Reading research doesn’t give you certainty.
In fact, according to Carl Hendrick, author and English teacher at Wellington College, it does the opposite: it gives you uncertainty.
Speaking on the latest episode of the Tes Leadership Podcast, he discusses the importance of the research lead role in ensuring that teachers become evidence-informed.
And this, he argues, is a professional responsibility.
One of the roles of the research lead, he says, is to be a “broker of research”, someone in the middle who can introduce staff to particular ways of thinking.
He also sees research leads as an important buffer against things that might not work.
“A function of the role is to challenge leadership and to be a check and balance against the excesses of leadership,” Hendrick says.
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“The first value of someone in schools who’s knowledgeable about research is that they can begin the school on a track that is at least grounded in evidence and reason.”
There are many teachers who have never read any research, and perhaps have no interest in doing so. So how can they be engaged?
Bad CPD: 'Atrocities in pedagogy and evidence'
Hendrick raises the point that we’ve got a profession that has experienced bad CPD during which, he says, “atrocities have been committed in the name of pedagogy and evidence”.
“One of the functions of research is that we want to embed good evidence in schools and another side of it is a giant throat-clearing exercise where we’re saying what doesn’t work to begin with,” he adds.
Hendrick suggests that’s a way of empowering teachers with evidence to question the things that are a waste of time.
“You don’t have to unquestionably go along with this thing that you’re suspicious of,” he says.
Research and uncertainty
“If research can do anything, it should make people a lot less certain about things,” argues Hendrick.
He draws comparisons to science, which, he says, is “about consistently raising uncertainty and developing a way of thinking”.
By challenging what teachers think they know, Hendrick continues, and by raising doubt, research leads can make people better teachers by challenging their preconceptions and orthodoxies.
“That just refines your thinking and refines your practice bit by bit by bit until you get to the point where you think all time, 'Am I doing the right thing? Is this the right thing to be doing in this context?'”
Just a fad?
Hendrick makes the case that engaging with education research isn’t a fad because we’re starting to reach independent convergence on key elements of research.
But, he says, we’ve got a long way to go yet.
“We do have good evidence in lab conditions but where it is implemented it doesn’t always seem to be working out. Things that work in the lab often don’t work in the classroom.
"When it comes to leading research in schools, that’s the current challenge: how do we implement these findings and are they generalisable in other domains?”
Hendrick is positive about the way things are moving, though. The distillation of research (through books, talks, podcasts and blogs) into something that actually speaks to teachers is a step in the right direction.
And he’s hopeful that we’re moving towards a place where the things that we do are not simply based on the principle of “Well, it works for me”.
Rebecca Foster is head of English and specialist leader of education at Wyvern St Edmund’s Learning Campus in Wiltshire