Life in a busy school can sometimes make us feel like a startled herd of gazelles, darting every which way as the educational landscape changes; swiftly changing direction as the needs of children change, as the leadership of the school evolves, as each framework from Ofsted is introduced, as each new curriculum test forms new challenges for our most vulnerable pupils, as the government introduce another White Paper… As professionals, we need time to stop for a moment, to look around at the landscape, to learn from each other and to deepen our understanding of what truly works in education and why. Is it possible at a time of such educational flux that some kind of research-informed practice can give teachers and schools a renewed authority to create their own destiny and to provide an environment in which teachers and pupils thrive?
What does it mean for practice to be research-informed? Gary Jones argues that it is not about trying to create generalisable findings like large-scale, academic research projects but it is concerned with making decisions informed by rigorous, relevant research evidence in order to improve pupil outcomes. A better way of thinking about it might be what Phil Taylor calls ‘practice-based enquiry’. This kind of enquiry, Taylor suggests, is a form of ‘situated learning’ that is firmly rooted in the school context. The process not only draws upon published research findings, but also re-contextualises them, making research ‘useable’ within the school’s community of learners. This not only acknowledges that ‘what works best’ will not be exactly the same in every situation, but also suggests that we should be asking why something works or not.
Creating space for research
As a school leader I have found that the key to engaging school staff in this kind of enquiry is to create a time where the noise of every day life in school is stilled. While we continue with our myriad of roles and responsibilities in school our minds are filled with ‘stuff to do’. A more reflective and enquiring approach is only possible when we still this noise; when we spend time reading and researching; take time to deeply reflect on our own practice; ask challenging questions and engage in highly focused observations.
How was I to provide the time for my staff to engage in evidence-informed practice? In order to create space for my staff, I had to take something away. Evaluating the impact of the training days, I concluded that although they provided valuable time for staff to be together to discuss practice and learn key skills, days like this appeared more beneficial for specific groups rather than the whole staff. As a result, I decided to translate the three training days into fifteen hours of research time for each teacher across the school. The teachers were charged with accruing these hours of research across the year. In order to ensure teachers had a clear goal for their enquiry, I asked each teacher to publish or present their findings formally through: a research paper; leading a staff meeting; writing a blog; or presenting at a Teach Meet.
Formal Research Networks
In order to lend rigour to our evidence-informed practice, we joined the CPRT Schools Network South East Region led by Vanessa Young from Canterbury Christ Church University. The CPRT, gathers together research-active schools in the region to share practice and link with other schools and research bodies nationally. This group has provided our school with powerful models of research and case study examples focusing on key priorities of the CPRT. A key CPRT priority area for us was one of pedagogy and quality and effectiveness in teaching and learning, including of course, teachers’ learning.
Using Appraisal to Develop a Culture of Evidence-informed Practice
Appraisal offers a powerful tool with which to target evidence-informed practice. We trained senior staff as mentor-coaches and used the principles of ‘mentor-coaching’ and ‘appreciative enquiry’ to allow the teachers to devise an enquiry target that would develop their practice and enhance pupil learning. These enquiry targets were varied and included: looking into the impact of parental involvement with early reading; use of Google Docs to enhance learning; the impact of Twitter on professional development. We adopted a digital appraisal and CPD tracking system called Blue Sky. This allowed appraisal targets and related training activity to be linked to the school’s key priorities, and tracked. The programme also allowed staff to track their own research time and upload any evidence, while their reviewer was able to give a gentle nudge to staff who had been less than active over a period of time. The enquiry targets proved challenging: some teachers found it hard to grapple with the rigour of research approaches whilst others were trepidatious about presenting their findings. The engagement of teachers in their enquiry was tracked through the year by their mentors to ensure there was a systematic approach to the research and outcomes were disseminated across the school community. The process saw staff grow in confidence and we noted how teaching practices were enriched by the insights gleaned from these enquiries.
The Learning Ticket
Each teacher was given a ‘Learning Ticket’ with a cash value of £150 which was to be spent on their appraisal enquiry target. In addition to the Learning Ticket, three ‘research bursaries’ were made available for teachers to bid for. Each had a cash value of £500 and teachers could bid collectively for these. One teacher bid for a research bursary to investigate ‘The Impact of Lego in story writing’ while another undertook an international research project into ‘The Teaching of Phonics in the USA, Japan and Finland’.
With an enquiry appraisal target in place for each teacher and mentors tracking progress towards the targets, teachers developed a variety of new practices based on the research undertaken. We needed a forum to share this practice and celebrate the success across the school and beyond school. We therefore used the ‘teach meet’ model to provide a platform for the research outcomes for staff. Teachers met to share their practice in short ‘micro-presentations’. Our first teach meet focused on Irresistible Writing and the second on Irresistible Learning and shared a range of practices across the school arising from the teachers’ enquiries. The teach meet has been an exciting and engaging way of celebrating the success of research-informed practice and sharing practice within our school, across schools locally, and beyond.
Where to now?
Working in a school where enquiry-based practice is becoming embedded is a real privilege. Engaging with CPRT has allowed our staff to deepen the rigour and effectiveness of their research and has led us, as a school, to develop a culture of evidence-informed practice that helps engage our staff, raise standards for our pupils and draw high quality staff to our appointments. The process is not easy for staff, their research often challenges their practice and the practice of colleagues. The process is, however, deeply rewarding and affirming.
As a school leader, it’s not enough just to lead and manage such an approach. I was acutely aware that I also needed to engage in the same way. It was important to make time to be reflective myself as well as my staff. Being disciplined to find this time was a real challenge for me as principal. I initially felt it took me away from the management roles across the school but I have grown to see the rich importance this. Finding and making time is not a luxury, it is essential.
We now intend to continue to work with the CPRT to grow the number of research-active schools in the South East. We will work with Canterbury Christ Church University to develop our research practice and Kent College to develop research with our non-teaching staff. As Julie McCulloch (at the Association of School and College Leaders – ASCL) pointed out in her recent CPRT blog there is an increasing body of evidence that genuine improvement, whether at an individual school or a system level, happens when schools work together to plan learning, solve problems and create the right solutions to local needs. We will continue to support schools in our locality as a National Support School and share our evidence-informed outcomes through publications and teach meets. We will also publish our most significant research outcomes in our own research journal this summer.
If we are to create an exciting, engaging and engaged education system, we must continue to ask questions that encourage us gently to push boundaries and give us the conviction to create our own path towards the horizon. By providing our staff with the space to engage in evidence-informed research in our exponentially busy life within school, the benefits to our school, our staff and our children are palpable. It has allowed us to stop for a moment, look around and breathe before creating our path ahead. Enjoy the journey!
Graham Chisnell is principal of Warden House Primary School in Kent. He was one of two recipients of the CPRT ASCL Award for Evidence-Informed Leadership awarded at CPRT’s National Conference in November 2016.
Vanessa Young is the South East Regional Coordinator of the Cambridge Primary Review Trust and a senior lecturer at Canterbury Christ Church University.