17 Jul 2018

My year as Research Lead

My year as Research Lead

At the end of this academic year I leave for pastures new. However, I didn’t want to go without summarising my key findings of my short stint as research lead. It has been a real eye-opener, both in terms of the research itself but also with regards to how it is received in schools.

So here’s my top 3 takeaways:

1. All teachers have something to gain from research.

When I first started engaging with research and espousing its virtues to fellow colleagues in the school, staff were reluctant. Many told me that they saw some of the research as putting a different label on things they had been doing for years. Why did they need research when what they had been doing over the years worked perfectly well? Hadn’t they been doing retrieval practice all along? The importance of research seemed to be settled when I asked them why they were doing those things. Teachers are busy people, they don’t want to redesign whole schemes of work based on the next educational fad that will be debunked in the following years. However, when confronted with E.D. Hirsch’s work on literacy, or the Karpicke Roedigger paper on retrieval practice teachers can understand whythese techniques are effective and whythey should be part of our everyday practice ahead of other techniques. One of the biggest triumphs this year has been a department I remember saying to me back in summer 2017 that (not verbatim) educational research takes out the joy of teaching – you teach in a certain way because you enjoy it, not because you’ve read everything behind it. Summer 2018 this department has fully embraced metacognition, with their lessons and assessments including aspects of self-regulated learning to help pupils make progress.
If you’re beginning out in teaching, research can help you understand how students learn and to create your teaching persona accordingly. We did very little on cognitive science in my PGCE year, and I wish we had as it would certainly have resulted in a different Miss Barnett early on. If you’re 5-8 years in and have settled into content and schemes of learning, research can make you view your subject with fresh eyes about what works best and why. If you’re 8 years + research can make you question what you’re teaching and how you’re teaching – just because it’s always been that way doesn’t mean it’s the right way. I leave this year challenging anyone who doesn’t want to engage with research, truly believing it offers something for everyone.

2. Teachers want to engage with research.

My previous point makes it sound like all staff are reluctant to engage. It can seem like another thing to do on top of a busy work schedule and all the other things teachers need to get done. However in my experience this year, teachers want to engage with educational research. Edu Twitter is not always the best bench mark as it is full of those who extol the virtues of research and the transformative impact it has had, but on a more micro level I have seen similar positivity. Our school journal club has had a consistently high turn out with teachers from different departments turning up to read and discuss cognitive load, retrieval practice, what makes good teaching and how to revise. Those teachers give up their time to read the article and give up their lunchtime to discuss the topics at hand. I have been continually amazed by staff wanting to participate. That goes for external CPD too – as a research school we have run external CPD for local schools, and the attendees have been phenomenal. I always worry that I am presenting information they already know – surely everyone has read the Dunlosky article, or Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction? And I am always surprised that they haven’t. Teachers need direction on where to start, but they wantthat rather than being a passive audience. Our attendees have been keen participants, embracing the countless handouts and research papers we have given them but also having the confidence to challenge the findings. They are currently back in their schools embedding their findings into next year’s planning, and hopefully there will be some blogs coming explaining how that has developed.
I think we need to give teachers time – reluctant attitudes come from it feeling like another thing to do, but my experience has generally been one of positivity. Departmental planning around a whole department focus that has research embedded into it is an easy approach to take to introduce teachers to research without it feeling like something else that needs to be done. Teachers want to do the best for their students, and given the time needed would embrace research more readily.

3. The research isn’t always right.

And I don’t mean not accurate. Right for schools, right for departments, right for individuals. Teachers often seem intimidated by research because there is so much of it out there, and it proves that certain techniques have huge impacts, yet if teachers were to embrace every piece of proven research there would be no time to do anything else in a lesson. I have learnt this year that you have to be selective. The example I always use is interleaving. According to the Dunlosky paper and the work of the Learning Scientists, interleaving has a proven impact on improving student outcomes. As a Historian I disagree- I cannot imagine teaching most of the Elizabeth I course at GCSE to drop it and pick up the American West, and come back to Elizabeth later on. History needs a narrative. However, one of our CPD attendees is planning their new English GCSE curriculum around interleaving and spaced learning. Crazy I thought! Surely it is the same issue?! However the needs of that department make it the right approach, and having gone over it with her I can completely see how it would work at that school. Individuals and departments need to be selective about what research to embrace: what are your and your department’s aims/interests, and what does the research say about them? How can you apply them to your scenario? Research can seem like a minefield, but a clear focus can help you select the “right” research.

Everybody…. (Vicki will be back!)

We will be saying a very very fond farewell to Vicki Barnett this week, as she moves on to a new school to lead her own department next year (lucky Department!). Vicki has been an absolutely fabulous Research Lead this year, using her sharp eye, dry humour, pragmatic realism and enviable style to help others discover a love of research (and particularly to dual code like a pro!). Vicki managed to transform our school Journal Club, and to find ways of helping busy teachers across the school to access research,and she did all this while teaching a full timetable!

To say that we’re going to miss her is something of an understatement!… But we’re looking forward to continuing to work with her in the future whenever she’s able to. We really wish her luck in her new role, and we promise to serende her with Elvis songs while dancing interpretively at one point in the future!

Best of luck, Vicki. And thanks for everything you’ve done.