Can teachers really engage with research?

If research is ever going to have an impact in the classroom, teacher CPD needs a dramatic overhaul, says Carl Hendrick.

Pile of academic booksThe recent embrace of evidence-based practice in schools promises much – but how many of us are really able to tap into the rich seam of research findings and create genuine change in our classrooms?

In order to make truly informed decisions, school leaders need to engage with the wider evidence base and empower their staff to do the same. This will mean putting an end to expensive, ineffective professional development activities, forging strong ties with research-led organisations, and focusing on actions that will actually make a difference.

Development with a difference

Schools often spend an inordinate amount on external CPD provision that is imposed upon staff in a top-down ‘one size fits all’ approach. Instead, school leaders need to create time and space for staff to engage with research, apply it to their own contexts, test specific interventions and then refine and improve their practice. An alternative to often ineffective CPD would be teachers framing their own enquiry in a systematic, informed way, and working with higher education institutions and bodies such as the National Teacher Enquiry Network on effective CPD such as lesson study.

Strengthening links with universities, and appointing subject-specific ‘researchers in residence’ to inform and advise on the wider evidence base would address perceived barriers between academic discourse and everyday classroom practice, and allow teachers to get to grips with research ‘on the job’. Collating and applying the big data of meta-analyses is a hugely complex undertaking requiring real expertise and experience, and presently there is a real danger of this kind of research being used in a superficial and ineffective way.

Collaborations between schools can also widen the reach of effective evidence-based initiatives. The success of the London Challenge project, through which schools at both primary and secondary level have improved at a faster rate than nationally, has shown that schools working closely together, identifying need and collaborating on addressing those needs outlines a strong blueprint for school improvement. Too much quality research and good practice which could potentially improve similar contexts is simply unavailable to those who could benefit most from it.

Prioritising

Despite the proliferation of high quality research evidence – such as the excellent Toolkit from the Education Endowment Foundation – there is a clear need for effective brokerage and application of this new knowledge if the current enthusiasm for evidence-based practice is to have any real impact.

At present, large sums of money are routinely ploughed into initiatives to improve pupils’ educational attainment, but without solid evidence that these interventions will work and lacking appropriate accountability.

There are clearly issues around how large-scale research findings apply in specific contexts, but surely interventions with at least some evidential basis represent a better starting point for improvement than the often ad-hoc approach that has characterised much school reform thus far.

In order for research to be properly embedded in schools, it has to be at the point of use – in the classroom. Teachers, therefore, need targeted and appropriate training to help translate promising research findings into effective classroom practice to really make a difference to the lives of the pupils they teach.

Carl Hendrick is Head of Learning and Research at Wellington College

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