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Top academicians’ report on educational research: will teachers feel the benefit?

The Policy Consortium’s Andrew Morris considers a report on the educational research system from the Royal Society and British Academy published last October, highlighting those aspects of greatest relevance to practice. This article was first published in the TES magazine on 21st December 2018

Recent years have seen a welcome resurgence of interest in research and the use of evidence amongst education practitioners. This is evidenced by the development of ResearchED, the growth of the Education Endowment Foundation and the direction being taken by the Chartered College of Teaching and it FE sister, the Society for Education and Training

The increasing rapprochement between the worlds of research and teaching is mirrored in a powerful report from the combined forces of the Royal Society and British Academy, published in October last year. By bringing together the sciences and humanities at the highest level, these bodies have produced an all-encompassing report on the state of educational research and its use today.

With increasing concern about whether fashionable interventions actually make any difference to educational performance, there’s no better time to be putting the evidence system in the spotlight.

The report, Harnessing Educational Research pulls no punches in its evidence-based critique of the current UK system of research production, policymaking and practice. But it also offers a tightly argued set of recommendations for Government, Research Councils and professional bodies in education. For the classroom teacher or lecturer, the test will be whether high-level system changes, were they to occur, lead on to positive changes on the ground.

The principal call in the report is for the creation of an Office for Educational Research to ‘enable the actors to discuss and debate together their research priorities, and to co-develop research strategies for addressing them’. Crucially, from the point of view of schools, colleges and early years centres, this would involve teachers coming together with representatives from government, research and funding organisations. In particular, it cites umbrella organisations such as the Chartered College of Teaching as central to this.

It emphasises the key geographical point that, to improve the quality of research and its use, researchers need to be situated close to practitioners. This will help researchers tackle common priorities and support research being undertaken in schools and colleges

The report also focusses on the kind of research that is needed for educational improvement. Studies dating back to the National Education Research Forum in the late 1990s have pointed to the mismatch between research topics that attract funding within academic disciplines and those that directly improve classroom practice. A case in point is the paucity of research on specific topics in secondary subjects: what are the most effective methods for capitalising on field trips in geography, explaining quantum effects in physics or memorising inflections in modern languages, for example.

To tackle the practical challenges at a local level knowledge from multiple research disciplines is needed: experimental psychology, child development, neuroscience, sociology, IT and management studies to name but a few.  Interdisciplinary approaches are proving crucial throughout the humanities and sciences. The report not only emphasises this point but adds that multi-disciplinary teams need to be informed by evidence from teachers and policymakers as well as researchers.

Another key contribution of teachers, once they have acquired sufficient experience, is to consider moving into research themselves. The supply of researchers is a growing concern as the age profile in academia rises. To meet this challenge the report calls for more part-time research studentships to enable more teachers to develop as researchers and enter academia.

Studies of research use in Canada, the USA, UK, the EU and across the OECD have pointed to the importance of what is now termed ‘knowledge mobilization’. Activities, such as pulling together separate studies, translating their key messages for practice and producing evidence-based guidance based on them, need to be funded in addition to the original research upon which they are based. The report calls for ‘an appropriate balance between the support for strategically directed research, for innovative ‘blue skies’ research, and for knowledge mobilization activities’. Organisations such as the Education Endowment Foundation, Chartered College of Teaching, Association of Colleges and Gatsby Foundation are embarking on innovative projects along these lines in specific areas such as metacognition, literacy and technical education. There is enormous scope for scaling this up to cover the full range of issues faced at classroom level.

The report points out, in particular, that research synthesis is under-developed in education. It suggests that the proposed Office for Educational Research could bring together the various communities to identify research areas requiring synthesis and encourage the adoption of common approaches to ensure the findings have practical application. Huge strides have been made in this respect in healthcare since the 1980s. This has had a major influence on identifying effective (and ineffective) practices and resulted in dramatic improvements in the care of the sick. There are clearly important differences in the extent and nature of the research base for health and education, but there remains plenty of room to capitalise on existing knowledge locked up in unread single studies. 

The report also responds to an increasing awareness that practitioners are unlikely to change their tried and tested methods simply through reading a how-to guide. Studies of research-use across policing, healthcare and social services, as well as education, show that effective changes in practice require structural and cultural change at many levels. For example, local leadership teams need to encourage an evidence-using culture, professional standards need to embody expectations about evidence-use and inspection protocols need to offer incentives to encourage it. The report recommends that Government departments ‘make clear their expectation that teachers should be informed by and engaged in research’ and that research-informed practice is recognised within the professional standards for teachers, the requirements for initial teacher education and in the expectations of inspectorates.

So, will the report make noticeable difference in your local college, nursery or school? The history of such system-wide reports is not encouraging. Will the credibility of the two august bodies behind this report make a difference this time? Perhaps there’s a real chance it will; the climate is changing. The Department for Education now funds the Endowment Foundation to undertake research directed at classroom level issues of teaching and learning; charitable bodies and business organisations are adding to this. New professional bodies have arisen in several jurisdictions and, perhaps most significantly teacher attitudes to evidence are on the move. The popularity of ResearchEd, the focus of the Chartered College and Society for Education and Training and the upsurge in teacher-led research they are unleashing may herald a change that will force the public bodies to take notice of the recommendations in the report.

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