Magnify students' research skills

19th April 2013 at 01:00
Nurture young minds by inspiring independent enquiry. Words by Helen Ward, illustrations by Mick Marston

As a teacher, it is all too easy to get stuck in the master-pupil relationship of one-way traffic. This is unfortunate, as students have a lot to offer from their unique perspective about how a school is run and how education is presented - they just need the conduit to flow information in the upwards direction.

Thankfully, schools are beginning to realise this. The use of "student voice" - giving students a say in the running of the school - is becoming more common. In some schools, it has evolved beyond consultation into training students to carry out research. Those involved cite many advantages: developing children's critical thinking skills, giving them practice in speaking and listening, and providing feedback for staff based on actionable data rather than anecdote.

Caroline Vernon, head of Victoria Junior School in Barrow-in-Furness, has become a champion of using students as researchers. She has scrapped the school council and replaced it with a school parliament, attended by all 220 students once a week. The latest "bill" to be presented is about children who bring a packed lunch.

The children currently line up outside to enter the food hall. Those at the front of the queue have only a two-minute wait. But those at the back can be standing outside for 15-20 minutes. It had not occurred to staff that this was a problem.

To find a solution, students questioned their classmates, carried out observations to discover the precise length of time children had to stand in line and interviewed midday supervisors to find out why the system had been set up in this way. The result was a plan for a pilot scheme in which children would eat in sittings, as those that have school dinners do.

Vernon concedes that this may sound like a lot of work for an apparently simple, even unimportant, issue. But she says that setting expectations about evidence and presentation feeds into more far-reaching educational goals than merely keeping children warm at lunchtime.

"We believe it helps children to become more skilled and more organised independent learners. We have feedback from secondary schools saying how competent these children are as learners," she says.

Vernon says it can help teachers, too. "Teachers and teaching assistants all carry out action research for performance management," she says. "A research culture is valued here."

Distil the research process

At the highest level of research, it takes at least three years to complete a doctorate. But is it possible to replicate a similar style of training for, say, a 13-year-old in a form that still has value?

Mary Kellett, author of How to Develop Children as Researchers, is professor of childhood and youth at The Open University and head of the Children's Research Centre, which works with schools to run training sessions and provide materials on research methods. She says: "Children see the world differently from adults and have a right to contribute their knowledge through valid and original research and for that to be heard. In doing the research, not only do children generate that knowledge, but it is also enhancing their learning in quite significant ways because they are engaging in higher order thinking. They are learning to be systematic and ethical. And they are developing communication skills."

Kellett argues that just as adults undertaking research are trained, so children should be also. She believes the key is to distil the research process into three areas: to think skeptically; to collect data in a systematic way; and to ensure the research is ethical.

"One question would be, 'Is your research going to cause any harm?'" says Kellett. "A fictional example would be a couple of boys who want to find out whether there is a correlation between a person's weight and running speed. They want to weigh everyone and then time them in the 100m. An ethical test will help them realise that people don't want to be weighed in public, they could be humiliated, so it would be doing harm."

Kellett's training is carried out not only through direct teaching, but through games and role play, with the topics covered including methods of collecting data, how to construct fair questionnaires, interviewing skills and how to construct an activity in order to observe it.

Self-directed learning

Jemma Lusty, lead professional for English at Lincroft School in Bedford, worked with Kellett to help 18 students run year-long research projects, starting in Year 6. "It was the students' choice as to what to research," she says. "We make sure pupil voice is heard in the school by having lots of surveys and school committees. But this was different. This was about giving children those skills and giving them ownership of learning about something in great detail."

Ross Lowe, now 12, chose to research how safe people feel when using the internet. He drafted questionnaires, distributed them and received replies from 27 adults and 27 children. His report, available on the Children's Research Centre website (bit.lyWFYan5), found that 17 out of 27 adults were worried about what their children do on the internet.

"I definitely didn't have the skills to do this before," he says. "I think it is really important for children to learn because you do more research in school as you get older."

Another project, by Alex Mann, 12, and Joe Liley, 13, investigating children's worries (bit.lyYqwTpw), will be included in a book soon to be published by The Open University.

A culture of collaboration

Yet the practice of using students as researchers is still far from widespread in schools, according to Julia Flutter, researcher at the University of Cambridge and co-author with the late Jean Rudduck of Consulting Pupils. She believes teachers may feel intimidated by the amount of organisation and skills apparently required. She recommends that schools interested in such projects should contact universities for guidance and investigate online resources. She agrees that models allowing students to choose their own projects have value, but suggests that there are also many benefits to be had from teachers steering students towards research on subjects the school is interested in.

"Teacher voice is important," she says. "Encouraging teachers, particularly those not directly involved, to be part of the process, is important. It should be something students and teachers do collaboratively."

'Authentic Biology' research spurs science students to further study

A pioneering project allows sixth-form students to do real-world research. The scheme, supported by the Wellcome Trust, was set up by Dr David Colthurst, a teacher at Simon Langton Grammar School for Boys in Canterbury, after his wife was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) five years ago.

"I wondered if I could combine my experience of 15 years as a research biochemist and 15 years as a science teacher to carry out novel research into a protein implicated in the development of MS," he says. "The award from the Wellcome Trust allowed us to purchase laboratory equipment and set up some fairly sophisticated DNA and protein analysis techniques in the school."

A dozen students were then trained by postgraduates and postdoctoral students at the nearby University of Kent to carry out specific experiments. The trained students became team leaders and university staff helped them to train 50 more students.

After three years, more than 100 students had become involved and Colthurst won another Wellcome Trust award, which allowed him to spread the model to four more schools: Tapton School in Sheffield is working on genes linked to heart disease; St Paul's Way Trust School in London is researching diabetes in the local population; Peter Symonds College, a sixth form in Winchester, is adopting experimental approaches to topics such as Alzheimer's; and Cotham School in Bristol is researching genes linked to arthritis and cancer.

Colthurst is delighted. "At Simon Langton, there have been benefits for both staff and students," he says. "As teachers have become involved in using modern genetic techniques, they have become more comfortable in teaching them. And interest among the students has soared."


- Kellett, M. (2005) How to Develop Children as Researchers (Paul Chapman).

- Fielding, M. and Bragg, S. (2003) Students as Researchers: making a difference (Pearson).

- Flutter, J. and Rudduck, J. (2004) Consulting Pupils: what's in it for schools? (Routledge).

- Watch primary students acting as researchers at Victoria Junior School in a Teachers TV video.


- Consulting Pupils About Teaching and Learning, General Teaching Council for England summary of projects (2005).

Patterns of partnership

Michael Fielding, emeritus professor at the University of London's Institute of Education, has developed a framework that sets out a range of ways in which students and staff can work together.

1. Students as a data source - staff utilise information about student progress and well-being.

Classroom: lesson planning takes account of student test scores and other data. Unitteamdepartment: samples of student work are shared across the staff group.

School: a student attitude survey is conducted.

2. Students as active respondents - staff invite student dialogue to deepen learningprofessional decisions.

Classroom: engaging with and adapting explicit assessment criteria.

Unitteamdepartment: the team agenda is based on students' viewsevaluations.

School: students are on staff appointment panels.

3. Students as co-enquirers - staff take the lead role with high-profile, active student support. Classroom: how can we develop more independence in learning?

Unitteamdepartment: student evaluation of, for example, a history unit of work.

School: there is a joint evaluation of the current system of reports.

4. Students as knowledge creators - students take the lead role with active

staff support.

Classroom: development of student- led reviews.

Unitteamdepartment: is the playground buddy system working?

School: what causes low-level bullying in class?

5. Students as joint authors - students and staff decide on a joint course of action

Classroom: co-construct, for example, a maths lesson.

Unitteamdepartment: develop a research lesson for the department.

School: do a joint student and staff learning walk.

6. Intergenerational learning as lived democracy - shared commitment toresponsibility for the common good.

Classroom: conduct a student-led action research project with old people in

the community.

Unitteamdepartment: set up classes as critical friends in a thematic conference.

School: have a whole-school meeting to decide a key issue.

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