Supporting Teachers' Engagement in and with Research
Senior Policy Adviser for Research, General Teaching Council for England and Visiting Professor, Institute of Education, London
The author joined the General Teaching Council for England at its inception in September 2000, after a long career in applied educational research. Since then, she has been engaged in developing and implementing a research strategy which draws on high quality scholarship and evidence to support the breadth of the GTC's remit and aspirations. In keeping with its duty to help maintain and improve high standards of teaching and learning, the GTC actively promotes teaching as a research-informed profession.
Aims of this resource
to provide an overview of how research can be used to support teachers' professional practice by:
- setting out the key principles of a research-informed teaching profession
- providing a selection of resources designed to stimulate professional learning and activity
Key Principles of a Research-Informed Teaching Profession
The relationship between teaching and research
The starting point for this resource is that the relationship between research and teaching is not accidental nor mechanistic, but intimate and profound. Each discipline is both a demanding science and an imaginative art. They each exemplify the values and the processes of enquiry, the open mind and the open heart, as it were.
The GTC has long argued that research activity – theory-building, hypothesis-testing, critical analysis and appraisal, evaluation, synthesis, as well as the gathering of empirical evidence within an explicit ethical framework – is, and must be seen to be, relevant to the teaching profession and, more generally, to a society which takes education seriously. For, although the relationship between research and practice (like that between research and policy) is neither simple nor direct, research is not an optional extra.
First, research is a crucial source of evidence on which public policy should be founded: why, how and where resources, human and financial, should be allocated in order to provide the optimum conditions for excellence in teaching and learning. Ann Oakley has defined the issue like this:
and, although many commentators continue to dispute the methodological conclusions she draws from the statement, as a way of encapsulating the combination of rigour, empathy, collective endeavour and basic ethical purpose of research it is hard to beat.
… the business [of research]… is how to develop the most reliable and democratic ways of knowing, both in order to bridge the gap between ourselves and others, and to ensure that those who intervene in other people's lives do so with the most benefit and the least harm. (Oakley, 2000, p. 3)
Second, many teachers have said how engaging with and in research re-energises them as professionals. The words they use, the clusters of ideas and phrases that come up when they speak or write about research in their own working lives, are quite striking; they talk in terms of:
- hunch, creativity, surprise, discovery, excitement, pleasure – even on the part of experienced and battle-hardened teachers;
- professional judgement, mutual respect, trust, language of learning;
- reflection, self-questioning, shared observation, clearer focus, insight, enlightenment;
- gradual change, progressive improvement, making a difference.
Quotes from teachers who were involved in the NFER's Research-Engaged Schools project (Sharp et al . 2005) were often along these lines:
- ‘I thought I was a good teacher, and certainly I was competent; but it was research which made me better than just competent';
- ‘[engaging in research] is what excellent teachers do'.
And during the course of this project teachers also produced some lovely similes to describe the experience or the process of research for them:
- ‘a bricklayer turning into an architect'
- ‘a treasure box – exciting, the deeper you dig, the more you find'
- ‘an island waiting to be discovered'
- ‘a beehive, pollinating the flowers of the whole countryside'….
Third, what are teachers doing when they engage with and in research? A whole variety of activities are possible, including:
- directly accessing research intelligence, for example, through websites, reading groups, researcher-in-school schemes, as well as journals and other print media – the list of selected on-line resources at the end of this paper demonstrates how well and quickly the field of research dissemination has developed (but see also Bell et al . 2004);
- participating in externally-generated research studies;
- undertaking research as part of their accredited professional studies;
- undertaking specific teacher-researcher activities outside accredited study;
- actively experimenting in their own classrooms using a reflective-evaluative enquiry approach;
- working in pairs or groups to read, analyse and discuss research relevant to professional and school development , and to design collaborative studies within or even across schools.
Engagement in or with research was perhaps once seen as the province of an élite cadre of teachers: now, however, more and more teachers are research-active and research-literate, as it becomes increasingly evident that there are both immediate and longer-term gains for teachers and schools, such as:
- a growing base of evidence and theory to support the development of teaching expertise;
- school curricular and pedagogical development that is teacher-led;
- satisfying, rigorous and relevant professional learning and development for teachers;
- a range of rich data for accountability purposes;
- a culture of self and collective scrutiny and evaluation;
- an opportunity to question one's assumptions, to think and look beyond one's own horizons and to work in communities of other professionals.
Beyond ‘what works'?
But what does it mean for a teacher to be involved in doing research? Is it largely about finding out ‘what works' and putting it into practice? Or is there something more, or different, involved when a teacher embarks on a relationship with research? My view is that both teaching and research are intrinsically social and ethical, not just instrumental, undertakings; and that creativity, feeling and intuition, as well as perception and cognition, are crucial to the satisfactory accomplishment of each. To put it another way, teaching is, and should aspire to be, ‘research-informed' as well as ‘evidence-based'.
Nonetheless, ‘what works' has been a very powerful motif in both policy and practice, and for obvious reasons: teachers in schools (like ministers of state for education) are dealing every day of every week with hugely demanding problems and they tend to prefer solutions and actions to yet more problems and endless cogitation – which is perhaps how they sometimes perceive the results of academic research. And it does seem to be common sense that there should be definite and reliable answers to ‘what is the best way to teach a child to read?' or ‘would smaller class sizes make a positive difference to pupils' achievements?'
But teachers' own research and enquiry activities have given the lie to there being any simple answer to ‘what works?' There are so many contextual and contingent factors that can and do vary from one class to the next, from one day to the next, and so on. On the contrary, it is always a matter of what works for whom, in what circumstances, with what resources, how, and why: and just in posing it like this we have already moved a long way from a single clear answer to a straightforward question. The Australian report on the impact of educational research found that ‘It is the teacher who construes meaning from research, from practice and from the relationship between research findings and practice' (DETYA, 2000).
Moreover, any educational change or intervention will probably have unintended as well as intended consequences for someone or something. And this is not just about the messiness of life in school, it is what distinguishes social science from the physical sciences, because the objects are subjects including ourselves. One writer put it like this:
‘[People] act as they do, not because they are bound to follow unvarying rules [like neutrons and electrons] but because they have beliefs, values, interests, and intentions' . (Bruce, 1999)
It is not scientific, in other words, to leave out of an account of human activity the very aspects that make us human. The consequence of this is, as another writer says, that:
… what works is a matter of discussion and debate, not simply of data; what works is a value statement not simply an empirical statement… (Morrison, 2001)
This should hardly be surprising, since education is a moral undertaking, an individual and collective quest. What education is for is still, and will continue to be, hotly debated: the question underlies almost every big issue, from what age children should start school to whether A levels should be abolished. Elliott (1996) has put this succinctly:
It is not as if the moral ends are clear and all that is left is a decision about the most technically efficient means of satisfying them… education [is] a morally complex affair involving a careful consideration of both the curriculum and pedagogy by teachers. From this perspective the quality of education depends on the quality of teachers' deliberation and judgement in the classroom.
In a later paper (Elliott 2001) he maintains, invoking the spirits of Peters and Stenhouse writing in the 1970s, that pedagogy is a transformational process, deeply connected with the construction of knowledge through shared enquiry. Furthermore, since ‘ the structures of knowledge into which students are to be inducted are intrinsically problematic and contestable, and therefore objects of speculation ' teachers can, and should, ‘ model [for their students] how to treat knowledge as an object of inquiry' (Elliott, op.cit .). Such an argument allows Stenhouse – and Elliott – to claim that research is an activity wholly integral to the practice of teaching: ‘… educational research can provide a basis for teaching and learning about teaching. Professional skill and understanding can be the subject of doubt, that is of knowledge, and hence of research.' (Stenhouse, 1979, cited in Elliott.)
Stenhousian ideas of speculative and interpretative exploration seem to be enjoying a revival amongst teacher-researchers – in my experience, teachers are at least as likely to cite Stenhouse as they are the empiricist ‘what works' agenda.
Practitioner versus academic research?
Teacher-led research which revolves around questions which the profession is most concerned to address is potentially in a strong position to tease out the nuances and ethical complexities of ‘what works' in precise, local contexts. Practitioner research is about valuing the real-time, knowledge-in-action, context-specific understandings which people use to solve old and new problems.
So it is probably true that teachers are often interested in different kinds of questions from those addressed by academic researchers in universities. This does not mean that teacher research per se is less rigorous in its methods or less valid in its conclusions – though for pragmatic reasons it is usually smaller in scale. Nor does it mean that teacher research is resolutely atheoretical, concerned only with concrete facts and actions. Every time one proposes, even to oneself, an explanation for something – the way a student behaves when he's asked a particular kind of question, the unpredictable turn-out rate of parents on open evenings – one is engaging in a form of theorising. Academic research insists that our theories be made explicit, not least so that alternative explanations, and different solutions, can be considered.
It is just too easy to pose practitioner and academic research on opposing sides of a mythical divide. The best practitioner research stands on an equal footing with the best university research, in terms of being, for example:
- grounded in what is already known, whether in terms of academic literature or in terms of other colleagues' professional knowledge;
- fit for purpose in its design, including methods that enable the research question or problem to be addressed and an analytical framework that shows whether and what conclusions we can safely draw;
- truly reflexive and exploratory (not trying to prove what one already believes);
- honest about its limitations, not over-claiming – all knowledge is provisional and waits only for tomorrow to be overturned;
- open to challenge, alternative explanations, further development – this is what generates the excitement that researchers, whether academic or practitioner, talk about.
So it is probably not quite accurate to talk in terms of the ‘application' of ‘evidence' to teaching; it is altogether a much more interesting and dynamic process, with teachers' structured learning – collective as well as individual – at the core. The knowledge created in this way is not so much accumulated as ‘caught', like fire or laughter (see Gibbons et al . 1994 for a discussion of different modes of knowledge creation). Above all, the knowledge is meaningful because it is being created in the places and contexts where it will be used, challenged and further developed. No wonder that many teachers find engaging in and with research to be a very powerful form of professional learning and development (see, for example, Campbell 2002).
Academic research has perhaps one clear advantage over practitioner research at least at the moment, in that research is a major part of what universities are for – large resources are invested in research, there are prestigious posts and established career paths in research, there are explicit criteria of excellence for research, there are a myriad of learned journals and other outlets for sharing and discussing the results of research, there are processes of peer review for assuring quality of research, and so on.
But school-based research may, in the long run and if we do the right things to support it at a national level, have one distinct advantage over university research, in that it can capitalise on ‘live' professional expertise as well as systematised research-based knowledge. Professional expertise is situated, subtle, sophisticated, complex, fluent, intuitive and holistic, and for those reasons hard to systematise in any comprehensive way. As one writer has pithily put it, ‘the chances of the expert [teacher] being already familiar with the system-based knowledge will be high, the chances of the system capturing most of the expert-based knowledge near to zero' . (Eraut 2004)
Hagger and McIntyre expand the issue like this:
…research-based knowledge about teaching can take us only a limited way towards an understanding of good practice… The idea of a ‘technology of teaching', with scientifically established rules of good practice which teachers would be obliged to follow, is not attractive. But the idea is not simply unattractive; it is also wrong. Its success would have to depend on there being a body of totally reliable and generalizable scientific laws by which one could predict the effects upon pupils' thinking and learning of whatever teachers did. Not only would this body of scientific knowledge have to be immense…; it would also have to be as precise and reliable as… Newtonian physics... (Hagger and McIntyre, 2006)
Instead (they say):
What we have (and could usefully have much more of) is evidence about how the practices of teachers seem to make systematic differences to the attainments of their pupils. It is evidence about good practice, evidence from which teachers [and others] could very usefully learn . (ibid., my insert)
This becomes a really pressing issue when we consider how little is known about the pedagogies, and the curricula, that are necessary to address some of the newly-diagnosed problems that children and young people are bringing with them into the classroom: on the medical side, very premature birth, multiple births, chromosomal and other genetic abnormalities, foetal alcohol syndrome, the range of autistic spectrum disorders, to name a few (see Carpenter 2007a). On the social side, there are the inter-generational inequalities in educational outcome that seem so intractable; or, to take a different kind of example, the suffering and trauma that refugee and asylum-seeking children have experienced which may find partial or oblique expression in an English classroom; or the fact that many children seem to be stressed and depressed at a disturbingly young age. The list of problems seems only to grow, the challenges are as numerous as they are hard.
One thing is clear: we are not on solid ground, educationally speaking. But it may well be that a culture of practitioner-led, school-based research has the best chance of responding quickly enough and on the ground to the range and complexity of difficulties that are emerging. Such a culture needs to be supported by all the relevant disciplines of higher education, such as neuroscience, clinical psychology, psychiatry, pharmacology, social care, as well as pedagogical research, so that teachers and academics from a range of disciplinary backgrounds can work together as mutually respectful experts to develop knowledge and strategies. A major precondition for this is a whole-school culture whole-heartedly committed to research as a way of life in school, to the practice of teaching as the best means of designing curriculum and pedagogic innovation. And, despite all the obstacles, such school cultures, supported through their partnerships with universities and local authority children's services, do appear to be flourishing. School leadership is key, of course (see Carpenter 2007b; Cordingley and Temperley 2006; Sharp et al . 2005).
The point should be to increase our national capacity to create secure knowledge about teaching and learning by the best means available, regardless of institutional labels – and this means actively encouraging and strengthening the existing partnerships between schools, local authorities and HEIs. The messages from different parts of the system at present are too mixed to be helpful. McIntyre and McIntyre, in a report for the TLRP on research capacity for teaching and learning (1999), had some very sobering things to say about the capacity of schools to be research-active institutions. Although the situation has, in my view, changed for the better since the time of the report, I think the issues and questions that were raised are still pertinent, particularly about the strategic human and financial resources implications:
If it is seen to be clearly desirable that schools should be more deliberately and actively engaged in the generation and use of research-based knowledge about teaching and learning, deliberate development and expansion of this capacity would seem to be necessary.
Furthermore, they argued:
The belief that there are simple known research-based solutions to schools' problems stands in sharp opposition both to teachers' well-refined practices of learning from their own practice and equally to experience of learning through and from research. It will be only within partnerships which recognise how little we know about how research can usefully be part of the work of a school that the needed capacity will be found.
There is a real need for the work of partnerships which are currently holding their own against the odds to be understood in terms of their processes and practices, so that the lessons can be learned at national as well as local level.
Commissioning research to influence practice
Research is often commissioned with the intention of influencing practice. Some questions that people commissioning such research might usefully ask themselves include:
- how and why will the research help practitioners to address, conceptually and practically, the problems that matter to them? what value will it add to their existing knowledge and skills?
- how will practitioners hear about the research? how will they be able to access the findings and key messages? will it cost anything (including printing from downloaded article on website)?
- how easy will it be for teachers to make use of the research issues and findings? what cultural and/or institutional conditions are most likely to predispose them to engage with the research? what are the likely barriers?
- what are teachers likely to find resonant and dissonant about the research?
- what else is the research competing with, e.g. national policy requirements; unintended disincentives in the system?
- how can the commissioned research be designed to permit teachers' own research and enquiry-based activities to make an authentic contribution?
- how can the research be integrated into a sustained and collaborative professional learning process/programme rather than a single ‘hit'?
Practitioners are more likely than in the past to be invited to review research proposals, sit on project steering groups, etc., though this is still the exception rather than the rule. The National Teacher Research Panel exists to develop a more influential role for practitioners in the national research investment – see their website for their aims, membership, list of publications, etc. (address in the list of on-line resources).
Coda: supporting a research-informed profession: the General Teaching Council
The GTC was established by the Teaching and Higher Education Act 1998. It is the self-regulatory body for the profession in England . All qualified teachers currently teaching in maintained schools and non-maintained special schools in England must be registered with the GTC. The GTC's remit is to guarantee standards of entry to the profession, and promote high quality continuing professional development, professional standards of teaching and professional practice.
Since its launch in 2000, the GTC has funded, often in partnership with other organisations, many interesting and valuable research studies, notably several that have shed new light on teachers' professional learning and development; it also conducts its own annual national survey of teachers. The GTC has established the popular Research of the Month website, sponsored a special Times Educational Supplement feature on teachers' research called ‘Classroom Discoveries', and distributed a leaflet to all schools on using research in schools and classrooms. It co-hosts the National Teacher Research Panel, who organise biennial conferences to show-case teachers' research from across the whole country.
Teachers can have their school-based inquiry activities nationally recognised and valued through the GTC's Teacher Learning Academy , and can access research intelligence to support their particular roles and interests by subscribing to one or more of the GTC Networks.
Selected on-line resources
Research sites with resources for teachers:
Teacher research networks:
Support for professional development and practice:
References and selected bibliography
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