Monday, 23 March 2015

The School Research Lead - Supporting teachers to improve not prove

At the recent Research Leads Conference held in Cambridge, there was a discussion about Stokes's (1997) notion of Pasteur's Quadrant. In particular, there was agreement that the role of the school research lead was to encourage colleagues to engage in Yes/Yes research activity, i.e. use-inspired basic research, and the creation of new and generalisable knowledge. In this post I argue this stance is both philosophically and practically mistaken, but rather the focus should be on No/No activity, which primarily develops individual colleague's skills as researchers. Furthermore, the Yes/Yes stance could have significant negative unintended consequences for the desired development of evidence-informed cultures within schools. First, let's examine Stokes's model of scientific research.

Stokes's Quadrant Model of Scientific Research

At September 2014's researchED conference, Dylan Wiliam gave a fascinating explanation of why education will never be a research-based profession. In this presentation Wiliam made reference to Stokes's (1997) notion of Pasteur's Quadrant. Stoke's developed his quadrant model of scientific research as an attempt to end, in his view the unhelpful separation between basic and applied research, which he argued made it more difficult to think about the relationship between scientific discovery and improvement. In order, to challenge this dichotomy 'pure' and 'applied' research Stokes developed a 2 x 2 table by which to classify research, and is illustrated in Table 1.

The upper left-hand cell is contains research which is driven purely by understanding for its' intrinsic values, for example, Bohr's work on the atomic structure. The upper right hand cell captures research which is undertaken to for both understand and use, the search for understanding is driven by the need to solve some very specific problems, for example, Pasteur's work on microbiology and pastuerisation. The bottom right hand cell focuses on research which has very specific applied goals, without necessarily seeking to gain engagement and understanding of the basic phenomena which are being 'exploited'. Edison's work in the commercial development telecommunications and electrical lighting sits neatly into this cell. (all examples are cited by Stokes).

However, Stokes argues that this does not mean that the bottom left-hand cell is empty. This cell may involve exploration of particular phenomena where there is no attempt to understand the issue being studied or even apply the findings. Examples, of this can be found where data is being classified and presented, without any subsequent discussion about the implications for action of such data. As such, this type of research is often driven by the intrinsic curiosity of the researcher. Furthermore, this cell is not just limited to 'curiosity,' research activity in this quadrant may involve the researcher developing their own skills as a researcher, rather than seeking to create new knowledge and innovations.

Implications for School Research Leads and Teacher Researchers

For School Research Leads and Teachers there are three main implications of Stoke's model of scientific research.

1. If you accept Flyvberg's argument that social sciences should give up on 'physics-envy', then focussing the work of the school research lead on supporting the development of Yes/Yes activity is probably misguided. It is misguided in a far as: one, it is not achievable; two, the vast majority of colleagues do not have the appropriate skills set for such activity; three, nor do they have the time.

2. If the focus is on applied research, then the tools and techniques of evidence-based practice should form an essential component of the School Research Lead. At the core of evidence-based practice is the idea that decisions are informed, not determined, by the best available evidence. The focus of evidence-based practice activity is on bringing about improvements in decision-making, which subsequently provides for the benefits of pupils and colleagues.  Evidence-based practice is not about the creation of 'new' generalisable knowledge, which is applicable outside of the current-setting.  Furthermore,  there is an emphasis on accessing evidence from a number of sources, not just 'scientific' academic research. School generated evidence is essential, alongside professional judgement and the views of stakeholders.

3. Teachers should focus on developing their skills as evidence-informed practitioners, be it by critiquing research or engaging in evidence-based practice, with the School Research Lead being one source of support. Indeed, to go back to the beginning of this blog and Dylan Wiliam's presentation, the challenge is for teachers throughout their careers to improve practice through the process of 'disciplined inquiry'.

In many ways the core message of this blog is as follows: do simple things well; ask good questions; make the most of the current best available evidence; develop your skills incrementally; apply what you find out to improve your practice; and, evaluate what you do. In doing so, you will end-up having a far more interesting and enjoyable career. More importantly, it will make positive differences to the lives of pupils and colleagues. Remember, you are teachers wishing to improve, rather than researchers seeking to prove.


Flyvberg. B. (2001). Making Social Science Matter : Why social inquiry fails and how it can succeed again, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge/

Stokes, D.E. (1997). Pasteur's Quadrant : Basic Science and Technological Innovation, Brookings Institution Press, Washington D.C.


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