Creating a climate for inquiring minds
Educational research has taken some serious stick from practitioners. Its findings are widely viewed as cloudy, complex, contradictory and irrelevant to classroom practice.
As a professional researcher, I would like to see more teachers acting on research findings. So I welcomed the opportunity to join a National Foundation for Educational Research project focusing on how local education authorities can help schools use research. Our findings were encouraging.
We found that many teachers are using research, despite its negative image.
But they did say that the volume of material available was overwhelming.
Teachers also feel that they do not always have the confidence and skills to access findings.
So how did the teachers in our Local Government Association-sponsored study become aware of research? They used research summaries, newsletters and web links, ideally distributed by local education authority advisers. They participated in training programmes. For example, West Sussex developed an extensive MA training programme focusing on school-improvement issues.
Teachers felt their awareness of research had increased as a result.
They attended conferences. Teachers involved in Oldham's school- improvement project are invited to an annual residential conference where schools make presentations on their research involvement. Teachers also hear about research through presentations by researchers with an international reputation.
But academic language continues to be a barrier - a lot of research writing was off-putting, said interviewees. Teachers said they were unable to interpret complex statistical analyses and pointed out that research findings can lack a "real world" perspective. Some questioned whether or not research conducted elsewhere could apply to them.
Local education authorities played an important role in reducing the barriers. They assisted teachers with data interpretation and helped schools to identify their research priorities. This enabled teachers to identify findings that were most relevant to them. (Heads suggested that the type and locality of schools involved in research projects should be clearly stated in any report, so that its relevance to other schools can be judged.) A third method was to integrate research-based information from outside the authority with local knowledge. This brought in fresh ideas but also allowed teachers to focus on local issues. Teachers who wanted to make a difference often carried out a project themselves. But original investigations can be time-consuming. Some said they would like to conduct their own inquiry but were discouraged by their workload. If teachers did investigate an area of interest, they usually did so in their own time.
Heads also identified political reasons that prevented them from carrying out research. Initiatives were often pushed upon schools by central government regardless of whether they were supported by evidence. This left little room for schools to implement ideas based on their own research or findings from published research. Interviewees also reported a lack of official acknowledgement andor encouragement of research use within the profession. Some heads said more teachers would become involved in research if it were formally recognised by those who monitor and inspect schools.
The eight authorities selected - Birmingham, Bristol, Hammersmith and Fulham, Lancashire, Merthyr Tydfil, Oldham, Rochdale and West Sussex - played a key role in identifying, promoting and supporting school-based research. Several sought partnerships with universities and other educational organisations and this helped to identify funding streams for research projects.
Teacher-led research was seen as particularly beneficial. The fact that teachers generate data themselves means it has the greatest potential to impact on their teaching and their pupils' learning. But some teacher-researchers find they encounter another barrier when they want to disseminate their findings - lack of opportunity for discussion. They said that staff meetings tend to concern administrative issues andor government initiatives, leaving little time for debates about professional practice.
Some teachers also did not have the self-confidence to share their findings.
Teachers may feel that others will find fault with their work, or will not be interested. Teacher-to-teacher dissemination is very important and is more effective than researcher-to-teacher (top-down) dissemination because it is seen as more reliable and relevant. Several teachers said they had been inspired to use research after hearing other teachers talk about their experiences.
Our findings show that research is taking place in schools. Teachers are using findings to develop school-improvement strategies and teachers are using research to question their assumptions and reflect on their own practice. The use of research is providing schools and teachers with new challenges, insights and levels of understanding, while enhancing the quality of teaching and learning. But professional researchers have to take note of the criticisms of the way in which academic findings are presented.
Finally, it is important to acknowledge that the LEAs and schools in our study were under no obligation to become involved in research activity, but were doing so as a natural extension of their school improvement role. Their experience testifies to the positive benefits for pupils, teachers, schools and LEAs themselves.
This article is an edited and shortened version of a paper that appeared in Topic, Issue 31, published by NFER. To subscribe, contact firstname.lastname@example.org Tel: 01753 637002 The article is available free at www.topiconline.co.uk