Executive Leadership

Leadership for mobilizing schools as research engaged communities

Clive Dimmock explores how leadership is vital to developing schools as research engaged communities. Leaders are key to establishing the necessary conditions and structures, as well as tackling barriers. Above all, he argues that by embedding research engagement within the school as a professional learning community, leaders ensure that research knowledge is mobilized to improve practice.

The case for deeper research engagement

Traditionally, the practices of teachers and leaders in schools have been grounded in sources other than research and evidence (Teh, Hogan & Dimmock, 2013). When asked why they teach in the way they do, teachers typically claim that they acquire their styles and methods through experience, and are primarily influenced by their colleagues, and the need for curriculum coverage, and exam passing. In other words, tacit knowledge and expedience have been the bedrock of teaching – and much the same might be said for school leadership. Critics of this failure to embrace research- and evidence-informed practice argue that the quality and equity involved in teaching and learning (as well as leadership) suffer as a consequence, as do teachers’ and leaders’ levels of professionalism (Dimmock, 2012). Conversely, it is claimed, teacher and leader decision-making – and thus practice – is improved when it is supported by research evidence.

While the case for more informed practices might be self-evident, why have schools been slow to adopt evidenced informed practices?  Resistance has been grounded in the pragmatic and harsh realities of school life, such as lack of resources (money, time, human capital and skills), and an obsession with assessment and examination agendas – emphasizing accountability – that prioritize curriculum coverage and test results, rather than investment in the quality of the processes that lead to improved learning outcomes (Godfrey, 2016). Furthermore, leaders themselves are not strong champions of basing their leadership practices, let alone teaching and learning, on an evidenced-based footing. However, the presence of leadership that both advocates and adopts evidence informed practices is an essential feature of research-engaged schools.

The pivotal contribution of leadership

An appreciation of the potential benefits of research-informed practices on the one hand, and overcoming the many sources of resistance to them on the other, place leadership at the very heart of research-engagement. Leadership is an integral part of efforts to create schools as champions of research-engagement, to scale up and sustain such practices, and overcome the barriers that may block their adoption and implementation (Dimmock, 2012; Godfrey, 2016). 

This article espouses the importance of leadership in achieving research-engaged schools through addressing the following questions:

  • What is a research-engaged school and what is its rationale? 
  • What is the significance of leadership to the research-engaged school?
  • How does leadership promote scaled up and sustained research-informed practice in schools?
  • What role does leadership play in overcoming the barriers to research engagement? 

What is a research-engaged school and what is its rationale? What is the significance of leadership to the research-engaged school?  

The rationale for evidence-informed practices in schools is compelling. Dimmock (2016) discusses the persistent problems in education systems created by the so-called ‘gaps’ between research, policy, and practice. These disconnects have undeniably handicapped the professionalization of schools and school improvement in the past, and continue to do so. As Dimmock (2016) argues, the profound consequence is weak knowledge mobility through and across the different levels of the education eco-system. 

Specifically, much of the educational research undertaken to date – particularly in universities – is criticised for its lack of relevance to improving teaching and learning, and equity (Teh, Hogan, & Dimmock, 2013). This separation of functions – universities do the research (knowledge production), schools do the practice (knowledge utilisation), with insufficient knowledge mobilisation and transfer between the two – has resulted in teachers and schools over-relying on tacit knowledge (accumulated practical experience) in their decision-making and practice (Dimmock, 2016). Consequently, the idea of bridging the two has emerged, where schools become the sites for research as well teaching and learning (Handscomb & MacBeath, 2003; Teh, Hogan & Dimmock, 2013). Handscomb & MacBeath (2003) go on to outline the features of a research-engaged school as having a –

  1. Research-rich pedagogy
  2. Research orientation
  3. Research community
  4. Culture that puts research at the heart of school policy and practice.

These four features were developed further by Godfrey (2016, p.305) who after extensive study, listed the characteristics of research-engaged schools that differentiated them from other schools; these are –

  • Promoting practitioner research among their staff.
  • Encouraging their staff to read and respond to published research.
  • Welcoming (as a learning opportunity as well as a responsibility to the wider educational community) being the subject of research by outside organisations.
  • Using research to inform their decision making at every level.
  • Having an outward looking orientation (Wilkins, 2011), including research-based links with other schools and universities.

What is the significance of leadership to the research-engaged school?

So why is leadership so crucial in the development of research-engaged schools?  For present purposes, leadership is taken to mean – a social influence process guided by moral purpose, with the aim of building capacity by making the best use of available resources to achieve shared goals (Dimmock, 2012). Leadership is differentiated from management by its focus on improvement and transformation of practice and performance. 

A conception of leadership seen as building capacity or ‘capital’ is developed by Hargreaves (2003), who argues that there is an increasing need for teachers and leaders with intellectual capital (knowledge, skills, values, and dispositions), social capital (trust and respect built around collegiality and collaboration), and the leverage capacity to convert ‘inputs’ to schools to more highly performing and equitable outputs. But there is also the need, argues Hargreaves, for a third form – organizational capital. He sees this as the use of leadership knowledge and skill to change and re-design the school by making better use of its intellectual and social capital to produce high-leverage strategies of teaching and learning (Dimmock, 2012). Hence, a salient task of leaders is to devise new and effective forms of organizational capital to enable improvement in intellectual and social capital. The exercise of organizational capital is at the heart of leadership in its championing of research engagement in schools.

Leadership thus develops human resources in schools – students, teachers and leaders – aimed at enhancing students’ learning, through developing better teaching (and leadership). Good management of financial and physical resources assists in the development of human resources, but essentially leaders build capacity in schools by focusing on the human resources and their working conditions (Dimmock, 2012). 

Leadership as organizational capital connects with research-engaged schools in developing the school’s intellectual and social capital by firstly, ensuring that teachers apply informed practices of learning, teaching and leadership to enable all to learn successfully; and secondly, by nurturing and sustaining leadership and teaching talent. 


How does leadership promote, scale up and sustain research-informed practice in schools?

Establishing environments and structures

Conceptions of school re-design (Dimmock, 2000) remind us that leaders have responsibilities for intentionally engineering schools as innovative learning environments fit for the 21st century. Research-engagement is central to this mission as schools participate in research, and engage a research-into-practice mentality and set of institutional procedures. When teachers, leaders and schools become ‘research-engaged’ in the sense of research-into-practice, they generate and mobilize professional knowledge, value both academic and tacit knowledge, and empower the professionalism of teachers and leaders – leading to innovative practices (Dimmock, 2012).

A research-into-practice environment requires leaders first, to encourage individual teachers to be reflective practitioners and to value the contribution that evidence- and research-based approaches make to improving teaching and learning. Second, leaders build a school culture whereby expectations across all staff are that teaching, learning and leadership improve when evidence- and research-informed. Third, senior leaders need to establish an organisational structure and set of processes that embed expected ways of working, and at the same time, scale up and sustain research-into-practice approaches, in their schools. This third dimension of leadership enables the first two.

In establishing such organisational structures and institutionalised processes for research-engagement, the following are key leadership considerations (Dimmock, 2016):

  • Teachers need knowledge and skills related to research and evaluation; indeed, research capacity should be part of teachers’ job descriptions. 
  • Professional development of teachers to impart the skills to seek, interpret and apply research, and awareness of how evidence can be translated into practice. 
  • Networked and collaborative links to universities, research institutions and other schools. 
  • A whole-school approach to a methodology of data collection and analysis that promotes teacher collaboration is necessary; collaborative action research and design research appear to be appropriate tools and techniques.
  • Formal roles that recognize the importance of research-informed approaches need to be established in schools, such as a research co-ordinator, and even a research department, with recognized physical space and a budget.
  • Senior school leaders need to articulate at least least five ways in which research-engaged schools can source research information and evidence to underpin improvement in practice:
  • Academic research – codified, theory-driven, formalised, and found in magazines, journals, and books; also presented at conferences11.
  • Tacit knowledge – the accumulated and aggregated knowledge of teachers and leaders gained from practical experience in situ iii). 
  • School records and similar data that schools currently possesses for other purposes, such as student performance data, parent and staff information.
  • School-generated projects on particular topics, such as action research projects undertaken by staff.
  • Collaborative (ie. school-school, school-university) school-wide, school-deep co-ordinated intervention projects intended to be sustainable and scalable.

School data from the first three sources in most cases already exists; the main challenge for teacher-researchers is to access them, and to interpret their significance in the specific context of their schools. The fourth and fifth sources require schools to be pro-active in generating new data in situ, the main difference between them being scale. In the case of the fifth, research on a larger scale involves the whole school (or partnership networks) and external collaborators, such as universities. In reality, more than one of the sources of information/data are likely to be used simultaneously. 

Translating research into practice

In establishing the research-into-practice culture of the school, senior leaders transmit a culture that values both academic (coded) knowledge and tacit knowledge, (knowledge gained through practical experience). To over-rely on one or other is unwise, since it is teachers’ ability to mediate and make sense of evidence and research, before adapting it to their particular contexts, that makes for successful implementation of new practice. Second, leaders espouse that research itself takes many forms; much of the research that teachers might undertake is applied and evaluative and does not call for advanced statistical skills, for example. 

Changing and improving practice is the ultimate purpose of schools becoming research engaged. Leadership is centrally about achieving goals. Setting a culture of expectations that the school is focused on implementing (rather than just talking about) improvements to practice is a key function of leadership. Research-engaged schools create appropriate organizational structures and processes to deliver research-into-practice, and as explained below, the embedding of research into the social context of the school is all-important for success. 

Experience over the past two decades has shown that the school as a professional learning community (PLC) is a means of creating the institutional structures, processes and cultures for research-into-practice to be scaled up (across the whole school and into collaborative networks of schools), and sustained. The aim is to embed the structures and processes in the daily working routines of teachers and leaders.

Leading schools as professional learning communities 

Definitions of PLCs abound (see Brown & Poortman, 2017, Darling-Hammond, 1996; DuFour, 2004, DuFour & Eaker 1998; Hord, 1997). Hord’s (1997) well accepted definition of a PLC is one where teachers and students work collaboratively to improve each other’s learning. Bolam et al. (2005) list the following attributes regarding their effectiveness:

  • Shared values and vision generated
  • Collective responsibility for pupils’ learning.
  • Collaboration focused on learning.
  • Individual and collective professional learning.
  • Reflective professional enquiry.
  • Openness, networks and partnerships.
  • Inclusive membership.
  • Mutual trust, respect and support.

Many claim positive relationships (although empirical evidence is relatively weak) between professional learning communities and student learning outcomes (DuFour & Eaker, 1998; Bolam et al., 2005; Vescio et al., 2007; Hord & Sommers, 2008), arguing that improvements to student achievement are attained when teachers make collaborative pedagogical decisions adding value to student learning (Thompson, Gregg, & Niska, 2004). PLCs allegedly have an intermediate positive impact, too, on teachers’ professional learning, performance and morale, which ultimately – it is argued – transfers to a positive impact on student achievement (Bolam et al., 2005). 

Advocates also emphasise the vital role of principals’ supportive leadership in PLC success (Louis & Kruse, 1995). Bolam et al. (2005) argue that the principal is responsible for optimizing resources, promoting individual and collective learning, promoting and sustaining PLCs, and leading and managing them. PLCs, it is claimed, promote professional collaboration between teachers and principals, sharing of authority, encouragement of teacher participation, and the adoption of leadership styles that focus on the goal of developing people and re-culturing schools (Fullan, 2001, 2006). 

PLCs as vehicles for expansive leadership in schools

The model of PLC advocated here not only promotes improved practices in curriculum and pedagogy, but also develops leadership opportunities at middle and teacher-levels through a school-wide involvement of all staff. Teacher leadership in particular is afforded opportunity through collaborative action research in school learning teams, and between-school collaboration on joint projects. PLCs themselves foster school-wide and school-deep development of leadership. When research engagement is formalized in the school, and when it is school-wide, involving leadership at all levels – senior, middle and teacher – it is more likely to be sustained. 

More empirical evidence is needed of the efficacy of PLCs for improving teaching and learning (Bolam et al., 2005). However, studies by Robinson and Timperley (2007) find large leadership effects on student outcomes through teacher development, emphasising the worth of PLCs as vehicles for professional development. Like most ‘good ideas’, whether PLCs achieve their purpose has more to do with how they are implemented, led and managed, than the concept itself. 

PLCs take advantage of the strong social capital in school group norms

PLCs recognise that teacher behaviour in schools is grounded in social behaviour -personal norms are adjusted to fit group norms. As Levin (2004) insightfully claims, school leaders and teachers rely more on tacit knowledge (knowledge gained from experience and practical intuition and wisdom) than on research knowledge. They are more influenced by workshops and in-service publications than they are by academic books and papers. They are persuaded more by colleagues than by governments and academic researchers. 

However, as Levin (2008) states, over-reliance on tacit knowledge is unwise; people are not necessarily skilled at using experience to make sound decisions or exercise judgements about what is good practice. Personal judgment is not always a good substitute for evidence.  Equally, Kahneman (2011) argues human reason, left to its own devices, is apt to engage in a number of fallacies and systematic errors, so if we want to make better decisions in our personal and occupational lives, and as a society, we need to be aware of these biases and seek workarounds. Kahneman’s thesis would be that there are dangers in over-reliance on individual teachers’ experience as the basis of practice, especially tacit knowledge, and that teachers as a community, with an increased capacity to use evidence-informed practice, provide safeguards against ‘errors’ or, in Kahneman’s terms, ‘workarounds’. 

Mobilizing knowledge

Leadership and management play a crucial role in what Levin (2008) refers to as ‘knowledge mobilisation’. For knowledge mobilisation to underpin the research-engaged school, organisational factors appear to exert greater influence than individual factors. The focus is on how organisations mobilise knowledge and convert it to practice. Hemsley-Brown and Sharp (2004) put it thus: ‘the conclusions from empirical research, in both education and nursing, confirm that the main barriers to knowledge use in the public sector are not at the level of individual resistance, but originate in an institutional culture that does not foster learning’.

Thus schools should become learning organisations, and we need to appreciate as organisations how practitioners think and work within them. Levin (2004) rightly claims organisational supports and incentives need boosting – especially as most social service organisations have low capacities for research absorption since managers have weak research backgrounds and spend little time on how research can boost performance.

A suggested model for teacher research-into-practice within the PLC 

Singapore offers a useful model, as does Brown (2017) in an English context, as to how to start research-into-practice. First, the school community (including parents) share data to agree and prioritise the problems facing the school. Agreement and consensus is important, since all teachers must buy-in to the priorities in a scaled-up and sustained way. Consensus and buy-in are more likely with a data driven process. Then, teacher teams work collaboratively on researching, piloting, and evaluating the best practices to overcome the problems. The collaborative action learning cycle is an effective means for teachers to trial, learn, evaluate and implement new practices together.

What role does leadership play in overcoming the barriers to research engagement? 

Policymakers and school leaders must justify PLCs in order to subsequently convince teachers of the benefits that can potentially flow in transforming teacher practices and learning outcomes (Dimmock, 2012). Effective leadership addresses the difficulties in transitioning to productive research environments. Teachers need the skills necessary to conduct rigorous research – hence the professional development time and opportunity to develop them. With the collaborative action cycle, many skills are learnt as the new practices are trialed and evaluated. A whole school approach where colleagues work collaboratively is conducive to a motivational culture, where leaders emphasize the developmental and improvement agenda rather than accountability. Barriers to teacher uptake of research also include problems of access and understanding. Research findings need to be distilled, understood and easily translated into practice. In these respects, leaders need to establish good networks with universities and access to data bases and libraries so that teachers can obtain the materials they need. 


Research engagement – the contribution of leadership in essence 

In creating and sustaining research-engaged schools leadership is instrumental in the following ways: 

  • at all levels – from headteacher to teacher leadership;
  • in building the social and organizational capital – and hence the school culture – that values teaching and learning as research-informed activities;
  • in ensuring acceptance of research-into-practice, meaning that all newly trialed practices that are improvements, get implemented; 
  • by scaling up and sustaining informed practice through formalizing values, organizational structures and processes (eg PLCs);
  • by creating and supporting PLCs to involve all staff in researching and evaluating their practices in order to improve teaching, learning and leadership; 
  • by securing an agreed strategy for school-wide and school-deep research and evidence-based practice, centred on school problems, and deciding a methodology for teachers to apply – such as collaborative action learning;
  • by building collaborative networks with other schools to undertake joint research, and addressing obstacles and barriers to research engagement.


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