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Teachers’ engagement with research

Written By: Lisa-Maria Muller
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5 min read
Original research by:

Walker M, Nelson J, Bradshaw S et al. (2019) Teachers’ engagement with research: What do we know? A Research Briefing. Education Endowment Foundation. Available at: https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/public/files/Evaluation/Teachers_engagement_with_research_Research_Brief_JK.pdf (accessed 30 October 2019). 

Introduction 

This report studied how and if teachers in England use research to inform their practice. The results are based on a survey that was administered to a representative sample of teachers in England. The study used an updated version of a survey that was first administered in 2014, which allowed the researchers to make comparisons across time. The researchers were interested in finding out what sources of information teachers used in their decision-making, how supportive schools were of evidence use, teachers’ attitudes towards research and how far different groups of teachers differed in their engagement with research.

What is the research underpinning the study? 

This study was underpinned by findings on teachers’ use of research evidence from a previous survey and expanded by questions on school climate. The latter was added in this new edition as previous research (e.g. Brown and Zhang, 2016; Coldwell et al., 2017) found that school contexts in which teachers were encouraged to collaborate and experiment are often related to higher levels of research engagement.

How did they conduct the research?

The researchers used a survey to ask 1,670 teachers in England about their research use. The survey was adapted from a previous study (Nelson et al., 2017) and was administered between 19 September and 12 November 2017. The survey asked teachers about the relative influence that different sources of information had on their teaching (e.g. colleagues, academic research, etc.) and their school’s research climate. The study first analysed overall levels of research engagement and then compared different groups of schools and teachers; primary and secondary, senior and middle leaders and classroom teachers, different regions and percentage of free school meals (FSM).

What were the key findings? 

The study found that academic research had relatively little impact on teachers’ classroom practice. Teachers were more likely to rely on their own or their school’s experience (60%) as well as ideas generated from other colleagues/schools (42%) or CPD (54%). Of those people who identified CPD as an important source of information, 84% said that the CPD they received was not research-based. The main sources of information had not changed since a first version of the survey was administered in 2014.

Overall, teachers responding to this survey reported that the schools they worked in were generally committed to supporting professional learning environments and the use of evidence. However, only 40% of respondents reported that their schools actively supported staff to engage critically with information sources and only 35% of schools made additional time available to teachers so they could engage with research. Despite the lack of formal processes, teachers’ attitudes towards research use were generally positive.

More primary than secondary school teachers and more senior leaders than middle leaders and classroom teachers believed that their school had a positive research culture. Primary school teachers were also significantly more likely than secondary school teachers to use research evidence to inform their practice, senior leaders were also more likely to do so than middle leaders and classroom teachers. Schools in the South West were more likely to engage with research than schools in the North East. Schools with the lowest 25% of attainment were more likely to use research evidence to inform their practice than schools with the highest 25% of attainment. Finally, teachers with 20 years or more experience reported lower levels of research engagement than teachers with four or fewer years of experience.

What are the limitations of this study? 

There are few limitations to this study. It is based on a nationally representative large sample of teachers and the researchers took every precaution not to prime teachers towards responses they thought the researchers wanted to hear. However, their definition of research engagement could be considered quite narrow. They only studied teachers’ use of externally produced research (i.e. not action research projects) and direct use of research (i.e. not communicated through blogs, social media, etc.). This is likely to underestimate teachers’ real use of research as they might engage in their own action research projects, read teacher blogs or read summaries of academic research.

Impact on practice

What ideas might you adopt for your own classroom from the research? 

 The report implies that changes need to take place on a school level rather than an individual level as teachers generally showed positive attitudes towards research use, even though only a minority currently used research to inform their practice and formal processes for research engagement were not widely implemented. Schools might thus want to consider putting formal processes in place to encourage teachers to engage with research. Given the gap in research engagement between senior and middle leaders and classroom practitioners, it might be particularly important to ensure that allocated time for research engagement is spread evenly across different staff members. 

What questions does the research raise for teachers? 

It is interesting that this study showed that more primary school teachers than secondary school teachers reported using research in their practice. What might be the reason for this difference? The report also showed that teachers with less experience showed higher levels of research engagement than teachers with more experience. This could potentially be linked to changes in ITT with a stronger focus on research use. Alternatively, this difference might also be due to less experienced teachers feeling less secure about their teaching and seeking advice from the research literature. A more practically relevant question is how schools can increase their practical support for research engagement. The study showed that school climates are tendentially conducive towards the use of evidence but relatively few teachers reported that their schools had processes in place to support research engagement. It would be important to find out more about those schools that do have formal processes in place so others can learn from them. Finally, the difference in research engagement according to percentage of FSM also throws up some interesting questions. Is this difference due to the fact that teachers in more deprived schools are faced with additional challenges that they seek answers to by turning to research? And if this is the case, how can we encourage teachers to engage with research beyond immediate problem-solving and therefore raise the overall levels of research engagement?

Further reading:

Brown C, and Zhang D (2016) Is engaging in evidence-informed practice in education rational? Examining the divergence between teachers’ attitudes towards evidence use and their actual instances of evidence use in schools. British Educational Research Journal (42) 5: 780-801.

Coldwell M, Greany T, Higgins S et al. (2017) Evidence-informed teaching: An evaluation of progress in England. London: Department for Education.

Nelson J, Mehta P, Sharples J et al. (2017) Measuring teachers’ research engagement: Findings from a pilot study.  Available at: https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/public/files/Evaluation/Research_Use/NFER_Research_Use_pilot_report_-_March_2017_for_publication.pdf (accessed 30 October 2019). 

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