Bringing research evidence to schools
As Educational Psychologists (EPs) we are used to reading and digesting research on an almost daily basis.
But my experience as a teacher was very different, despite writing a couple of research based essays to pass my initial teacher training, research was never a big part of informing how I taught. When I qualified as an EP I wondered whether I was alone in this and through further conversations with teachers discovered at least a small group of teachers who never or hardly ever read about new education research.
The case for research informing practice
The case for research informed practice is easy to make. There are hundreds of education departments in universities across the world who are discovering and writing about how people best learn. Surely, we should seek a way to get this research to those to whom it applies, our educators. There are some examples of research informed practice which does seem to have hit home in a large majority of educational settings. A good example of this is research that has proven teaching to ‘learning styles’ does not improve learning (Pashler, McDaniel, Rohrer, and Bjork, 2009) or the Maximising the Impact of Teaching Assistants (MITA) research from the Institute of Education (Blatchford, Russel and Webster, 2012). Both of these highlight the importance of research-informed practice, in both cost saving and time saving terms. Why design lessons in a way that isn’t actually helping any of the young people to learn?
Research findings become especially important when we consider how school will often ‘buy in’ an intervention. Engaging schools in research could protect them from investing money in interventions which have no reliable evidence to show they work.
The problems with research informed practice
Despite the obvious benefits of engaging with research in schools it isn’t without its difficulties. Firstly, the problem with extrapolating. Due to the nature and rigour of academic research there are difficulties in applying findings to ‘real life’ classrooms. The findings of one study can often only be applied to the specific participants and situation that were explored in that study. This means it isn’t effective to read one study and apply it to any classroom in the world, we must consider culture, ethnicity, location and what the study was actually exploring, amongst many other things. Meta-analysis do go some way to resolving this problem and providing evidence that can be applied more universally.
Another similar problem is the bridging of research and policy. A timely example of this is the wealth of evidence around trauma based practices and the effectiveness of restorative justice which seems at odds with the UK Government’s preference for isolation booths and inflexible, punitive behaviour policies. Sometimes the evidence just doesn’t fit with what schools are being asked to do and so they can’t use the findings effectively. Often, the reason for this is a focus on different outcomes. In the restorative vs. punitive debate this may be the difference in looking at exclusion rates vs. detentions (detentions may go down in zero tolerance schools because those racking up the highest number of detentions end up getting excluded).
Finally, there are practical issues to consider. Unfortunately, many research papers remain behind a pay wall of a subscription or pay to view journal. Additionally teachers have shared they aren’t sure how and where to find research on the topics they want to learn about. There is still a large gap between teaching practice and academic publications. This is an area where EPs can assist educators.
How to bring research to schools to inform practice
The Education Endowment Foundation is one organisation trying to bring research into schools by offering short disseminated ‘guidance reports’ on key studies and providing an overview of the strength of research which supports popular school interventions. As an example it gives ‘Setting and Streaming practices’ a 1/5 for its evidence strength (Setting and streaming | EEF (educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk))
Of course, EPs have a role to play in being curious in schools about the evidence base behind interventions they use and to ‘translate’ research into something that schools can understand and make use of in trainings and consultations.
My podcast ‘The Emotional Curriculum’ tries to do just this. The podcast asks researchers to talk through their own research in a way that is accessible to educators. I have been lucky enough to talk to researchers from across the world about their work and the feedback from educators has been positive. Over the last three years 50 researchers have shared their research and the podcast has covered topics ranging from reading for pleasure to emotions in adolescents.
The podcast aims to engage educators in new research and to encourage them to start discussions in their own schools, possibly to question why they do something a certain way and to start the process of looking at the evidence behind why they do what they do. It doesn’t expect or encourage them to apply it directly into their classrooms.
Engaging with research at this level allows schools to move to the broader idea of ‘evidence-based practice’. Where the practice adopted is not just grounded in academic theory but can include their own experiences, their knowledge of the students, trial and error, and many other forms of ‘evidence’. Ultimately this approach allows for schools to take an individualised approach that we know has been considered for their own context and, crucially, has grown from a critical consideration of any evidence they do have. I feel EPs are well placed to start these conversations with schools. See O’Hare (2015) for more discussion of the difference between research and evidence-based practice.
You can listen to the podcast on all streaming platforms. Please do share with educators and, if you would like to talk about your own research, please drop me an email.
Listen to Sarah’s podcast, The Emotional Curriculum. Through the podcast Sarah explores new research which promotes the emotional well-being of children and young people in schools, and talks to academics about their research and how it can be used and applied in schools.
Recent episodes include:
- Adolescent mental health help seeking
- The power of dialogue in classroom practice
- How Autistic students make sense of themselves and feeling ‘different’
Blatchford, P., Russell, A. and Webster, R. (2012) Reassessing the impact of teaching assistants: How research challenges practice and policy, Oxon: Routledge
O’Hare, D. (2015) Evidence-based practice: a mixed method approach to understanding educational psychologists’ use of evidence based practice. Unpublished thesis retrieved from British Library EThOS: Evidence-based practice : a mixed methods approach to understanding educational psychologists’ use of evidence in practice (bl.uk)