Building bridges between teachers and researchers

By Matt Walker

Friday 27 May 2016

Schools and teachers are increasingly expected to engage with research evidence to enhance teachers’ professional practice, pupil outcomes and school capacity for self-improvement. However, this is easier said than done and it can be difficult to know where to start. Last week I attended the first day of a two-day conference which brought together researchers and teachers to talk about using research to improve teaching and learning of STEM subjects.

This was an opportunity for academics, teachers, CPD facilitators and other experts to share and discuss what they have been doing and to learn from one another.

However, I was struck by a lack of connectivity that I observed between the two stakeholder groups, arising from differences in their needs and priorities, and in the language used. For example, there were a few presentations I attended where the academics talked about their latest research project, describing, sometimes in detail, their processes and methods, and then whizzing through some findings that left me wondering what the implications were for practice. Similarly, some teacher-presenters talked animatedly about an enquiry-based project they had been involved in, initiated in some cases by their recent enrolment in a Master’s degree, but where again I was left wondering what the take-away messages were for the audience and for research-engagement in schools more generally.

To my mind, the most successful sessions were those where teachers and researchers co-presented, where meaningful opportunities were created for teachers and researchers to ask questions about each other’s work, and where both teachers and researchers were able to offer their own (and often different) perspectives on the same research project.

Indeed, we know that there is evidence that many teachers struggle to interpret and act on findings from academic research, despite there being a growing appetite to do so. Recent evidence published by the Education Endowment Foundation suggests that support from senior leaders is ‘crucial’ to getting teachers to engage with research. While I think many of the teachers at the conference would say that they received this support (they had, after all been released to attend the event), my impression was that not many headteachers were actually present.

All this made me think extra hard about my own role and contribution to this particular conference in addition to the role of teacher-researcher interactions more broadly. Schools often ask NFER for advice on how they might begin to become more research-engaged and I had been asked to provide an introduction to some of the tools, products and services that we have developed to help schools engage with research and in enquiry. I spoke briefly about two such products:

  • The NFER Self-Review Tool (a free online tool to help schools evaluate where they are with their engagement with research and enquiry); and
  • The NFER Research Mark (an award scheme which gives schools recognition for their research-engagement work).

I hope I managed to side-step some of the pitfalls that I’d observed academic presenters can be prone to. I was certainly fortunate to be co-presenting with James Simpson, Assistant Headteacher at Sir William Borlase’s Grammar School. James’s school recently completed the Research Mark and were awarded it at the ‘extended’ stage (the highest level available). James was able to articulate, in a way that I never could, the benefits that he and his school experienced from participating in the Research Mark, and the impact this has had on his school’s journey towards becoming more research-engaged. He described it as a “fantastic ‘critical friend’ experience”, and one that has led to real change in his school, including a research-led move towards regular, sustained, collaborative CPD.

I think the organisers of the conference should be commended for staging what was an ambitious programme of presentations. I found my discussions with James and other teachers helpful in informing my own thinking about the role and use of research in education, and hopefully they benefitted from my thoughts and experiences. It isn’t easy to bring together teachers and researchers to engage in meaningful dialogue. However, I am convinced of the potential of such opportunities to promote shared understanding and collaborative action for the benefit of research and practice.