotal role.
  2. Build up a reading culture. Survey staff to find out what educational books and publications they would recommend and why. Build up a school CPD library. Find time in the CPD diary to let staff read and discuss the books with others in their teams and departments. Many schools produce and distribute a Teaching and Learning Bulletin bringing together helpful resources, links and articles that relate to school priorities. Book reviews by teachers can also help to spread the word.
  3. Embrace book study. Buy a copy of a book for each member of staff in the school that links to a school priority and use it to drive a CPD programme. A great example could be Daniel Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School? (2009). This could be used to raise awareness around the principles of cognitive science.
  4. Unearth edu-myths. Give staff time to take part in transformational experiences where they engage with research findings that empirically disprove the impact of outdated approaches to teaching and learning. The recently published ResearchED Guide to Education Myths (2019) is an excellent starting point.
  5. Help staff connect to external organisations that promote research evidence. Leaders could send staff to ResearchED events, sign some teachers up to the Chartered College of Teaching, and distribute newsletters from the Institute for Effective Education, Teacher Development Trust and Education Endowment Foundation. However, it is important to remember that the most effective CPD relies on knowledge being engaged with and applied into practice. Without such engagement, attendance at events and reading become a luxury.
  6. Research Jigsaw: Use short research summaries in staff development meetings where each member in a group of six has 10 minutes to read an article from a different perspective around a shared topic. The group then conducts a 10-minute debate about the topic using their own article.
  7. Use staff development time to set each staff member up on Twitter, signposting them to a range of educational experts and associations. Set tasks that allow them to tweet their thoughts around a topic, write a tweet to an expert in a field of their choice and find a thread that relates to an area of interest.
  8. Personalise the CPD: Bright spots can be kept bright by challenging the teachers further in their practice. They could be supported to conduct their own classroom inquiry project, attend CPD on Lesson Study, research possible evidence-based approaches to support a school priority, or be signposted to essential research portals online, such as those provided by the likes of Craig Barton, Rob Coe and Tom Sherrington.
  9. Disciplined inquiry: Chaucer Secondary School, currently engaged in the DfE-funded CPD Excellence Hub Project in Sheffield, is using a CPD model where teachers are exploring self-led inquiry questions that aim to address specific communication learning needs in their classrooms. Teachers are signposted precisely to underpinning research and are supported to understand the why and the how of each pedagogical approach. Staff are invested in it because of its relevance to meeting specific pupil needs, and there is a precise focus that can be observed and evaluated.
  10. Make it digestible. Where professional learning works best is where the CPD designer provides research materials that are easy to digest after a long day and wins over the hearts and minds of staff. The findings must be immediately transferable to the classroom and pertinent to the groups of children that are being taught. Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction (2012) is a prime example of how digestible research and classroom practice can be linked seamlessly.

  • Alex Beauchamp is lead practitioner at Hunter’s Bar Junior School in Sheffield and an expert advisor for the Teacher Development Trust, leading the charity’s CPD Excellence Hub for Sheffield. The TDT is a charity for effective professional development in schools. Visit http://tdtrust.org/

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