Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Using research in education

The use of research to inform and improve school education should, in my opinion, be widely appealing. However, I am often struck by the debate within education regarding the value of research to inform educational policy and practice.  This debate perhaps reflects the obstacles and challenges in place which prevent research from being used optimally.  In this post, I will consider some of main challenges that I believe exist at present:

Existing structures do not support communication and collaboration between researchers and teachers

There are, at present, poor structures to initiate and support communication between researchers and those with responsibility and power to change educational practice and policy (e.g., teachers, policy makers).  Indeed, systems or structures aimed at accruing research evidence on topics of importance to teachers and policy makers are lacking.  Most applications for educational research grant funding originate from researchers, often with little or no communication with teachers or policy makers from the outset.  Therefore there is very little truly collaborative research work among researchers, teachers and policy makers. 

Access to existing research is poor and difficult to navigate

There is an overwhelming volume of research that exists already; improving teacher’s access to it and providing them with time and support to identify high quality research directly relevant to their needs is necessary.  Lack of time is an issue consistently cited by teachers, who may be keen to use evidence to inform their practices, but lack the time to spend navigating and studying the literature.  In addition, being able to identify relevant research, recognise differences between good and poor quality research and understand the limitations of even the highest quality research is both time consuming and demanding. Databases developed specifically for teachers to access relevant research quickly and easily are developing (e.g., see http://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/toolkit) and syntheses of research across a wide range of relevant topics provide a single resource for teachers to turn to (see http://visible-learning.org/).

However, single researchers need to consider additional ways to communicate good quality research to those working in education. Academic research papers published in journals are not typically freely available, and are often written for those working within academia; therefore are not immediately useful and accessible for busy teachers.  Researchers should consider a broader audience when writing for academic journals (particularly with an increase in open access), but also start considering alternative routes to share research.  

Research perceived to lack relevance

The gap between researchers interests and teachers/policy makers’ needs or priority areas, could also be responsible for the low status often assigned to research.  It is difficult for teachers and policy makers to be enthusiastic about research, if research conducted is not considered to be directly relevant to their needs.  Researchers need to increasingly involve teachers/policy makers in their research from the outset, at the point at which they are developing their research questions, to ensure they are relevant and important.

“What constitutes the relevance of research, for instance, depends to a large extent on what questions are being asked, in what context, and for what practical ends” Philip Davis (1999).

Research perceived to undermine teacher’s professional judgement

It is considered, by some, that evidence-based education (i.e., the use of research evidence to inform education), removes teacher autonomy and professional judgement.  However, teachers with greater knowledge and understanding of research evidence in a specific area should be more able, and confident, to exercise good professional judgement.  Communicating research well allows teachers to make reasoned and informed decisions about their practices and how best to support children’s learning.  

“The opportunity to make informed decisions about what works best, using good quality evidence, represents a truer form of professional independence”  Ben Goldacre (2013)

It should not be a prescriptive approach to education that is being promoted, but instead, the use of evidence to allow teachers to make effective decisions about what is likely to work best for their students.


Davis, P. (1999).  What is evidence based education?  British Journal of Educational Studies, 47, 108-121

Goldacre, B.  (2013).  Building Evidence into Education. For full report see: http://media.education.gov.uk/assets/files/pdf/b/ben%20goldacre%20paper.pdf

Hattie, J.  (2009).  Visible Learning.  A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement.  Routledge.  For resources, see: http://visible-learning.org/

Education Endowment Foundation Toolkit.  For toolkit see: http://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/toolkit

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