Magnify students' research skills

12th April 2013 at 01:00
Nurture young minds by inspiring independent enquiry. Words by Helen Ward, illustrations by Mick Marston

Turning up at school for your first day as a teacher can be an intimidating experience. You thought you knew the education system inside out from your 13 or so years as a student. But only now, as an adult, do you see that behind a teacher's polished classroom performance lies a series of strings, wheels and pulleys making it work. At break time on that first day, even braving the staffroom can take courage.

That feeling of transgression soon dissipates. You quickly slot into the teacher role and retain only dim memories of school as it is experienced by the students. But that can be a shame because remembering what it feels like to be in that position can be really helpful for teachers.

Today, the use of "student voice" - giving students a say in the running of the school - is becoming more common, although the practice varies considerably. 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.

But the greatest surprise, according to those who have trialled such schemes, is that students sometimes identify problems - and resolve them scientifically - where a legion of teachers, governors, parents and even Ofsted had failed to notice any difficulty at all.

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 - bitterly cold in the winter - for 15-20 minutes. It had not occurred to staff that this was a problem.

Students did not complain, however. Instead they 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 where children would eat in sittings, as those who have school dinners do.

The bill now has to be passed by midday supervisors, who will be asked for their views before it is trialled. Further research will monitor the project and the impact of the changes.

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 teach research skills as one of our seven key skills," she says. "We believe it helps children to become more skilled, organised, independent learners. We have feedback from secondary schools saying how competent these children are as learners; that they have a methodical, structured approach to learning."

The school has been working in this way for more than five years, spurred on by Vernon's work with a cluster of local schools aimed at making the transition from primary to secondary more fluid. Key findings were that the curriculum and teaching strategies needed to be similar and that all learning should be purposeful. Research skills are an essential part of adult life and can be taught at secondary. So why not start in primary?

Vernon sought guidance from Lancaster University on training students how to do research. And she believes her staff have also benefited. "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, something only a few adults have the time or energy to undertake. 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.

"Students (acting) as researchers emanates from the children's rights framework," Kellett 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."

She adds: "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: "My starting point is to teach them about the elements that have to be there to embrace the core principles of good research."

These, she says, are threefold: first, they have to think sceptically, to question and not simply accept things, "even the most common things, otherwise we'd still think the Earth was flat". Second, they have to collect data in a systematic way. And third, their research has to be ethical.

"One question would be, 'Is your research going to cause any harm?' 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. But very soon children will say 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 very much 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.

"We had some research training sessions in school time but did a lot of work ourselves outside school," he says. "I definitely didn't have the skills to do this before. If someone had come along and said 'do some research on internet safety' I wouldn't have been able to do the interviews or make a questionnaire. 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. "I liked being able to choose what to do when you start and having a really long time so the work can be spread out," Alex says. "When we go to university we'll be able to say that at the age of 12 we had our work published in a book. It's a good thing to have on our CVs."

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.

Flutter 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 there are also many benefits to be had from teachers steering students towards research on subjects the school is interested in.

"You can start in a small way, with a small group, and gradually encourage others to become involved. Get different projects started, then you start an action research cycle," she says. "By researching something, you are trying and checking what works. It goes from being a one-off project to becoming part of your school practice."

She believes teachers should work with their students on projects. "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."


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

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

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.



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 - Authentic Biology - to four more schools. Students from Tapton School in Sheffield are working on genes linked to heart disease. Students at St Paul's Way Trust School in London are researching diabetes in the local population. Students at Peter Symonds College, a sixth form in Winchester, are adopting experimental approaches to topics such as Alzheimer's. And students at Cotham School in Bristol are 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.

"When the project started we had 90 students in total studying AS and A2 biology and 50 students involved in the project. We now have 150 students at AS and 50 at A2. Of these, 170 are involved in the project. As a school, 65 per cent of our students now go on to study STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects at university."


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.

"The nature of all these partnerships is quite different. I believe adults and young people should learn together. It's a reciprocal process," he says. "Education in its deepest and richest sense should be a conversation between the generations, not about one generation 'delivering' information to another."

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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