Enquiry isn’t a specialist activity. It is something we all do regularly – making a mental note of something that went well or how we could change things for next time. As easy as it seems to reflect on what we do day-to-day, the starting point for deliberate enquiry can be difficult. Key to engaging with research in a genuine, long-term way as a practitioner is to start with reflection – reflection on practice and reflection of practice.Reflective-practice is sometimes presented as the opposite to evidence based practice; the qualitative vs the quantitative. Quantitative research is held up as the best research can be, whether that’s the EEF toolkit and trials or the What Work Clearinghouse measures. One argument for evidence based practice over reflective practice is that the latter risks pathologising the practitioner and finds fault with the teacher or student rather than the wider environment.
Action research (or at least the term) is gaining popularity and the close link between action research and reflective practice leads to arguments that they lacks value and relevance between settings. Cautious voices remind that quantitative studies don’t necessarily provide the answers, as Dylan Wiliam says, “[In education] everything works somewhere and nothing works everywhere. The interesting question is ‘under what conditions does this work?”
It’s not realistic for everyone to be part of large-scale RCTs, particularly in settings that regularly don’t fit selection criteria like small or special schools. This can feel isolating and make research engagement seem irrelevant. Reflective practice is one way to get going and can take many forms, from keeping a diary to working in pairs or triads or developing cyclical action research projects, so where do we start and how can we incorporate research into what we do?
It’s frequently repeated that teachers don’t have time to trawl through and decipher research so I decided to have a bit of an experiment with taking a single research paper and setting it out in a way that can be used in the classroom. This is a paper I have used myself on several occasions to provide a framework to identify an area of focus and use as a starting point for enquiry.
The suggestions of how to use the document I’ve created are just that, suggestions. It doesn’t give instructions or solutions for practice and it doesn’t use multiple sources of evidence – the intention is that once a focus is identified, more refined research can take place if necessary around that area.
Whether it’s used for enquiry in the closed classroom or over a wider group; as a starting point for a whole school focus or simply to monitor the classroom over time, I hope it shows how research can be used in the classroom and it provides encouragement for more people to bring evidence into their practice.
So here it is in glorious pdf form. Let me know what you think.
A guide to ‘Evaluating the Learning Environment’ adapted from Ysseldyke, J. E. and Christenson, S. L. (1987) ‘Evaluating students’ instructional environments’, Remedial and Special Education, 8(3), pp. 17–24.
So one minute you’re planning which cheap package holiday to book for half term and the next you’re flippantly replying to a tweet about an educational research conference in Washington DC. ‘Do they want to know about Journal Clubs?’ you ask. ‘Keep going…’ comes the reply.
So Portugal turned into Washington DC, and a tour of a local church turned into a tour of the White House. There are a lot of people who have done a lot of unexpected things because of researchED, but walking round the White House is pretty epic even by rED standards. It came at the end of a fairly intense week as we decided we’d go to New York for a few days before DC and it essentially turned into 7 days straight of open-topped bus tours which is hard-core even for us. To be honest, one of the reasons it’s taken me so long to write about it is that I’ve not quite come down from the whirlwind. The downside of this is that now I’ve had more time to process it, I’ve got so much more to say.
Other people have written about some of the sessions I went to like Kate Walsh’s and Ben Riley’s, and they’ve covered Dylan Wiliam’s brilliant keynote in varying amounts of detail so I won’t repeat that, however I did love that some of his themes were picked up throughout the day and this made for a unifying thread among some challenging ideas.
My favourite session by far was Ruth Nield‘s session on ‘Researcher-Practitioner Partnerships’. One of the reasons it’s taken me so long to write about #rEDWash is the amount of time I’ve spent looking through and getting sucked into her links – there’s some brilliant stuff out there! I went to this session partly because of a project that I’ve been working on with the School of Education at the University of Nottingham around collaborations between schools and researchers and I’m always up for new ideas (‘What Matters‘ – I’ll probably write about another time), and also to hear more about the wider picture of research use in schools in America. The day before we had been hosted by The Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning at St Andrews Episcopal School for lunch and one of the questions they were asking us was about how to widen the scope of education research in American settings. I got the impression that there are lots of pockets of activity and it’s a question of how these can come together – perhaps easier with the smaller scale of the UK – but also the more limited use of social media with practitioners in the US.
Turns out there’s quite a bit of stuff going on with the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) (apologies if I get muddled with this, I wrote my notes furiously and interpreting my special shorthand a week later is proving awkward). Ruth set out the different strands of work they are doing and it sounds amazing – if the College of Teaching wants research to be at its core then they could do worse than looking at what’s going on here; the US may be behind in regards to practitioner involvement with research, but it’s all there for the taking. Their work is independent and covers a range of practical approaches, much more than just RCTs.
She started by discussing the value of education research, the disconnect between schools and researchers (something we’re all familiar with) and how their researcher-practitioner partnerships (RRP) are aiming to address this. Researchers and practitioners work together over time to co-construct agendas of work for mutual benefit. This allows them to work on research that is more relevant and hopefully more likely to inform practice; they are able to form long-term working relationships and both sides can develop professionally. To support these partnerships (which can be in cities, states, cross-state, cross-district) they have Regional Education Laboratories (REL) working with”Research Alliances” of education practitioners and policymakers. They identify areas of need and work together to analyse data and conduct research to develop and test strategies. The IES provides seed-grants of around $400,000 to develop projects for which they can go on to apply for further funding if required. Projects mentioned included one that created software to track progress and now has a national audience.
In addition to the RELs, the IES has the What Works Clearinghouse (how had I not seen this before?) which ‘reviews the existing research on different programs, products, practices, and policies in education’ and hosts intervention reports, reviews of individual studies and a series of practice guides that they are now seeing schools adapt and use for their setting. Tom Bennett came in to the session towards the end and drew similarities to the EEF in the UK; this is so much more than that; it’s sort of like a cross between the EEF Toolkit and the Literacy intervention review Tom Sherrington talked about at rED15, but it’s nicer to look at with simple infographics (including a lovely representation/summary of the setting for each intervention). You can see effectiveness, improvement, and my favourite bit – you can compare interventions. Something that really impressed me was that all their reports go through peer review before they are released (see picture for questions). Ruth was clear to point out that they aren’t just interested in the ‘gold standard’ of research – they publish a cross-section of work, summaries and of course RCTs.
On top of all this they have ERIC – the Education Resources Information Center. I did know about this one and they’ve recently changed the website to be a bit more easy to use. ERIC is a digital library of education research and other information – in their words ‘ERIC’s mission is to provide a comprehensive, easy-to-use, searchable Internet-based bibliographic and full-text database of education research and information for educators, researchers, and the general public.’. How can we not be excited about this? Perfect for Journal Clubs too…
One of the issues the IES, and research engagement in US schools generally, seems to have is with ‘reach’ and I asked how they get their message out to schools. They use social media, professional associations and each REL has a governing board with regional commissioning officers that work in their localities. I’m sure there could be more. I was already following one of the IES twitter accounts and have since followed more, but when I look at how many followers these accounts have or how many RTs/Likes the posts have they are no where near the amount that similar UK accounts have. This is a bigger issue than the IES of course; one of the things that stood out to me and others was the low number of classroom teachers at rEDWash in comparison to the UK events. I’m certain that if more teachers engaged with this work, the impact could be massive. I don’t know that I have any answers to the questions this throws up, but I’m sure researchED has a part to play.
There’s so much I’ve not written about yet, just with Ruth Nield’s session, and I’m at a ludicrous amount of words already. I’ve not talked about my session, the people we met, the pub, what’s next for me and research. This has been an amazing, crazy week and I’ve thought about researchED a lot – as always it’s about keeping up the momentum and sharing ideas. I’ll have a think and write about it more next.
Part 2: In which I talk about the SUPER Network, some CPD, and what was going to be my thoughts on the next ResearchEd Leads Network but ended up being a brief conclusion due to me waffling on for too long.
One of the things I was interested in looking into at that first ResearchEd in the hazy, drawn out summer of 2013, was the potential for links between school and universities. I had just had my first year for a while without any academic study and I wanted to find out what was out there and where I could start.
During the session with Kay Yeoman from UEA I met, sorry, networked, with the lady next to me who happened to be Bethan Morgan (@morgteach) who works for the SUPER Network. We’ve tweeted about a few things, namely access to research and she recognised me at ResearchEd 2014 as doing a lot of pub quizzes (we run one, Thursdays at the White Horse in Ruddington if you’re in the area) and she was there with the SUPER (School-University Partnership for Educational Research) Network gang on Saturday to present a session and workshop on how Universities and Research Leads can work together.
Based at the University of Cambridge, they have a number of projects with partner schools including Masters programmes, research projects, dissemination of research and seminars. They host inquiry group meetings of their Teacher Research Co-ordinators (their Research Leads) six times a year and provide critical friendship to schools. From the university’s point of view, the programme enables larger scale, collaborative research, a wide reach for their work, and helps to keep the university staff grounded and up to date with the realities of working in schools. The schools involved benefit from an increased research culture and staff are able to maintain a dialogue post-MEd.
We heard from various people involved in the network – both university and school representatives. Every one of them was incredibly enthusiastic about what the network had done for them and their professional status. There was a reading list from Ruth Pineda which I scribbled notes on but thankfully took a photo of too –
and there was a reminder that research and practice should inform each other equally.
The session had a workshop style answering questions in groups part which was great (but lacked tables). The focus was on bridging the gaps between theory and practice, and school/university partnerships. Whilst we aimed to answer the questions, almost every group fed back that they had accidentally answered the questions whilst having a good chat. I have to say, that’s the bit I like most about the day – just chatting about what we’re doing in our roles with other people. I don’t think it mattered if we answered everything well enough, we were there to learn from each other and debate, and that’s what we did. I have made some initial links with one of our local universities and I think I should probably look into it again.
Another thing I think the research lead role could be of benefit for in our school is our CPD. I’m being realistic with this – I don’t plan on hurling academia at everyone and expecting to get my own way, but the way things seem to be going, I think if I make suggestions they’re at least likely to be listened to. I think useful CPD with research flavour is a good way to get it in there as a natural way of working rather than heavy handed.
Daniel Harvey had CPD at the centre of his session. He outlined how he is changing the way his school, John Henry Newman Catholic College, is transforming their CPD by introducing a programme of action research, and the up and down process he has gone through to make it a success. In small groups we were asked to answer several questions about the relationship between evidence and CPD in our own settings, including the use of ‘research partners’. I have to say, I don’t think our school is ready for this, but whether schools scout out their own partners as Daniel Harvey has, or are part of an organisation like the SUPER Network, opportunities for schools and universities to work together are good thing.
As far as using action research goes, I have mixed feelings. I quite like the idea of action research as part of being a reflective practitioner or even for trying things out in a setting in a controlled, evidenced based way, but I understand the reluctance to call it ‘research’ as there’s very little that will be transferable to other settings apart from providing catalysts of ideas. The cycle of trying out, changing, trying out, is better than doing everything at one as far as I’m concerned. I do wonder if introducing something like lesson study might be a more gentle way of getting staff involved in using evidence to change their practice that could lead to more rigorous research projects in due course. It’s easy to get carried away with ideas at a ResearchEd event as everyone there is enthusiastic and opting to spend their free time with the converted but of course not everyone in school will have research as a priority.
Actually, through all the talk of how the whole-school CDP action research programme had developed – the recognition of bad research questions, levels of participation and group dynamics; I rather thought that the most interesting and relevant piece of action research they are doing is in fact their action research. It’ll be good to see how they ingrain it into their school culture.
After all that, what am I taking away from the Leads Network? Well I could probably write another four posts on the day. The whole spirit of ResearchEd is bringing people together to find out what there is to find out and the first Leads Network was a brilliant extension of the more general conferences. I really like the idea of smaller, more focussed groups and even though the groups here ended up quite large, there were opportunities for discussion. I had wondered if having some sessions on more than once, to allow for everyone to attend but in smaller numbers might work? Maybe with tables next time though…
I think I seem to be on the right track with the Research Lead thing. I’m not quite on the scale of Skyping Harvard, but a handful of staff in my little learning pod is all coming from the same point. I might investigate the partnership thing a bit more next year but my main concern is not to rush anything. Professor Rob Coe started the day off by reminding us that there’s no evidence Research Leads work – a reminder to challenge our thinking, but also that we’re the first lot doing this on a wide scale and we’re making it up as we go along. At one point in the day I was told I was being a librarian for hunting down and saving articles for people to use. I’m quite happy for that to be part of my role at the moment. If we get to a point where access to research becomes a budget priority then that would be a wonderful thing. Maybe it will take some time, but whilst we’re getting there I think there are a lot worse things than getting together from time to time and learning from each other.