Five thoughts on harnessing educational research
Jonathan Haslam, Director, IEE
Last week the Royal Society and the British Academy published Harnessing Educational Research, a state-of-the-four-nations report on the production of education research in the UK and its use by practitioners and policymakers. The report contained a number of recommendations as to how the current situation might be improved, including a new organisational structure with an Office for Education Research at its heart, bringing together the main actors in the sector “to discuss and debate research priorities and develop research strategies to address those priorities”.
When it comes to getting research used in practice, it was gratifying to see the report highlight a number of initiatives with which the IEE has been involved (the Research Schools Network, Coalition for Evidence-based Education, Evidence for the Frontline, the Literacy Octopus trial, ResearchEd, etc), so I think it is fair, given our experience, to reflect on the report’s findings.
Here are five thoughts on how the report and its recommendations might be developed:
- A worldwide ecosystem
The report concentrates on research produced by UK universities. It mentions the work done by independent research organisations in the UK, but doesn’t quantify it or profile it extensively. It doesn’t say much about research and evaluation done by teachers and schools. And it doesn’t say much about international research. On the latter, much of the research evidence being used by teachers and schools at the moment draws on the work of US researchers such as Willingham, Rosenshine, and Roediger and Karpicke. Similarly, perhaps two-thirds of the research that we cover in Best Evidence in Brief comes from the US (mostly) and other international countries. Any analysis of the ecosystem needs to consider the incorporation of these elements into the overall picture. I’m not sure that you can put the research from elsewhere aside, and yet still reach the same conclusion. Which leads to the next point.
- Harness or hoe?
The report’s title (and the idea of the Office for Education Research) suggests that there’s a need to harness education research, and somebody is going to be in control of the reins. I’d argue that the research ecosystem horse has already bolted and is running wild in the fields. The idea that you can, to mix a metaphor, put this genie back in the bottle, is not realistic. But that’s a good thing. There are many ways for practitioners and schools to engage with research. Given that at the moment there’s no strong evidence for which kind of evidence engagement “works” to improve outcomes for children, it doesn’t seem sensible to constrain things. A thousand flowers are blooming and we need to see which set seed successfully (another metaphor!). This doesn’t detract from the need for an organisation like an Office for Education Research that can bring together the different groups and maybe co-ordinate and direct some of the funding. However, there needs to be some care in the way that the needs of teachers and schools are represented in this (rather than the needs of those who say they represent the needs of teachers and schools). Which leads to the next point.
- Research and evaluation
The report focuses on research produced by large, often interdisciplinary, university teams. Although keen that practitioners participate in research, and that research should be regionally situated, it typifies research as substantial, in-depth projects crossing sociology, philosophy, etc. The concerns of practitioners in these projects may be there, but they are often mediated by the organisations that stand in between, and explain (edusplain?) what the schools and teachers really wanted to know. This research is needed, but it’s not all that teachers and schools are interested in. Often it is whether or not a particular approach works in school. Small-scale evaluations, often carried out by schools and supported by independent research organisations (such as those supported by the IEE, the Education Development Trust, or the DfE) are helpful in providing actionable information to schools, encouraging schools and teachers to think more robustly about evaluating what happens in school, identifying innovations that might be scaled up, and supporting practitioners interested in carrying out further study and research (part of the pipeline of researchers that the report is also concerned about). These small-scale evaluations may not generate profound insights spanning sociological, philosophical and psychological theory, but they do provide useful information on what happens in the classroom, and useful personal and professional development for teachers.
- School organisations
When thinking about the use of research in practice, the report concentrates on the individual teacher level. How can teachers engage in research? School leadership is mentioned, but mainly in terms of providing the time and space for teachers to engage in the research. It might also be useful to focus on how a school (and other school organisations) can engage with research. An organisational approach might not require every teacher to engage with research. A more efficient approach might be to assign that role to specific staff, who can then support the questions that come from individual teachers or from school priorities. Research literacy is challenging and time consuming, and empowering the entire profession will take years. A sensible first step is to support the development of key individuals, who can then act as the champions of research within their organisation. It also avoids presenting engagement with research as a burden that will suck up teachers’ valuable time.
- More research is needed
The report considers the quality of research carried out in the UK and the research priorities of researchers, policymakers and practitioners. It’s very positive about the quality of the research being carried out, but it doesn’t touch on the gaps in the existing research base. There are only 35 completed systematic reviews about education in the Campbell Collaboration, as opposed to more than 7500 reviews about medicine in the Cochrane Database. About 40% of findings in the EEF toolkit are based on limited evidence or worse (including important issues such as performance pay, and setting or streaming). (Almost) every research paper ends with the suggestion that more research is needed, so it seems sensible to do the same here. There are many key issues in improving outcomes for children that have not been robustly researched, and some clarity on how these might be addressed would be welcome. In the end, it’s all about the kids.