Research in schools: experience and tips from the frontline

By Caroline Fisher

Tuesday 12 January 2016

Recently, we were thrilled to get a group of school leaders together with whom NFER has worked independently on research engagement over the past couple of years. We wanted to find out how these schools have successfully managed to engage with research and what they have learnt from the process.

Our group included leaders from a diverse mix of school type but all had a similar interest in developing research engagement in their schools – an enthusiasm that we would love to see replicated in all schools.

Our first observation was that those present really wanted to talk to each other. They valued the whole process of sharing ideas, issues and opinions and found it of personal interest and benefit to them. Why else would they have made the effort to come to London after a busy day teaching?

Our second observation was that each school leader, although in some cases using different approaches in their school, came across common themes that we thought would be worth sharing. Here’s a brief summary of these…

Why do teachers engage with research and in enquiry?

Resoundingly, they all agreed that research and enquiry help them do their jobs better, which in turn helps to improve the teaching and learning outcomes for their students. Teachers shared the view that these activities should be based on genuine need and be clearly linked to the school’s priorities. While many teachers feel they are doing ‘everything they can’, additional help is appreciated, particularly if it means efficiency gains in the long term.

They told us that, on a more personal level, teachers use research for professional nourishment, to become more critical consumers of evidence, especially in the face of media rhetoric and political reporting of education issues.

Popular lines of enquiry were:

  • how best to prepare students for exams, such as modelling answers in lessons as opposed to ‘mock’ preparation
  • how to get the most from marking and feedback, including looking at the depth of response, frequency and nature of feedback whilst remembering the effect on workload.

Other popular research themes included: homework, motivation, achievement of pupil premium students, parental involvement, self-reflection, independent learning, soft skills development, flipped learning and more.

What are the essential preconditions for successful research engagement?

Creating dedicated time. One school had tied it into performance management. Interestingly, all these schools had allocated time, to some extent, for staff to get involved in research.

Giving staff ‘ownership’. Ensuring the activity is relevant and of interest to each individual in their own classroom was felt to be important

Having a genuine commitment from the leadership. Our school leaders were demonstrating their commitment by taking part in this discussion and had responsibility as their school’s research lead.

Creating a culture for learning (linked to their CPD programme). One school had started with a small group of teachers who persisted with their discussion forums and book groups. Popularity grew over time and it is now recognised as a key aspect of school life.

Providing resources to help teachers. Most recognised the need to provide and share research-informed literature between staff, for example a CPD library, access to journals (a recognised issue), building links with researchers and universities, sharing sources of information.

For the three of us at NFER fortunate enough to witness this discussion, we really valued the honesty, determination and motivation from these school leaders. All of them had received the NFER Research Mark or run the NFER Enquiring Schools programme. It was good to hear that our resources had helped schools that had a history of engaging with research as well as those that were just starting out. NFER’s recently revamped ‘Research in Schools’ page includes links to these resources as well as case studies, events and news stories.

The NFER Self-Review Tool is a free online tool to help schools review their school’s research engagement. Many of the areas highlighted above are covered in it and the links to resources will help develop research engagement further.

By sharing this discussion more widely, the school leaders and ourselves hope to help others looking to develop their school’s research engagement.