Research as a catalyst for change

Aug. 25, 2017

Karen Spence-Thomas

Bespoke Programme Leader and Co-Lead, Institute of of Education R&D Network

Karen Spence-Thomas, co-lead of the Institute of Education’s Research and Development (R&D) Network, explores how to encourage teachers to engage with research.

“The evidence that research can impact positively on teacher practice and school improvement is strong. The challenge is how to make it happen.” Toby Greany in Leading the Use of Research & Evidence in Schools.

The last few years have seen a groundswell in school practitioners turning to research to inform decision-making and improve practice. Policy makers have drawn on the medical model of evidence-informed practice to persuade leaders and teachers that bridging the gap between research and practice will strengthen professional confidence and improve outcomes for pupils.

Researchers are making great strides in ensuring their findings can be accessed, understood and applied by practitioners, with the Education Endowment Foundation taking a lead role and staffroom bookshelves increasingly populated with the likes of Dweck, Hattie and Wiliam.  

Participant numbers at ResearchED conferences and practitioner-initiated TeachMeets suggest there is an appetite for practice-focused intellectual stimulation. Indeed, the proliferation of educational debate – often polarised and heated – in blogspaces and the twittersphere demands even greater critical judgement on the part of consumers of digital research. 

Ambition TL15

And yet, recent DfE research into evidence-based teaching found that, while most teachers interviewed valued research evidence, many did not feel confident in engaging directly with research, or did not feel able to judge its quality.

The report concludes that though some schools are strongly research-engaged (typically, Teaching Schools), many are not. Crucially, whether schools are highly engaged or less so, the report argues that ‘school leaders can make positive changes to increase engagement’.

So what do school leaders need to make this a reality? Ambition School Leadership provides support by embedding research engagement and its importance within its programmes.

To date Ambition has formed a strong relationship with the EEF to fulfil joint aims of encouraging leaders to consider bigger trends and previous evidence when making decisions regarding the initiatives they implement in school.

This August sees the launch of a new programme element for secondary Teaching Leaders participants going into their second year. This is called Maximising Impact through Research and Development (R&D), and has been created in partnership with the UCL Institute of Education.

The sessions are informed by research into effective leadership and professional development. Here are some tips for all leaders interested in R&D, drawn from the principles behind Maximising Impact.

Involve the ‘right’ people

Middle leaders play a crucial role in driving school improvement, ‘making it happen’ on a daily basis with their teams. Much of the professional development they receive focuses on their roles as team leaders and managers, monitoring pupil progress and holding colleagues to account.

The Maximising Impact sessions aim to develop the potential of middle leaders to be ‘catalysts for change’ (Louise Stoll in Brown’s 2015 book) by helping them to bring about evidence and research-informed improvement in staff practice and building their skills in leading teaching and learning. 

Link to school improvement

When devising a focus for your R&D, make sure it’s informed by school-based data and directly linked to school and departmental priorities.

Widen your definition of ‘data’ to include information about pupil learning and staff practice, as well as pupil progress.

Connect research to practice

Become a critical consumer of ‘external’ research, carefully considering its relevance to your context and how it relates to practice in your school.

Use an enquiry approach to combine research evidence with your practice-based knowledge and expertise.

Make it manageable

Draw on data and evidence already collected in school so that the evidence-gathering process is efficient and linked to day-to day practice.

Be creative in using existing meeting times for professional learning and for engaging staff in R&D.

Spread the word and ensure sustainability

Present and share research findings in easily communicable yet rigorous ways. Maximising Impact uses a poster format for this.

Ask – what do your findings tell you to focus on next? Will you go more deeply into the same issue or use the process to research another issue?

If you found these tips useful, watch this space for more news about Maximising Impact in the coming year!

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