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Teacher-led research – leading evidence from the middle

01 March 2016

Wheels are turning within the education system but a firmer push is required to complete the revolution. In this think piece, Richard Churches (Principal Adviser for Research and Evidence Based Practice) argues that the drive for a system led from the middle also requires shifts in the power relationships that currently exist in education research.

The last few weeks has seen significant reports published by the Department for Education in England. Firstly, a report on collaborative projects by the National College for Teaching and Leadership's research and development network by Louise Stoll - click here for full report (opens in a new window); and the 'Closing the Gap: Test and Learn, Final Report' which I was privileged to draft – click here for full report (opens in a new window). Both contain powerful examples of what happens when teachers become producers of research rather than humble consumers of it, the former illustrating that teachers can conduct robust randomised controlled trials themselves - given knowledge of how to do so. At the same time, recognition of the need to ensure an effective middle tier of leadership - long espoused by Michael Fullan - has strongly re-emerged as a central theme in the debate about how to re-engineer the education system. See more on this here (opens in a new window).

Reflecting on the reports and the role of education research in a system truly led from the middle, I was reminded that 240 years ago (almost to the month) Thomas Jefferson began his journey from Virginia to Philadelphia - a journey ultimately leading to the Declaration of Independence. Often forgotten, when we reflect on immortal lines about all people 'being born equal', is the fact that (at the heart of the declaration) was a belief in revolution. A literal 'revolution' in which those previously squashed under the wheels of government as the consumers of a political system produced by a distant monarchy, associated aristocracy and church might rise to the top and become the producers of their own governance. 

In England, and other parts of the world, the identification of levers that can enable an ambitious and accountable self-improving education system is surely on the agenda of all but the most reactionary. One example of such a lever is the role of Teaching Schools in education research (paralleling Teaching Hospitals in medicine). Yet change is resisted. For example, and extraordinarily I would argue, we have even seen a few university researchers arguing against some forms of teacher research. Well, time will tell. However, at the end of the day, social revolutions usually take on a life of their own, rarely stopping because those who are part of the system that the revolution challenges ask them to. Let us hope for a final twist of the wheel so that teachers become the producers of the primary research evidence and universities become the consumers (applying school-led knowledge to teacher training, supporting robust research method understanding, whilst supporting overarching policy studies).

Strong themes? Maybe. However, enlightened university folk who recognise the powerful role they could play as enablers (and there are many) know they have nothing to fear from the teacher research revolution. It is, of course, not enough that teachers just do vague things, write them up and call it 'research' – one undoubted reason for push back. Robust research methods are essential (both qualitative and quantitative).

With research methods training and support, perhaps there could be a system-led alternative to the inaccessible and impenetrable autocracy that is the current form of academic journal (a structure few teachers gain access to) - 'inaccessible', because subscription costs are prohibitive; and 'impenetrable' because rarely does teacher research appear within them. Universities could open this door, so far only a few have done so. Contrast this with the Lancet in which numerous 'practitioner studies' from Teaching Hospitals are published each year and organisations, such as our own, whose research is free to download. In theory, the research engine is now in place through the Teaching Schools initiative, in reality impressive research remains trapped within their walls. If the door to journals remains shut, alternatives (allowing for the effective publication of peer reviewed teacher-led research) will need to be found. 

Richard wrote the Education Development Trust report 'Evidence that counts: what happens when teachers apply scientific methods to their practice' with Tony McAleavy; and 'Teacher-led research: how to design randomised controlled trials and other forms of experimental research' (Crown House Publishing) with Eleanor Dommett. 

You can hear Richard speak about the teacher research revolution (opens in a new window) and how teacher-led randomised controlled trials can make a major contribution at the GESS conference in Dubai on Thursday, 3 March.

Richard Churches, Principal Advisor for Research and Evidence Based Practice, speaking at the GESS conference in Dubai