How can teachers engage with academic research to improve their teaching?
Imagine walking on a tightrope every day, not really sure whether what you are doing is effective, research-informed or edu-babble pseudoscience.
On top of the day job!
Over the last decade, there has been a growing movement for teachers across the UK to be immersed in education research – on top of their day job! In all schools, you’ll find teachers spending every extra hour reading, writing and soaking up information, whilst one or two others show no interest whatsoever.
I’ve met school leaders and new teachers at both extremes.
Whilst I’m no role-model, the notion of reading or contributing to research is not for everyone, yet how can the entire teaching profession become better informed with research, and improve?
Research? Yes, but I’m too busy!
Other than flicking through a library book, I had no idea what ‘research’ meant as a trainee teacher in the early 1990s. When I was a trainee, you did what you were told and got on with it; this happened whether you had a mentor to guide you or not! Today, this is still the reality for some teachers, because they have no access to professional development or expensive research articles, or are simply too busy with the job in hand to have the time to read up.
As I navigate the ups and downs of my doctoral research, I am reminded of a few comments by academics that stand out for me in my life as a teacher, and in some ways dampened my desire to engage with academic research:
- “What teachers call ‘research’ isn’t actually research…
- “What every teacher needs to know…” or
- “This is a must-read, but I doubt you’ll have the time!”
I guess the message here is, be careful what you say to an excited teacher who wants to start their research journey. We all need to start somewhere, and in some schools or training pathways, this is nurtured or quashed.
Are new teachers one step ahead?
This week, I worked with 300+ trainees at a teacher training institution and I was proud to see the range of sessions on offer for their professional development. There is a real danger for experienced teachers (not engaging with the latest pedagogy) to be left behind.
The breadth and depth on offer were impressive: the key role of executive functions in learning; working memory; gender equality in the classroom; relationships, resilience and regulation in children and cyberbullying for starters.
Research sources for all teachers
So, what have I learnt on my research-journey as a teacher (slowly becoming an academic) and what advice could I offer busy classroom teachers who want to engage with real research literature and language?
Outside the obvious research organisations, institutions and publications available, what platforms can every day (busy) teachers use to access, store and organise papers to unpick research. Here are key platforms I’ve been using over the last 5 years which may help you get started.
1. Google Scholar
Google Scholar is the easiest and best reference tool for busy teachers!
You can also directly connect and follow academics, as well as create alerts to be notified each time something new is published. Currently, I have 12 alerts set up, and as I receive notifications to my inbox, not only am I the first to know, but I can refine the search filters each time to narrow down my enquiry. It’s a great way to stay in the loop.
For those of you who are old enough to know, do you remember what it was like to handwrite a 10,000-word dissertation at college (pre-1990s) then build the bibliography? It was just as hard to do as the assignment itself.
Google Scholar can also help you build simple references and citations.
Mendeley is an academic portal for storing. It is a reference tool which is used to manage and share research papers and generate bibliographies for scholarly articles. Think ‘grown-up Google Scholar!’
Mendeley has been my saviour when I’ve been conducting ‘proper research’, helping me to sort, filter and reference past publications. It’s easy to use too.
There is also an app which is just as useful for highlighting text, which thankfully synchronises with your desktop profile, thus saving a huge amount of workload. I’ve been using it for over 2 years now, and I’ve easily stored over 100 papers to read and reference already!
When accessing research portals, teachers will often find many publications sit behind very expensive paywalls, therefore denied the information they need.
On a teacher training trip to Belarus, I discovered Sci-Hub – the first pirate website in the world to provide mass and public access to tens of millions of research papers!
Now, this is a complicated area. A mixture of who funds what research, how do academics get paid and who are the gatekeepers? I’ve not yet worked out where I sit in all this discourse in the long-term. For now, I’m interested in how I can help teachers (on a low salary) access research information.
It’s probably best to keep an eye on Sci-Hub’s Twitter profile to know which website domain you can use. As you can imagine, the website is regularly shut down and I suspect blocked by school websites. At the time of writing, you can access it here. Simply copy and paste the paywalled article title and voila, you can access the paper!
Pocket is a great app for storing research papers away from your email inbox. Whilst there will be 100s of others, what I love about Pocket is that it downloads the article, tweet, paper, link or whatever you wish to store, then without a phone signal, you can still access the information!
It’s also a great tool to keep your Inbox empty and store ‘things I want to read’ elsewhere.
I really got into using this on my teacher training travels, using ‘dead time’ on the Underground, trains and planes with no wifi signal to continue reading and learning. Even better is the app allows you to plug in your headphones and it will ‘read’ it back to you like an Audible book. Upgrading from the free app allows you to add more notes and highlights.
5. Other popular platforms
If you are still interested in popular teacher-sources, you can’t go wrong with the Education Endowment Foundation’s platform, the Teaching and Learning Toolkit for English based research evaluation, or John Hattie’s Visible Learning effect sizes – which were biblical at the time of publication and make research easier for teachers to select where best to invest their time and efforts.
One more point on Visible Learning is that has recently been updated (and not too many people know about it) which allows users to filter and search the papers for comparison and nuance.
What makes a good research question?
For those engaging with professional qualifications, from NPQMLs to master degrees or PhDs, there will be many nuances to consider. My current challenge is to narrow down my doctoral enquiry so that I can offer a robust, contribution of new knowledge to the sector. No pressure!
Here are some general tips when constructing a research enquiry.
- Open-ended enough to allow possibilities to emerge
- Not using “yes and no”- type questions
- Questions that begin with “how” or “why” or “under what conditions“
- Will it make a measurable difference to pupil learning?
- Is it really achievable in the time I have?
- Is it really and truly of personal & professional importance?
- Is it: specific, simply stated?
- Is it in line with academic research parameters?
Of course, there are dangers with all research – one can be selective or fail to understand the research methodologies used or the nuances which need to be considered. Other challenges included specificity and understanding academic language.
The signs are clear that things are getting better for teachers and that research is being used increasingly by school leaders to inform practice across classrooms.
According to the Department for Education, this is having a positive impact on the quality of teaching in England. At a macro level, we can still hope that ‘cherry-picking’ ideology will be reduced.
The most strongly research-engaged schools were highly effective, well-led organisations within which ‘research use’ meant integrating research evidence into all aspects of their work as part of an ethos of continual improvement and reflection (DfE, 2017).