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Beyond the rhetoric: Making research engagement a reality

Written by: Graham Handscomb
8 min read
Graham Handscomb, Honorary Professor, University College London, UK 

Lofty ambition and dashed hopes?

Teachers generally give warm welcome to the notion of using research evidence to hone and improve their practice. Yet this is not necessarily matched with any discernible impact in the classroom. A recent investigation by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) reported that despite a ‘growing recognition of the potential for research evidence in the classroom to support teaching and learning, embedding it into everyday practice is no mean feat’ (Lord and Ward, 2019). Nelson and Walker’s survey of evidenced-based practice found that despite positive teacher attitudes and supportive school environments, ‘research evidence continues to play a relatively small role in influencing teachers’ decision-making’ (Nelson and Walker, 2019).

Research engagement – an entitlement

In order for research to be at the core of teachers’ day-to-day practice, it should be regarded as something teachers choose, rather than an activity they are exhorted to adopt. Research use needs to be founded on a wholesale strategic approach to wider research engagement by both teachers and schools. In an early report considering research engagement, Dyson (2001) identified three key dimensions:

  • Teachers doing research – practitioner researchers
  • Teachers using research – drawing on current thinking and learning from the wider research community
  • Teachers being part of research – being the site of research and part of the investigations of others.

Access to and application of research should therefore be regarded as a core element of staff development programmes. Practitioner research is built upon the belief that ‘It is teachers who, in the end, will change the world of the classroom by understanding it’ (Stenhouse, 1988). Whilst action research conducted by practitioners shares common ground with other types of research in that it is about the development of new knowledge and understanding (among other characteristics listed by Riggall (2009)), there are also important differences, including that ‘it links action and research in a cycle that drives and reflects upon change’ (Rigall, p. vi).

The journey and the battle

At the heart of the struggle to promote research engagement is the perceived tension with the standards and accountability agenda. Despite the growing evidence around its benefits on teachers’ pedagogy (Baumfield and McGrane, 2001), research use is often regarded as desirable but not essential (Handscomb, 2015).

However, engagement in and with research encourages practitioners to question, explore and develop their practice, making a significant contribution to improved teaching and learning. In fostering a school culture where teachers examine and critique their own practice, research activity can be an integral element of professional learning (Stoll, Harris and Handscomb, 2012).

Underpinning this approach is the concept of research in situ, borrowed from Stenhouse’ definition of systematic enquiry, made public – where research engagement is conducted with both rigour and transparency. In Stenhouse’s time there was little help to support and train teachers in this endeavour. However, professional development programmes and material to equip practitioner researchers are becoming more available to answer the call being made in this article (see e.g: Lawson, 2009;  Rickinson, 2009; Baumfield, 2015). Research and enquiry were to be means of establishing autonomy and redistributing control (Stenhouse, 1988).

Doing research as well as using it – a symbiotic relationship

A key feature of a school’s research engagement strategy is not only how its staff utilise the findings of others, but also the degree to which they conduct their own research. For Wilkins (2011), the term research-engaged entailed the practitioner’s undertaking action research and making judicious use of published research.

The Research Learning Community (RLC) model is particularly interesting in its approach, wherein participants are asked to combine school-based knowledge from practitioner enquiry with the insights from the wider research community (Brown, 2017). One of the messages that emerged from the RLC initiative (Godfrey and Brown, 2019) is that it is often when teachers bring together their in-school research knowledge with research evidence from elsewhere that they see the relevance and application of evidence.

It is clear from such initiatives that research engagement helps to instil in participants a greater sense of efficacy and agency (Durrant, 2014). Much of this is derived from local knowledge being harnessed to problem solve specific improvement issues. Local knowledge is viewed as ‘a process of building, interrogating, elaborating, and critiquing conceptual frameworks that link action and problem posing to the immediate context as well as to larger social, cultural, and political issues’ (Cochran-Smith and Lytle, 1999, p. 292). 

Moving research in to practice

So, how can research engagement become a reality in everyday practice? Exhortation, encouragement and support are not enough (Brown and Zhang, 2016). Such support will be effective when it is part of an integrated and committed approach. Although Lord and Ward (2019) found few schools using research-based materials or applying research evidence to practice, there were exceptions. These were schools ‘where in-school collaboration and support, and trying-out, reviewing and embedding the approaches seemed key’ (Lord and Ward, 2019).

It has been a long journey to promote research engagement that extends beyond the token and promotes widespread implementation of evidenced-informed practice. Reflecting on this mission, it seems that what is required is a coherent combination of a number of approaches:

Belief and Courage

It could be argued that teachers have had this all along – a general, positive and welcoming disposition towards research use. But what is really needed is a stronger belief in the practical value of research. Then, it’s about having the courage to devote time and energy to it, even in the face of siren noises that raise the spectre of accountability and say that energies devoted to research use are an indulgence. This fundamental belief and commitment, coupled with a tenacity of purpose, is the key ingredient which all those listed below can help to service.

Ethos and supportive culture

This is one of the core features associated with research engaged schools. Recent investigations into the use of research, mentioned in this article, stress that schools need support in fostering researching cultures. If established firmly, then such positive cultures are vital in reinforcing and maintaining teachers’ belief in, and continuing commitment to research use.

Structures and systems

Lord and Ward (2019) strongly argue that ‘researchers and policy makers(…)need to provide more opportunity and support for schools to build their capacity and have the appropriate systems and structures to engage with and use research evidence’. According to Brown and Zhang (2016, p. 4), research engagement ‘should be undertaken within the context of a wider iterative ‘cycle’ of enquiry and improvement’. The effective contribution of structures and systems is that they forge integration between research use and enquiry on the one hand, and school development and improvement processes on the other.

Leadership and empowering staff

Perhaps the most crucial factor in nurturing the belief and courage teachers need for sustained research engagement is the contribution of school leaders. They play a vital role in fostering supportive cultures and establishing structural frameworks. Additionally, through their own participation in the use of research, they model and mandate such activity, thereby lending it credibility and status.

Strategic approach

Earlier in the article, the case was argued for teachers’ use of research to be embedded within a wholesale strategic approach to wider research engagement; a joined-up strategy blending a range of involvement including: research use, a rationale to determine which research investigations it participates in, and practitioners carrying out their own inquiries. This strategic approach is so important because there is a dynamic relationship between doing and using research which in turn bolsters teacher empowerment and autonomy.

Skilling up and application

Making sure teachers are well placed to be users of research means investing in their development and skill acquisition. If schools and teachers are to tap the richness of what research has to offer, then this involves some serious attention to professional learning and the resources that support this. Such provision might include, for instance, schools having better access to a robust evidence base like that held in academic journals or research databases, and to user-friendly, high-quality research syntheses (Goldacre, 2013; Brown and Zhang, 2016). Empowering teachers to apply research to their own professional contexts involves helping them to acquire skills in the interpretation of research and providing practical support, guidance and strategies in carrying out their own inquiries (Handscomb, 2019).

Research at the heart of the matter

This article began by striking a challenging note about the significant gap between the striving for research-informed teaching and the limited extent to which this is happening in schools. The good news is that there is every indication that the hearts and minds of teachers have been won over to this cause. It now remains to be seen whether, through a combination of strategic purpose and resolute follow through, the dividends of research-informed practice will be realised. Above all, it is such an important goal because of the potential of research to empower and inspire teachers.


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