Asking the right questions

By Sue Rossiter

Wednesday 11 September 2013

The scientist is not a person who gives the right answers, he’s one who asks the right questions (Lévi-Strauss)

Looking at the relationship between research and practice earlier this year I noted that creating the evidence base is the easy part and that we need to think much harder about how teachers and others can be inspired and supported to do something different as a result.

Well everyone at ResearchEd 2013 on 7 September certainly worked hard to create better alignment between what researchers do and the needs of teachers and others who want to provide the best possible education and support for children and young people.  And I must add my own thanks and congratulations to Tom Bennett for being the catalyst for such an enjoyable and stimulating day.  I look forward to seeing the videos and slides for all of the sessions in due course, especially those I could not attend in such a packed programme.

So far I have reflected a bit on the various calls for teachers to generate the research questions.  This started with Ben Goldacre’s session (brilliantly and amusingly adapted in response to the unreliable IT projection) with the suggestion of creating a national “silo” of teacher generated research questions. Laura McInerney then touched on what might be the “seven most needed answers” that educational research could help us find.  And in the session run by my own colleagues (Ben Durbin and Gareth Mills, together with Emma Starkey, Assistant Principal of Accrington Academy) we invited attendees to share their main aspiration for their class or school.

As is the case in the Enquiring Schools programme provided by Futurelab at NFER, these aspirations should be the starting point for engaging with existing evidence and for creating new evidence.  And I was pleased to see that this message was echoed in Kevan Collins’s session towards the end of the day which set out the emerging EEF model of knowledge mobilisation – start with the data, professional judgement and values in your school to decide what the most important questions are for you.

So, what might be in this new national “silo” of research questions?

A silo is a store (usually of grain or similar) but it is also a metaphor for systems, processes and organisations that act in isolation, not interacting with others and not sharing information.  It will be important to avoid this negative stereotype and to share the potentially important research questions being generated from practice and from practitioners.

So here we have made available online the first contributions from the NFER workshop on teachers’ aspirations which may be assisted by research.

Over the next month we ask you to give your views on which are the most important ones by using the online “Powerleague” tool (which, incidentally, is a free application developed by Futurelab that you may also wish to use in your own classroom or area of work).  To add your own research questions or to vote you will need to login (it only takes a minute – you just need an email address and password).  You’ll also then need a password for the league itself, which is “research”.  As well as voting on the relative importance of questions other people have already added, you can also add your own and these will be included in the league.

You might want to take a look at Laura’s slides and her blog for the features of a really important problem, although at this stage questions and problems of any sort are of interest.

It may be that some of these questions are so specific that they are best tackled by a piece of research in a single school.  Sometimes it will be of benefit to work on a question in several or many different schools, perhaps as a pre-cursor to a bigger trial of some sort.  Later this month NFER will be launching some new free and low-cost resources for schools to support local research and evidence gathering.  If you feel your school is already well ahead in its systematic use of external and internal research then you may want to apply for the NFER Research Mark – which has the backing of a large number of organisations including teacher unions and the National College.

As a large national, independent educational research organisation, in regular contact with thousands of schools, NFER is interested in developing this pilot silo into the longer term national silo.  This would also provide a place where schools can indicate their willingness to work with others on research projects, including the RCTs Ben Goldacre is keen to promote.  We’d like to develop the infrastructure in collaboration with others, not least the teachers and school leaders who will use it and the research organisations who will want to access it.  If you’d like to help, then please get in touch.

I hope that over time the silo will capture some questions that will really challenge the research community (academics and practitioners), will secure the interest of research funders and – most importantly – make us work together as researchers and practitioners to seek answers to some of the really big questions in education.

Sue Rossiter is the former Chief Executive of NFER.