The Research Lead Down Under

candle at the Emu Plains Market

candle at the Emu Plains Market

Schools, school leaders and teachers are increasingly expected to be research literate, to be informed by evidence in their decisions and practices, and to be assessed against a range of high-stakes measures. In this kind of education world, schools need to be able to make sense of the measures against which they are being assessed, and have the capacity to generate counter-narratives or alternative data to measure those things that are important for them.

As I’ve alluded to, I have this year begun a new role at my school, which encompasses overseeing professional learning, staff development, innovation and pedagogy. But it also encompasses the kinds of work associated with what UK schools call a ‘Research Lead’: developing the research base and systematic methodologies of the organisation; data generation and analytics; executing evidence-based strategic initiatives; overseeing and developing research and innovation frameworks.

As Hargreaves and Fullan (in Professional Capital, 2012) point out, leading evidence-based school practices and change is a complex process. Having a person dedicated to the curation, generation and communication of research supports everyone from the classroom to the boardroom in making better decisions. A role dedicated to raising the profile and practice of research helps a school to remain agile in response to current educational research; evidence-informed and systematic in its methods; proactive in its processes and communications; and keenly focused on its strategic impacts within the wider context of the global education world.

The Research Lead role has been around in UK schools for a few years, and now there are Research Schools. See, for instance, the Wellington Learning and Research Centre and the Huntington Research School.

As the UK’s College of Teaching noted yesterday, teachers need access to evidence, strategies for understanding it, and opportunities to conduct their own research, not to mention the desire to engage with research in the first place. Access is a real issue, and while there are open access journals, the occasional free paper, and popular dissemination sites like The Conversation and the AARE blog, many teachers do not have the library privileges, money or time to access pay walled journals and expensive books. The Research Lead can be a conduit between research and staff at the school.

The role of Research Lead is explained in this Education Development Trust report, by Tom Bennett. The report positions the Research Lead as gatekeeper, consigliere, devil’s advocate, auditor and project manager. Interestingly, the report notes that schools where Research Leads had made the biggest impact were frequently schools where the role was part of the brief of a senior member of the leadership team. It lists authentic buy-in from senior leadership and a ‘place at the table’ of school life as necessary conditions of the role; the Executive needs to support the role and give it authority, autonomy, time (for the Lead to manage projects and for staff to engage with research) and commitment. The autonomy is partly important for projects and getting work done, but also because the Research Lead might have to sometimes take an unpopular position, or suggest a pause during a time of rapid change; they need to be free to do so.

Elsewhere in the world, the American School of Bombay has a Research and Development Centre. In Australia, examples such as the St Stephens Institute in Perth, the Barker Institute in Sydney, the Crowther Centre at Brighton Grammar School in Melbourne, the Centre for Learning, Research and Innovation at Geelong College, and the Centre for Research, Innovation and Future Development at St Paul’s in Brisbane, show how Australian schools are focusing on centralising and developing research. Just last year, my own role and others local to me were created, incorporating ‘research’ in the title. Some of these roles incorporate learning technologies. Others incorporate student academic achievement and staff learning and development. The research focus is based around the strategic vision and learning principles of each school. In Australia, there is often a focus on generation and innovation (finding out what might work in what context) rather than on prescribing ‘what works’. Teachers are seen by many schools as potential researchers.

So the Research Lead, or equivalent, is advisor, instigator, filter, conduit, provocateur, disseminator, critical questioner, sceptic, creator of partnerships, and builder of a professional culture in which rigorously considering evidence, research literature, and how to measure impacts are an accepted part of the way things are done. The Lead is across and through the organisation, an influence and an advocate for systematic thinking through. As Gary Jones’ blog often explores, evidence-based practice is nuanced and rife with challenges. The Research Lead needs to move beyond lip-service to research and hat-tips to evidence-based practice. They need to be aware of their own preferences, biases, blind spots and deficiencies, as well as the research-and-evidence temperature of the organisation, and how to evaluate and generate evidence and research.

I’m looking forward to shaping the Research Lead part of my own role. As a boundary-spanning PhD-universityadjunct-schoolleader-teacher it is something to which I am deeply committed and about which endlessly fascinated. My nerdery will be put to good use!


17 thoughts on “The Research Lead Down Under

  1. Thank you for this succinct and beautifully written piece. So much of what you have recorded here resonates with me. I look forward to future posts


  2. I absolutely agree that a well-research local programme of change / exploration/ innovation is better than the bandwagon / decontextualised importation of ‘what works elsewhere’ approach. As others you have quoted note, the resistance to structural changes in organisations often impede this; as you illustrate, there are more and more schools investing in structural changes, and using them as a differentiating factor in the marketplace (i.e., substantially driven by independent schools). Having led a similar initiative recently, though, I would argue there’s a lot more to be done to provide teachers with the time to build their research skills, reflect on their practice, collaborate, etc. because that’s where the difference will be made, in my opinion. Otherwise it can become yet another way that PD is ‘done to’ teachers?


  3. I enjoyed reading this. I used to work at Huntington School before I moved to Melbourne three years ago. Their researchED status is via their work via an Educational Group. I would be interested in knowing more about how you managed to get your current school to recognise the importance of a Research Lead – if you can spare the time please email me! Thank you.


    • Getting the school to recognise the importance of a Research Lead involved a lot of work, evidence-gathering, and convincing over a period of about a year, but now we’re in a position to really sink our teeth into what that might look like in our context.


  4. This year, I will be part of a newly formed learning network (a group of like schools) here in Melbourne. It is very much in its infant stage but I am excited about the collaborative power we can harness as a group.
    One thing I have learnt so far since running my PLTs is that honesty is crucial. We tell students all the time it’s ok to make mistakes but as teachers, we often feel vulnerable to admit these. Creating that circle of trust for staff to open up has been central to the success of the PLTs.
    I really look forward to following your work this year Deb.


    • Thanks, Julia. The notion of trust you mention is so important. My school’s work on coaching for teachers and for leaders has centred largely around the need for those safe, non-judgemental spaces in which to experiment with and talk about practice.


  5. Thank you for a very timely and well contextualised discussion about the ongoing need to have research leading practice in our schools, whereby practitioners are actively engaged in the process while also contributing to the fabric of change and innovation in the school setting. As a person in one of these roles at present, the more we can share and collaborate, the greater our collective capacity and understanding will be in both the education sector and more broadly in the community. It was great to read this as it resonated with much that I am involved with and am passionate about. I look for to hearing more and sharing in this journey. Brad


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