Every teacher a researcher

Written by: Fiona Aubrey-Smith | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Research in education is becoming ever more vital to raising outcomes. Fiona Aubrey-Smith argues why every teacher should be a researcher and advises on how this can be achieved

I became a teacher so that I could learn more about children’s learning. As a researcher, I wanted to understand, more deeply, children’s learning. So what better place to do that than immersed in classroom life, surrounded by little learners all eager to absorb whatever the world around them is able to offer?

While teaching across key stage 2, I undertook my first Master’s degree exploring how the choice of music played within the classroom can have a profound impact on children’s mindset, mental state, attention, focus and yes their progress and attainment. Music, as something that can generate such a huge impact on learning, is severely underused. Carefully chosen repertoire should be as much part of every classroom as display and resources (if you’d like to know more about my findings, do send me an email).

Later, when teaching across the infant phase I undertook another Master’s unpicking how the implementation of online learning affected whole-school strategic development. It was central to our school moving to outstanding. Our exploring of online learning surfaced a whole-school curriculum review, refreshing our approach to parental engagement, understanding and improving digital access and ICT training (A Virtual Learning Environment: Led and Loved by Infants).

It is so easy as a teacher or leader to get caught up in the daily matters of school life that we often forget to stop and look meaningfully at what, how and why children are learning in the ways that they do.

This is why I am so passionate about our profession’s gradual shift towards a more research-minded culture, and there are two trends that have emerged since the infamous Goldacre Report of 2013 (in which we were encouraged to start building evidence into education).

The first trend I have seen is that teachers across the country are increasingly undertaking their own research as part of professional development and school improvement. This increases critical thinking by the teacher-researcher and raises the quality of learning-centred discussions with peers who inevitably become part of research dialogue and actions.

While many teachers are undertaking Master’s study, it doesn’t need to be this formalised. Many schools have simple small-scale action research groups that undertake exploration into chosen areas and then share their findings with the rest of staff over “learning lunches” or mini-teach meets.

A teacher who is a self-directed learner and researcher themselves makes a great role-model to children and colleagues as well as tending to be a better teacher with their ever-evolving understanding of pedagogy. It also, vitally, creates a sense of longevity and investment in the school that has become a valuable recruitment and retention tool.

Research opportunities attract bright, passionate and committed candidates that want to invest in the school long-term as well as “doing the day job”.

The second trend is the increase of research findings and evidence informing practice and bringing robustness to accountability. School Improvement Plans (SIPs), intervention planning and Pupil Premium strategies now increasingly draw on evidence of what works and research about proven impact.

Children get one chance to experience the day that you plan for them, and “the school down the road recommended it” is no longer an acceptable basis for decisions about interventions, SIP priorities or classroom strategies. We owe it to our children to use what the evidence shows will give them the best start to their lives.

One of the most commonly used resources has been the Education Endowment Foundation’s (EEF) Teaching and Learning Toolkit – it offers simple-to-access evidence on the basics of what works, taking into account time, cost and impact on learning.

It’s also easy to access free materials from Cambridge Assessment, the UCL Institute of Education and the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER), to name but a few (the NFER and Headteacher Update work together to publish regular research-based articles – see http://www.headteacher-update.com/supplements/).

Importantly, accessing this research need not be a time burden, with email alerts for research related to your interests, free pdf or paper copies, and opportunities to take part in research groups, forums or activities readily available.

There has also been the emergence of ResearchED (not dissimilar to TeachMeet), which offers low-cost but high-quality weekend events bringing together teachers, researchers and policy-makers, and a myriad of resources from the EEF and NFER to support school leaders in encouraging research in school. That’s why I was passionate, as part of the ClaimYourCollege campaign group, to see the start-up of our profession’s chartered college. The new Chartered College of Teaching has a number of aims, but central is a passion and commitment for supporting teachers to undertake, and use, high-quality research.

Membership of the College, at £45 (NQTs £36 and student teachers free) offers access to academic journals, eBooks and research papers, as well as reviews of the latest publications and, a superb research journal, Impact, which disseminates the very latest thinking in high priority areas. It also offers a self-assessment tool to support evidence-informed teaching.

So have a think – what do you already do that engages with research findings and evidence, and what could you empower and encourage staff to do next to make your school a community where everyone really is learning about learning?

Claire Lowe, executive principal of The Inspire Learning Federation multi-academy trust, is passionate about the use of research – both informing school improvement as well as teachers being researchers.

She told me: “We have a Research and Development Room, managed by our director of teaching and learning, which staff use for their PPA time. In it we make available current research that relates directly to our school priorities and staff areas of interest so that staff can quickly and easily access research findings and use them to inform their own practice. In terms of school improvement, it means that anything we do is backed up by solid research, and an evidence base saying that it makes a difference.”

  • Fiona Aubrey-Smith is a former school leader and now Doctoral researcher who facilitates a number of national networks. She sits on several MAT boards and is chair of governors at a maintained primary school. Email fionaaubreysmith@googlemail.com

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