Monday, 30 March 2015

We need to talk about researchEDthics - School Research Leads and Ethical Research and Evidence-Based School Cultures

This post was first published in March 2015

At the recent researchED Research Leads conference held in Cambridge, the 'ethics' of how school-based and led research should be conducted emerged as a key topic for discussion.   In this post I will explore some of the ethical issues associated with the role of the School Research Lead and school-based and led research. In doing so, I hope the post will generate, both discussion and debate amongst the burgeoning number of School Research Leads about the ethical challenges of conducting both school-based research and evidence-informed practice. This attempt to promote this much-need discussion is framed by the following questions.
  • What do we me mean by research? 
  • What are the implications for school-based research of conducting research within an ethical framework? 
  • What is the difference between research and evidence-informed practice? 
  • What are the ethical considerations which need to be considered when undertaking evidence-informed practice? 
What is meant by research?

This section draws upon the work of the National Research Ethics Service (NRES) and the National Patient Safety Agency guidelines: Defining Research. As such, research will be defined as the process of creating new generalisable knowledge, and which could include both the generation and testing of hypotheses. The NRES publication goes to state that research may involve some, it not all, of the following activities (amended for use in schools):
  • defined aims and objectives 
  • the testing or development of hypotheses 
  • comparing interventions 
  • collecting quantitative and qualitative data over and above data generally collected within the school - though could include normally collected data 
  • significant change to teaching approaches/support strategies - which are in addition to what is provided for pupils 
  • allocation of pupils to intervention groups 
  • the use of a sampling framework to decide who is within the study 
  • any form of intervention involving some form of randomnisation. 

What are the implications for school-based research of conducting research activities within an ethical framework?

  • There would appear to be a lack of understanding of the difference between research, quality improvement and evidence-based practice.
  • Much of the 'so-called' research or evidence-informed practice being undertaken in schools, could be classified as quality improvement
  • However, ethical considerations are just as relevant to quality improvement as to research
 However, it is unrealistic expect all changes to teacher's practice to be subject to ethical approval, and I now turn to the difference between research and evidence-informed practice.

What is the difference between research and evidence-informed practice?

In the context of nurse education, Carnwell (2001) identified the following differences between research and evidence-based practice. These differences are illustrated in Table 1, and have been amended for a school context.

Table 1 - The differences between research and evidence-based/informed practice

Amended from Carnwell (2001, p58)

As such, the main difference between research and evidence based practice is, evidence-based/informed practice is concerned with the USE of the best current available evidence to inform practice, taking into account the needs and wishes of the learner/pupils. Whereas research involves an attempt at the PRODUCTION/CREATION of new generalisable knowledge, which can be applied in a range of contexts.

What are the ethical issues associated with evidence-informed practice?

Accepting the distinction between research and evidence-based/informed practice, a number of ethical issues need to be addressed whilst engaging in evidence-informed practice. Again, I will turn to the evidence-based medicine movement for initial insight and the four principles which inform medical-ethics. In the following paragraphs the four principles of medical ethics are 'mapped' against a school setting.


The ‘justice’ principle requires the burdens and benefits of new teaching approaches or innovations to be distributed equally among all pupils or staff within the school. The ‘justice’ principle requires evidence-informed practice to uphold existing legislation, and to be fair to all pupils and staff.


This principle requires the action or intervention being proposed is being done with the intent of doing good for the pupil, member of staff or school.


This principle requires an action or intervention not to do harm to the pupil, member of staff involved or other stakeholders. Educators are required to take a wider perspective and consider whether actions may have unintended negative consequences, and which are subsequently experienced by others.


This principle requires the pupil or member of staff have autonomy of thought and action when involved in decision-making. With pupils, and given the nature of teaching and learning it is difficult to imagine a situation with young children, where it is possible to envisage fully-informed consent in all circumstances. However, when projects involve other colleagues, this seeking their consent is both, principled and practical.

What are the implications of these principles for evidence-informed practice?

The implications of the above principles are .
  1. For teachers to ethically engage in evidence-informed practice they must be explicitly aware of an appropriate ethical framework. 
  2. Teachers to give active consideration to the application of that ethical framework prior to any changes in practice arising from an investigation of the best current available evidence. 
  3. Ethical considerations to be explicitly noted in some form; be it a note on a lesson plan; referenced to within a scheme work; or recorded in some way, be it a reflective diary or log. 
  4. Any processes for the recording of ethical issues need to be both, proportional and fit for purpose. 
To conclude:

In this post I have argued that the leadership and management of ethical issues is an integral part of the school research leads role. Second, if schools are to engage in research - as defined as seeking to create new and generalisable knowledge, including the testing or development of hypotheses - a clearly defined ethical approval process must be applied within the school. Third, evidence-informed practice involves making use of the best-available current evidence, and which distinguishes it from the prior definition of research. Fourth, teachers engaged in evidence-informed practice must be aware of ethical issues, and engage in a process of evidenced self-regulation. Fifth, whilst the enthusiasm for teachers to engage with research should welcomed and developed, it is essential colleagues use appropriate processes - this being a case of in order to do the right thing it is also essential to do things right. Sixth, whilst conceptual and operational clarity is being developed in relation to ethics, research and evidence-informed practice, teachers should focus on developing their skills as critical consumers of research. Finally, I hope this post is helpful in generating debates with schools about the ethical implications of conducting both research and evidence-informed practice.


Carnwell, R. (2001). Essential differences between research and evidence-based practice. Nurse Researcher8(2), 55-68.


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