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Engaging with research

Let me state straight away, I think teachers and schools should engage with and use research to inform and develop their practice. To me this is essential if we are going to start to address the gap that exists between the knowledge base that exists, built on research, and the practice that is commonly found in so many schools, much of which is done because it has always been done. However, like a lot of things in education, this is an easy thing to say, but is a lot more difficult to enact. Where do you start if you want to begin to engage with research? As soon as you start looking you will find there is an unlimitless amount of research out there and, surprise surprise, a lot of it is contradictory. How do teachers and schools begin to engage with the whole world of research when they have limited time, and still have to deliver on their main purpose, developing the teaching and learning of young people? As someone who has been actively engaging with research informed practice, and has done so for more than ten years as a school leader, here is a little advice on how you can do so and still maintain a balance to such activity.

First of all you need to clarify the purpose and reason for your engagement. Why do you want to look at research? My first steps were born purely out professional curiosity and my desire to be more informed. I wanted to read, and still do, to find out what other teachers and school leaders were saying about issues that directly impacted on me and my role. Very early as a teacher, and certainly as a headteacher, I started reading books on learning, pedagogy and leadership. I have written a post before about my influencers (16/06/2015 'Who are your influencers?'), so I don't want to go over again all the writers and researchers that I read and began to follow as I sought to broaden my horizons, deepen my understandings, and discover what works, or had worked, for others. I certainly had help and guidance by friends and colleagues as I tried to find researchers and writers with credibility who might be able to develop my understanding and practice. A little guidance from friends and from some professional development courses and collaborations certainly helps as you make your way into the world of research, and the more you dip your toes in the water, the more you find and deeper you go. Today the schools I lead are populated by teachers who engage constantly with research, but they do this in a focused and supported way. The focus and purpose for everyone is to develop their practice, improve their understanding of learning and address specific learning issues they have identified in their own classrooms. They don't look at everything they do. They identify an issue and will engage with research around that issue. This engagement is very much focused on the practicalities of improving and developing what they do in a way that is sustainable and embedded in their practice. Engagement has to lead to impacts in the classroom and what we discovered was that if we keep the focus small, the engagement stays manageable and the impact becomes large. Discoveries made and insights gained have impacts for all learners and across all areas of the curriculum. So keep it real and focused on impact for learners, then you should be able to keep your focus on the wood, despite all those pesky trees.

Next key point is to remember to engage with all research with a critical eye. Just because the words 'research' and 'data' are attached to pieces of work this doesn't mean they are valid, right or even relevant to your context and the issues you are looking at. Bear this in mind when looking at and engaging with any research. Over time, and with support of a trusted friend or colleagues, you will build up a list of researchers and academics who have credibility and who you can begin to trust. Even so, you must engage critically and reflectively in order to relate what you read to your own context and experiences. As there is such a vast array of research to engage with, use your focus, and use abstracts to help you identify the pieces of research that may be useful to engage with, because you certainly can't, or even try to, engage with all the research and writing that is out there. In our own schools. We keep the focus small and this helps us to identify writing and research that might be of help, but what we have seen is that the insights gained, and strategies identified can have bigger and wider impacts than just our small focus. Use of research has helped us 'scale up' new strategies and pedagogies pretty quickly.

Where do you go to find useful research? Of course this very much depends on your focus, but you have more chance of success if you can find sources which have been 'peer reviewed' and quality assured by others you respect. You could of course just use a search engine to find articles and writing, and I have used this approach before with some success. However, it can be very difficult to plough through the pages and pages of articles and sources that might appear when using such methods. It is also harde to quality assure much of what you come across. In Scotland we have the EBSCO research base resource available via the GTCS for all registered teachers. This has a mix of academic research papers, articles and books that all teachers in Scotland can access. Professional journals, such as those produced by BERA or SERA, can also be useful and most of these are available as back issues on-line. You may have to subscribe to some to get the latest editions and thus latest articles. Building up contacts with universities can help, though again a lot of their research bases are only available to current students. Organisations such as SCEL, AHDS and other unions, also give members access to research through their own journals and websites, or can point you in the direction of other sources. Of course, Education Scotland and various Government websites are other good areas to check out, as are international organisations and Government sites, like AITSL in Australia, who often make much of their own research available to all free of charge. You can use Twitter and blogs as other sources. It is amazing how many times you will find useful links and suggestions if you put out a polite request on these for information or research on a particular topic. You may also even be able engage in a virtual conversation with the producer/s of such research to explore issues a little further. With many books you can get to download or see free chapters and sections on sites such as Amazon and this can help you identify if such texts might be useful to read more of. Most local authorities still provide free access to research and books for employees, and don't forget to check out local libraries. In short, there are many sources and ways to engage with and find useful research and articles and the more you do this, the more you will discover. 

The last point I would make is to remind you to encourage teachers to share insights within and across schools in order to facilitate system growth and development. If you have made discoveries and improvements to practice, you should share these with others so they can learn from your insights, and your mistakes. This is not so that they can slavishly copy what you have done, but so that they can consider the data and evidence and how this might inform their own practice in their particular context.

To summarise:
Engaging with research should be a commitment for all teachers and schools
Be clear about your purpose and focus
Keep the focus small
Look to scale up your insights
Engage critically with all research
Look for support from experienced friends and collaborate
Use abstracts to help refine your searches
Develop a wide range of resource bases to find research
Use local, national and even international sources
Finally, be prepared to share your findings and insights internally and externally


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