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Informed by research, but which research?

For many years as a school leader I tried to engage with, and use, research evidence to inform the actions we took in our schools to improve learning and teaching. I have always been an avid reader and consumer of professional reading, both as a teacher and later, when I became a school leader. When we took a collective decision to embrace practitioner enquiry as a vehicle for professional and school development, myself and colleagues began to extend this reading into more academic writing, as well as research papers. However, the more I read, and the more I engaged with researchers, academics and university staff, the more murky became the picture I was looking at.

The old Mark Twain adage about there being 'Lies, damned lies, and statistics' could equally be applied to research, especially in the complex world of education and learning. It would seem, to my poor layman eyes, with respect to research in this field, that you can find evidence from across the globe that will tell you exactly what you already think, and back up your already formed opinions and professional judgement, if that is what you are looking for. No matter that your colleague in the next school, thinks and acts differently to yourself, because, if they are really interested, they will be able to find some research that backs up what they say and do as well!

This was brought home to me at an ICSEI conference a few years ago where Andreas Schleicher, the PISA guru so fond of the power of statistics, spoke via a video-link about the need for data and evidence to be informing our actions. Afterwards, Professor David Reynolds spoke of his admiration for Schleicher in his ability and willingness to defend the distorted and narrow data that PISA produces, along with the conclusions Mr Schleicher and others draw from these. Of course he had his tongue thoroughly in his cheek as he paid his 'compliment' and he added that 'Andreas is fond of saying that without data, you are just a person with an opinion.' Reynolds went on to observe that most people in the room to which he was speaking, which was full of researchers, practitioners and policy makers, were keenly aware that 'even with data, you are still just a person with an opinion.'

To observe the many dichotomies that exist, or are created, in education, one only has to look to Twitter and the debates that rage there about what works and what doesn't in education and learning. On Twitter, you can find some very entrenched views and opinions about what should be happening in schools, often these are diametrically opposed by others. Which ever stance particular people take about an area, they will often back this up with evidence, research and analysis. Opponents will quickly shoot back with their own views and quote their own research base to support their opinions, sometimes this might be even the same piece of research as 'opponents' of their view, which they interpret differently.

What is a school teacher, or school leader, to make of all of this? As I say, the more you get into the world of research the murkier the picture can become, when you might expect the opposite would be the case. There is no doubt that our actions in schools and education systems need to be informed by research and evidence. There has been too much practice in our schools and systems that has actually been detrimental to the learning of many of our learners. This is because too much has gone on in schools, because it has always gone on in schools, not because we know it is the most effective and impactful thing to do for learning, or our learners. That has to change, and I believe it is. But, this still leaves practitioners with the issue beautifully expressed by Dylan Wiliam recently as 'everything works somewhere, but nothing works everywhere.' So, what's a teacher or school leader to do? Throwing your hands in the air and saying, 'I haven't got time for all of this!' is not really an option, not if we are trying to do the very best for all our learners. We have a professional responsibility to act professionally.

John Hattie was in Scotland recently, and no I am not going to start picking holes in his meta-analysis and the conclusions he comes to as a result, I will save that for another post. Whilst he was here, he did say that the profession is not very good at recognising, celebrating and shouting about the expertise it has within it. On this point, I would agree with Hattie, and add that we continue to undervalue and underplay our professional knowledge, expertise, and judgement, when it comes to looking for evidence on how we might improve, as well as the impacts we are having. Every improvement document that comes out of Education Scotland or from the Scottish government, talks glowingly about the primacy of 'teacher professional judgement'. I know that similar sentiments are expressed in policy in other systems too. Do we really believe it? I do, and I think the profession as a whole, and those charged with supporting it, as well as holding us to account, need to believe it too. We all should have this as our starting point for  being 'evidence, or research informed' in our practice. Reflective teachers and school leaders have in their possession, a whole raft of evidence and practical research about their practice, and their schools, and about what works and what doesn't work in their particular context. Lets us start our quest to be informed by research and evidence with ourselves. Such research evidence is individual and specific, rather general or generic.

Our context is crucial and should shape everything we do. This is not to say we will expect less, or more, because of our particular context, but that we should be completely aware and immersed in our context. Our standards and expectations should remain high, whatever our context. However, that context should help shape our curricular structures and our learning, giving these a real-life focus and connection. Our context will shape our development as well. Development in a small rural environment may look completely different to that in a large urban area, but the focuses will be the same. Whatever our context, we should be looking to develop learning and teaching, developing our staff individually and collaboratively, working in partnership with parents and others, including the community to develop our curriculum structures and enhance learning experiences. I would contend that we have to be informed by our context and community links and relationships, and that these will be different for each setting, and at different times in our journey. Such actions and attitudes, keep learning and schools grounded in their communities, and should be why a 'one-size-fits-all' approach will not work, but a 'one-size-fits-one' is a more realistic model for success.

When we have looked at the evidence and research situated within ourselves, our context and community, we then have to marry that to an engagement with the wider body of research. I have already stated that the field of educational research is fraught with difficulty, contradictions and complexity for the motivated teacher or school leader. How do we make sense of it all? The simple answer is, you can't. You could spend a life-time engaging with all the research that exists, and is being produced, around education, schools, systems and learning, and still not cover much of it. Therefore, you have to narrow your focus.

You need to narrow your focus in perhaps two main ways. One it should be narrowed in terms of what you are looking for, and, secondly in terms of the amount of researchers you are going to look at. I should qualify this by stating that I am considering this completely from the view of  practitioners looking to develop their practice and understanding, in order to produce positive impacts for their learners, in their context. Practitioners who wish to engage with higher academic study in order to improve their qualifications, as well as their knowledge and understanding, may well find that the expectations on them will be greater. Most practitioners will engage with research and evidence to help inform their practice or development. If you embark on post graduate study, you can expect to engage with more research and researchers, than would be possible for an in-school full-time practitioner seeking to address issues they have identified. Being informed by research as a practitioner has to be an expectation that is proportionate and manageable.

Through our practitioner enquiry work, we were able to narrow the focus of our search for research and evidence. We identified an issue, individually or collaboratively, then began to look at research about that issue, driven by the desire to eliminate the issue or improve it. Our focus was always small, and this helped us to be specific about the amount and type of research we looked at. I know researchers, or PhD students might throw their hands up and question the validity of what we engaged with as a result, but we were engaging for specific purposes, identified from our own research and our context. This was engaging with such research for immediate practical purposes, not to produce a literature review at the start of a thesis.

Because our focus was narrow, we were also able to keep the amount of researchers we engaged with narrow too. We were helped with this initially by our partnership working with Edinburgh University through Gillian Robinson, but as the years passed, and we became more experienced, we were better able to apply filters and limits ourselves. All the time we were engaging with different research and researchers, we began to build up a bank of such researchers who we trusted and valued, and who were held in some esteem by the profession. This acted as another filter as we got further down the line with enquiry. If you are unable to narrow your focus, your engagement with research will become another weight around your neck, instead of supportive. Also, a narrow focus, means it is so much easier to provide evidence as to the effectiveness of interventions and changes you introduce, as well as to have bigger impacts for your learners and yourself. If things don't improve or work out, a narrower focus also allows you to identify why this might have been the case.

Whatever research you do engage with, you should do so with a critical eye. But, most importantly, you have to learn to pick out the underlying principles, then apply and adjust then according to your context, and your own evidence about your own learners.

I will finish this post by observing that we still have much to learn and understand about all the factors at play in any dynamic learning situation, in schools, or in our education systems. Anyone who says, or thinks, they have all the answers is either lying or deluded. Wiliam is right, there will be strategies and approaches that work in one particular context, or for particular teachers, but which will fail completely when transferred to another context or teacher. They may not even work for the same teacher or context at a different point of time, or with a different cohort and dynamic of learners. School and teacher development is complex and messy and, no matter how much we would like it to be simplified into things we can all do, it will never happen. The best that we can hope for is that we continually explore and develop our understanding and our practice, based on all the factors above, and we can identify and agree principles that will underpin the actions we take. Where dichotomies exist, or emerge, we have to be able to recognise the truths that might lie within both sides of any discourse. This is can be a skill or challenge in its own right, as it may expose our own biases or entrenched viewpoints.

We are all practitioners and we should all be researchers. We have to blend the two to give us the opportunity to do the best we can, for all our learners, so that we may all become the 'intelligent medium of action' as advocated by John Dewey in 1895!


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