Make the most of what's in front of you

School-based research can be of great use to teachers and may lead to improved behaviour and results. It's time to go 'bottom-up'

Most teachers will conduct a bit of personal, class-based research at some point. It will rarely be formally recognised, you will hardly ever get allocated time to complete it and it will almost never reach the light of day and be published.

According to Raphael Wilkins' book Research Engagement for School Development, this lack of investment in class-based research is a huge oversight. He claims that the best "research-informed practice" is bottom-up, not top-down. So, rather than government throwing down edicts, teachers and schools should be throwing them upwards.

The evidence suggests that Wilkins has a point. Certainly, there is a lot of school-based research that has revolutionised the way we teach. Consider Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam's work on the concept of Assessment for Learning, first put forward in their booklet Inside the Black Box in 1998. This showed that improving the quality of teachers' classroom assessment helps teachers and students in the educational process - and improves grades.

Then there is John Hattie's Visible Learning, a meta-analysis of more than 800 studies over 15 years, which found that what works well for students from a learning perspective is similar to what works best for teachers.

All this research started in the classroom and was led by teachers. It heralded huge changes in the way students were taught, better methods of learning and increased attainment.

Individual schools have found success in class-based research, too. The Sweyne Park School in Rayleigh, England, is an example of a school transformed through leadership in teacher-led research projects. The school was created when Sweyne and Park schools merged in 1997. Both had collapsing rolls. The principal, Kate Spiller (now deceased), decided to adopt professional development and research as tools to unite staff and address the school's problems.

She encouraged teachers to develop their own in-school research. Class investigations were conducted on how to improve the self-esteem and confidence of low achievers. The school moved away from a teacher-led approach towards more student-led learning. It now prides itself on being a "thinking school", using mind mapping and Edward de Bono's thinking hats, and monitoring the effectiveness of teaching through regular evaluations by students, which determine what aspects of lessons are good, bad or interesting. In 2010, it was rated outstanding by the schools' inspectorate Ofsted and exam results rose to above average.

In my former school, we embraced the benefits of in-school research. Over the course of six months, staff and students were surveyed to reform an ineffective detention system. The existing system enabled students to serve their detention on another day if they missed their first appointment, which they frequently did. Feedback from the survey showed that students did not think the consequences of missing a detention were serious enough to change their behaviour. This research, alongside staff meetings, led to a new penalty being introduced: there would be no second-chance detention, and if a student missed a detention, their punishment would be to stay behind for an hour instead of the usual 20 minutes. The effectiveness of this policy was then monitored using the website, which enabled us to tweak and monitor the system through questionnaires.

The result was that students and teachers felt more united, students were more likely to attend their detentions and behaviour in general improved.

The school was also open to my own research. I am a new teacher coming to the end of my master's degree in leadership, and I am researching how the language used by teachers can motivate or demotivate students. A key question is whether students respond better to statements that warn of the consequences of not completing a task (negative) or to those that outline the positive consequences if they do complete the task. The work is based on Carol Dweck's research on growth versus fixed mindsets and how they impact on learning. I received a great deal of support at my former school, with senior leaders and staff all stepping forward to be interviewed by me, and offering suggestions of how they could help.

Keys to success

The support of senior management is likely to dictate whether a school-based project will work or not. Wilkins' book suggests some other elements that are just as crucial for success:

- The project has to link to the school's existing priorities.

- It will ideally draw on academic or local government support, or the support of fellow schools.

- Results must be distributed to staff so that they can learn from the findings. You should also share the results as widely as possible externally, with the permission of the school.

- It should be a continuing process, relevant to how the school works and its future aims.

Wilkins also believes that dramatic action needs to be taken by governments to encourage schools to be "research engaged". A recent report by Celia Hoyles, Michael Reiss and Sarah Tough from the University of London's Institute of Education, agrees. "The (UK) Department for Education and the government (have) a responsibility to ensure consistent support," says Reiss, professor of science education and pro-director of research and development.

"However, much as doctors need to continue to develop professionally by keeping updated with practice, so do teachers."

Classroom-based research is, then, of considerable value, even if it does take considerable time. Yet schools, at least in the UK, gain no credence from being evidence-based in their practice, and engaging in research does not feature in any official criteria that judges a school's success. Those in favour of school-based learning stress that this needs to happen soon, as research-engaged schools are contributing to the education of the future.

Cornelia Lucey is a former English coordinator at a school in London, England, and is currently completing research at the University of London's Institute of Education

In short

- Class-based research is an undervalued part of the education agenda.

- In many examples, class-based research has worked for schools and individuals and has influenced the overall educational strategy of a country.

- Several factors ensure that "bottom-up" class-based research works, including: scrutinising the evidence so that it is of the highest quality; ensuring that the research is well structured; and gathering evidence and making recordings in a way that makes the information useful and accessible for future readers.

- Guidelines from the British Educational Research Association for best ethical practice include: asking for permission from the organisation you work for; requesting permission from parents or participants through a letter, giving them the chance to opt out; ensuring openness and disclosure of the research; and ensuring privacy.

- www.survey is a useful tool for gathering feedback and conducting question-based research.

What else

For more on this topic, follow these links to the TESConnect site:

- Educational research - useful classroom tool or pseudo science? Teacher Tom Bennett gives his view. bit.lytomresearch

- Tips on research for beginners. bit.lyresearch


- More advice on how to conduct class research. bit.lytipsforteachers


- Hoyles, C., Reiss, M. and Tough, S. (2011) Supporting STEM in Schools and Colleges in England: the role of research (a report for Universities UK, Institute of Education, University of London).

- Dweck, C. (2007) Mindset: the new psychology of success (Ballantine Books).

- Wilkins, R. (2011) Research Engagement for School Development (Institute of Education, University of London).

- British Educational Research Association (2011) Ethical Guidelines for Educational Research.

- Stoll, L. (2010) "Connecting learning communities: capacity building for systemic change", pp. 469-484 in Hargreaves, A., Lieberman, A., Fullan, M., et al, Second International Handbook of Educational Change (Springer).

- Mourshed, M., Chijioke, C. and Barber, M. (2010) How the World's Most Improved School Systems Keep Getting Better (McKinsey and Company).

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