Poorly written papers and a lack of clear examples mean that teachers often struggle to interpret academic research and put it to practical use, a study has found.
“I need a translator to understand what this article is saying. I just cannot understand…what [it] wants us to do,” one teacher told academics from the University of Durham.
Beng Huat See, Stephen Gorard and Nadia Siddiqui drew on existing research to highlight some of the problems that occur when teachers attempt to implement research in the classroom.
“Although teachers can engage with research evidence, the process is complex in practice,” they write. “This is partly because academic papers are not written for practical application. Such papers do not usually give detailed descriptions of interventions and how they are to be implemented. This is especially true of meta-analyses and syntheses of evidence, which are compilations of many different studies.”
The researchers then conducted further work to explore what this meant in practice, and found that teachers sometimes misunderstood research findings.
Barriers to understanding
Tom Bennett, director of ResearchED, a teacher-led organisation that aims to help the profession understand how research can be used to make a difference in the classroom, told TES that interpreting research was a very specific skill that academics developed with time and practice. “Let’s face it – teachers do not have time to be researchers,” he said. “Most of them are far, far too busy as it is.”
Nevertheless, Mr Bennett said that research was more widely used in schools than ever before. He and representatives of the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) – the government-funded body that commissions schoolbased research – have told TES that 2016 is likely to be the first year in which teachers deciding which strategies to use in the classroom will turn to research as much as colleagues’ recommendations.
In the Durham study, the academics asked teachers in nine primaries and one secondary in South London, to introduce new strategies for teacher-to-pupil and pupil-to-teacher feedback into their classrooms. These strategies were developed by John Hattie, director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute and a widely cited education academic.
But the Durham team found that even designated research leaders at the schools struggled to understand Professor Hattie’s descriptions of effective feedback and to differentiate between various types of feedback. Instead, they often developed their own – not necessarily correct – understanding of the research findings.
James Richardson, of the EEF, was unsurprised. “The danger is that, if you look at individual studies in isolation, you might respond in almost a knee-jerk manner to those findings,” he said. “You need to put it into the context of the rest of the research.”
Even randomised controlled trials could not be viewed as the holy grail of education research, he said. “There’s more to research than that,” he added. “It’s not either quantitative or qualitative. It’s both.”
Mr Bennett agreed that context was everything. For example, he said, research might show that looked-after children responded well to restorative justice. But this did not mean that all schools with large numbers of looked-after children should immediately adopt restorative justice.
“It depends on which children, in which circumstances, in what school and with what teachers,” he said. “Good teaching involves understanding where good research intersects with your own practice.”
‘Portals’ of knowledge
In their paper, published in the Educational Research journal, the Durham academics conclude that Professor Hattie’s research “is not written in an easy-to-read way, and is therefore not accessible to the widest audience…Teachers need relevant resources and examples from the outset.”
This is exactly what Mr Bennett wants to see. “Let’s have teachers who are designated as portals to bring research to the school in a way that’s meaningful,” he said. “Then your jobbing teacher knows there’s someone in the school they can go to, to explain things.”
The EEF is running an 800-school trial to establish the best methods for helping teachers to understand and make good use of academic research.
In some schools, a designated member of the senior management team is responsible for identifying relevant research and organising CPD sessions to translate it into classroom practice. Some areas have had conferences and evidence fairs. Other teachers have been shown animated films that translate research evidence into classroom practice.
“It’s about giving enough concise information to be manageable,” Mr Richardson said. “But not so concise that it cuts corners.”
Mr Bennett believes that the aim is both to communicate findings effectively and to cultivate research literacy among teaching staff. “Then, as a teaching community, we start to acquire a herd immunity to bullshit and bad practice,” he said.
Dos and don’ts for interpreting academic research
Ask for advice (and even consider contacting the author of the paper to clarify the meaning) if the language is convoluted or impenetrable.
Find out if there is a research leader in your school or local authority, who can help you to translate the findings into classroom practice.
Seek out organisations such as ResearchED and the Education Endowment Foundation, which seek to disseminate research in ways that are meaningful for teachers.
Treat the findings of a single study as infallible, regardless of how well-conducted the trial was.
Assume that qualitative findings are less valuable than quantitative findings.
Assume that, because findings are relevant to certain pupils in a certain area, that they will be relevant to all pupils in all areas.
Think “I already do that” and dismiss the findings. It may be that there is more to the study than is immediately apparent.
Sources: Tom Bennett of ResearchED and James Richardson of the Education Endowment Foundation