From ivory towers to the chalkface

12th October 2018 at 00:00
Despite the explosion of education research in recent years, the distance between researchers and teachers is greater than ever, warns Karen Wespieser. Here, she argues that academics need to build better links with schools so that their research makes a real difference

Let’s start with a confession. I am not a teacher. Apart from a short stint as a teaching assistant back in 1999, I have never been directly employed by a school. Despite this, I have spent nearly 20 years involved in designing research and policy aimed at helping schools to improve outcomes for young people. Over this time, while the edu-support sector has grown, it seems to me that the distance between those in the classroom and those of us trying to help from outside has increased exponentially.

In the early 2000s, in my first job as a research assistant at one of the country’s largest dedicated education research institutions, I spent most of my time zipping up and down the country visiting schools, interviewing those who work in them and collecting information from the chalkface.

Fast-forward to 2018, and in most research projects I am involved with, fieldwork is the exception rather than the norm. While there are a number of grassroots organisations encouraging teachers to become more engaged with research and policymakers, where are the organisations encouraging researchers and policymakers to engage with teachers?

One reason why fewer researchers visit schools is a ground-shift in methodologies over the past 20 years. Once, if you wanted to find out something about, say, teacher retention, you would need to conduct a large-scale survey and triangulate that data with case studies or interviews. Now there is the school workforce census; a tidy dataset that compiles a number of school reporting functions and stretches back in its current iteration to 2010.

The school workforce census provides a one-stop shop for researchers – or anyone else who’s interested – giving a clear picture of what is going on in terms of staffing in every school in England. The same is available for pupil-level data and school funding data.

Soon, destinations data will also be available: using database wizardry, it is being analysed by combining data from the Department for Education, HM Revenue and Customs and the Department for Work and Pensions.

So, with this amount of information available, it is perhaps not necessary – and certainly not encouraged – to bother schools with research requests.

Another key change in the research landscape was the introduction of the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) in 2011. Overnight, the EEF became the biggest funder of school research in England. The scale of funding had an unprecedented influence over research methodologies. The EEF is unapologetic about its penchant for randomised controlled trials (RCTs) and meta-analysis (the combing of quantitative findings from studies that are not identical to provide more robust estimates). In just six years, the EEF has more than doubled the amount of available evidence from trials in education in this country and it boasts that it has commissioned more than 10 per cent of all known trials in education around the world.

As with the big data created by the government’s national datasets, EEF trial data is predominantly quantitative. Only around a third of RCTs include a process of evaluation; the part of the research that gets into schools, speaks with teachers and leaders and attempts to understand why an effect observed in the data is happening.

Don’t get me wrong, these quantitative methodologies are not bad in themselves. Far from it, they have allowed insights and developments the like of which haven’t been seen before. The problem is, with finite research resources, studies using these methodologies are prioritised over other types of research; the types of education research where researchers and teachers meet, and context and culture can be considered.

Perhaps the biggest problem with these approaches, though, comes at the end of the research process. Researchers who have spent their careers in front of screens, interacting with binary values rather than real people, will find it considerably harder to write a report that will change the behaviour of teachers they have never met, or influence the outcomes of children they have never seen.

The great divide

Take, for example, the latest research into bullying. Researchers from the University of Cambridge examined the effectiveness of anti-bullying programmes and which intervention methods are most likely to reduce school bullying. To do this, they conducted a meta-analysis looking at more than 600 studies, but the methodology did not include meeting with any teachers or pupils.

Because of this ivory-tower approach, the recommendations from this interesting study are only targeted at policymakers and researchers. There are no suggestions about what those at the front line should do, even though you would imagine that “improving the school playground environment through reorganisation and/or identification of bullying hotspots” would be easier for schools than policymakers.

The final barrier is that too often we can fool ourselves that we are already interacting with the school workforce. Admittedly, not in real life, but online. Teacher-bloggers and interest groups on Facebook and Twitter provide lively fora for potential interactions between different stakeholders. But what we need to remember is that only a minority of teachers are represented – guestimates range at around 6 to 10 per cent – and this minority are likely to be quite different to the majority of their colleagues (if nothing else, the considerable time that some individuals put into their social media suggests a different type of engagement, compared with their colleagues who prefer to use social media to keep up-to-date with family and friends).

Compare the proportion of teachers who are using social media professionally with the proportion of journalists or MPs taking this approach and you will see that you have a minority talking to the majority; something that it’s all too easy to forget if you’re inside a social media bubble.

As with my critique of quantitative methodologies, I am not saying that engaging with teachers via social media is a bad thing, nor am I suggesting that we should criticise those who do. However, we do need to be aware that when high-profile bloggers or Twitterati are invited to represent the profession on DfE working groups, or are name-dropped by education ministers, this isn’t based on a new relationship that has developed between teachers, researchers and policymakers, but simply a clique that has probably always been at the centre of our system.

It is in keeping with the zeitgeist these days to claim to be a “research-engaged teacher”. Where I think there is a growing gap is in the number of teacher-engaged researchers and policymakers. Big data, quantitative methodologies and social media have led to a situation where those of us seeking to support teachers no longer need to visit schools to do our jobs. Despite this, there are more reasons than ever why we ought to visit schools. Far from these visits being a burden on busy teachers, I truly believe that many would welcome these visitors with open arms.

Engaging the profession

But if research methods no longer necessitate going into school on a regular basis, how else could these engagements take place? From a research perspective, they could include steering groups, advisory groups or participatory workshops that bring together teachers, school leaders and researchers. Practical inputs could be sought on the design of surveys or interview schedules, data interpretation and, perhaps most importantly, how to ensure that research reports include useful and timely recommendations for teachers and leaders. EEF guidance reports utilise this model and have resulted in a range of useful outputs, recently on Preparing for Literacy and Metacognition and Self-regulated Learning.

It needn’t all be related to the day job either. A simple way to gain insight into day-to-day school life is through volunteering. This could be as a school governor or trustee. In exchange for sharing your unique experiences, perspectives and insights, you can gain significant insights into schools’ challenges – and celebrations – and get a true feel for the cycle of the school year. Alternatively, you could join a student mentoring programme, or simply offer to sit and listen to children read.

Finally, make sure you engage outside of your echo-chamber. One way to do this could be to follow hashtags and not just individuals. On Twitter, #UKEdResChat and #CogSciSci both bring together teachers and researchers in a constructive way, and you don’t even need to join Twitter to read the interactions. You could also choose to attend your local Teach Meets.

Maybe we always view the past through rose-tinted glasses, and maybe it’s simple nostalgia that makes me feel that there was a more authentic connection to the classroom in the past. But the teacher-led movement to engage in research should not be one-sided. Academics should never again be characterised as “the blob”. We need to engage. This shift is essential if we want to move on from the current situation of unworkable recommendations and naive assumptions about what it’s like to work in a school in 2018.

Karen Wespieser is director of operations at Driver Youth Trust

 

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