Teacher research: what’s the point?

Ben Durbin

Monday 21 October 2013

“One of the most depressing experiences I’ve had is talking to teachers who describe a research project they have poured their heart and soul into that is methodologically crap”.

This was one of Ben Goldacre’s more provocative lines from his presentation at the Research Ed conference last month. If by ‘methodologically crap’ he means ‘not an RCT’, then – judging by the level of interest in sessions at the conference that discussed teachers undertaking their own small-scale research projects – there are an awful lot of teachers wasting their time. And NFER’s efforts to create a suite of resources to support teachers doing their own research will also have been wasted. But surely we can’t all be wrong?

There’s much talk at the moment about ‘teachers engaging in research’. Indeed, this week’s TES carries a poll suggesting that 80 per cent of respondents believe educational research can be used in the classroom in the same way as doctors apply research to their work. But, like the shouted conversation in a crowded conference room, I fear some misunderstandings and crossed wires are occurring about what this really means. I’m going to try to unpick some of these here.

Teachers engaging in research

I would firstly like to differentiate between two distinct uses of the term ‘teachers engaging in research’.

  • Teachers accessing evidence produced and synthesised by research organisations, and using the findings to inform their practice (teachers as ‘consumers’ of research).
  • Teachers undertaking their own research, either in the form of small-scale action research, or as participants in larger projects coordinated with other schools (teachers as ‘producers’ of research).

The twist (plot spoiler alert) is that while being distinct, for reasons that will become clear, the two also overlap.

The purpose of research

Our main focus for now then, and the subject of Ben Goldacre’s comment, is on the second of these – teachers doing their own research. NFER will shortly be publishing a literature review exploring what is already known about the challenges and opportunities for all forms of teacher engagement in research. The key message emerging from this work for teachers doing their own research is to have a clear purpose in mind. We have identified three possibilities:

  1. To inform a national knowledge base. In other words, to generate research findings that can supplement evidence produced by research organisations and inform national practice decisions and spending choices.
  2. To support school improvement. Research is a whole-school (or consortium) exercise in critical reflection, by which priorities are identified and new solutions are developed and tested. It is the means to so-called ‘disciplined innovation’, and the audience for the findings is primarily internal to the individual school or consortium.
  3. To support individual professional development. Similar to school improvement, but conducted by individuals or small groups of teachers to support their own specific professional development needs or interests.

Informing a national knowledge base

Research intended to inform a national knowledge base obviously needs to satisfy high standards of methodological rigour (which, Ben Goldacre perhaps envisages in the form of groups of schools collaborating on an RCT). It’s the only way to justify the findings being used to inform decisions by other schools around the country. If this is the purpose of teacher’s research project, then I agree with the suggestion that a weak methodology implies wasted effort.

An end in its own right

However, in the case of the second and third purposes, the precise research methodology adopted becomes less important. It’s the particular way of thinking and the types of processes that research introduces to school or individual improvement that matter most. Reflecting on what is currently unknown, isn’t working, or needs improvement. Encouraging an openness to enquiry and innovation: something new that hasn’t been tried here before. Implementing new ideas in a conscious, deliberate, and critical fashion that leads to continuous evaluation and refinement. The asking of further questions about how we might do things better.

Don’t get me wrong, I still strongly advocate teachers adopting the best research methodology possible given the constraints they’re under (and NFER will be contributing further here soon by publishing our own evaluation policy). However, even in the absence of a gold standard approach, the process – and the culture it encourages – has great potential to bring about positive change. Indeed, while the first purpose for research above can be thought of as a means to and end (better pupil outcomes resulting from subsequent implementation of findings), the second and third purposes can be seen as ends in their own right, leading directly to improvement in professional practice and pupil outcomes.

(In the spirit of evidence informing practice, I’m conscious that I’ve not provided any evidence to back up this assertion. The deeply ironic paucity of evidence in this whole area is another emerging message from our literature review, which we’ll blog about another day, and are working to address).

Use of evidence

So, where do we find the overlap with the researcher-produced evidence that I alluded to earlier? Any one of the three types of teachers’ production of research described above will be most effective when undertaken in parallel with consumption of existing evidence. Teacher-led research intended to add to the national knowledge base should first consider what is already known, and organisations such as NFER have a responsibility to ensure this is as accessible as possible to teachers. In my view one of the greatest benefits of school and individual professional development-led research, is the opportunity, means and motivation it creates to draw on the wealth of evidence that others have already produced.

Looking for ideas more widely than your immediate experiences and peers can lead to innovations that no one in your school would otherwise have thought of. And looking more widely for ideas supported by evidence (rather than, say, taking on trust the claims from a commercial provider’s brochure) will lead to innovations that many other teachers have already tested, giving confidence that successes can be replicated in your school.

There are two possible ‘research systems’ we might nurture – research undertaken by research professionals, and research undertaken by teachers. Each has the potential to improve our schools. But they will be the most effective when they function in parallel, successfully engaging with one another like cogs in a well-oiled machine.