Part of a whole: Why the attitude of your school matters most.

Becoming research-informed means different things to different people. Recently, I have heard a lot more about the difficulties and dangers of becoming more research-informed than many of the benefits. As is typical of pedagogical styles, methods and practices, once out in the open and seemingly popular, the core ideas and concepts can be lost.

This is not down to any particular desire by teachers to corrupt or change something that they and others deem to be useful but down to our habitual need to see improvements and outcomes as quickly as possible – something which has been ingrained into our school system usually by outside pressures.

The issue with becoming research-informed is that it takes time – a lot of time.

I was approached to write a CPD guide on how to become more research-informed back in January 2018 and this forced me to consider how I had become more research-informed than I was at the start of my career. These reflections led me to see how the approach and use of research in the classroom has changed in just 8 ‘short’ years. I hope that the book guides those who are unsure where to start to the best and most useful starting points whilst encouraging them mostly to take the time, consider their context and give them strategies to use. One of the strategies, linked closely to the use of research is the idea of creating and finding your own core issue or problem and creating a P.I.C.O question or statement. This P.I.C.O question or statement guides you through at least a year of reading, research and application in the classroom; by forcing you to slow down your application of research there is further time for thinking, questioning and evaluation. It is an approach that I am so pleased that my school has embraced – but I understand that some schools might not be keen to take an individual’s interest whole school. I will write more about how we approach and use our P.I.C.O projects in a later post.

Without my current school’s supportive nature and willingness to consider changes suggested by staff, then it would be impossible to suggest that we are a research-informed or research-engaged school. Similarly, it would be difficult for me to say as a classroom teacher that I am research-informed without this support. Often, we see on Twitter or in our own schools, individual teachers who relish in the fact that they are different and that they are the only one using/creating/trialing/endorsing a particular strategy. Becoming Head of Department quickly made me realise more than ever the importance of a team, the importance of creating together and the importance of learning from those around me – who so often know more or consider things in a different light. I believe strongly that to become research-informed yourself, you have to encourage (not force) others to do the same and I also believe that sometimes those who critique or even criticise you are your greatest allies. To become research-informed you need to both be the devil’s advocate but also have another who will query and question your own reading and thoughts where necessary. It is difficult to sometimes do this for yourself.

Your school’s values:

In the opening chapter of the book, I ask ‘What is the attitude of your school towards research?‘. I truly believe that as a starting point (or if you already consider yourself research-informed or are leading CPD) it is vital to stand back and consider your school’s values as well as your own.  Hopefully identifying these values won’t be too difficult – you can start with the motto or mission statement or consider the key messages you hear from senior leaders at key points in the year. If you find it difficult to identify these quickly and with ease then there is perhaps some work to do in this area alone – and this could or should be addressed before you begin your own journey. It may not be something you believe you can influence, but I am sure you would be surprised if you spoke to some senior leaders about this. Any good leader would welcome you sharing the fact that over the years their key values have perhaps got lost or confused in the melee of messages. Done well this could lead to a revamp, revisiting and refreshing of your school’s mission statement.

Consider the school’s position before your own: 

If it is clear, then there are some questions you need to ask which might help you consider whether or not you take the step to become more research-informed over the next few years. I make it sound as if you’re deciding to buy a new car or house – of course it isn’t a decision that means you have to change everything or that is going to mean you can’t dip in and out of research discussions but I do believe that if you want to become more and continually research-informed, it is best to do it with a goal in mind as to something you wish to improve and an idea as to why using educational research and cognitive science might be the best way to do this. Embarking on a research-informed approach to your teaching after years of not having done so (at least not deliberately) is in some ways a much bigger decision than others we take on a daily basis.

Considering your school’s values as well as your own will make the process of engaging with research more valuable. As with any element of pedagogy and practice, schools vary greatly in their engagement with educational research and this can again be due to a wide range of factors, from funding, to stability of teachers, to the school’s individual priorities for improvement, which may be deemed more important or relevant.

It is important to be careful not to jump to conclusions about your school’s leadership decisions and how research-savvy they truly are. As we have seen in these uncertain times, leadership is difficult and leaders at all levels are fallible. Sadly, a TLR does not negate mistakes (if only!). Therefore, although we may not always see decisions as research-informed or evidence-based, that does not mean that your leaders are not aware nor haven’t read relevant research but it may mean that in this context the leader believes a decision is correct despite the research – context is everything. Perhaps in your school, you do not yet see the use of evidence as the basis or stimulus for discussions, meetings and CPD but that doesn’t mean it is not happening at all. Perhaps it is referenced but only to justify decisions and you don’t agree with how this is being used. Either way, it is important to consider the school’s position from a wider perspective.

I created this table to quickly allow individuals to consider their school’s position alongside their own. In this table are a list of qualities and features that you would consider if a school or individual is willing to become further research-informed. Obviously, to have all of them is an ideal but to have some of them is more realistic. It is useful to frame yourself and your school against these when starting something new.

Question schools table

Why does it matter what my school thinks? It’s my classroom. 

This blog is not to say that simply becoming a research-informed teacher and having a better understanding of key research will transform your school; for most it is a method and vehicle for improving their own practice. However, to be truly successful,  you will need a clear sense of direction and preferably one that sits comfortably with your school’s ethos and values.

As teachers and schools, we must be open to the questions from our colleagues as well as outside bodies. Having gone it alone on a few occasions, I can promise you it is much better to discuss and debate with others in reality and that support network will only help to make you further informed. Of course, not every school may feel supportive and if your own ethos and values don’t match at least some of the school’s then I believe this will cause far more issues than simply whether or not you can begin to consider pedagogy from a new perspective. But, if you can find similarities, agreement and purpose in the school’s values then there is definitely a possibility that you can get others on board with your own current sense of purpose – whatever that may be.

Many of the statements in the table above relate to a willingness to share, collaborate and be open about what we don’t know even more than with what we do know. It may be your classroom but your students are not with only you (with the exception of some primary schools) all of the time. They will move on, receive different approaches and methods and your own time, efforts and approaches can be easily undone every day. Whereas, far from suggesting that research-informed schools should have formulaic agreed approach to everything, just a tad of overlap here and there could hugely improve your own outcomes as well as increasing vital professional dialogue.

Research-informed practice is, if used badly, in danger of becoming a way in which we justify new strategies or approaches to others above how we continually question and improve our practice. It is a key message through many talks and books related to research that we must pause to remember that becoming more aware of key research will not mean we have all the answers and that we can then run our classroom or school in a particular way for years to come without asking any further questions.

Throughout the book, and one of the most interesting things I did whilst writing, was to find other people who say things a lot better than I do and, after silently berating them for being so darn clever, I added them to a suggested reading and ‘to do’ list at the end of each chapter. For this particular area, especially if you are hoping to have discussions in your school about the next steps you  might take together, then I would suggest reading:

  1. Alex Quigley’s blog on finding new ideas and the benefit of evidence in doing so. This can be found at: www.theconfidentteacher.com/2016/03/escaping-the-tyranny-ofour-old-ideas
  2. Pages 8-12 (or all!) of a Teach First report by Rose and Eriksson-Lee (2017), available at www.teachfirst.org.uk/sites/default/files/2017-10/Putting_Evidence_to_work_2017.pdf.

Finally, I believe being fully aware of your school’s attitude matters because it is much easier if you understand where your approach sits in the grand scheme of things. Of course, it is easier if you feel supported and better than going it alone. Yet rather than assume you are on the same page as your leaders and colleagues, take a step back, review where you are, where your school is and see how you can match the two as best possible. It is something I hugely encourage in the book through two self-evaluation questionnaires (don’t worry no one ever sees the answers – and it does feel strangely satisfying completing a quiz like the ones in 90s magazines!).

Perhaps, in the strange days ahead when we don’t have the safety, comfort and normality of routine, it is a good time to step back and reflect as well as plan next steps. The attitude of your school, therefore how and where you work every day, matters the most, in every way.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s