Two ways for teachers to use research effectively

Being ‘evidence-informed’ is all the rage, writes Tom Rattle, but applying insights is more complicated than it seems

Tom Rattle

Pedagogy Focus: What are the key teaching theories?

It's generally agreed among teachers that being "research-informed" is A Good Thing. 

In recent years – with the help of Twitter, the Chartered College of Teaching, researchED, and blogs – we have started to move to a point where we can read about research and use it to inform our practice. 

When research is introduced, the approach used is sometimes listed but it is not always clear what this means or why the teacher has chosen it.

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A research approach is supposed to be used at the very beginning to frame how the rest of the study is done. 

They are important because they give the teacher something to refer back to, and make it easier for people to read about the research later.

I’ve been guilty of jumping straight in with research. I’ve read a blog, seen something that sounds neat and trialled it with my classes.

A couple of assessments later, after some changes in test scores, I’ve chalked it up to a successful (or unsuccessful) intervention. 

Ta-da! Research-informed! Except…it’s not. 

I didn’t decide beforehand how I would examine the data and I didn’t reflect on what success would look like. I don’t think I’m alone in this: we can get excited about doing the research without really spending much time considering how we’ll approach it. 

Now, when I try to do small-scale research, I outline how I’m going to approach it before starting, and I’ve found it has resulted in much better data and reflection on what worked. This article summarises two of the most common research approaches and how you might use them.

Action Research

What is it?

Action research is used when a practitioner identifies something they want to change. A key part of this is that it should be possible to measure, not necessarily with numbers, whatever intervention has been implemented. 

Action research should be iterative; in other words, it does not end after the initial intervention and measurement. It should continue with the practice being tweaked further each time, and then measured again. Reflection is significant too: both before and after the research to look back at what happened and why.

How can I use it?

You could use action research if you have identified a change you’d like to make and want to see how effective it is. Examples of this are the impact of changing from sets to mixed-ability groups in a department, or a pupil premium intervention, or changing how homework is set. 

There isn’t a clear end goal, but instead the findings should be reviewed and tweaked repeatedly. This is not a one-off checking of success, but a reflection and review over a relatively long period of time. 

Make sure that you set these checks in your plan. You could do some action research alongside a colleague and use the reflection time to talk to them about your findings. When you come to write up or present your findings, remember to include these reflections.

Case Study

What is it?

Case studies are used when a teacher wants to find out more, or answer a question, about an event or situation. They have a number of boundaries in a specific context, which often makes them hard to replicate at a larger scale. 

These boundaries could be related to the geographical location, the type of school, the gender of the students or something else. Case studies should also include a number of different sources as their evidence. Interviews, assessments, focus groups and observations are all examples of sources that could be included.

How can I use it?

A case study usually has an end point that has been predefined. In this way, you can look at an area of your practice that you want to find more about (but which you have not necessarily changed) and come to a conclusion. 

Examples of this are a behaviour policy review, or the effectiveness of revision sessions, or an area of your curriculum. When writing up or presenting your findings, consider each of these on their merits and see how they form a bigger picture through triangulation of the data.

Small-scale classroom research can be really useful, if only to discover that something you've wanted to try isn't as good an idea as you thought it was.

Look before you leap

Before you jump in with those assessments and interviews though, think about which approach would be best suited for the situation. 

Would it be better to use a reflective, iterative process like action research, or are you answering a question using a variety of different data in a case study? 

Tom Rattle is head of computer science and head of house at an independent school in South East England

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