Why understanding research engagement will help grow an evidence-led profession

By Matt Inniss

Tuesday 15 April 2014

The ‘ResearchEd’ movement is gaining momentum. This is a grassroots effort by teachers to shape the agenda in educational research, CPD and use of evidence to inform our practice.

It’s an exciting time to be debating these issues, with teachMeets, bloggers and tweeters creating a new platform for discussion, as well as considerable interest from the likes of the DfE and the Education Endowment Fund in discovering ‘what works’. But with so much going on, the fundamental prior question of how (or in some cases, whether) teachers’ already use evidence and research materials to improve their practice needs to be answered. How easily can teachers access useful and rigorous sources of evidence? How far can teachers create their own evidence base? How effective are small-scale action research projects for informing wider efforts such as Lesson Study, and what impact does all this effort have on how our students learn? NFER and United Learning have been running a joint research project to answer just such questions and I co-presented some initial findings at ResearchEd last week with my NFER colleague Tami McCrone.

Our presentation outlined how NFER and United Learning have worked closely together to explore what’s going on in almost 20 schools across the group, in both the independent sector and state academies. We’ve interviewed, head teachers, senior and middle leaders, classroom teachers, teaching assistants and school governors to identify the diversity of practice across very different school contexts and find out how much is currently happening. The school visits and interviews are still taking place – we hope to conduct in-depth case studies of at least seven schools across United Learning – but already we’ve discovered a fascinating range of experience. There are schools who are making concerted efforts to become ‘research-engaged communities’, but there are also significant challenges to realising this vision for even the most ambitious among them.

We’ve learned about schools running their own action research projects for members of staff; schools using the latest research literature to inform and structure their INSET days; schools partnering with local university education departments and even running ‘journal clubs’; plus the formal MA or MEd qualification is still a route many teachers pursue – juggling the demands of a hectic school day with their own formal research efforts and using this to improve their practice. Some schools used ‘Knowledge Champions’ to spread ideas or stimulate debate. In some the process seemed quite ‘top-down’, with SLTs taking the lead, while in others, individual departments (or sometimes just individual teachers) were taking it upon themselves to take the lead for their whole schools.

Our report will go into greater detail on these findings, but perhaps the most important element of the research to date has been to explore what are the ‘enablers’ which help to promote the use of evidence day-to-day within a school, and what are the barriers. Some are obvious, though still difficult to address – the need for more time and space to reflect was a constant theme.

Other factors are perhaps more subtle – for example, that developing a shared understanding of the value of research throughout a school is a challenge that requires social interaction to overcome. Social interaction, in the form of ‘hands on’ engagement via networks and face-to-face training sessions, or workshops that build on research evidence and develop understanding of the research process along the way, was suggested as a way forward.

The perceived risk that new practice (informed by evidence) might not work, or might remove a teacher from their ‘comfort zone’, was also seen to be a barrier to research-informed practice. Fostering a culture of innovation, reflection and experimentation in order to develop confidence would mitigate this risk.

So far, our joint research has benefitted from the input of both practitioners and researchers and we intend that joint input to inform our next steps – both in terms of how we share the full findings of this project, and how we develop further ones – perhaps in future to model the ways schools can access, utilise and generate their own research.

We owe much to that grassroots ‘ResearchEd’ movement. Let’s hope the momentum continues to gather pace.

Matt Inniss is Subject Leader for History and an Economics teacher at Paddington Academy in Westminster. He joined Paddington via the Teach First programme in 2008, after six years as a policy adviser at HM Treasury. Matt is an Advanced Lead Teacher at Paddington, responsible for developing teacher-led action research. He also spends some of his time working with United Learning, Paddington’s sponsor, to develop research and innovation projects across the group. In the last year Matt has been working with the NFER to investigate the use of evidence by teachers in United Learning schools; has been filmed by OFSTED for observer training; has been shadowed by Michael Gove for a day; been continually barracked by his year 12s for a lack of dress sense and ‘stingy’ marking; and is beginning to adapt to becoming a father for the first time. He’ll let you decide which of those experiences is the most stressful/fun/rewarding.