If teachers cannot be persuaded to reflect on and develop their own thinking, "the search for improvement may well be pointless", Sheila Riddell and Sally Brown of Stirling University say. Professors Riddell and Brown will present their findings to a national seminar run by the Centre for Educational Sociology at Edinburgh University.
Policy-makers have to explore issues that matter to teachers, they state. The Scottish Office has focused on strong leadership, basic skills, orderly and secure environments and frequent assessment of pupil progress. But change will only take place, the researchers conclude, once the emphasis is transferred to how teachers make sense of their classroom.
Having studied four different types of secondaries in depth, Dr Riddell and Professor Brown doubt whether "relatively crude and management-oriented variables" make sense to teachers. At a broader level, the Government's school effectiveness campaign often ignored social class, an omission that prevented a full understanding of how schools viewed their pupils.
There were significant differences between successful schools with middle-class catchments and those in deprived areas. Classroom activities were more varied, with pupils engaged in interactive work such as group discussions. Passive activities, such as silent reading, were more common in schools with a low socio-economic intake.
The researchers suggest: "This might have been used as a control device, since teachers in these schools were clearly anxious about pupil behaviour and felt overwhelmed by the number of pupils with learning difficulties. The greater use of interactive work in the higher socio-economic status schools might reflect the fact that teachers were able to assume certain levels of pupil motivation and commitment and had better resources available to assist less able pupils. "
The Stirling study found that high-performing schools underscored pupils in English and maths at the end of S2, placing few pupils in the above-average band. Low-performing schools, however, were reluctant to place lower-attaining pupils in the lowest ability band.
Policy-makers should start "where the practitioners are now", not from ideas about "what will work", the researchers conclude.