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Making Research Usable For Teachers

Is research out of touch with the very people who need to use its insights – teachers? Karen Wespieser argues for a more authentic connection between researchers and the classroom

Narrowing the gap

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 that tries to help schools improve the outcomes for young people. Over this time, whilst 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 has increased exponentially.

I want to outline some of the reasons why I think this gap has grown and how it can be narrowed.

Fieldwork is now the exception rather than the norm

In the early noughties, 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 chalk-face. Fast-forward twenty years and for most research projects I am involved with, fieldwork is now the exception rather than the norm. While there are a number of grass root organisations encouraging teachers to become more engaged with research and policy makers? Where are the organisations encouraging researchers and policy makers to engage with teachers?

One reason fewer researchers visit schools is a ground-shift in methodologies over the past twenty 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 different 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 – with 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, funding data, and soon, destinations data which through database wizardry is being analysed by combining data from DfE, HMRC and the DWP. So, with this amount of information, it is perhaps not necessary, and certainly not encouraged to bother schools with research requests.

The problem with “ivory-towers” research

Another key change in the research landscape, is the introduction of the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) in 2011. Overnight, the EEF became the biggest funder of school research in England[i]. The scale of funding had an unprecedented influence over research methodologies. The EEF are unapologetic about their penchant for randomised control trials (RCTs) and meta-analysis (the combing of quantitative findings from studies which are not identical to provide more robust estimates). In just six years, the EEF more than doubled the amount of available evidence from trials in education in this country and boasts that it has commissioned more than 10 per cent of all known trials in education around the world (ibid). 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 evaluation[ii]; 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 we 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 quantitative 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 that they have never met, or influence the outcomes of children that they have never seen. Take, for example, some of the best-known research into bullying[iii]. The researchers 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 they did not meet with any teachers or pupils. Because of this ivory-towers approach, the recommendations from this really interesting research are targeted at policy makers 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 hot spots’ (ibid), would be easier for schools to do than policy makers!

The final barrier is that too often we can fool ourselves that researchers are already interacting with the school workforce. Admittedly not in real life, but online. Teacher bloggers and interest groups on Facebook and Twitter are 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 six to ten per cent – and that this minority are likely to be quite different to the majority of their colleagues (if nothing else, the considerable time some individuals put into their social media suggests a different type of engagement to their colleagues who prefer to use social media solely 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 it’s all too easy to forget 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 that do. However, we do need to be aware that when high-profile bloggers or ‘twitterati’ are invited to represent the profession on research steering groups, DfE working groups, or are name-dropped by the Education Minister, that this isn’t a new relationship between teachers, researchers and policy makers, but simply a clique that has probably always been at the centre of our education 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 policy makers. Big data, quantitative methodologies and social media have led to a situation where those seeking to support teachers no longer need to visit schools to do their jobs. Despite this, there are more reasons than ever that they ought to visit schools. Far from this being a burden on busy teachers working in those institutions, I truly believe that many would welcome these visitors with open arms.

How to be a teacher-engaged researcher

If research methods no longer necessitate going into school on a regular basis, how else could these engagements take place? From a research perspective, it could include steering groups, advisory groups, or participatory workshops which bring together every-day 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, such as ‘Preparing for Literacy’[iv], and ‘Metacognition and Self-regulated Learning’[v].    

It needn’t all be related to the day job either. A simple way to gain insight about 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. A simple way to do this could be to follow hashtags and not just individuals. #UKEdResChat and #CogSciSci both brings together teachers and researchers together in a constructive way, and you don’t even need to join Twitter to read the interactions.

Perverse incentives

Witnessing this gap is one of the reasons I started the #UKEdResChat twitter events. The initial aim of the chat was to bridge the gap between researchers and teachers, but it became apparent very quickly that there were far more teachers participating than academics.

There are a number of regularly occurring themes in the chats; how can teachers access research? How can teachers find the time to read research? How can teachers interpret the quality of research?

The responses, predominantly provided by the teaching community on twitter, frequently lie within the research users and not with the research creators. They suggest research mediators, synthesis created by third parties, a greater focus on research in initial teacher training.

But more can be done by the academic community and the incentives within it that create barriers to work with teachers. The Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) priorities academic impact over practical impact; you get a higher ‘score’ for explaining your research to your academic peers than you do to the people you are actually researching for. The language required by journals and by doctoral study is, by definition, academic. But need it be academic to the point of excluding mainstream readers? Could plain English be used more frequently? 

Teacher led and teacher informed research  

Of course, this article has been a generalisation of the issue. Just as there are some schools and some teachers who are more engaged with research than others, there are also researchers and research institutions that are more engaged with teachers than others. There are some wonderful examples of these collaborations, my call is simply for more!

Maybe we always view the past through rose-tinted glasses, and maybe it’s simple nostalgia that makes me feel like there was a more authentic connection between researchers and 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’. Researchers need to step up and engage. This shift is essential if we want to narrow the gap between research and practise.

Top tips

  • Make use of steering or advisory groups to ensure there is a dialogue between researchers and teachers throughout the research process
  • Think of different ways that researchers can be present in schools – as governors, as mentors, as readers, as researchers-in-residence
  • Engage outside of your echo-chamber by following hashtags on social media not just individuals.

Karen is a social researcher and has worked in the education sector for twenty years. She is passionate about increasing and communicating the use of evidence in education to positively impact the lives of young people. Karen is the Chief Operations Office at Teacher Tapp and Parent Ping, a school governor, trustee of education charity Parentkind, and a mum of two. In December 2020 she was awarded an MBE for services to children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities, particularly during the COVID-19 response.

References

[i] The Economist. (2018). England has become one of the world’s biggest education laboratories. https://www.economist.com/britain/2018/03/31/england-has-become-one-of-the-worlds-biggest-education-laboratories. Accessed 07/11/2019. 

[ii] Connolly, P., Keenan, C., & Urbanska, K. (2018). The Trials of Evidence-Based Practice in Education: A Systematic Review of Randomised Controlled Trials in Education Research 1980-2016. Educational Research. https://doi.org/10.1080/00131881.2018.1493353. Accessed 07/11/2019. 

[iii] Farrington, D. P., Ttofi, M. M. School-Based Programs to Reduce Bullying and Victimization. Campbell Systematic Reviews 2009:6. https://www.campbellcollaboration.org/education-updates/reduction-of-bullying-in-schools.html. Accessed 07/11/2019. 

[iv] Education Endowment Foundation (2018a) Preparing for Literacy: Improving Communication, Language and Literacy in the Early Years’, London: Education Endowment Foundation. https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/tools/guidance-reports/preparing-for-literacy/. Accessed 07/11/2019.

[v] Education Endowment Foundation (2018b) Metacognition And Self-regulated Learning, London: Education Endowment Foundation. https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/tools/guidance-reports/metacognition-and-self-regulated-learning/. Accessed 07/11/2019.

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