This guest blog post is written by the winner of our Edvent Calendar 2017 prize draw, Jane Flood, Head of Learning at The Oaks CE Learning Federation.
Having been an Infant teacher for more than 20 years, Jane has worked in a variety of schools in various roles – from supply teacher, to Deputy Head. Achieving an MA(Ed) in 1998, completing a Best Practice Research Scholarship 2001-2002 and a Recognition in Excellence in IBSE Certificate in 2014, throughout her career, Jane has engaged in school-based research, designed to raise pupil outcomes and involving the dissemination of this learning to colleagues.
Jane has started work on a part-time PhD at the University of Portsmouth, exploring the competing priorities of teacher-researchers in schools. She can be contacted at email@example.com or @janeFlood14 on Twitter.
‘Evidence-based practice’, ‘evidence-informed practice’, ‘research-informed teaching’ and the like are all phrases that are dominating educational discourse at present. Many teachers I speak to are left feeling confused and bewildered.
As teachers struggle to wrestle with these definitions, in their attempts to make sense of what they might mean in their classrooms, it becomes increasingly clear that academics continue to contest these terms. In its simplest form, they refer to the notion that, if teachers were more research-engaged, then improvements in teaching and learning should follow (Goldacre, 2013; Suppovitz, 2015). Yet this is a complex issue, and all the while, the call for the teaching profession to become research-engaged has never been stronger. The 2010 coalition Government produced a schools’ white paper, The Importance of Teaching, which made explicit the importance of using research in schools. It pledged to “make sure that schools have access to evidence of best-practice, high-quality materials and improvement services” (p17). It also signalled the development of partnership between schools as a key feature of a self- improving school system, alongside changes to funding and resource allocation. As a result, it had significant implications for the notion of making stronger connections between research, policy and practice.
A local response
Within this context, as a full-time class teacher, I became involved as a research lead in a two-year project, which started in 2015, in partnership with Excellence, Transformation, Collaboration (ETC) Teaching School Alliance and Professor Chris Brown of University of Portsmouth. As the Alliance began to develop its approach to engaging with research and using research-informed practice, our Federation of three small infant schools expressed an interest in working with Professor Brown as part of a Research Learning Community (RLC). We regarded it as an opportunity to develop as a self-improving Federation.
The Executive Head Teacher designated a member of the Leadership Team and a Senior Teacher as “the opinion-former”. This was my role, and I was to join the RLC to undertake a cycle of enquiry across the Federation, aimed at reducing the gap in attainment for summer-born children in writing. Starting with the endpoint in mind (simply improving the number of summer-born children achieving their ELG in writing at the end of their Reception year), the Early Years team made a number of positive changes to teaching practice.
Developing research-informed teaching strategies, we began with the adoption of different pedagogical models for the youngest children, alongside a series of family workshops (where parents or family members came in for six one-hour sessions, to work alongside their child and teacher and learn how they could best support at home), Joint Professional Development (JPD) visits to other schools, regular learning conversations with colleagues, and seminars with Prof. Brown, which added academic rigour and challenge to our project.
In addition, our case study research was linked to performance management targets and changes were made to PPA organisation, to manage some of the competing strains on teachers’ time, and to allow dedicated space for JPD activities and research readings. This culminated in an increase in summer-born children achieving end of year expectations in 2015, rising to 86% across the Federation, compared with 60% in 2014. The project continued in 2016-17, looking at the impact of pupil/staff interactions as a way of sustaining and maintaining improvement in pupil attainment, as well as for the development of professional trust amongst all members of the school community. End-of-year data suggested that improvements in outcomes for summer-born children in writing achievement had been sustained, with 82% achieving their ELG for writing in 2017 compared with a national average of 64%.
The Federation’s Senior Leadership Team was fundamental in modelling and monitoring, and in providing the resources and structures required to maintain the project. This enabled us to support colleagues effectively and to broker knowledge in school. They promoted the use of external and practitioner knowledge, with both having equal value in the process. Now, we are developing a culture where teachers learn from and build upon existing academic knowledge to develop new and effective teaching strategies to improve pupil outcomes in their classrooms.
What’s the impact?
All that being said, the RLC project has had a far wider impact across the Federation than a small-scale case study in three Early Years classrooms. Not only has there been measurable impact for summer-born children’s achievement, as shown by sustained performance data, but working in partnership with HEI colleagues has had also an impact on teacher learning and behaviour in a variety of ways. It has given some power back to class teachers by promoting and encouraging creativity and innovation based on high-quality research findings. The summer-born project showed, on a small scale, that a planned intervention can have an impact in the classroom and that teachers can engage successfully in educational research, provided they are given support, time and space. Working in an RLC provided the structure and support for us to do this successfully, and now, all teachers are involved in their own classroom-based research project, using a cycle of enquiry of approach.
Sustainable development, sustainable networks
Being part of an RLC has also allowed us to work cross-phase, with colleagues in other schools, whilst still being mindful of research procedures, such as ethics and sustainability. In addition, we involved the wider school community, working with parents, Governors, local pre-schools and other primary schools. Working in these collaborative networks has, in my experience, encouraged teachers to learn from others, through engaging with and sharing of research – this has been especially important in our Federation of three small infant schools, all on different sites. The Early Years team has been particularly bolstered by this, making use of regular meetings and learning conversations to share and develop good practice. This has formalised the value of what had already been going on, on a more ad-hoc basis, in school.
Making use of key teachers as opinion-formers and research-translators has, in part, bridged the gap between academic research and class teachers. Also, working with Chris has allowed us to use his knowledge to access and understand research writings. Teachers have gained confidence in accessing academic research and harnessing the power of the internet and social media. For example, a research library has been set up for staff to access, digital subscriptions to TES and Nursery World allow staff to read articles of interest and to follow up using footnotes and bibliographies, a list of possible people/groups to follow on Twitter has been created, and a research blog is used to share research readings and findings amongst staff on the school website. Many staff are now active members of the Chartered College of Teaching, making use of their website to access research, and many attend ‘grassroots’ events like researchED and TeacherMeets. Moreover, two teachers are working on their PhDs, part-funded by the research fund, recently set up by the Federation Governors.
As a practitioner, improving children’s learning and achievement has always been a fundamental reason for joining the teaching profession; using research to inform and develop my practice and working as part of an RLC network has helped me begin to do this more formally. I am still no clearer on a definition of research-informed practice, but I am developing a clearer picture of what it can look like in my classroom and the impact it can have on the children I work with every day. That said, it is early days, and it remains a big commitment, both individually and for the Federation.
On a personal level, being part of an RLC has been fundamental in developing and furthering my teaching skills and subsequently my career. Both my colleague and I who started working on the summer-born project in 2015 have been promoted, in addition to developing a whole range of new professional working practices. Two years ago, the prospect of stepping out of my Early Years classroom to co-present at an International conference alongside a Professor of Education was as likely as there being an agreed definition of research-informed practice any time soon!
Brown, C (Ed) (2015) Leading the Use of Research and Evidence in Schools, (London, IOE Press).
Brown, C. (2017) Research learning communities: How the RLC approach enables teachers to use research to improve their practice and the benefits for students that occur as a result, Research for All,1(2),pp. 387–405
Brown, C. Schildkamp, K. and Hubers, M. (2017) Combining the best of two worlds; a conceptual proposal for evidence informed school improvement . Educational Research 59,2, pp. 154-172
Coldwell, M., Greany, T., Higgins, S., Brown, C., Maxwell, B., Stiell, B., Stoll, L, Willis, B. and Burns, H. (2017) Evidence-informed teaching: an evaluation of progress in England (London, Department for Education).
Department for Education (2010) The Importance of Teaching, Crown Copyright. https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/175429/CM-7980.pdf
Goldacre, B. (2013) Building evidence into education, available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/building-evidence-into-education
Suppovitz, J. (2015) Teacher data use for improving teaching and learning. In C.Brown (Ed), Leading the use of Research and Evidence in Schools (London, IOE Press)