With the requisite time and resources, a research lead can have a significant and positive impact on a school. They can seek out the best evidence to scrutinise, implement and better evaluate crucial decisions. They can ensure that teachers have access to the best of what is known about the process of learning. And they can empower teachers and leaders to make the right decisions.
This guide breaks down the core principles of the role of research lead so that you can apply them to your school’s context.
How to find useful research evidence
The Education Endowment Foundation’s Teaching and Learning Toolkit is a great place to start when looking for usable research evidence. There has been some debate about giving teachers access to research journals, which would prove a potentially useful option, but a keyword search on Google Scholar will see you find the vast majority of research evidence that you need regardless. On the websites of eminent educationalists, such as Dan Willingham and Dylan Wiliam, you can find a wealth of useful information. On social media networks, like Twitter, you will find lots of interesting accounts shining a light on the best research evidence, such as @RISE_research, @IEE_York, @researchED1 and, of course, @tes (which also has a weekly research breakdown in the magazine – see page 15).
Ask the right questions
An effective research lead doesn’t trot off to an ivory tower of academia to pore over obscure research studies. It is a very practical role. They need to engage with teachers and school leaders – as well as students – to find out the problems that they face.
By getting to the root of such issues, they can then develop clear questions that need to be answered – with a little help from research evidence. For example, the relative underperformance of boys in English at a school could prompt a more specific question about how to improve reading for those students. This would result in the research lead seeking out the best available evidence to help address the issue.
Good evaluation of our decision-making is vital for schools. Perhaps the most important aspect of the research-lead role is to support school leaders and teachers to better evaluate what they do, or what they don’t do. Too easily, we see a million new initiatives bloom and teacher workload suffers. We rarely look at what we should stop doing, or initiate thorough, systematic evaluation; usually because we don’t have time, but also because we are resistant to admitting that a policy or initiative hasn’t worked. Helping to evaluate the changes within a school is the job of a research lead, and it also proves a measure of their success. We can ask: what initiative did the research lead help to start? What did they recommend we stop doing? How did they help us understand what worked and why?
Action research: what about when teachers want to do research themselves?
We have established that teachers are time-poor. Much of the research lead role is to share accessible evidence in the form of usable, effective tools and resources. Conducting action research may prove a pale imitation of research undertaken in more tightly structured trial conditions, so we should evaluate the opportunity cost of all of our teachers undertaking research. Teachers piloting strategies and better evaluating their classroom work is to be encouraged, but demanding that all staff undertake burdensome action research projects, with painstaking write-ups, may prove counter-productive. A research lead may instead support and train a small enquiry group, encouraging further study, thereby growing best practice.
How to distribute evidence
If the work of a school research lead is pretty much ad hoc, then the likelihood of success is low. The work needs to be integrated into the CPD programme of the school if it is going to initiate a sustained positive impact. Teachers need time and support to engage with research evidence; otherwise we are all likely to skim it and not embed any of the messages into our daily practice. Research leads should adapt evidence to be used to shape CPD training for teachers and leaders. Research evidence can then be distributed to teachers in CPD training to give proper time to evaluate and reflect.
How to summarise research evidence
Teachers are time-poor and asking them to read lots of research papers is undesirable and unlikely to prove effective. The role of the research lead should be to help condense research evidence into usable knowledge. One rule stands when summarising research: if it cannot be explained on a side of A4, it isn’t likely to work effectively for teachers anyway. Think of it like Amazon – one click. You need to reduce the complexity to the point where it is easy and attractive to take action (though much research is by nature complex and requires some further reading). Get school leaders and teachers thinking hard by posing questions that stem from your summary. Give them links so that they are encouraged to pursue their own answers and really engage in the process of enquiry.
The final word on being a research lead
The research lead role is, of course, flexible in each and every school, but the role has the principles of sourcing, interpreting, translating, embedding and evaluating research evidence to better inform practice in our schools.
Alex Quigley is a former research lead and currently director of research at Huntington School. His book, The Confident Teacher, is out in May @HuntingEnglish