The ‘what, why and how’ of research engagement – NFER’s new resource for schools

By Julie Nelson

Monday 16 March 2015

According to a recent NFER blog post by Deputy Headteacher Alex Quigley, engaging with research is a potentially powerful tool to support change and autonomy in schools. But what does ‘engaging with research’ mean? Why does it matter? And how can your school get started?

NFER’s new Self-Review Tool, launched just last weekend at the Research Lead Network Conference in Cambridge is designed specifically to help with this challenge. It is a free resource, open and available to all. It supports schools and individuals to identify their improvement priorities and think about how research evidence can support that change or development.

This is important – the tool doesn’t promote research engagement simply for research engagement’s sake.

Then it helps schools and individuals to review their levels of research engagement against eight key statements (related to leadership and vision, managing resources, setting priorities and working collaboratively, for example). It provides three simple steps:

  1. Review your stage of engagement (journey) against eight key statements
  2. Receive a chart and report including suggested next steps
  3. Receive signposting to useful resources to help with your school improvement plan.

All the way through, the tool uses the language: ‘engaging with research and in enquiry’.

Why does research engagement matter?

Evidence on this topic is still surprisingly scant, but research does show that schools that understand research and apply the learning often have the best outcomes internationally. Schools that adopt a culture of enquiry are also most likely to improve teaching and learning and improve outcomes for young people. In other words, it’s all about positive outcomes!

What does ‘engaging with research’ mean?

Not everyone agrees on this. There are a range of different producers and users of research (academics; professional researchers; statisticians; practitioners). There are also a variety of different methods and approaches to conducting research, and plenty of debate about the relative merits of each.

When we talk about ‘engaging with research’ in the Self-Review Tool we mean the ways in which you access, understand and apply academic or professionally produced research in your local setting. A great example of this approach is Little Heath secondary school, one of our Research Mark schools, where the headteacher explains how: “The NFER Research Mark helped us to tap into existing research to identify the best possible teaching strategies.”

There is a place for all types of research within an evidence-informed profession (it’s a question of understanding what you need to know, and the type of research evidence that will best answer that question), but the most reliable form of evidence for confident application, sharing and replication will always be large-scale and/or statistically representative.

What does ‘engaging in enquiry’ mean?

This is a related, but slightly different concept. When we talk about ‘engaging in enquiry’, we mean the ways in which you monitor and evaluate your own teaching and learning approaches and school-level developments, or how you encourage a culture of reflective practice through a systematic approach to CPD. Some good practice examples of ways in which schools are ‘engaging in enquiry’ include:

Building understanding of a local-level issue. This type of enquiry is generally ‘locally created for local benefit.’ The findings are unlikely to be replicable but can be very illuminating in your own setting. One of NFER’s research-engaged schools, Fallibrome Academy provide a good illustration. This school “wanted to investigate how to get pupils to improve their use of musical language using social media”.

Monitoring classroom innovations. This type of enquiry is generally ‘locally created for local benefit’, but also has the potential to influence future research. An enquiry approach creates space for the systematic recording, monitoring and evaluation of new approaches, and provides scope for scale-up and (ultimately) external evaluation of promising innovations. Accrington Academy, one of NFER’s Enquiring Schools, provides a good example: “We pride ourselves on taking an innovative approach to teaching and learning. Our staff are encouraged to take a risk and we have a strong culture of CPD.”

Implementing evidence-based approaches. This type of enquiry can be characterised as ‘externally created, but locally evaluated and applied.’ Local enquiry can be used as a means of ‘testing out’ and/or adapting an approach that has been ‘proven’ to work elsewhere through robust independent evaluation in your local setting.

The Self-Review Tool takes you through a series of statements and examples related to stages of ‘engaging with research and in enquiry’ in order to help you recognise what is going well, what should be prioritised, and where you might need to develop further. You can do a quick review as an individual, or you can get all your staff involved in a full review to obtain a whole-school picture. Gaining an understanding of the diversity of opinion across your school can help you focus your resources and effort in the right areas.

When using the tool, think broadly about your approach to research engagement, and think carefully about what will work in your context. But remember, do check the academic/professional research base first. It may be that evidence already exists – and there is no point re-inventing the wheel.

So, for all schools and teachers grappling with the questions: ‘What does research engagement mean?’ ‘Why does it matter?’ and ‘How can I get started?’, do visit our free Self-Review Tool and take a look. It is a great first port of call to help you answer all these questions, to plan out your priorities and to begin to gain support on your research-based school improvement journey.