What have we learnt after one term of being a research school?

15 December 2017

Author: Shaun Allison

end of term

It’s been a busy first term here at the Durrington Research School. Since being designated as a research school in September, we have welcomed over 200 visiting teachers to the school for a variety of activities such as training programmes, twilights and visits/meetings. This amounts to working with 91 different schools from around the country, who are interested in developing their approach to evidence informed teaching. Alongside this, our monthly newsletter now has over 500 subscribers. So what have we learnt so far about helping schools, teachers and leaders to engage with and use the evidence that is out there?

1. It’s important to think carefully about the problem you are trying to solve

Research evidence cannot tell you what will definitely work, neither will it solve all of the problems a school or teacher might face. It can only offer fruitful directions that might be worth pursuing. With this in mind, schools and teachers should think carefully about the problem they are looking to solve, with the help of evidence. So it’s worth thinking about the following:

  • Avoid being too general e.g. ‘What research is available that will help improve the value added score for my school?’
  • Avoid being too specific e.g. ‘What research is available that will help me improve the progress made by middle ability boys in English Literature?’
  • Having a sensible and specific focus e.g. ‘What research is available for the usefulness of spaced practice and retrieval practice and how can I implement this in my classroom?’

2. Use the resources out there as signposts

There are a huge numbers of research papers out there, with a varying degree of usefulness and accessibility for teachers and leaders. There are however, resources out there that summarise research and act as a signpost to further research. For example:

  • The EEF toolkit – an online meta-analysis of over 30 interventions that have been trialled in schools.
  • Best Evidence in Brief – a fortnightly e-newsletter that summarises the most recent educational research from around the world.
  • What Works Clearing House – An American site that summarises evidence informed approaches.

Alongside this, by contacting us we will be able to help you find the most useful papers for a particular topic that you are interested in.

3. Light touch approaches to research engagement will have limited impact

A recent EEF evaluation suggests that light touch approaches to supporting teacher engagement with research e.g. sending out research summaries to the whole staff, will have limited impact. Our own experience supports this. It might serve as a catalyst for those staff who are very keen on engaging with research, or make teachers think about it and look into the topic further, but it is unlikely to bring about any long term change to classroom practice. This is why our training programmes are spread over 3 days, with tasks for delegates to do back at school, in between the sessions.

School leaders should consider a similar approach to CPD around evidence informed teaching in their own schools.

4. Context is everything

Research evidence will only tell you what has worked before, not what will definitely work in the future.  With this in mind, teachers and leaders need to think about how the evidence will apply to their particular context:

  • What would the recommendation from a particular piece of research look like in your subject?  For example, there is a great deal of research evidence around teacher feedback, but how this is mobilised in the classroom in history will be very different to how it is used in PE.
  • What changes would you have to make to the recommendations to make them more appropriate for your context?
  • Have you tried anything similar before? If it didn’t work, what will be different this time?
  • Are your team ready for this change? How do you know? How will you help them to be ready?
  • Do you have the capacity to implement the change? Who is going to drive it and sustain it?
  • Are you using the evidence to focus on the most important thing in relation to your context?  For example, whilst we talk a great deal about using the research evidence to improve teaching, it should also be used to improve other aspects of our work e.g. attendance and behaviour.

5.  Think about the validity of the evidence

If you are going to be using evidence to inform the decisions that you make as a teacher and/or leader, you need to ensure that it is robust and reliable. This document from Kerry Pulleyn is really useful in terms of evaluating the validity of evidence sources:

red flags

This document – ‘A rough guide to spotting bad science’ – is also really useful for this.

6.  Think about evaluating impact

If you are going to the trouble of reading the research evidence and then using this to plan and implement a new approach, either in your classroom or across your team, or even the whole school, it’s useful to think about how you will know if it works – teachers might enjoy the new approach or feel good about it, but this is different from knowing whether it makes a positive difference to student outcomes. This 5 step approach to implementing a new approach from the EEF is useful to consider:

eef 5 steps

These steps are expanded upon in the ‘EEF DIY Evaluation Guide’.  This is an invaluable document that takes you through how to effectively evaluate the impact of any new approach that you might be implementing.

7.  Think about workload

When implementing evidence informed approaches to teaching, we should always be mindful of teacher workload. We should be using the evidence to reduce workload and improve the effectiveness of teaching. So we should consider:

  • What are the implications of implementing this approach to the busy teacher?
  • Will they be able to implement it in a manageable and sustainable way?
  • Do the benefits to teaching and student learning outweigh the cost in terms of teacher time and effort to implement the new approach?

8. The appetite is there

The level of engagement we have had with our work suggests that there is a growing appetite across the profession, for a more evidence informed approach to teaching. This is great to hear – it feels as if we are reclaiming our profession back! It’s important that we all seize on this and help teachers to use the evidence to shape their day to day work.

Different schools are at different stages in their journey towards a more evidence informed approach. This makes it vital for us to share our experiences, so that we can all learn from each other. There are some fantastic bloggers out there who are incredibly generous with this. For example:

A more extensive list can be found here.

9.  It can feel a bit uncomfortable!

Sometimes the findings from research might be counter-intuitive and make us look at our own practice/school in a new light. A good example of this is interventions that focus on aspirations. Many schools, with the very best intentions, spend a great deal of time and effort implementing interventions to improve motivation and self-esteem, with a view to addressing perceived low esteem. The evidence suggests that this has limited impact because, in fact, most students have high aspirations – that is not the problem. The problem is that they don’t know how to get around the blocks that might prevent them from achieving their aspirations. So in fact, schools might be better off investing this time and effort into approaches that will address this, such as metacognition.

10. The need for ‘Research Leads’ in schools.

Teachers are busy people. So if we want them to become more engaged with the research evidence, there is a real need for schools to have a ‘Research Lead’ role. This could be an individual or group of teachers who are interested in helping teachers in their school to become familiar with, understand and then use the research evidence to improve their practice. School Research Leads play a pivotal role in driving the evidence informed practice agenda in schools.

We are running a ‘Research Leads Development Programme’ for those colleagues who are new to this role, or considering it in the future.  Further details here.

Shaun Allison

Posted on 15 December 2017
Posted in: Blog

Comments are closed.