Best Practice - Teachers urged to get together to put research to the test

11th October 2013 at 01:00
Form `journal clubs' to examine evidence, says science writer

Academics and teachers in the UK are encouraging their colleagues to use new ways of collaborating to make education research more relevant to the classroom.

The gap between university education departments and schools has been apparent for years. But now it is hoped that "journal clubs" - which are often used by medical practitioners to evaluate research - and online social media could bring the two closer together.

Ben Goldacre, a British doctor, campaigner against the misuse of science and statistics, and best-selling author of books such as Bad Science, has called for teachers to take the idea into the mainstream of education.

"Research is no use if it is published in an academic journal. Research only matters if it gets put into practice, if it gets used by you to change what you do for the good of children," he said.

Dr Goldacre, who earlier this year wrote a paper for the Department for Education called "Building evidence into education", noted that teachers in Singapore and the Chinese city of Shanghai were running journal clubs, and suggested that British teachers could do the same.

"In journal clubs they get a piece of research and then they discuss its strengths and weaknesses," Dr Goldacre told TES. "They pick holes, they talk about whether they would apply it to their practice and if they don't want to, they say why - why they think it is rubbish or why it is not relevant to them."

But Dr Goldacre did not need to point all the way to East Asia: the Science Teaching Journal Club has been running in the UK for more than two years.

The club uses Twitter to allow science teachers to participate in hour- long online meetings where they discuss a preselected academic paper. As many as 140 people have taken part at any one time, and research topics covered in the 20 meetings to date have included literacy in science and the impact of teacher subject knowledge on student achievement.

Alom Shaha - who founded the club with fellow physics teacher, Alby Reid - said that the internet was enabling the development of teacher networks that would have been impossible a generation ago.

"You might be in a department where you are the only enthusiastic, keen teacher," said Mr Shaha, who teaches at Camden School for Girls in London. "But you get on Twitter and you are going to meet hundreds of others, and that is where you share information, ideas and resources."

Access all areas

One problem for the club has been finding research that is freely available to all participants. "Most academic journals aren't open access so it has been quite difficult to find papers that we can legally use," Mr Shaha said. "That has got to change."

Robert Coe, director of Durham University's Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring, said he supported such initiatives but feared they might struggle to find useful studies.

"A lot of the research out there either isn't very relevant, isn't very good or isn't very accessible," said the academic, who used to be a maths teacher. "I don't think I would want to see this as a problem that teachers have to solve. The research end has to do its bit as well."

Michael Gove, the education secretary, made a similar point in a speech last month when he criticised education academics for their "poor" research "on how children actually learn". He encouraged teachers to take "control of their profession's intellectual life".

Professor Coe said that feedback from teacher journal clubs could be used to decide what future education research would cover. But he thought that teachers should be helped to interpret research, and remained cautious about the difference the clubs could make.

The academic advised on and contributed to the research "toolkit" for teachers developed by charities the Sutton Trust and the Education Endowment Foundation in 2011. He warned: "Summarising evidence and making it accessible to people is a very small first step in a much longer process."

But Mr Shaha said that his journal club had produced useful "take-home messages" for teachers on issues such as practical work and testing. "The really popular meetings are the ones where teachers think `I have taken part in this journal club and have learned something that I can now go and apply in lessons'," he said, adding that he was optimistic about the future.

"We will look back and see how online communities have transformed the teaching profession," Mr Shaha said. "I absolutely believe it. We are going to see more of this."

Find out more about the Science Teaching Journal Club at


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