Emily Seeber, head of science at Bedales School in Hampshire, explains how she uses research in her school
Research-led practice has become the “gold standard” of being a professional teacher. We are expected to engage with the literature, know what the latest study says, and change our practice in response to suggestions from research. And there are now a growing number of books published by and for teachers that summarise key findings in the literature.
But beware: reading research in an accessible way, transformed into “teaching tips” informed by the findings, is great, but without reading the original studies yourself, you cannot take account of the limitations. And there are three main ones: context, scope and bias.
Context is critical: just because something works well in a mixed comprehensive in Birmingham doesn’t mean that it’ll work well in a rural girls’ school in Suffolk. The Singaporean approach might transform your maths teaching, but, equally, it might not. And, if it doesn’t, it’s not your fault. When reading, identify the context. Is it relevant to your own? If not, then find supporting research that aligns better with your context (use the references, or search for papers citing the paper you are reading).
Studies come in all shapes and sizes, and bigger isn’t always better. An in-depth qualitative study of an intervention that carefully explores the reasons why it worked might be more useful than a massive quantitative study. Whatever you’re reading, find the reasons for the intervention’s success and reflect on whether those reasons are compatible with your context.
Studies don’t just have a real-world context, they have an intellectual one, too. Is the analysis drawn from a constructivist point of view? Does the author assume that the purpose of science education is developing an understanding of the nature of science, or the content of science (a major debate)? And how does this influence their argument? In high-quality research papers, the authors will state their bias.
So how do you navigate all of this? My advice is to treat no study as an island.
The best way to judge impartially is to read a range of studies within the area you are focusing on. Of course, that can be extremely time-consuming. But it’s worth sharing out three or four papers across your department and synthesising the findings from each study before making any radical curriculum changes.
It’s OK to reject most as interesting but irrelevant. You know your students and colleagues better than anyone; if you think the ideas aren’t right for your context, you’re probably right.
However, if you are rejecting everything, you might need to either seek out research from another source or question whether you are really as willing to try new things as you say you are.
When you start your journey into consumption, you may well be reading studies suggested by colleagues or at conferences you have attended. And they will be discrete “islands” at first. But, by reading more, and reading critically, you’ll start joining the dots.
Engaging with the cutting-edge of teaching is extremely rewarding, and it certainly makes us better, more reflective practitioners. But we need to be wary of being driven by the latest, sexiest study, or shiny new book for teachers. We need to do what we tell the students to do; not accept anything at face value, dig up the evidence, and think for ourselves.