Monday, 19 January 2015

The school research lead and pitfalls to be avoided

One of the challenges of the newly emerging role of the school research lead is that to some extent no-one knows what the role entails.  On the other hand, there is a wide-range of literature on evidence-based practice and in this post I will draw upon Barends, Rousseau and Briner's (2014) guide to evidence-based practice which identifies some of the misconceptions associated with such an approach.   In doing so I will try and provide advance warning of a number of pitfalls and misconceptions which can be avoided when undertaking the school research leads role.

Misconception 1: A research and evidence informed school is all about conducting in-house research

In the first instance a research and evidence informed school is in all likelihood not going to have the capacity and capability to undertake 'scientific' research based on the principles of disciplined inquiry.  At the first, a research and evidence informed school should seek to develop its' capacity as a critical consumer and user of research within a process of evidence-based decision-making.  Indeed, part of the process of evidence-based practice is subsequently assessing the impact of the decision which has been made, with in-house evaluation will becoming and integral part of the process.

Misconception 2 : Research is the same as evaluation

Fain (2005) cites Stuffbeam (2001) whow argues that the purpose of evaluation is to bring about improvement, whereas the purpose of research is to prove.  Now without wishing to be drawn into the 'science-wars' and whether anything can be 'proved' the fundamental point is sound.  Evaluation sits within the framework of evidence-based practice, suggesting that a judgement needs to be made as to whether a particular innovation/intervention has brought about improvement for a group of pupils, colleagues or the school as a whole.  On the other hand, research is seeking to provide generalisable knowledge for the 'population' as a whole.  However, that does not mean that the evaluation should not be a rigorous process, consistent with both disciplined inquiry and research.

Misconception 3: If you do not have a number of staff undertaking a masters or doctoral degree it is not possible to be a research-led school.

It is certainly desirable for those who are leading a school's research efforts to have experience at both masters and doctoral level.  That said, it does not require either a masters degree or doctorate to get better at asking well-formulated and answerable questions which can be informed by various sources of evidence.  Nor does it require 'masters' level education to understand and apply the principles of evidence-based practice.

Misconception 4: Good-quality EEF evidence gives you the answer to the problem.

Accessing high quality research evidence is certainly part of the process of engaging in research led or evidence-based decision-making.   However, that research evidence sits alongside other sources of evidence.  To paraphrase Dylan Wiliam - most things work somewhere, not everything works everywhere - the skill is to find what could work in your setting by taking into the account the particular needs of pupils, colleagues and the school

Misconception 5: Each school is unique, so the usefulness of research evidence is extremely limited.

Certainly each school will have its own context and challenge, and the school will no doubt will have to come up with its own evidence informed decisions about how to proceed when addressing a particular issue or challenge.  On the other hand, research can help evidence-based practitioners and school research leads become more 'intelligent problem-solvers' by being aware of what worked or do did not work elsewhere and what conditions maybe necessary but not sufficient for success.

Misconception 6: A research informed school will ignore the professional experience of teachers

In previous posts I have written that evidence-based practice embraces the practitioner's, and in this case the teacher's expertise.  The definition of evidence-based practice makes explicit the role of the teacher's expertise in making conscientious and well informed decisions and judgements.  The latest report from the EEF maybe important, but is no more important than the three other sources of evidence which are drawn upon, i.e.  teacher expertise, school data and the views of stakeholders, be it pupils, parents or others.

Misconception 7: Headteachers and teachers do not have the time to engage in research and evidence-based practice

Schools are time-pressured environments, that said evidence-based practice often involves taking a moment to 'step-outside' the current pressures being faced to reflect on the broader evidence available and make a more informed decision.  Furthermore, given the nature of the school-year, there is often a substantial period of time between discussion, decision and subsequent implementation.  This time could be used to ensure that various sources of evidence are drawn upon to answer well-formulated question, which get to the heart of the matter at hand.

To conclude:

There is no doubt that the increased interest in research in schools is to be both welcomed and encouraged.  However, given the importance of the work we are engaged in, occasionally it is necessary just to step back and reflect on the various directions we are going and clarify the terms we are using   Indeed, there is a real-risk that by focussing on research we take both colleagues and schools in the wrong direction by trying to conduct 'proveable' research.  Rather the role of the research lead should be one of helping colleagues become better consumers and users of research so that they engage in interventions which lead to improvement within their own practice and setting, and in doing so become better evidence-based practitioners.

References:
Barends, E., Rousseau, D. M., & Briner, R. B. 2014. Evidence-Based Management : The Basic Principles. Centre for Evidence Based Management (Ed.). Amsterdam.
Stufflebeam DL. Evaluation Models: A New Direction for Evaluation. New York, NY: Jossey-Bass; 2001.

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