Education research and the teaching profession: Barriers and solutions

Beware the great wall of research. Proceed with caution. (Taken in George Town, Penang.)

Tonight’s #aussieED Twitter chat has been advertised as talking about ‘bad research’ and ‘good research’, and also asking ‘where can a good teacher turn?’ for research. The topic of research in education is a popular one. Teachers are encouraged to use evidence-based and research-informed practices. They are encouraged to know what research is worth listening to, what is worth ignoring, and what has been misused or debunked (hello, learning styles and neuromyths like ‘we only use 10% of our brains’ and left/right brain learning). Education researchers seek to disseminate their research to the profession. Some organisations seek to bridge the gap between education research and practice. Yet a gap remains.

What barriers are in the way of the teachers and school leaders accessing research to inform their practice?

  1. Time. Teachers and leaders in schools are busy. So busy that often their wellbeing and mental health suffers. It is extremely difficult, especially in the face of multiple accountabilities, for those working in schools to find the time to trawl through academic journal articles and lengthy books in order to decipher research and ponder its relevance to their daily work.
  2. Access and cost. Most academic journal articles are behind a paywall and many academic books have a hefty price tag often well over $100. I have written for both, and the irony is that credibility in the academy is based on publishing in these kinds of texts, yet these are the least accessible for practitioners.
  3. Misrepresentation. The media often misrepresents education research, publishing catchy or sensationalised headlines and simple messages that ignore the complexities or realities of education research. For example, the Sydney Morning Herald recently reported that flipped learning was ‘a new teaching method’ that might be piloted in Australian schools, despite the fact that Australian educators have been using (or intentionally not using) flipped learning for more than ten years. Meanwhile, education terms like ‘growth mindset’ become ubiquitous and meaningless. That is, everyone uses them without ever having engaged with the original research or the responses that have come since.
  4. Simplification. There are dangers to pushing an evidence-based ‘what works’ agenda. Firstly, as Dylan Wiliam so often says, everything works somewhere and nothing works everywhere. But simple league tables of ‘what works’ in education abound. On the one hand these seem useful summaries of research for time-poor teachers, yet they are tools that can be misused and misunderstood if educators do not draw back the curtain to look behind the summaries to the research on which they are based. Meta-analysis mixes together multiple studies in a way that over-simplifies or misrepresents the research on which it is based. For a longer explication, see my extended discussion of meta-analysis in education.
  5. Commodification. There is money to be made in the big business of education. ‘Research’, ‘evidence’, and ‘data’ have become sloganised and used to promote books, professional learning opportunities and conferences. There is a fine line to walk between providing support to the teaching profession by making research accessible, and the corruption of message and purpose that happens when people seek to make money from it, focusing on sales and branding over the authenticity and credibility of what is on offer.

So, what’s the teaching profession to do? Where can we turn when much research is either inaccessible or so multitudinous that it is impossible for the average professional to wade through and find meaning? When the media and some companies or edu-experts are promoting and selling (often contradictory) silver bullets that are too good to be true?

  1. Provide teachers with the questions to ask about research. Context matters, for instance. Where did the studied intervention work? For whom? Under what conditions? Method matters, too. How many participants were in the study? From what school contexts? Via which methods were data generated? What were the ethical considerations and how were these dealt with? What can the study tell us, and what is it unable to tell us? For instance, randomised control trials (RCTs) minimise bias and are often cited as the gold standard of research, but have their own limitations and are not the most appropriate vehicle to answer every research question. A multiplicity of research approaches gives us diverse ways of understanding education, but we need to interrogate the approaches and arrive at conclusions with caution.
  2. Do post-graduate study. Of course this option is not for everyone, and it shouldn’t be a necessity for teachers, but being a Masters or doctoral candidate does provide library access as well as developing an understanding of a variety of research methods.
  3. Consider creating a research role for school, department, or district. While budget constraints might make this difficult for some schools or education departments, a role of ‘Research Lead’, ‘Head of Research’, or in my case ‘Dean of Research and Pedagogy’, can provide a conduit between a school or system and the world of education research. I have written here about some of the things I have been doing to build a research culture in my school.
  4. Build a professional reading repository for your school, district, or system. This might include subscriptions to practitioner or academic journals (e.g. Australian Educational Researcher, Learning & Instruction, Journal of Educational Change), as well as access to research-based practitioner books or academic books. There are also affordable subscriptions, like those of the Media Centre for Educational Research Australia (MCERA), the imminent researchED Magazine, Australian Educational Leader, and the UK Chartered College of Teaching’s journal Impact.
  5. Engage with blogging and online publications. Part of the reason I blog is to give back and contribute to the education community. I work in a privileged school that has the resources to put me in a role where I get to read, write, research, design professional learning opportunities, work with teachers, and help others to do the same. My blog, along with others such as that of the excellent and always-sense-making Gary Jones, seeks to illuminate and summarise research for a practitioner audience. Blogging also engages an audience of international colleagues whose feedback and challenges help to shape my thinking. Online publications such as the EduResearch Matters blogThe Conversation and the Times Education Supplement are also vehicles used by scholars to make research accessible to education practitioners.
  6. Engage with academics and universities, via professional learning or school-university partnerships in order to bridge the gap between those doing educational research, and those seeking to understand and enact it in practice.

At this time two years ago I was attending the American Educational Research Association conference in Washington DC to present on my PhD research. I have attended three Australian Association of Educational Research conferences. I am a research-immersed practitioner. Alongside my full-time school leadership role (in which I also teach English and Literature), I am a research adjunct at a university. I engage in both research and practice. This road, however, is always a winding and imperfect one. Teachers, school leaders, researchers and education commentators need to work together to understand and enact education research and its implications.

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Building a school research culture

source: pixabay.com @ninocare

This year has been my first in a new role, the oddly titled ‘Dean of Research and Pedagogy’. I have a broad portfolio, including such things as pedagogy from PK-12 and overseeing the work of the Library, but two major aspects of the role are:

  • Building a professional learning culture of continual improvement, data generation and analysis. This includes overseeing the professional learning agenda and staff development, overseeing teacher action research projects, supporting our staff doing post-graduate study, leadership development, coaching teachers and leaders, and refining performance and growth processes.
  • Research innovation and support. This is about disseminating and building a body of research that promotes quality pedagogy and teacher improvement, executing evidence-based strategic initiatives, and working to develop a data analytics culture.

I sat down at the beginning of 2017 to map out how I was going to address these aspects of my role. What was the underlying strategy? What were the deliverables? Who were the key stakeholders? At the end of each year, how might I know I had been successful? What evidence of my own influence might I see if I was being successful in nudging the ever-nebulous school culture?

I wrote a two-year strategic plan (a working document that I revisit regularly) and put some measures for myself in place.

What follows is not my plan or those measures, but the kinds of things I have tried this year in my attempt at developing the research culture of the school.

  1. Harnessing internal and external expertise

As I explained in this recent blog post, staff development can include coaching, mentoring, consulting, courses, conferences and regular opportunities for goal setting and performance review. It includes collaborative learning experiences and those that occur over time. It includes harnessing both external and internal expertise.

This year a new initiative related to my role was called the Leadership Forum, a once-per-term cheese-and-wine event dreamt up and co-launched with the Director of Strategy. All of our school leaders, from Coaches and Year Co-ordinators to Heads of Faculty and the Executive, are invited each term to an early evening of cheese, wine, and connecting around leadership. This is an opportunity to connect the strategy of the school with the operational and relational work of our leaders.

The first Forum of the year was run by myself and the Director of Strategy, in which we took leaders through a process of reflecting upon research findings on effective school leadership, and then worked with them to set goals for themselves and their teams, aligned with the strategy of the organisation. For the second forum, we welcomed Professor Dylan Wiliam. For the third we ran a panel of three principals who spoke openly about their journeys of school leadership. And this final term, we welcomed Professor Pasi Sahlberg. This Forum provides one example of a way to engage teachers and leaders in current conversations around education, and with research and researchers.

Bringing experts into the school, and having them speak to our context, meant that their words and points connected more strongly with the people in the room. Also, staff enjoyed the collaborative experience of hearing them speak, together, so conversations have continued well after each presentation finished. Creating these kinds of crucibles of collaboration, and following up with books or articles that build upon the presentations, has been one way to nudge people’s thinking, especially when presenters are provocative or challenging.

  1. Research reports

I have published six of what I call the ‘Research Report’ to staff this year. The report is intended to provide all staff access to current thinking, research, and writing, around education. Across the year the report provides resources (from academic and theoretical, to popular and easily accessible) relevant to our specific school context, including to various sub-schools, faculties, and strategic priorities. The selected readings are a small selection rather than a comprehensive collection. Staff are encouraged to dip in and out according to their personal and professional interests.

I have been interested to note those people who have provided positive feedback about the report; many are non-teaching staff—from the Bursar to the administration staff—who have appreciated being able to immerse themselves in, or dip into, educational thinking, and have this shared in an accessible way. Making research accessible to all democratises the community and empowers everyone to have conversations around education. It has incited many corridor conversations, as well as more formal ones.

  1. Publishing on school platforms

Research is partly about communication and dissemination. In a school environment it is important that research can be made accessible for the community.

This year, on the school blog, I have written about things such as measuring success in education, professional conversations, and digital learning. In these posts I have referenced research in order to model how research can inform the thinking of educators and schools.

I was interviewed for the school podcast around the question, ‘What makes a great teacher?’, and I’ve written for and presented at other forums, in school and nationally.

Communicating in blogs, podcasts, and presentations, allows research to become alive and humanised.

  1. Keeping the staff professional reading library current

I am a card-carrying member of The Book Depository and have ordered plenty of resources for the professional reading library at school, in order to provide staff with the opportunity to engage with current research. At the end of each term, I promote a selection of books by emailing about them and placing them on a red trolley for the end-of-term staff morning tea in the Library.

I remind staff that professional reading can be counted as an informal professional learning activity under our Teacher Registration Board Professional Learning Activities Policy, so they can log it as part of their 20 professional learning hours per year for teacher registration.

  1. Keeping myself current

I could not do this role without keeping myself up to date with research. My adjunct position at a university helps to keep me current (as I have access to research literature behind the pay wall). It also allows me to do thorough literature reviews, such as those I have completed this year on digital learning and school libraries. I now have staff asking me to find current research literature for them to inform the work they are doing.

  1. Collaboration

It should go without saying that none of this happens without collaboration with a web of stakeholders. Relationships are key in this role. There’s no point me being in my office, reading away like the nerd I am, if no one is engaging with me or the work. Much of my day is spent in formal meetings or informal conversations.

One of the indicators of my success is when people seek me out, such as for individual coaching around career or professional development or a staff issue, to work with a team around a problem of practice, to generate data to gauge their impact, or to help with a Masters dissertation or PhD application.

One challenge to anyone in this kind of Research Lead role is the reality of the lives of teachers and school leaders. Educators are busy, pressed on from all angles, constantly rushing to their next class, to mark their next assignment, to jump through the next accountability hoop. Leisurely time and space to sit back and drink from the fire hose of current research literature is a fantasy. In addition, as this Deans for Impact blog post explains, teachers have deeply held sets of cultural and personal beliefs about learning and about how to best serve their students.

Engaging in research, and in discussions and explorations about research, can help teachers to interrogate those beliefs and bring together science, evidence, and systematic thinking with their praxis (wisdom of practice). We should value teachers’ lived experiences of lessons, relationships, students, and bringing content to life through pedagogy. We can also work to incrementally develop school cultures in which research becomes a part of ‘the way we do things around here’.

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!

Teaching and leading schools in a #posttruth word of #altfacts

General Hux's speech in The Force Awakens (reddit.com)

General Hux’s speech in The Force Awakens (source – reddit.com)

Post-truth: relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief. ~ Oxford Dictionary

To my continued astonishment, we are living in a post-truth world. ‘Post-truth’ was the Oxford Dictionary’s 2016 word of the year. The Trump administration in its first week seemed to impersonate the Star Wars totalitarian First Order when it claimed that it was not lying but providing the public with ‘alternative facts’. Then, gag orders were placed on a number of government agencies, including the Department of Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Health and Human Services. (Hurrah for whoever tweeted rebelliously about inauguration crowds and climate change from the National Parks Service ‘Badlands National Park’ account.) 

For a Western government to blatantly deny reality is at once baffling and terrifying. Hello, propaganda. Hello, the invocation of untruths (sorry, ‘alternative facts’) to smother any unfavourable actuality.

We shouldn’t be surprised. The misuse and abuse of language and facts is something that dystopian and speculative fiction has been warning of for decades, and something that history tells us has the ability to tap into the hive mind and rally societies around a common, often chilling, cause or leader. 

In this post I’ll explore the notion of a post-truth world of alternative facts and empty emotive rhetoric, around two arenas in my own life: teaching English and Literature, and my new role at my school, which encompasses in part engagement with research across the school.

First, to teaching in a post-truth world …

With the school year beginning next week, my Year 12 English team are finalising the texts to be taught and studied this Australian academic year. We’ve been tossing up between two contemporary texts about modern issues like gender, sporting culture and bullying, but every day the news and my social media feed give me a nagging feeling, a tugging at my literary shirt sleeve, a whisper to pause, take stock, listen. And dig out a dystopian classic.

Last year we taught the 12s Fahrenheit 451, a text that portrays books as dangerous threats to government control and societal compliance. This year perhaps we should teach Orwell’s 1984. Its Ministry of Truth, that falsifies historical events, and Newspeak, a language that restricts freedom of thought, are more relevant than ever. In fact, Orwell’s novel has this week rocketed to number 1 on the Amazon best sellers list.

A more recent text also comes to mind. Lionel Shriver’s 2016 The Mandibles, set between 2029 and 2047, is an economic dystopia that imagines the USA’s collapse. In her novel, the bungling US government has little respect for its citizens. First world problems like gluten intolerance disappear as violence and poverty rise. It is Mexico that builds an electrified, computerised, constantly-surveyed fence to keep desperate Americans illegals out.

Of course as a teacher of English and Literature I teach versions of reality and multiplicity of perspectives, but that plurality doesn’t stretch to bald-faced lies for the purposes of propaganda, banning scientists from speaking, or removing language like ‘climate change’ from government policy and websites. Language matters. It shapes thought. It wields power. It’s our job as teachers to elevate our students’ capacities to engage critically with their world. To be sceptical consumers of what they see, hear and read, and to be empowered to use language as an agentic tool.

Next, to school leadership in a world of alternative facts …

I am also coming to terms with how schools might respond to this post-truth world. This is especially relevant to me as I have just begun a new role at my school (new to me and new to the school). It is a senior leadership role that encompasses the use of evidence and research to make informed decisions from the classroom to the boardroom, as well to underpin and frame pedagogy, professional learning, performance review processes and capacity building across the organisation.

In this paper published online on 18 January, Brown and Greany (2017, p.1)—thanks to Gary Jones, whose blog is a great resource in this space, for sharing it—write:

Educational evidence rarely translates into simple, linear changes in practice in the ways that what-works advocates might hope. Instead, … evidence must be combined with practitioner expertise to create new knowledge which improves decision making and enriches practice so that, ultimately, children’s learning is enhanced.

This focus on what Brown and Greany call ‘what matters’ as well as ‘what works’ resonates with me. As Jon Andrews (channelling Marilyn Cochran-Smith) reminds us, teaching is unforgivingly complex. If we schools and educators are to really engage with research, then we need to honour our own contexts and value our own wisdom of practice. Teachers and schools can and should engage with research. I’m grateful that my school is able to create a role like mine in order to elevate evidence and research, execute research initiatives, and further embed scientific thinking and data analytics into the fabric of the school a culture. I’m grateful that there are schools around the world bringing evidence, mindfulness and crticiality to their decision making and pedagogy.

In a post-truth world, how do we balance a respect for truth, evidence and reason, with an honouring of plurality, multiplicity and praxis? How might we use literature or research as vehicles for respecting perspectives, while exploring challenges and possibilities?

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.