How can we give evidence legs in the classroom? Learnings from the Literacy Octopus

By Pippa Lord and Nicola Ward

Wednesday 30 January 2019

Despite growing recognition within the teaching profession of the potential of research evidence in the classroom to support teaching and learning, embedding it into everyday practice is no mean feat. The latest findings from the ‘Literacy Octopus’ project conducted by NFER’s Education Trials Unit bears testimony to this, adding further evidence and food for thought to an area of widespread interest to policy makers, researchers and educators alike.

The Literacy Octopus trials - aptly named after their multi-armed design – were part of a study funded by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), the Department for Education (DfE) and the London Schools Excellence Fund (LSEF). Their aim was to evaluate a range of different ways of engaging schools with research-based resources, including light-touch ‘passive’ approaches such as emailing materials to schools, and more ‘active’ (albeit still light-touch and short-term) support such as face-to-face events about putting research into practice. The result? Neither the passive nor the active interventions had any impact on pupils’ literacy attainment in 2015/2016 or one year later in 2016/2017.

Many working within the education sector won’t be surprised to learn that simply sending resources to schools, even when they are evidence-based, is not enough to improve pupil outcomes, or certainly not in the timescale measured (two academic years). Indeed, there is a strong body of research demonstrating that passive dissemination-based approaches have only limited impact on teachers and their behaviours. In a complex and crowded marketplace, research evidence is competing against a torrent of information, products and services vying for attention. Amid this, it’s likely that only a small proportion of schools will ever engage with research-based materials that fall unsolicited through their letter boxes or inboxes.

However, as the findings from the Literacy Octopus suggest, the mode of delivery is not necessarily the crux of the challenge when it comes to supporting research use in schools. In fact, the active / passive nature of the intervention used within the trials did not seem to be related to levels of engagement with the materials. Even the more active approaches, such as events and face-to-face support, did not generate substantially more engagement with the materials or support on offer than passive mailings and invitations.

Despite the differing nature of the interventions they received, the small proportion (16 per cent) of schools that did engage to a great extent (e.g. by hosting CPD sessions, or requesting further materials) did have some common ground. Some already had in place a whole-school approach to research-engagement (for example with a member of staff designated as a research champion or with an approach to CPD that incorporated research evidence). Our case studies found that of those that went on to implement change as a result of the trial materials, in-school collaboration and support, and trying-out, reviewing and embedding the approaches seemed key. With that said, they still perceived a long process to sustaining change in the classroom or achieving impacts on pupils’ learning.

So, what does this mean for the future of research-informed teaching?

Changes to teaching practice as a result of interventions requires time to embed in the classroom. The method of disseminating research evidence, as part of this process, is undoubtedly important. However, the conditions in schools which facilitate research engagement are key to ensuring the best chance of success. Researchers and policy makers therefore need to provide more opportunity and support for schools to build their capacity and have the appropriate systems and structures to engage with and use research evidence. The Research Schools programme funded by EEF, which aims to support a network of schools to use evidence to improve teaching practice, is an example of this in action.

NFER remains committed to supporting research-informed teaching and offers a range of free resources to help schools become more research-engaged (some of these are listed below). While many of these could be considered ‘passive’ forms of dissemination, we have actively invested in improving our understanding of teachers’ preferences for the content and presentational style of research findings, as well as the influence that different forms of output can have on teachers’ thinking, and potentially their practice. For example, our own research suggests that research evidence needs to be relevant, credible and tailored to specific audiences. We are also increasingly involving schools in the research process as part of the 150+ projects we undertake every year, by sharing research summaries and tailored feedback to provide useful evidence to inform local decision-making. To share our research more widely with schools, we regularly produce research outputs written specifically for teachers. These include practical research summaries, such as our briefing for school leaders on how best to support the attainment of disadvantaged pupils. Other outputs include evidence-based classroom resources, such as our recent series of science lesson plans based on data from TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study in Northern Ireland).

But more research is needed. In the Literacy Octopus trials, it is likely that the ‘active’ approaches were still too light touch and neither sufficiently tailored nor sustained beyond the trial period. Indeed, the research literature suggests that for teachers to engage most effectively with research evidence, it needs to be transformed for use in practice, rather than simply summarised. NFER is now evaluating a project, as part of the EEF knowledge mobilisation strategy, which seeks to find out how schools can be supported in translating and embedding evidence. We look forward to sharing the final report in 2019, which will add further evidence to our understanding of research-use in schools, and be used to design more effective literacy support programmes nationally.

Find more information about the Literacy Octopus projects and access the full report here.

NFER research engagement resources: