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'If research is to be beneficial for schools, teachers need to know how to handle it'

If the government wants research to bear fruit in schools, there’s going to be a pitifully poor harvest – unless staff know what's worth picking...

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If the government wants research to bear fruit in schools, there’s going to be a pitifully poor harvest – unless staff know what's worth picking...

I would love to believe that government efforts to help schools to use research effectively will bear fruit, however low it may be dangling…the fruit that is. But seriously, I do.

Unlike most new ideas hurled at schools and teachers by politicians, it is eminently sensible. In my own work, I spend hours seeking out and even reading what credible research has to say about a particular issue, in order to offer sound advice. The ResearchED movement is an admirably professional initiative and there are researchers out there carrying out studies that have the potential to help teachers do their job better and to improve schools.

My educated palette salivates at the mere thought of all those rich pickings. Surely it’s only prudent to find ways to connect the two?

But here’s the thing. One of the reasons I have to put in so much time and effort searching and reading is because gullibility is far more common in this field than credibility. Schools are far more likely to find a fat, juicy, truly ugly fruit shoved in front of their faces than a peach.

Assuming you’re as determined as I am, then here are some useful things to know and look out for which years of conscientious, if dismally dull reading, have taught me. 

Research the researchers first. Get as clear and accurate a picture as possible in your own mind of the individual or organisation publishing the research. Publication alone used to bring with it a relatively trustworthy stamp of credibility, but that was before thinktanks and the infinite slush pile arrived. Writing elsewhere recently, I was reprimanded and corrected by a contributor, who pointed me to research countering my view – “research” that turned out to be a self-published e-book I couldn’t even access because it was behind the author’s own paywall.

There’s more to research than a laptop and an opinion. The internet has made it possible for almost anyone to publish material that looks succulent enough on the outside, without necessarily containing anything worth getting your teeth into.

Some years ago a very high profile “guru” visited a company I was working for, seeking sponsorship. I remember at the end of the meeting asking them if they could send me anything they’d published for me to read in full. They visibly blanched and then reeled off a list of excuses about being incredibly busy, but weren’t able to tell me about anything at all they’d written.

As an academic writer, I was really puzzled. I know how keen authors are to publicise their books. I was so intrigued that I followed up the meeting by searching for their work. I found plenty of self-published online material, blogs and even newspaper articles, but not one, single peer-reviewed academic paper of any kind, anywhere. This person was assessing and teaching postgraduates but had apparently never published anything themselves.

Genuinely successful individuals earn reputations and often publishers, but it’s important to understand where thinktanks – and NGOs, too – are coming from, because, to put it as delicately as I can, some of them are not especially frank about their motives. Indelicately: lobbyists are not researchers.

Let’s take an example that I found in one recent high-profile thinktank report. You should smell a particularly pungent, rotting rodent when any report refers you back to earlier research for something crucial to its argument. It’s a cardinal sin that I’ve learned to watch out for. In this recent report – which, as it happens, was about disadvantaged children – this reference was central to a calculation upon which the main arguments were based.

Never fall for the trap, because that’s what they want you to do. They know hardly anyone will care that much to traipse back out into the infinite slush pile, or library, find a copy of their earlier report and wade through its hundreds of pages to find the vital information, because I assure you that the footnote in the paper you started with will make sure not to send you directly to the relevant page in the previous paper.

On this occasion, after tracking it down and wading up to my neck in it, I was so astonished at the way their calculation had been made I had to contact some real researchers I work with to ask them if I was dreaming, or if the thinktank really had done it this way. I even double-checked and asked another educational research academic whose opinion I value if I’d got it right.

I promise you, the way they had done that calculation, central to their headline grabbing report, would make any experienced teacher collapse with laughter. Which is especially worrying when you consider the report in its entirety was aimed at persuading the profession to do better for disadvantaged children and was widely covered in the media.

If the government wants research to bear fruit in schools, there’s going to be a pitifully poor harvest until many more school leaders and teachers learn how to handle it.

Joe Nutt is an educational consultant and author.

To read more columns by Joe, view his back catalogue.

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