Why every school needs a research champion.
By Carl Hendrick, Head of Learning and Research, Wellington College
For too long the classroom practitioner has been the researched as opposed to the researcher. Teachers have been given answers to questions they didn’t ask, provided with solutions to problems that never existed, and assailed by counterintuitive theory when practical advice was more appropriate. Where there has been good research, it is often sidelined by short-termism, a near fetish for data or the Sword of Damocles of a looming inspection.
By the same token, school staff rooms are often dominated by teachers whose only serious reflection on their practice comes from their own limited experience and confirmed biases, and whose only measures of success are exam results and league tables. This attitude is often typified by a deep and open antipathy to anything too reflective labelled ‘evidence based’ or ‘research.’ This is a professional practice that amounts to what Professor John West-Burnham terms ‘long-term self indulgence.’
Clearly, the division between education academia situated almost exclusively at the University and the classroom practitioner hacking away ‘at the coalface’ has not worked as well as it might have. Teachers are typically given a whistlestop tour of education research during their PGCE year and then are furnished with very poor support ‘within house’ in terms of evidence based training and approaches to teaching. All of us have sat through turgid CPD sessions where we have been given impressionistic, superficial droplets of education theory from an ocean of research that is often neither relevant nor resonant with our own practice.
Some teachers do go on to do research in the form of an MA or PhD (usually the ones with the vacant stare and severe caffeine addiction) but how often is this funded and embedded into their schools? How often do schools harness this expertise into their school improvement plans and CPD? Again, the issue is this disjunction between research and practice which has traditionally marginalised the difficult path of evidence-based approaches to school improvement and privileged the easier route of fads and quick fixes.
So how do we emerge from this primordial soup? The role of head of research or research champion in schools should ultimately be about mobilising the wider evidence base and making it easy for classroom teachers to be more informed about what they do. I would like to see the following developments in the way schools engage with research:
1. A researcher in residence located in schools.
At Wellington College, we will be working closely with various HEIs including Harvard faculty of education on a number of projects but I hope to appoint a full time researcher in residence who will be located in our school on a regular basis. The researcher in residence should be both a recognised academic and someone who has published research in the field and can help ensure interventions are carried out properly. They should work ‘cheek to jowl’ with teachers to improve their practice by helping with robust design methodology, literature review and evaluation. This ‘in-house’ approach to research is widely used to great effect in other fields and could potentially transform teacher practice, leadership and whole school policy.
2. Schools need to ‘own’ their research questions
Schools need to identify what it is they want to know, how they are going to ‘know’ it and what they are going to do to measure the impact and applicability of this new knowledge. At all of these stages the researcher in residence is key. Schools need to be asking their own questions about improvement based on specific CPD and school improvement plans. What may be appropriate for one school may not be appropriate for another and we should have the flexibility to frame our own point of enquiry and direct resources accordingly.
3. Capacity: Research should be embedded in the life of the school
This is a central problem. Most schools simply don’t have the time or capacity to resource something that is as yet unproven. Typically research in schools is an ‘add-on’, it is not central to the day to day business of school practice and this needs to change. For CPD and professional review there should be an area for research and time allocated accordingly to staff to engage in it and further their knowledge.
4. Better measures of success and impact
Education research is often about trying to measure the immeasurable. Hattie’s now seminal work is titled ‘visible’ learning for good reason: often quality learning is invisible to us and resists classification and categorisation. There is also the problem of what we are using to measure success. There is a lot of use of the phrase ‘what works’ at the moment, well if ‘what works’ is simply a proxy for ‘what creates good exam passers’ then we have a very jaundiced and impoverished barometer of what success actually is. More complex and elegant ways of evaluating the impact of interventions are needed.
5. ‘Reflective’ practice not ‘best’ practice.
We need to get rid of the phrase ‘best practice’ and replace it with ‘reflective’ or ‘informed’ practice. There should be no single, ‘best’ way of teaching but rather a deeply reflective approach informed by high-quality evidence and appropriate for the specific context in which it is applied. An evidence-based approach to education does not mean a uniform ‘one size fits all’, axiomatic approach to what good teaching should look like. Whenever I have seen excellent teaching, it is almost totally unique and characterised by something idiosyncratic and deeply personal to that teacher. We need to resist the homogenising forces of the past that insist for example that too much teacher talk is bad, or that kids only learn best in groups or that learning how to ‘play the exam game’ is an acceptable outcome to the process of learning.
6. ‘Standing on the shoulders of giants.’
The first port of call for any school should be to look at the wider evidence base, specifically robust, methodologically sound and peer reviewed research and begin their inquiry from there. The work of the EEF and Rob Coe in the production of their Toolkit is one of the most significant developments in education and should be the point of departure for any school’s development plan.
7. Schools producing their own publications.
Dissemination of findings has to be a central part of the process. We plan to publish a learning and research journal here at Wellington next year which will showcase the work we have been doing engaging with research and evidence based practice. This will encompass individual teacher enquiry in the form of MA/PhD work to whole school research such as our two year partnership with Harvard faculty. This publication will not be an academic peer-reviewed article (although I want academics to contribute) but rather a readable, accessible journal that can be easily digested by staff, parents and hopefully students.
The professionalisation of teaching
Education research has provided teachers with enlightening and elegant ways of approaching their practice. There is an ever-growing and robust evidence base in a wide range of areas that have improved standards and enfranchised both teacher practice and student achievement. However there has also been a history of ideologically driven, methodologically unsound and politically entrenched dogma in the name of education research that has compromised the very teachers and students it was intended to empower.
The role of research champion is only strengthened by the emergence of researchED which represents a hugely significant step forward in the professionalisation of teaching. It is a movement that has brought together some of the greatest thinkers in education and provided a vibrant and exciting platform for debate. This rich seam should be mined by every school in the country and utilised a point of departure for all areas of school improvement.