What is your research goal?

Written by: Peter Henshaw | Published:
Photograph: iStock

When it comes to deciding what research evidence to use in the classroom, what really matters is the goal of the research not who produces it, argues Dr Julie Nelson

There is much talk at the moment about “evidence-informed teaching" (EIT). But what does it mean? Whose evidence counts? And how can it best be accessed and shared?

These are just some of the questions that a colleague and I recently encountered when we conducted a review into the use of research evidence in schools. Our review, Using Evidence in the Classroom: What works and why?, identified two separate bodies of literature dealing with two quite different practices:

  1. The use of academic research to support school decision-making.
  2. The practice of teacher-led research or enquiry.

Whose research counts?

Discussions earlier this year on the Guardian website, (see further information) demonstrate that, at best, each of the above practices operate with little awareness of the other, and at worst, there can be active disagreement about who is best placed to conduct research and produce “evidence". Teachers often feel that researchers do not understand their situations, and researchers sometimes argue that teachers have insufficient skill to conduct robust research.

But stereotypes abound. It is important to remember that around 700 schools are currently involved in conducting large-scale quantitatively robust evaluations (for example, through the National College for Teaching and Leadership's Closing the Gap: Test and Learn programme – see further information), while many academic researchers are involved in small-scale qualitative research.

Personally, I believe that there has been rather too much focus on who produces research at the expense of a focus on the goal of the research or enquiry.

If we focus on the latter, I believe there is a place for both practices within an evidence-informed teaching profession. I find the following questions a useful starting point:

  1. What is the purpose of the research? What do you want to find out, and how do you plan to use the evidence? Is it intended to have impact across a number of school, to support your own school's development, or to aid an individual teacher's personal development?
  2. What methods will suit it best? Research for system-wide impact will need to be statistically representative, while research for personal development or reflection can possibly be smaller in scale, or case-study based.
  3. Who is best placed to conduct it? Statistically representative research is likely to need a professional research lead, while research for the purposes of your own school or staff development, may be conducted internally – sometimes in collaboration with external researchers.

How should I make the most of research?

My advice is to think through the answers to some key questions before embarking upon any kind of research – this will inevitably save time later on.

Key questions can help to identify existing evidence and avoid unnecessary investment in a detailed piece of original research. They can also draw attention to genuine gaps in knowledge that can potentially be filled by new activities.

Key questions

  1. What is my area for development? Do I know everything that I need to in order to tackle it?
  2. Is there is a gap in my knowledge? If so, what question will help me fill it?
  3. What research evidence can help to answer this question? (see the Education Endowment Foundation Toolkit, the Institute for Effective Education's Evidence4Impact website, or NFER's On the Web – links in further information).

Now try using the following framework

If you decide to embark upon your own enquiry, think carefully while you are setting it up about how you will share the learning. Will your methods be sufficiently robust to justify sharing the findings outside your school setting?

  • If yes, think through the mechanisms you will use.
  • If no, decide how you can use the learning to inform your own school's practice, or the practice of key members of your staff.

Also, consider whether your school could be a candidate for the NFER Research Mark. Supported by Headteacher Update, its sister title SecEd, the National College and others, schools provide evidence of research engagement across 10 criteria. An NFER Research Associate then visits the school to share expertise and insight, giving feedback and a report with recommendations for further engagement.

Better together

I believe that there is much potential for complementarity between academic research and teacher enquiry. By identifying your school's development needs, the questions that can answer them, the research that already exists, and the gaps that still need to be filled, it should be possible to identify whether further enquiry is needed. And how, and with whom, it can best be compiled and applied. 

  • Dr Julie Nelson is a research director in NFER's Impact team.

References and further information

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