How to apply research in the classroom

3rd August 2018 at 00:00
When your usual box of teaching tricks doesn’t work on a particular group of students, it’s time to try something new, says Megan Dixon. Here, she explains how to make evidence-based changes in class – and the best way to measure their impact

We’ve all been there; you’ve thrown everything at it and nothing seems to be working for this particular class. Somehow, nothing fits and the results are depressing – you are losing the battle. So, what next?

There is a range of options open to teachers at this point. First, you can just ignore the sense of impending doom and plough on in the belief that your students will get there anyway, regardless of what you do. It will work for some – the pupils who would succeed in any situation. But it’s unlikely that a head-in-the-sand approach will encourage learning for the majority.

Alternatively, you can ask colleagues for their suggestions, in the staffroom, at subject meetings or on social media. This way, you’ll benefit from their collective experience in different situations and contexts. Most likely, your immediate colleagues will have a clear understanding of your context and the pupils you work with. Others might be able to offer alternative strategies from a distance. This is a powerful way of learning and could be the answer to your challenges. But what if you have already tried everything they suggest?

What you need is a fresh approach – something that hasn’t been tried before. So you decide to step outside the box, challenge your opinions and seek fresh viewpoints. You decide to read some research.

The power of robustly designed research is that it seeks to acknowledge and limit the biases we all have – to share something more than an unvarnished opinion. Good research seeks to examine those unvarnished opinions from every angle, scrutinising them from all directions and closely examining each finding for a different interpretation.

Much educational research – and research completed within other disciplines, such as psychology or sociology – is undertaken by talented, knowledgeable and highly skilled professionals who have spent their working lives steeped in the subjects they study.

It seems churlish to ignore the ideas of someone who has spent the past decade researching how students develop effective comprehension skills or understanding the barriers to learning to count in young children.

But we all know that using research in our teaching brings its own challenges. If you have followed this special issue so far and have identified the reliable research that offers you the intervention or change you wish to try, and you now want to apply research in your setting, here are four steps to ensure you do so with the best chance of obtaining a true picture of its effectiveness.

1. Understand the big picture

The question should not be “What does the research say I should do?”, but “how do I translate that into my classroom effectively?”.

The world of schools and education is littered with new fads and ideas that might have been effective. In some instances, sadly, we will never know, as they were often implemented without any serious thought given to measuring the impact of the changes made – a waste of time, effort and ingenuity.

And there is another more worrying implication: some of us may have introduced new ideas into our teaching that have unwittingly hindered – or worse, been detrimental to – the learning of our students.

So, when thinking about translating new research into practical classroom strategies, it is worth taking the time to clarify your thoughts before you begin. You should always have a theory. You should be able to explain, briefly and clearly, what you are going to do, why it is going to help, what the impact is going to be, for whom, and how you will know it has worked. The outcomes for the students must be at the heart of any innovation – if it doesn’t make things better for them, abandon your plans.

Second, consider whether it is actually possible to do what you want and to sustain it. If your innovation will involve large quantities of extra work, training or resources, you need to consider whether it is feasible in the long run.

2. Put in the finer detail

It’s tempting to jump in quickly and get started, but you can save yourself a huge amount of hours and effort by resisting that urge. Take your time and decide on the non-negotiable aspects of the change you are going to make. Be clear about what it will look like in your classroom and how you will behave. Decide on what you will need to stick to the plan. Next, look at it from your students’ perspective: how will you expect them to behave? What will they do? What will they need?

If you can’t answer all of these questions succinctly, you aren’t ready to start. Go back and carry on reading. Working with colleagues in innovation groups or within a change team can be supportive at this point to help you clarify your ideas.

3. Evaluate – how will you know?

Once you have decided what to change, before you go ahead, consider how you will know if it has worked better than your current practice. Say, for example, you have decided to try a method to target the reading comprehension of low-attaining readers in your class. You are excited – it looks great! You want to give it to all of the children who need it as quickly as possible. But it pays to be measured in your approach. Any changes you make will most probably work (for some). However, will they work better than your current strategies for most of the children?

A “wait-list” style of evaluation – where one group of students is put through the changes while a comparison group continues with the original way of working – is a simple way of knowing whether it would be worth adopting the changes more widely. It might look something like this:

* Identify the students you think will benefit. You might decide to work with a colleague across two classes.

* Identify an assessment that will measure the impact. You might use your standard assessment practices, or you might consider using an assessment that is different from your normal range, maybe even one that is standardised. This will allow you to obtain a different perspective on the challenge. You might decide to collect data that gives you a range of voices, including pupils, parents, teachers and members of the senior leadership team.

* Collect accurate assessment data for all of the students. Put their scores to one side. Don’t let them influence you.

* Divide the students into two groups – one will receive the new teaching style first (let’s call it Group New), the other will act as your comparison group (Group Control) Try to even out the groups so that there are equal numbers of boys and girls, those on free school meals and those with English as an additional language in each, and that the age range is equally spread. If you can get someone who doesn’t know the students to allocate them to the groups, that will make your “experiment” more robust. Alternatively, you can just pull names out of a hat.

* Deliver the new style of teaching to Group New. Group Control should continue with the currently used style.

* Assess all of the children in Group New and Group Control.

* Calculate the progress made by the two groups of students and compare.

* If Group New made more progress, start Group Control with the new strategy and consider adopting it for other students.

* If Group New and Group Control made the same amount of progress, then you have a choice of teaching methods – more tools in the toolkit.

* If Group Control made more progress than Group New, seriously consider whether you should bother changing your current teaching methods.


4. Share your findings

As with all good tales, a classroom research story is littered with wrong turns, false starts and dead ends. But there is usually a positive outcome that is worth telling people about. Share your findings with everyone: we all need to know and learn from your journey. You might record a blog or video diary about what you have found out and post it for all to see (remembering to ensure you have permission from everyone involved and keeping it all anonymous). You might share it in a staff meeting or at a TeachMeet.

When you prepare to talk about your research, be sure to include the same level of detail you would expect to find in any published study. Ask colleagues for their thoughts and opinions – use your findings as a springboard for discussion and reflection. Challenge others to consider what your research story helps your school community to understand about the learners it serves.

Sharing findings in a wider context, outside our immediate locality, helps us to learn collectively about what works in the classroom, for whom, in which ways, when and in what contexts.

You might decide to publish your research journey in a journal or present your ideas at a weekend conference. The world is constantly changing and so are the students in front of us. Your findings will be an aid to reflection, offering a different perspective – a glimpse into a different world.

Megan Dixon is director of literacy at the Aspire Educational Trust

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