Don’t be a research fundamentalist

There is already a backlash against research-informed teaching but a balanced approach will help schools to make the most of evidence, writes Tim Cain
25th January 2019, 12:00am
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Tim Cain


Don’t be a research fundamentalist

Research-informed teaching seems to have gained something of a bad reputation. And despite repeated urging from the Department for Education (DfE) that this is the approach schools should be taking, some teachers still resist the idea.

For instance, writing recently in Tes, headteacher Chris Dyson explained why he chooses to ignore research and approach school leadership in his own way. "As a head, my job is trying to match what I do to what is in front of me, not taking research and trying to match it to the people in front of me," he writes. And Dyson is certainly not the only one who wants to ignore the research: many teachers on Twitter seem to share this view.

Why would educators feel this way? I believe one reason is that there is a fundamentalist tendency in evidence-informed teaching, and it antagonises people.

'Unfounded opinion'

Specifically, there are three main problems with this tendency. First, it tells teachers that they must use research. For example, in his Manifesto for Evidence-based Education (1999) Rob Coe, the director of the Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring at Durham University, suggests that the alternative to "evidence" is "unfounded opinion".

Meanwhile, Estelle Morris, who chairs the University of York's Institute for Effective Education, argued in The Guardian in 2014 that evidence trumps "ideology".

But teachers do not, on the whole, work on the bases of "unfounded opinion" or "ideology". They operate mostly on the basis of the knowledge they have gained through their experiences of teaching and being taught, underpinned by their beliefs, values and expertise. Their many thousands of hours in the classroom enable them to develop personal theories about teaching, which are developed through reflection. These personal theories are much more nuanced and complex than unfounded opinion or ideology.

Second, the fundamentalist tendency tells teachers what research to use. Officially sanctioned research is experimental, usually randomised controlled trials (RCTs). Indeed, Ben Goldacre's influential report for the DfE, Building Evidence into Education (2013), was less about using evidence in schools than conducting RCTs, on the basis that "randomised trials are the best way to find out how well a new intervention works".

But "how well a new intervention works" isn't the only question worth asking, and RCTs are not the only form of useful research. Qualitative research and mixed methods are also relevant and helpful.

Finally, the fundamentalist tendency tells teachers how to use research, suggesting that it has to involve a linear, top-down process. For example, the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) guide, Putting Evidence to Work, advises headteachers to "identify a tight and specific area of focus", "determine a programme of activity based on existing evidence", "examine the fit and feasibility of interventions to the school context", "create a clear, logical, and well-specified implementation plan", and so on.

In this vision, research is used by school leaders to inform the planning and delivery of a "programme of activity". Training is provided for the teachers who implement the programme, and monitoring ensures that they do this properly. School leaders direct what research should be used and how; teachers do what they are told.

This approach feels rather authoritarian. Research in the US has shown that teachers there have felt bombarded by "research-based" programmes, policies and commercial products to the point where "'research-based' is little more than a rhetorical device for wielding power and/or enacting seduction" (Nicholson-Goodman and Garman, 2007). As a consequence, some teachers become cynical and disbelieving of all research claims.

So, this fundamentalist tendency might explain much of the backlash against calls for increasingly research-informed practice. However, it thankfully does not have a monopoly on how research is really being used in schools.

Flexible approach

Over a five-year period, my colleagues and I have studied how teachers and school leaders engage with, and use, academic research to improve what they are doing. Our newly published findings from nine research projects found a much broader range of research use than the existing debate acknowledges.

What does the evidence say? And what, if anything, does it tell us about how to counteract the bad reputation research has gained within some circles? To start with, teachers who took part in our studies did not believe they must use research.

Although many were optimistic about its potential, none of our participants believed that research was a "silver bullet" that would transform their schools.

Nevertheless, they chose to read and implement research findings, and some became better teachers as a consequence.

Most were also not wedded to RCTs as the only rigorous form of research. On the contrary, there was some evidence that the early-career teachers in one of our projects remembered and valued research that gave them more information about children in coastal communities - ie, the children they taught - the most. This research told them about children's home backgrounds, future prospects and educational underachievement. Such research could not, in principle, be done via RCTs, but used other methods including longitudinal studies.

Moreover, we found little evidence of an authoritarian, top-down approach being used. Rather, school leaders used research to encourage debate among their staff. Many schools in our research had "distributed" leadership around research use, by appointing coordinators to generate engagement with research among staff.

Some schools were involved in research projects, often funded by the EEF and, in some cases, investigating questions arising from their practice. Some funded or part-funded staff to undertake postgraduate study, while some encouraged action research projects for groups of staff.

We also found examples of teachers forming informal research reading groups. Some schools held an annual research conference, typically involving external speakers and teacher researchers. One held a research seminar series and another employed a "researcher in residence" - a university tutor who works regularly in the school.

Schools also funded staff to attend external conferences and thereby discover new ideas from research.

Rather than positioning class teachers as operatives carrying out other people's decisions, school leaders used their engagement with research to build what one headteacher called "a thinking school". In this approach, teachers used research from cognitive psychology, for example, to understand how pupils learn and to inform their teaching in more general ways than simply implementing programmes.

The attraction of the fundamentalist tendency is that it sounds rigorous. It promises certainty through unwavering adherence to established procedures. But a fundamentalist approach to teaching is usually inappropriate. Teaching is flexible, not an exact science. When using research, it helps to bear this in mind. Otherwise, as Dyson quite rightly says, you end up taking research and trying to match it to the people in front of you.

Tim Cain is a professor in education at Edge Hill University

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