Research-informed education practice: More than lip service and shallow pools

stromatolites in shallow pools

stromatolites in shallow pools, Shark Bay

In a variety of educational contexts I have recently heard everyone from keynote speakers to respected educational practitioners talk about research in education, especially the notion of bringing a knowledge of research into schools.

The general gist of what I’ve been hearing is ‘we need research-informed practice’ and ‘we need to look to the best research to inform decision making in schools’. These are statements I absolutely agree with, but digging a little deeper has led to disappointment. When people have gone on to explain what they mean by those fashionable sweeping statements, they have mentioned one or two researchers or studies of which they are aware. These oft-mentioned authors or studies seem to be those that are highly promoted, wheeled out by well-funded organisations or publishers, or neatly packaged into half-day workshops or laminated sheets. Some are those promoted as a one-stop-shop of what works in education: the simple answer for which we’ve all been searching!

The problem is that education is not simple, and neither is research. Learning, teaching and school leadership, are highly complex and contextual. There can be no simple answer, magic wand, silver bullet or laminated sheet of pretty-looking graphs that can transform education. (I was, however, recently challenged to have a go at thinking about in which directions we might look in order to improve teaching and learning.) As Dylan Wiliam suggests, research can point us in profitable directions, illuminating those interventions on which we might best spend our time.

Research, too, is highly complex and multifaceted. To engage effectively with research, educators need to understand its limits and what it can offer. All research is limited. I’m well aware of the limitations of my own research. I know my research has something to offer, but that offering is a small nudge, a keyhole insight, a singular thread in a tangled web. Academic writers are constantly delineating the parameters of their work; what their work has done and can show, and what it hasn’t done and can’t show. Each study or paper or chapter illuminates a different part of the tangled web of research in education.

As educators teaching, or leading teachers, we need, not just to be able to spout a couple of scholarly names, assert that ‘so-and-so tells us that X doesn’t work’ or make decisions based on appearing to engage with research. We need to engage with, pore over and deeply interrogate—with a critical eye—a range of research. Jon Andrews points out that deeply influential people who penetrate huge educational conversations and decisions may be going unchallenged by the profession at large. Marten Koomen traces some of these influential figures and their spheres of edu-influence.

John Hattie’s meta-analyses are often referred to in education circles as examples of research that tells us what works; it is certainly his name that I am currently hearing most often in schools and at conferences. I respect Hattie’s work and that there are things it can tell us, but am skeptical about the ways in which it has been universally adopted as a ubiquitous beacon of research light in the edu-darkness. Dylan Wiliam, in his 2016 book Leadership for Teacher Learning, discusses the limitations of meta-analyses and their application in education, cautioning that “meta-analysis is simply incapable of yielding meaningful findings that leaders can use to direct the activities of the teachers they lead” (p. 96). Snook et al. and Terhart also present critical perspectives on Hattie’s book Visible Learning. This is just one example of how a particular set of results has become so widespread that it unquestioningly becomes part of the fabric of edu-talk.

We can’t pat ourselves on the back for unquestioningly consuming the most pervasive or seductively-packaged research. Gary Jones’ blog is a good place to start for those looking for considered sense-making around how schools might interact with research.

I am committed to playing a part in bringing the worlds of research and practice, theory and action, academia and schools, meaningfully and purposefully together so that they speak to and inform one another. It’s why I am pleased by the schools in Australia embracing school-university partnerships and internal roles like Head of Research. This recent report (by Tom Bennett, featuring Alex Quigley and Carl Hendrick) tracks some of the impacts, successes and challenges of Research Lead roles in schools in the UK.

I believe that schools can lead and generate research. They can develop roles and processes that bring critical organisational mindfulness to the movable feast of edu-research and how practitioners might navigate, probe and be informed by it. Let’s do more than wade in shallow pools of research literature or pay lip service to being research-informed. Instead, let’s find ways to lead and embed research thinking and informed decision making into the fabric of what we do.

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