It has become a truism among many commentators and policy makers that we should be creating a more research-engaged teaching profession and a more practice-engaged research profession. For example, Ben Goldacre opens his recent report for the Department for Education (“Building evidence into education“) by saying:

“I think there is a huge prize waiting to be claimed by teachers. By collecting better evidence about what works best, and establishing a culture where this evidence is used as a matter of routine, we can improve outcomes for children, and increase professional independence”

It is ironic that this entirely logical contention has not been subject to a huge amount of research. We don’t know with certainty if encouraging teachers (and policy makers) to engage with and in research is the most resource-efficient method of improving the quality of learning and the standards of attainment, nor if encouraging academics to engage with practitioners will lead to better and more impactful research. By seeing this idea as a new panacea we could be in danger of overlooking approaches such as more directive training and coaching which may be significantly more effective for some practitioners in certain contexts, or eliminating theoretical and exploratory research which may be enriching our understanding. However, with the groundswell of interest and logical premise behind this approach it is certainly worth pursuing further, so we need more high quality research into the relative effectiveness of getting teachers and policy-makers engaged with and in research and getting academics to engage with practitioners as a means to improving the quality of learning and the standards of attainment.

It would seem logical that if we are going to avoid simply keeping teachers ‘busy’ and ensure that precious resources are used effectively then we also need to be explicit that the majority of practitioner-led research needs to be aimed directly at improving learning outcomes. This needs to be rigorously evaluated before, during, and after the research. By doing this it becomes significantly more likely that we’ll actually make a difference for the young people we teach.

The only way to successfully evaluate the impact of engaging teachers with research is to gradually scale up the adoption of these methods while simultaneously scaling up the evaluation of it. For the rest of this blog I will examine the barriers to this scaling up and present some possible solutions for each.

1. Aspirations

The first barrier to creating a research-engaged profession is that of aspiration. Simply put, there are lots of teachers, academics and policy makers who either don’t see this as a valid (e.g. ‘research is worthless’ or ‘research belongs in universities’) or don’t see it as a priority (e.g. ‘it’s all very well but what we really need is …’). Some may feel we’ve moved far enough in this direction already, others see that we shouldn’t start looking at this issue until others have been resolved. I’ve personally spoken to very senior system leaders who have bluntly stated to me that “we don’t need any more research, we have quite enough already, we just need to get on and start doing what we know”.

To resolve this issue we need to:

  • Ensure prominent system leadership from respected stakeholders in a variety of schools, colleges and universities. These leaders need to systematically promote the importance of the principle of a research-engaged profession through words and actions. This must include professional bodies, networks of schools, universities, subject associations, unions, etc.
  • Develop and refine the arguments for engagement in research, articulate the benefits for young people, education professionals and policy makers, and continue to carry out research about this process.
  • Highlight the existing (and historical) bright-spots across the system, foster champions from within these and encourage enthusiasts to engage with them.
  • Demonstrate compatibility with other aspirations, e.g. demonstrate how engaging with research can help close attainment gaps, produce deeper and more meaningful learning and raise the motivation and morale of staff.
  • Engage with the doubters and sceptics to understand the barriers to their engagement with the idea and work collaboratively to address these.

2. Expectations

There are many in the system who feel that it is desirable to engage with research but genuinely expect very little change and are not likely to demand it in their own institutions. This may be through experience (e.g. ‘this was tried before and didn’t work’), lack of confidence (e.g. ‘this would never work here’) lack of support and resourcing (e.g. ‘we just don’t have the time and money required to do this’) or simply complacency (e.g. ‘this is something for others, we’re doing just fine here already’). There may also be others who don’t understand the depth of change needed so their expectations may be pitched too low, e.g. simply adopting a tick-box culture of ‘is there evidence for this’, or forcing researchers to show that they’ve ‘engaged’ with practitioners without ever checking if there was a meaningful outcome.

Teaching has, in many places, a culture of accepting new ideas without an evidence base, accepting anecdotal and methodologically weak evidence, and of assuming that something can be learned or implemented after the briefest of engagements with it. There is also a mistaken belief that knowledge can be disseminated via telling, lecturing or reading, even though research clearly shows that effective dissemination or ‘knowledge mobilisation’ must be a mainly social, interactive and iterative process.

To get around these ideas we could:

  • Collaboratively create new standards/kitemarks for teacher engagement with research and researcher engagement with practice and promote these heavily.
  • Create simple, clear guidelines and case studies so that expected practice can be illustrated more clearly. Ensure that institutions are encouraged (or even required) to form long term relationships with peers who are stronger in these areas and so that practice and understanding can be developed.
  • Build engagement with research in to initial teacher education and ongoing career development, e.g. a requirement for QTS, for promotion to leadership posts.
  • Develop networks of institutions who take mutual responsibility for standards – i.e. peer assessment, support and challenge.
  • Build quality engagement with research in to other accountability frameworks and qualifications, e.g. Ofsted, future Master Teacher standards, designation as SLEs, LLEs and NLEs.

3. Knowledge, skill and habit

Even where aspirations are aligned with high expectations there will be gaps in the ability of teaching and academic staff to carry out new procedures as well as many ingrained habits which are hard to shift and preconceptions which are hard to challenge. Researchers are generally neither hired nor trained for their ability to engage with teaching staff, and critical use of research, design of evaluation, approaches to methodology, etc. do not usually feature significantly in initial teacher education (ITE) programmes. As ITE moves out of higher education institutions then this challenge will grow significantly as schools will, in almost all cases, have little or no expertise to draw on in order to deliver training in these areas.

To deal with the skills gap we should:

  • Embed training for practitioners and researchers as part of their induction and ongoing training.
  • Make engagement with research a prominent part of the professional standards
  • Make much greater use of the existing knowledge and practice ‘hotspots’ and ensure more practitioners and researchers are exposed to these institutions
  • Create a series of online training courses to address the most fundamental skills gaps
  • Develop national support networks that bring together existing expertise and help to scale it up.

4. Focus

Schools and colleges are awash with priorities and most of them are required to demonstrate that they are ‘focusing’ on all of them at the same time, e.g. gifted and talented, closing the gap, employability, creativity/21st century learning, cultural knowledge, etc.

If research-engagement is ‘just another priority’ then we can pretty much rule out any significant progress in this area and can safely assume that for most schools this becomes just another hurdle to jump over or box to tick. There will be other priorities in school that will directly conflict (or at least seem to) with research use and engagement, e.g. directives from central government about methodology, performance pay, league tables, recruitment issues, Ofsted pressure, etc.

If we want practitioner engagement with and in research to be seen as a top priority then we must:

  • Align all system policies toward it – e.g. pay, accountability, data collection, training, standards, inspection, funding for new projects, etc.
  • Decide collaboratively which areas are less important than this and ensure that all stakeholders (and particularly those in influential positions) are agreed on this.
  • Ensure that leaders at all levels of the system have been considered. If this becomes a senior leadership preoccupation without buy-in and promotion from middle leadership then it will fail. If teachers and researchers are not holding each other to account for their engagement with research then success will be harder.

In the second blog I look at the challenges around resourcing/time, mechanisms for engagement, relationships/communication and trust, evaluation, and sustainability. You may also be interested in an earlier blog The Many Challenges of Evidence-based Teaching.