In the first part of this blog I set out the issues around creating a research-engaged teaching profession and looked at the challenges around aspirations, expectations, knowledge and skill, and focus. In this second part I will examine some more of the challenges and present some further possible solutions. This second blog has a particular focus on avoiding superficial and tokenistic engagement with and in research and ensuring that any changes in practice and systems are sustainable.
Resourcing & Time
Schools are already under enormous time pressure and there is increasing pressure to use budgets more effectively. This will, inevitably, mean that any non-contact time for teaching staff will be under significant pressure. Engaging in and with research is an expensive process, both in terms of time and money, and teachers don’t have access to many of the resources which they need in order to carry it out effectively, e.g. research journals, statistical tools and mentor support.
The only way to resolve this problem in a period of contracting budgets is to take a hard look at all the school improvement systems which are already in place. It may well be, for example, that much of the money spent on professional development courses and consultancy could be more effectively spent on enabling teachers to drive their own research and improvement projects. We know that staffing is a school’s biggest area of expenditure so it is important to scrutinise spending on teaching assistants given the research which shows how variable their impact can be. Schools will need to prioritise the use of fewer and more highly expert assistants and focus the savings on engagement with research in order to improve the expertise of teachers to deal with special educational needs.
Similarly, if there is central government commitment to teachers improving their own practice then there has to be a reduction in the cost of external accountability systems in order to divert funding towards this new area of engagement in and with research.
Schools need to allocate time where teachers can collaborate with each other and with researchers. Many schools are already using a model where they close early on one afternoon for this purpose as well as for staff development and this should be encouraged.
Our education system is designed around the paradigm that research happens in higher education and the results are fed in to schools to be implemented. There are insufficient relationships between schools and universities and it is extremely difficult to employ staff jointly in both schools and university settings. There is no single body to co-ordinate research across schools and universities, and no body to collect and disseminate findings. School teachers have no access to research tools and journals. Teachers have no single professional body to co-ordinate research-driven career paths.
In the absence of these structures we need to create a few co-ordinating networks and bodies but also leave room for innovative approaches. This should seek to merge and co-ordinate existing smaller approaches rather than replace them and they must work at many different scales, e.g. not just working nationally but also co-ordinating groups of:
- local authorities and/or academy chains, and
However, there should be no prescribed approach to this clustering – there are already innovative and proactive clusters in different forms around England and these should be encouraged and evaluated in order to determine the most effective structures. Groupings need to be set up in collaboration with each other – research is inherently a collaborative enterprise and the gradual building of trust between practitioners and institutions requires a constant focus on achieving buy-in and avoiding potential conflicts of interest or mis-trust.
In universities there needs to be a recognition in funding choices and in job descriptions that research-user engagement and practitioner engagement take time and are important. Impact evaluation for research needs to go far beyond superficial engagement and require that practitioners have been involved in the design, implementation and evaluation of research. Researchers need to consider not only their own personal research interests but look to act in a supportive capacity to help practitioners research their own priorities.
There need to be additional mechanisms to locate, train and support research champions and system leaders. As researchers and practitioners engage with each other then their growing experience, influence and impact needs to be recognised/certified in some way in order to encourage further development, ensure that skills are transferable, and keep a tally of the level of expertise in the system.
Some startup funding could be made available for new think-tanks/non-profits and social enterprises with innovative ideas for developing the system further.
Relationships, communication and trust
There are pockets of practice where schools work very effectively with universities, but in the majority of schools there are only superficial links at best. One of the main challenges of this is that the language and vocabulary used in schools to describe practice may be significantly different to the language used by academics to describe their own work. This leads to mistrust and misunderstanding and fosters a sense of alienation. Indeed, the same is true when looking at the language ‘gap’ between policy makers and practitioners, and policy makers and researchers. With superficial engagement there are few deeply established and trusting relationships which makes the establishment of joint engagement with research highly challenging.
Relationships are also key to embedding the results of any research in to teaching practice. As I wrote in The many challenges of evidence-based teaching:
- Teachers generally value their colleagues’ opinions of the usefulness of research over traditional measures of research quality – simply labelling something as coming from a randomised control trial won’t necessarily improve uptake, for example.
- Teachers will tend to rate the credibility of local research more highly than other findings, and will be significantly more likely to take on ideas if they match their personal experience or that of trusted colleagues.
The building of trust and a common language will take a significant amount of time. Co-ordinating bodies need to seek out examples where relationships have been built and use champions from these institutions who can ‘evangelise’ elsewhere and help break down barriers. In order to develop a mutual understanding there needs to be constant debate and discussion and this needs to be valued explicitly for its role in building relationships. This needs to be a system-wide process – we cannot allow isolated pockets to develop with mainly internally connected relationships and a unique common language.
The expectations of deeper relationships between academia and school practice will require a new focus within recruitment, with a greater priority given to an ability to communicate, be flexible in language, and build relationships. There will be a need to focus some training and development resources for existing workforce to ensure that these traits and skills can be developed.
A key method for building relationships and trust is to ensure relationships are two-way (everyone involved in learning from each other) and that there is mutual and reciprocal vulnerability (all parties held to account equitably and subjected to a similar amount of challenge/discomfort). Trust is also built when there are clear lines of responsibility, shared and clearly articulated goals and well-understood processes.
The education system needs facilitators from both teaching practice and academia who specialise in having particularly large networks and contacts and who can ensure that appropriate connections are made. They can also mediate where challenges are arising and arrange regular meetings containing a wide range of stakeholders (including system leaders, pupils, parents, policy makers as well as research and teacher practitioners) in order to repeatedly tackle the question of what is and isn’t working well, and why.
There have been a number of different attempts to move toward a research engaged profession. When these have been instigated by government then funding has only been guaranteed for a limited time or the system has changed so profoundly that any changes that were being embedded are lost. Part of this issue is that the relationship-building with policy makers has not been prioritised and there has been insufficient advocacy and evaluation to persuade them to continue with programmes.
In order to ensure that a process of creating a research-engaged profession will last we need to create a central group that will constantly evaluate and re-evaluate existing work and potential innovations. This group must work closely with existing stakeholders as well as strive to identify newly emerging ones – this is particularly important in policy and political circles but needs to also include other groups such as parents, businesses and the media. If the needs of all the stakeholders are monitored and understood then appropriate evaluations can be undertaken to anticipate their future needs and ensure that the argument for a research-engaged profession can be articulated in ways that will appeal. Stakeholders must be invited to engage with and in the research process in order to build understanding.
Once momentum is built then there needs to be sufficient attention on recognising and thanking those who have put the effort in, both for quick wins and for longer-term processes. There should be an endless and intense search for new sources of funding with the assumption that no existing streams will last.
The Teacher Development Trust’s role
I believe that the Teacher Development Trust has an important role to play in the development of a research-engaged profession. Our National Teacher Enquiry Network is a membership organisation supporting schools who wish to carry out research and development work as part of their professional development. It also provides advice and support for accessing evidence and implementing methodologically sound evaluation. Our GoodCPDGuide, a free service, is a repository of expertise and training with links to the Sutton Trust-EEF Teaching and learning toolkit.
If you have any further ideas about ways we can support the creation of a research-engaged education system or any further ideas about what other stakeholders can do then please do get in touch.