Why should teachers engage with, and in, research?

This is the question I was asked at the interview for my new role, Director of Research, (and funnily enough, it was also Tom Bennett’s opening question to his panel at the LFE on Saturday); it’s a really important one. The simple answer is this: We think, we hope, that research-engagement will lead to improved experiences and outcomes for students and for staff. Think? Hope?  Well, yes. But can we prove it?

At Highbury Grove, there is a feeling that we’re at an exciting and pivotal moment; we have a new head, a fresh vision and a renewed sense of invigoration and purpose. This is an opportunity to engage with, and become part of, a growing movement towards research-enhanced educational practice and policy. Over the next two years and beyond, we aim to develop and embed a culture of informed, reflective and – ultimately – empowered practice at Highbury Grove. What I’d like to do here, in my first-ever blog, is share how we’re going to do it.

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The Challenge:

And so, as Highbury Grove enters the teacher-researcher community, I am aware of many challenges and questions: What does a truly research-engaged school actually look like? How will we know if what we are doing works? Do staff have the time, or desire, to engage in research? And can research-engagement coexist with the idea of teaching as inseparable from values, and as a craft? At the centre of these questions is the dichotomy between traditionally scientific positivist approaches that, based on clinical research, have sought objective, measurable and replicable truth and the wider, value-driven, social research that has been championed by academics (but has proven difficult to apply to schools). Alongside this lies the difficulty of measuring both qualitative and quantitative data, as ideas of ‘effect size’ and a measurable ‘unit of education’ are called into question by Didau (2015), among others. Those who are ahead of us on this journey, the Research Leads network, researchED and the EEF RISE project among others, are already showing that – if we want to know the answers to these questions – we must invest research into understanding the validity and applicability of research itself.

A driving principle for developing research at Highbury Grove will be to find a workable balance, a ‘practical wisdom’; to recognise that research findings in the social sciences are always subjective, but that they are still valuable, and to focus on creating a ‘toolkit’ that is not a set of generalised approaches but a communal vision that works for us, in our unique context. The vision, then, is not a  ‘research-led’ or ‘research-based’ approach, that fails to recognise the subjective complexity of this wonderful profession, but rather an informed perspective from which we are able to interrogate the decisions that we make. As Chris Husbands said on Saturday: ‘I don’t think research is about producing certainty, it is about informing judgements.’ For me, this perspective is not at odds with ideas of teaching as a craft, inseparable from values; it is driven by them.

 The Vision:

There are essentially two interlocking strands at the centre of our vision for Highbury Grove: engagement with research, facilitating dialogue with current theory, ideas and debate (and translating, disseminating these ideas with key groups) and engagement in research, creating an active research culture within the school.

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Engaging With Research:

Central to my role will be supporting staff to engage with research, to understand and evaluate significant and, current ideas about learning and to apply them, thoughtfully, to their own practice. Research-engaged teachers will be part of the wider dialogue, of the agora, that is reshaping the way teachers decide what to do in their classrooms. Research-engaged teachers will be research-literate (‘Teacher Proof’, as Tom Bennett puts it), empowered and able to see through fads like VAK or Multiple Intelligences (or whatever the next big thing happens to be). Research-engaged teachers will become Hattie’s evaluators: knowing what they can, and should, influence and using their own professional judgement to apply this in their classrooms.  One of our first steps will be to establish a cross-faculty working group of Research Leads to read, evaluate and disseminate research, driving informed decisions and practice in individual faculties, the wider-school and beyond. It will be important to create a range of different opportunities for staff to engage with research at the level they want to, including reading groups, our literature review and research hub, links with HE providers, visits from guest speakers and regular TeachMeets. This is not about forcing everyone to read lengthy papers, or adding unnecessary workload. We want staff at Highbury Grove to enjoy, and understand the benefits of, engaging with research to enhance their own practice.

Research engagement, if successful, will impact at all levels of the school: teachers, middle leadership, support, the leadership team, governors and – most importantly – students. It might be useful to exemplify how some specific ideas might reverberate across the school’s structures. Let’s start with Carol Dweck’s work on Growth Mindset. As a research-engaged teacher, I would understand that students with a growth (rather than fixed) mindset achieve better because they relish challenging tasks, are not afraid to fail and connect hard work with achievement. This would impact on my practice as a classroom teacher by affecting the way I choose to speak to children, praise their effort, frame challenging tasks or deal with failures. On a wider level, Dweck’s thinking would inform our discussions on Behaviour for Learning and banding / setting (for example the potentially damaging effect of labelling students as ‘B-band’ or ‘G&A’). Moreover, as a senior leader, Dweck’s work presents a moral imperative: if achievement and mindset are linked, then it is our duty to ensure that all students are given the opportunity to grow. Similarly, Robert Bjork’s discoveries about memory may have huge relevance to us. A research-engaged teacher would know (from Bjork) to include testing, not only for assessment but as a memory enhancing tool (‘memory shapes memory’) and to create opportunities for the retrieval and interleaving of information into their lessons. Furthermore, Bjork’s work on ‘desirable difficulties’ would lead us to the counter-intuitive realisation that conditions which foster rapid improvement (cues, predictability etc) are only short term solutions; that introducing ‘difficulties’ that slow down performance (such as variability, spacing, tests, interleaving) can enhance long term retention. There are significant implications here for planning and curriculum. Bjork’s work also presents implications for judging lessons: Should we be looking for retention of information in a single lesson, if this research suggests that rapid, short-term, progress is anything but ‘sustained’?

 Engaging In Research:

I imagine Highbury Grove becoming a centre of research, at all levels, from classroom-based investigations and lesson study to opportunities for staff to pursue master’s and doctoral degrees and other training programmes – and feeding their experiences and expertise back into the wider school.  Lesson Study will become central to creating a research-engaged community with its focus on student outcomes and progress. We know from Rob Coe that teachers who are engaged in CPD that specifically focuses on improving pupils learning, are more likely to improve pupil learning.  In this way, we hope to develop a  transformative approach to CPD; at Highbury Grove; a shared understanding that the process of being evaluative of your own practice is CPD, and a culture-shift towards a genuinely collaborative learning community.

Looking Ahead:

The role of the research lead is a new one and represents an emerging movement in education, it will be vital to ensure a rigorous and systematic cycle of evaluation and improvement, as our experience and ideas develop and evolve – we are already working with NTEN to ensure that this happens.  My role will need to be highly collaborative, informing and challenging our leadership priorities and intentions (across school-improvement, curriculum, ITT, T&L and CPD), working closely with key groups of staff and middle leaders and, more widely, with key partnerships outside of school. In this way, we want research at Highbury Grove to become integral to driving and informing school improvement; with our practices and policies rooted in well-informed, evidence-engaged and, most importantly, self-generated ideas. This is a time of rapid change, for Highbury Grove and for education, which presents the opportunity to develop and embed a research culture, improving outcomes for our students while simultaneously engaging with, and contributing to, bodies of knowledge about young people, learning and social issues. Educational research is, and should be, as Patti Lather puts it, ‘praxis’: an act that seeks to discover knowledge but is also transformative. The landscape of research in education is changing, transforming. It is an exciting time, and we are happy to be a part of it.