Research plays a vital role in improving education practice

8th July 2011 at 01:00
Educational psychologists in Fife are confident that using a research approach can make an impact in the classroom

How do we know what works in the classroom and, perhaps more importantly, why it works and how it works? Simple questions which are easily overlooked when we try something new and innovative.

Many teachers are instinctively revising their practice but do not have the time to "write up the findings". However, the place of research in everyday practice is more important now than it has ever been. The days of research being confined to the realms of universities are long gone. In Fife, this view has been challenged over a number of years as educational psychologists have worked closely with other educators and partners to make research part of everyday practice.

As local authorities are faced with difficult decisions about how best to meet children's services priorities within a limited budget, the need for an evidence base in everybody's practice (from the classroom to the boardroom) is even more important so that we know what works and why.

Research and enquiry can provide a rigorous insight to these questions in an era where quality improvement and self-evaluation are a key focus for schools and education services. We can think about this at several different levels from the individual stakeholder to the local authority. Research can generate creative means of engaging those who are "hard to reach" as well as address the validity of stakeholder feedback. For schools, it can provide a robust methodology to Building the Curriculum 5 in terms of sampling and triangulating assessment from a variety of sources. For the local authority, it can ensure greater efficiency by establishing an evidence base of what is already happening and how effective it is before rushing in to try something new.

By setting research questions in a professional context (action research), practitioners develop their own actions in order to improve outcomes for children and young people. Bob Burden, in his article "Illuminative Evaluation" (Frameworks for Practice in Educational Psychology, 2008) provides a useful framework of enquiry for education staff and partners to think about research. Rather than be overwhelmed by a perceived lack of knowledge or skills in research methodology, Burden suggests some key basic project questions:

Who most wants change to occur and why?

How will anyone know if it has been successful?

What is happening now on a day-to-day basis?

What data has already been collected?

Where do we go from here?

It is answers to these types of questions that give us confidence in what works and why. Only by ongoing reflection and resolving the "So what?" question will we get meaningful and measurable service improvement.

This approach to research is a far cry from the more traditional view where research is seen as additional to everyday practice, carried out by university academics who are likely to be a step removed from the classroom. That view can often be a barrier to staff considering undertaking a project if they think they do not have the specialist skills, time or confidence to engage in the work.

There is an emerging opportunity now with Donaldson's recommendations on teacher education to engage in collaborative school-based research with universities. This would represent a step forward in gaining knowledge in schools where we can combine an evidence base drawn from the everyday classroom with a university perspective. All that can be more readily achieved by providing a framework that is grounded in what is already going on.

From large-scale surveys and investigations across Fife to smaller-scale projects in schools, educational psychologists have linked with colleagues to help make research relevant to everyday practice. This research has had a positive impact on outcomes for children and young people, contributing to:

- positive developments in school culture and ethos;

- increased levels of confidence and resilience in pupils; and

- increased levels of attainment and achievement.

More specifically, educational psychologists have worked with partners on projects that have resulted in reduced referrals to the Children's Reporter; reduced waiting times for assessment and diagnosis for autistic spectrum disorders; and increased school staff confidence in managing low- level behaviour and discipline.

More recently, a framework involving educational psychologists, school managers, teaching staff and teaching unions has been developed to support school staff in meeting the needs of pupils who exhibit severely challenging behaviour.

A move to increase staff awareness about and capacity in the use of research approaches has led Fife to establish an education service research steering group. Teachers, educational psychologists and education management are developing guidance and will offer support to those wishing to generate ideas about teaching and learning in their classrooms. Key to this will be the sharing of their findings with pupils, parents, colleagues, and members of the educational community.

The challenge for an education service is how we ensure that evidence about good practice becomes good practice. Having a strategy which addresses this becomes particularly acute within the current political and economic climate. Placing research and enquiry at the heart of classroom practice can support Curriculum for Excellence, and, as Fife Psychological Service has found, demonstrates what works in meeting education service priorities.

Educational psychologists are well placed to share their research skills to deliver on key sustainable outcomes for both education services and Scottish Government.

Sarah Hulme is an educational psychologist with Fife Council, and Jennifer King is depute principal psychologist.

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