The Problem with Research Evidence in Education

Today I have the opportunity to discuss with policy makers about the role of research evidence in education, in a CEBE (Coalition for a Evidence-based Education) event at the Department of Education. The question being explored is: “Should Government have a role in choreographing an evidence system in education?”

There is undoubtedly a unique impetus from all political parties, and many school leaders, to see research evidence have a positive impact on the outcomes of our students in schools in England.

Unfortunately, research evidence has an image problem. Prejudice abounds.

The current drive for research evidence is associated with right wing political ideologies. It is associated with Michael Gove – which in many schools confers the kiss of death, the embrace of doom, or whatever other hyperbolic descriptions I care to labour.

Not only that, research evidence is associated with researchers who, sitting in comfortable ivory towers, are distanced from the complex practice of the classroom and the realities of the ink blotted whiteboard.

Research evidence is also associated with scrutiny of teachers and uniquely data driven accountability. At the mere mention of ‘evidence’ hackles can be raised amongst teachers.

In short – research is tainted by association with many of the most reviled aspects of our contemporary education landscape.

These are all caricatures – but they carry tremendous power.

We need to change the paradigm. Research evidence can be about teacher empowerment. It can be about teacher expertise. It can be about networking with fellow professionals and challenging flawed political policies. It can be, most importantly, about making the best decisions for our students.

We are happy to engage in the craft of teaching with colleagues, but, instinctively, the science of teaching draws suspicion. Perhaps this is due to such expertise often existing outside of schools, those who are aliens to the coarse realities and craft knowledge of the classroom.

If you were to cite John Hattie in most staffrooms in a debate about a student I doubt it would be welcomed. Collective frowns and worse would be the order of the day. There needs to be a significant culture shift to change the image of research evidence in the eyes of teachers.

When Ben Goldacre is brought in to herald research evidence, teachers suspect there is an agenda. Teachers, fairly, critique any attempt to pathologise teaching, teachers and students. Ben Goldacre, well-meaning though he undoubtedly is, knows little about the pressures and politics that attend our education system. But, at least Goldacre has sparked an important, and potentially drawn out, debate.

Of course, without time (this is the life-blood of teacher improvement, and such transfusions are in ever-decreasing supply) and training, the fruits of research evidence driving school improvement will certainly wither on the vine. Organisations, well funded from government, like the Teaching and Learning Research Programme (TLRP), have failed to make research evidence a normative behaviour in schools. They have barely touched teacher consciousness. The government-funded National Education Research Forum (NERF); the ESRC funded Teacher Education Research Network (TERN) the Applied Education Research Scheme (AERS); the Teacher Training Resource Bank (TTRB) and The Research-Informed Practice Site (TRIPS)…the list goes on…and they have made little impact on the front line of schools.

There is a problem with getting the knowledge about research evidence into schools and used effectively. ‘Knowledge mobilisation‘ is the buzzword. Teachers aren’t trained in research methods and there is no time to really reflect upon research evidence. When we have those excuses to fall back on, we revert to our strongly held biases and intuitions. It is the path of least resistance. We all do it – it is simply human nature. Thinking is hard. Changing our thinking is even harder. We stick to our habits and research evidence is paid little more than paltry lip-service by every teacher and school leader.

There needs to be coherent structures created from the top, alongside networks being connected from the bottom up. It is a tricky business that I don’t pretend to have all the answers to. In my position as teacher with a role leading research in a school, I think I am decently placed as someone who can and should enter the debate. If teachers are not involved then any change will likely miss its mark.

In my humble opinion, the Department for Education does have a role in choreographing an evidence led school system.

National and local schools networks need to be established. As research is tainted ideologically for most teachers, the DfE needs some appropriate distance from creating a system to mobilise research evidence. We need an independent body – like the much mooted College of Teachers. They could have a chief remit to become evidence mobilisers. They could accredit teacher qualifications that embed a responsibility for research engagement as part of ongoing CPD, as well as making curriculum and assessment recommendations.

We have a solidifying network of Teaching Schools that we can exploit to help choreograph the dissemination and use of evidence. This would appear to be the model to share and drive research evidence in the current landscape. I think though that there is a problem with that supposition. In reality, research evidence is not a priority for most Teaching Schools. Getting to grips with managing ITT and SLE roles and school to school training is a massive undertaking. Research and development is number 6, numerically on the remit of Teaching a Schools, and I am in no doubt this is the case in real terms.

To meet their designation Teaching Schools should do the following:

“To meet this responsibility, we expect you to:

- build on existing research and contribute to alliance and wider priorities
- base new initiatives within your alliance on existing evidence and ensure you can measure them
- work with other teaching schools in your area, or nationally, where appropriate
ensure that your staff use existing evidence
- allow your staff the time and support they need take part in research and development activities
- share learning from research and development work with the wider school system.” The Department for Education

There is still little to no evidence that they do it well yet. The Teaching School Impact report (2014), published recently on the DfE website, cites one school as an exemplar of impact. One school. This evidence base is paltry by any measure.

My view is that research evidence should be priority one for Teaching Schools. High quality research evidence underpins ITT training, continuing professional development, school-to-school training and even the role of the SLE. A Teaching School should have research evidence as a key priority, but the reality is that it is a highly specialist area. We are left scratching around for bottom up models of effective practice. For many schools research becomes a drive for ‘action research‘ by teachers, with little or no knowledge of proper research methods. Enthusiasm for research evidence is high, evidence of the impact of such ‘action research‘ is low.

I propose that there becomes a Research School specialism, perhaps even wholly separate from Teaching Schools. The Teaching School hub model can be replicated for such schools.

We, at Huntington School in York, are currently undertaking a large scale RCT, funded by the Education Endowment Fund, to test the hypothesis that using research evidence to drive a school improvement model can improve student outcomes. In effective it is a Research School hub model . We are leading an intervention that trains Research-leads in schools to help drive research-led school improvement, in collaboration with the brilliant Professor Rob Coe and Durham University and its Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring (CEM). See the EEF website information here and contact me on my email – [email protected] – if you are interested in hearing more about our exciting project.

With structure from a national body, such as a College of Teaching, with a national network of Research Schools, with accredited Research-leads, we could bring a semblance of coherence to using research evidence all the way from the university to the classroom. We would have a body of professionals who could translate, produce, adapt and apply high quality research evidence to the school context. There is another blog needed to explain how we can, and must, adapt research evidence – moving it from esoteric to essential in the eyes of teachers.

We know all to well that centralised initiatives can flounder. We need to also make an argument for research that convinces teachers beyond DfE dictums. Using accountability measures to drive behaviour won’t sustainably change habits in the classroom. We need to provide time, support and training to ensure teachers can interpret and apply the best of research evidence, with a critical eye, and without eschewing the wisdom of our educated intuitions.

I don’t think it is viable, or even desirable, for every teacher to be undertaking research. That being said, we could raise the professional bar by expecting all teachers to engage with research evidence. This can be led by school leaders, and Research-leads, who are made accountable for spending public money with the expectation they are using the best research that exists for us at this particular moment. Engagement with research evidence should be at the heart of the Teacher Standards, not as a performance related pay lever, but as a basic expectation of an esteemed profession.

A high profile school role, like a Research-lead, should have great value for a Head teacher and they should be tasked with helping to build networks within schools that ensure all teachers are well supported, and not beaten with a rod of accountability and unrealistic expectation. Each school should encourage a thousand nudges and support mechanisms for teachers who live the difficult dance of a full timetable, whilst all the time retaining realistic expectations of how much evidence can be read or applied in the maelstrom of the working week.

There are no quick fixes. If OFSTED were to become tasked with the demand to ‘enforce’ research, it will surely kill this nascent spring of interest in research evidence. Human nature, and the habits of our teaching, are forged in the hard-worn fire of experience. We need many a thousand nudges, and much support, to change habits of a teaching lifetime.

Embedding research evidence into the culture of school will take a generation. It will take an image changing charm offensive and it will take national, local networks and networks within schools to be choreographed with deft skill. It isn’t going to be easy work, but it could mean we see the essential improvement in our whole education system – better outcomes for our students. Therefore we need to make a start. Now. Today.


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