The challenge of making schools more research-led

On a national scale, it is increasingly accepted by school leaders, teachers and policymakers that education should be grounded in evidence in order to ensure positive outcomes for students. Key examples of this include Ofsted’s emphasis on the value of evidence-informed teaching (Department for Education, 2017), the continued expansion of ResearchEd, in which teachers attend research-informed CPD (continuing professional development) in their spare time, and the establishment of the Chartered College of Teaching. When viewed alongside the development of research schools and guidance reports produced by the Education Endowment Foundation, a picture begins to emerge of a profession that is seeking to become more evidence-informed in policy and practice. Yet schools still face significant challenges in being evidence-informed, including staff resistance to adjusting current practices and lack of understanding of the forms that educational research can take (Stoll, 2017).

Approaches to developing a culture of research in my school

Engaging with existing research

When working to develop a culture of research in my INSET training, I needed to tackle the issue of staff reluctance to engage with ideas that might contradict their past practices. I attempted to emphasise Dylan Wiliam’s idea that all teachers should be looking to develop within a culture of continuous improvement (2013). Supporting the notion of using research evidence to become ‘even better’, I was lucky to work with a leadership team who openly shared examples of teaching practices that they had adjusted in light of research. This helped to highlight the benefits of using evidence to inform practice, by illustrating that all teachers can use research to help them develop.

The senior leadership team also set a positive example by using research to guide policy, asking me to look into ‘what the research said’ when developing new ideas. For instance, when devising a new behaviour policy, I was asked by the assistant head to examine existing research into the effectiveness of various practices. Valuing evidence-based practice and embedding this school-wide needs to be prioritised by leaders, as this illustrates that we can all use evidence to help us reflect, no matter our level of experience. Even the existence of my research leadership role demonstrates a conscious effort on the part of the leadership team to acknowledge the value of research evidence in improving outcomes.

Similarly, in order to help promote the value of evidence-based practice, it is vital to have a ‘research champion’ – or preferably multiple people – to disseminate research. In my role, I regularly summarise important research findings using a range of methods, including contributions to the staff newsletter; verbally in staff briefings; and using email, handouts and the social networking tool Yammer. Using a range of tools to communicate key research maintains colleagues’ interest and enthusiasm, whilst helping to emphasise that research should be integral to teaching and learning. Quite simply, you need to talk about research in order to get other people talking about it. My own research has shown me that academic language can act as a barrier to some teachers accessing education research, along with competing demands on their time; therefore, summarising existing research for colleagues can be highly beneficial in increasing engagement. For schools without dedicated research leads, online sources can help with this – for example, the website ‘The Lang-Lit Lab‘ (Clark et al., 2018), which summarises key research in literary linguistics for English teachers.

Engaging in practitioner research

To gain staff enthusiasm for evidence-informed practice, it is important to make research context-specific. Nutley et al. explain that teachers tend to engage more positively with local, context-specific research (2007). School leaders should not take external research, even comprehensive meta-analysis, and apply it to their setting without reflection on its implementation and relevance to their setting. Therefore, we created opportunities for staff to conduct empirical research, enabling them to research key departmental or school priorities.

Further to this, I organised calendared opportunities for staff to share findings and to hear about the ongoing research of their colleagues, through marketplace-style ‘Research Meets’. These CPD events help to ensure that research has a cross-departmental impact and enable teachers to hear about a range of approaches to ‘doing research’. Using an escalating model is helpful for giving staff the opportunity to learn how to conduct research. First a school-wide working group, or ‘Research Team’, conducted a research project, then teams within departments researched a topic of their choice, and finally all staff were encouraged to conduct their own research individually, having benefited from the example of the Research Team and from collaborative departmental experience. Enabling staff to conduct research to reflect on their own practice will only be successful if they feel confident and well supported.

Ultimately, research must be a means of seeking solutions – not creating problems with workload. Therefore, time must be specifically allocated to research within the CPD calendar – both to conduct it and to share outcomes. By allocating dedicated time for research, leaders can ensure that research is viewed as a positive tool for developing teachers’ autonomy, as well as for ensuring successful outcomes for students.

Summary of recommendations

  • Appoint a Research Lead to summarise and disseminate key existing research to staff, to help make teaching more evidence-informed
  • Start small, with a dedicated Research Team to model practitioner research to other staff
  • Build opportunities to share research into the CPD calendar to ensure that research feeds into practice.

References

Clark B, Giovanelli M and McCrae A (2018) The Lang-Lit Lab: Research and resources for English teachers.  Integrating English. Available at: https://www.integratingenglish.com/langlitlab/ (accessed 10 October 2018).

Department for Education (2017) Evidence-informed teaching: Evaluation of progress in England. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/evidence-informed-teaching-evaluation-of-progress-in-england (accessed 25 October 2018).

Nutley S, Davies H and Walter I (2007) Using Evidence: How Research can Inform Public Services. Bristol: Policy Press.

Stoll L (2017) Five challenges in moving towards evidence-informed practice. Impact. Available at: https://impact.chartered.college/article/stoll-five-challenges-evidence-informed-practice/ (accessed 23 October 2018).

Wiliam D (2013) Love the one you’re with: Improving professional development in schools. The Guardian, 1 July, 13. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/teacher-network/teacher-blog/2013/jul/01/schools-improving-professional-development-teaching (accessed 25 October 2018).