The Research Home Guard

The estimable Alex Quigley’s recent post Just Don’t Call in Research again raised the issue of what should, and should not, be called ‘research’ in schools. I’ve debated the issue myself here and here. Despite his post’s title, Alex seems happy to take Dylan Wiliam’s notion of disciplined inquiry and apply it to the hard work of school improvement. I’m just not sure why the research mavens are so jealous of the word ‘research’. If what we do in schools passes the test of asking interesting questions in a systematic way and making our answers somehow public, wouldn’t Lawrence Stenhouse himself be satisfied?

Full Disclosure: I do a little work for the UCL IOE Research and Development Network, where this blog is also featured. I have been a participant on their Leading Evidence Informed Practice in Schools course, led by Karen Spence-Thomas and David Godfrey. Their working definition of research is much more open:

By ‘research’ we include a broad range of activity that can be loosely defined as ‘systematic enquiry made public’. In other words, it must be consciously planned and involve some collection of data/evidence. Making research ‘public’ need not involve writing the research up formally in an article or report but it must have been shared in some way.This can include a wide range of practitioner or academic research or research and development activity.

They have been sharing some of the insights from their colleague Chris Brown’s Leading the use of research & evidence in schools, which includes the notion of information flow around an institution’s ‘social network’. This was my effort:

Research Social Network at Chace

I am the hairy dot in the middle. It was based partly on my own observations, but mainly on the findings of a staff survey which David is using in a number of schools. I have selected just a few graphs here as indicators of the sorts of things my colleagues think about the idea of research engagement.

The first set of questions were about our culture.

Research Culture at Chace

 

There is pretty clear agreement that the culture of our school supports engaging in and with research for professional development. They also agree that we use and do research for wider school development, and that the school’s leadership is committed to this. Very many could point to specific inquiries that they, or colleagues, had been engaged in. This included Masters level work (see here for recent examples), but also inquiries conducted as part of our NQT induction programme, action research conducted within some departments, and school improvement work done as part of National College programmes. Interestingly, very many decided that our professional development programme (what we call Development Time) also amounted to research engagement, as it often starts with sharing a piece of externally-produced research and urges colleagues to experiment with ideas in their own classrooms. Whereas few puritans would accept this as research, it is clear that our staff think of it as such; for many, it will be the principal way in which they interact critically with the research.

So my colleagues are clearly not averse to this business. What would help more of them get into it? The next question revealed that a quarter of them did not know of a named member of staff responsible for promoting research engagement. That person is me. Subsequent questions show that a majority do not know of funding to support research (there is, from the governors), or of training to develop research skills.

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This is obviously an area we can work on. I have taken 18 teachers through to completion of their MAs over the past few years, and whipped numerous NQTs through various forms of action enquiry, but clearly several others have not been invited to join the party. There is a capacity issue: if I alone am the ‘research guy’, too many opportunities will be missed.

So, where next? The social network analysis provides me with a potential way forward. Although I placed myself at its centre, I was not alone. The CLT (Lead Teacher) team leads the Development Time which very many saw as their exposure to research. We have a hardy band of volunteer Development Coordinators, who consciously develop strategies to share with their colleagues. My plan is to build upon this habit of discretionary input from colleagues, to mobilise some of the skills that my ‘MA teachers’ have acquired, and muster a small team of Research Coordinators.A Modest Proposal

And, daring the wrath of the research ayatollahs, we are going to use the word ‘research’ at every opportunity.

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3 thoughts on “The Research Home Guard

  1. Thanks for a really interesting post. I’d just like to make a few observations.

    1. The notion of ‘disciplined inquiry’ was first introduced by Cronbach and Suppes in 1969, which I’ve previously posted about http://evidencebasededucationalleadership.blogspot.com/2015/06/disciplined-inquiry.html
    2. The problem with the term with research is that it is loaded with meanings. I think we can agree that we want teachers to engage in some form of disciplined/systematic process to investigate their practice and evaluate impact. Whether that should be described as research, I have my doubts.
    3. Research, for me, is about seeking to develop new generalisable knowledge/theory and I teachers aren’t in a position to do this, rather they can engage in process which can lead to improving their practice.
    4. I’m also of the view – that by using the term research too freely – it tends to understate the knowledge and skills necessary to be researcher. Most individuals who have just gained a phd would describe themselves as being barely competent as researchers, and certainly not expert.

    On balance – for me – inquiry is a far more useful term – and further develop the argument in this post
    http://evidencebasededucationalleadership.blogspot.com/2015/10/the-school-research-lead-and-confusedcom.html

    PS we don’t want research engaged staff – we need evidence-engaged staff – research is subset of evidence

    PPS having been involved in AR within schools – of the view it’s no longer suited to the work conditions many college face- and smaller bite-sized approaches to evidence-informed practice should be adopted

  2. Thanks, Gary, for taking the time to read, retweet and comment on my post. I very much appreciate it. I do like the term ‘disciplined inquiry’ (and thanks for redirecting me), and I agree that we want a teaching profession is engaged in that. I agree also that it is not necessary for teachers to involve themselves in academic research – if by that we mean engaging in the practice of research. However, I do believe we want more teachers understanding, knowing about, critically using the findings of research. That – surely – is being research-engaged? How does one achieve that state, is the question. And, for me as a school leader, how do I engineer incentives and opportunities for my colleagues to achieve it? That was the point of my post. And it seems to me, if I want more to engage WITH research, to have some understanding of how it works, then the best way is to invite some of them to DO it…even if what they do is not every professional researcher’s ideal.
    And finally, I do accept that there are professional standards that a researcher would hope to uphold – just as I would as a teacher. But, even with the largest of large-scale RCTs, researchers almost always fail to see the nuances (the ‘meaning’) that a practitioner witnesses every day. A practitioner’s insights may not be easily generalisable, but they may well be truer.

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