Taking the guesswork out of education

5th September 2014 at 01:00
As the idea of teacher-led research gains ground, pioneers in the movement reveal how to put it into practice in your own school

Education seems more susceptible to new fads - or initiatives, as they are also termed - than most professions. So you would be forgiven for greeting "school-based educational research", the latest modish phrase in the blogosphere, with a degree of scepticism.

But don't be too quick to judge - this one feels different. It promises to be the anti-gimmick, a medicine that will cure us teachers of ever again being tempted to dabble in VAK (visual, auditory and kinaesthetic) learning styles, thinking hats, mind mapping or whatever else is gobbling up the CPD budget that year. Most importantly, it promises to put the power over how we teach into our own hands.

This is because school-based educational research poses some of the most fundamental questions that can be asked of a teacher: how do we know that what we are teaching is actually having a beneficial effect on our students? Where is the evidence? And, if there is evidence, how transferable and testable is the intervention?

Some would argue that teachers have already been answering these questions for years: collecting data in markbooks and spreadsheets on the classes they teach, embedding tried-and-tested learning strategies into their schemes of work and, above all, becoming increasingly adept at using summative assessment to shape the delivery of their courses.

But this new movement to actively and objectively build evidence into education seeks to go further. Its supporters want nothing less than to transform teaching into what the Department for Education calls "a truly evidence-based profession".

A growing band of classroom practitioners is already signed up, all trying to put educational research at the heart of school and teacher development. Their efforts have been informed by the work of experienced academics such as Professor James Tooley at Newcastle University, Professor Daniel Willingham at the University of Virginia in the US, Durham University's Professor Rob Coe and Dr Ben Goldacre of Bad Science fame, among many others.

Advocates of school-based educational research argue that this approach to learning not only challenges insidious "pedagogical" orthodoxies that are based on little more than intuition and fashion, but also contributes to the ongoing professionalisation of teaching.

So how should a school go about transforming itself from a passive recipient of other people's ideas into a generator and distributor of its own findings?

The 10 points below could act as a blueprint. They have been written after seeking advice from a number of experienced practitioners, each of whom has been informed by a range of experiences across a number of schools.

Lead from the top

The headteacher has to "get it" and, in doing so, support the necessary investment in human and financial resources. More importantly, strong, public endorsement from the top will do much to cement research within the school.

According to Jude Enright, deputy head for learning and teaching at Greenford High School in Middlesex, principals should ensure that research findings are used and that they are seen to be improving the school.

Appoint a leader

Ideally, a head of research will be appointed. They should have a background in this area, having completed a further degree in research methods. Failing that, a current member of staff should be encouraged to apply to do such a course: gaining a deep understanding of pedagogy and methodologies is fundamental to the role. The post-holder should also be a teacher and one who knows how schools work, how teachers teach and how children learn.

Train people to use research

As TES columnist Tom Bennett said recently at a Department for Education meeting: "Teachers are frequently research illiterate and who can blame them? Who's got the time? When were they trained?"

A vital part of the head of research role is to train middle and senior leaders to understand and use research evidence. They can then in turn help their colleagues to become consumers of research evidence.

Review existing research

For Richard Andrews of the Coalition for Evidence-based Education, reviewing research is key. "The head of research should analyse what is already published, filter it for quality and identify gaps in the field of research," he says.

Andrews believes that schools should also make use of expert organisations such as the Evidence for Policy and Practice Coordinating Centre (EPPI-Centre) at the University of London's Institute of Education to request reviews of existing materials.

Circulate the research

The head of research should filter important research and make it accessible to colleagues. According to Alex Quigley, director of learning and research at Huntington School, York, this means "translating" studies using executive summaries.

Above all, research should be regularly presented in easily digestible chunks. As Bennett has written, "research should be absorbed in pockets throughout one's career, rather than as an enormous PGCE enema".

Be inventive and have a look at www.sandagogy.co.uk to see how one school is publishing its work for free online.

Engage teachers

Teachers should become increasingly involved in reading about the latest developments in their profession. Make the school feel as though it is engaged in research. This might also mean that teachers are upskilled via master's and research degrees as part of a meaningful professional development programme.

Link with other schools

The wider the research, the more valid its conclusions. Some schools have joined forces to work on joint research projects; one such example is Christ the King College's London Schools Excellence Fund, which brings together independent and state schools. The added bonus is that institutions can manoeuvre their way through sometimes complex areas by learning from each other.

The opportunity to share findings only increases when a school becomes part of a network such as an ISSP (independent-state school partnership), teaching school alliance or academy chain.

Know your outcomes

Putting research evidence at the heart of a school will succeed only if it meets a need. What role should it play in professional development and in the classroom? How quickly should its impact be felt? And, importantly, how will you measure its success?

Carl Hendrick, head of research at Wellington College, argues that using existing resources such as the Education Endowment Fund Toolkit makes this a lot easier. "It tells us what is effective, plus - crucially - what is most cost-effective as well," he says.

Don't fear criticism

New initiatives, especially ones that may appear to be dry and difficult, always face negative comments. The best way to deal with these is with patience and by modelling good practice.

Some schools are developing relationships with higher education institutions to evaluate their research. Wellington College, for example, has entered into a partnership with Harvard University in the US.

Organisations such as the Institute of Education, Reading University and King's College London may be willing to fulfil the same role for your school. Find out what they can offer - and be frank about how much you can afford.

Remember the students

For Andrews, this drives everything. "Ultimately, it's the impact on children and young people that is important," he says. "And, increasingly, they themselves should be involved in research for projects in school. How this is taught is crucial to good-quality research."

It is to be hoped that in future teachers will be actively engaged with the latest research, so it informs not only what they teach but also how and why they teach it. If this actually comes about, teachers will have the chance to develop new and relevant pedagogies that have been tested in schools from the outset. And if we achieve this, our job will truly have been professionalised.

Dr David James is director, educational enterprises, at Wellington College. He tweets under @EdFestDirector

The state sector school

Huntington School, York

The challenges involved in making teaching a research-based profession are monumental. At last year's ResearchED conference in London, academic and writer Dr Ben Goldacre claimed it would be 20 to 30 years before evidence meaningfully informed classroom practice in a systematic way.

It is still rare for schools to use research evidence. The full-time working teacher with a family to sustain has little leisure for reading research papers. Even if we find a way of parcelling up research in a form that the individual classroom teacher will read, the next challenge is for them to change their classroom practice. And if, extraordinarily, they are prompted to do that, the final challenge - and possibly the most important - is to measure the impact of this pedagogic change on the students' outcomes. And what happens next if the data says the intervention hasn't worked?

We must also accept that the vast majority of teachers' action research projects are methodologically flawed. Having worked with Dr Jonathan Sharples at the University of York on a small research trial on oral feedback to Year 9 English students, I have come to realise that the mere task of isolating a variable is incredibly difficult.

Encouraging individuals to reflect on pedagogy is important but, in reality, most action research projects do not quality as educational research. Developing links with higher education researchers will be crucial if schools are to understand how best to use the pedagogical knowledge they have gleaned.

At Huntington School, we decided to change our structures to accommodate our increasing focus on using evidence to develop our teaching. We have appointed a teaching and learning research lead at the heart of our school leadership team, whose key responsibility will be to coordinate the dissemination of high-quality teaching and learning research across the school.

This person will head a voluntary team of research-interested teachers and act as a resource for colleagues who would like bite-sized summaries of the best information. Research-based procedures will measure the impact on students' outcomes. The team will be responsible for providing all CPD provision.

Finally, we are keen to find out whether school-based educational research really is, as David James suggests, the anti-gimmick. We are working with the Education Endowment Foundation, the University of London's Institute of Education and Professor Rob Coe from the Centre of Evaluation and Monitoring in Durham University on a 40-school randomised controlled trial on the efficacy of research in schools.

We must all tread carefully. Our trial will explore just how much impact educational research can have on schools. We think it is important, in the spirit of the best research, to keep asking questions of educational research itself; the last thing we want is to look back in 10 years' time and conclude that school-based research was just another fad.

John Tomsett (inset) is headteacher at Huntington School in York

The specialist provider

Queensmill School

Queensmill School in West London has a tradition of and commitment to research and development (Ramp;D), including leading Ramp;D for the West London Teaching Schools' Alliance and signing up to the Pan-London Autism Schools Network research group (PLASN-R). The school also runs a postgraduate programme in autism for teachers in partnership with the University of Roehampton.

Nevertheless, Queensmill wished to review its Ramp;D in light of current research and to make its approach more strategic and systemic. To that end, it established an Ramp;D board to lead and monitor relevant activities.

The board consists of an Ramp;D coordinator (which is a new middle-leadership role), a representative of the senior leadership team, a class teacher with a keen interest in research and a parent member, who assists in determining how the board communicates research issues to the wider world. The school has also appointed me as an external Ramp;D consultant to act as a "broker" between research and practice.

The board is responsible for creating a strategic Ramp;D plan. Last year, this included a mix of process and development activities. The process actions included writing a brief Ramp;D policy, establishing application and ethics procedures for internal and external research requests, and setting up an Ramp;D database to record and monitor details of each study.

The research focus, meanwhile, was informed by the school improvement plan; by surveys conducted with staff, parents and students to identify their research priorities; and by current national and international research agendas in autism, because the school specialises in this area.

Queensmill has had to commit resources to the project but is already feeling the benefits. The school is now clearer about what types of research it will pursue and what it will not, which means it can use its resources more effectively. It is also finding it easier to identify groups in the school community that are at risk of being "overused" for research purposes.

In addition, feedback from an independent inspection has highlighted that, even at this early stage, parents feel more informed about what is happening in school.

The focus of the forthcoming academic year will be on measuring the impact of the actions identified in the strategic plan and of the board itself.

Dr Catherine Carroll is a senior lecturer in special and inclusive education at the University of Roehampton and external research and development consultant for Queensmill School in West Kensington, London

The independent school

Wellington College

For any school to fully engage in research, it is vital for traditional hierarchical models of support to become more about genuine collaboration based on the individual school's needs, rather than standardising arbitrary concepts of "outstanding" or "excellent".

To this end, from September we will establish a Wellington Learning and Research Centre which will serve as a focal point for staff and other partners to mobilise, evaluate and disseminate effective research.

Our research will be supported by our higher education institution partnership. We decided to set this up with an institution that has expertise in areas of interest to us, such as growth mindsets, independent learning and pupil resilience. Harvard University in the US fitted the bill, so we have entered a two-year research study partnership with Harvard International Research Schools Network.

The first step will be to engage with the literature and wider evidence base. Then we will collect baseline data from the students and, at the end of year one, evaluate that evidence. This will inform the design of a series of interventions, which will be trialled with as big a sample as possible across the second year of the partnership.

At the end of this two-year process, we hope to be better informed practitioners and in a position to inform the wider conversation. We are also hoping to partner with the Education Endowment Foundation to evaluate the project's impact.

Three of our teaching school partners - The Bulmershe School and Waingels College in Reading and St Crispin's in Wokingham - will be working with us on the initiative.

Another important dimension of embedding research in schools is how it supports and augments existing CPD. One of the most efficient and rigorous ways of doing this is a research lesson study programme, so we will be continuing our partnership with the National Teacher Enquiry Network (read more at tdtrust.orgntenlesson-study).

Carl Hendrick is head of learning and research at Wellington College in Berkshire

The primary school

Wallscourt Farm Academy

Developing a shared community of learners is central to our vision at Wallscourt Farm Academy, and a year after we opened we are beginning to realise that vision.

The academy is close to the University of the West of England (UWE) in Bristol. Building on existing strong relationships between the two institutions, Wallscourt and UWE have made a joint commitment to ongoing research. Students and lecturers from UWE - both inside and outside the university's education department - have set up research projects at our school, including developing a community of readers and exploring how teaching is affected by the school environment.

How to capture the data effectively has been central to these projects: the researchers have focused strongly on measuring impact and outcomes as well as documenting learning. Those involved have also developed a shared blog in order to disseminate lessons to a wider audience.

All staff have demonstrated a commitment to research and development, with a strong focus placed on shared practice to inform pedagogy. Teachers and teaching partners have been working with the Centre for the Use of Research and Evidence in Education to examine the research on teaching and learning and development in the early years and at key stage 1.

We began the year by analysing what constituted effective research and development. We combined this with establishing a clear and shared understanding of how our practitioner-led research integrated with the school strategic vision and development plan.

With this grounding, teachers and teaching partners then looked closely at learning and assessment. They have focused on areas such as the use of questioning strategies, positive touch through peer massage and its effect on personal, social and emotional development, and using the outdoor environment to develop skills in literacy and mathematics. We allotted time for planning, actioning, reviewing and developing each aspect of the research projects to ensure the maximum opportunity for informing teaching and learning.

This will continue over the coming year. We will use new technologies to enable regular, real-time learning to be captured, examined and unpicked, so that the concept of research to inform pedagogy and practice is strongly aligned with authentic activity in the classroom.

Susie Weaver is principal at Wallscourt Farm Academy in Bristol

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