Increasing demand and engagement with educational research

By Carole Willis

Friday 23 May 2014

I’ve just read, with interest, the latest report from BERA (the British Educational Research Association) and the RSA on Research and the Teaching Profession. I also read Tom Bennett’s excellent blog on the report in the TES.

There is a lot of good material in the report, and it’s encouraging to see it building on many of the points made in our NFER Thinks paper earlier this year. In particular, I welcome the focus on creating a ‘research rich’ school environment, where research and enquiry are an integral part of the ethos of the school and part of day to day activities, rather than an ‘add-on’ that schools need to do on top of the multitude of other pressures they face. The latest Teachers’ Workload Diary Survey from the Department for Education highlights the long hours that teachers are working. Trying to add research engagement onto existing workloads is not an option. Finding ways to restructure how teachers are spending their time, using research and research-based approaches to make their jobs easier, as part of an overall school approach to teaching and learning, might be.

The overall themes in the report set out an exciting and ambitious vision for the way research could underpin and support a ‘self-improving school system’. And it is published at a time when the key players – government, researchers and teachers (as evidenced by the interest in the ResearchEd initiative) – clearly want to address these issues. However, the specific recommendations for England in section 4 are quite narrow and leave a number of unanswered questions. They relate to the overarching regulatory system – amending teacher and headteacher standards, and introducing a focus on research and enquiry into Ofsted’s inspection regime, as one of the ‘hallmarks of outstanding practice’.

I wanted to hear more about the role of the research community, and research commissioners – picked up in earlier chapters, but not translated into specific recommendations. How can academics and research organisations work more closely with schools to build research capacity and enquiry, and make it easier for heads and teachers to filter the large quantities of education research to find the high quality studies, and accessible information on what really works? If we are going to make research more relevant for practitioners, we need to work very closely with them to understand their priorities and needs – as Tom Bennett says, we need to ask practitioners what their key questions are, and collaborate in producing evidence that will address these questions. It’s essential that we present our research as a useful tool that can help teachers do their jobs more effectively.

Our recent literature review identified different ways to ‘produce’ and disseminate research, and highlighted the fact that research needs to be translated for practice before it can be used in practice. Teachers need approaches that they can easily pick up and use in the classroom, not just academic papers. The BERA/RSA report suggests that commissioners should: “build teacher engagement into commissioning processes, so that wherever possible teachers are active agents in research, rather than passive participants”. I agree. But commissioners also need to engage practitioners before they start the commissioning process, to find out what the research questions should be.

In all of the debates I have been involved with over the last few years about ‘what works’ and providing higher quality evidence to support improvements in teaching, the big concern I have always had is that most of these initiatives are on the ‘supply’ side. They focus on how to generate better research, and make it more accessible. This is really important, but of little use if no-one engages with the findings. There is generally much less focus on how to tackle the ‘demand side’. What can we do to help increase demand for research within schools, academy chains, Teaching School Alliances and amongst governors and schools leaders – the customers for our work? In this context, the greater focus on demand from the teaching profession for research in the BERA/RSA report is welcome. However, the report also demonstrates that although other countries in the UK have set out clear ‘policy frameworks’ intended to raise the importance of research as part of teacher education and practice, these haven’t translated into changed practice on the ground.

As well as conducting research that addresses the things that are most important to schools, part of the solution is to convince school leaders, governors – and parents – that the findings from good research can make a difference to children’s outcomes. Quantifying the link between research engagement and school outcomes is extremely difficult, because there are so many steps between teachers ‘engaging’ with research, or undertaking their own enquiry, and the eventual outcomes for children (although evaluating the impact of specific initiatives on children’s outcomes is somewhat easier). The Education Endowment Foundation is about to conduct some ground breaking research into this issue, looking at different forms of research engagement, and the resulting impacts.

Of course, many schools are doing this already, as Matt Inniss pointed out in his recent guest blog for NFER.

One of the helpful recommendations in BERA/RSA’s report is that Ofsted “should undertake a thematic review to identify and disseminate best practice in the use of research and enquiry…”. The research that we are conducting with United Learning, described in Matt’s blog, will also provide more detail on how schools are overcoming the barriers, and successfully engaging with and in research. The next challenge will be to assess what works best.