Saturday, 11 June 2016

Transferring research into practice - time and commitment are necessary but not sufficient conditions


If you work in a school and are interested how research is transformed into practice, then this post is for you.  In particular, this post will interest school research leads, Heads of CPD/INSET and school leaders who are trying to find ways at developing teaching expertise by supporting the use of educational research in decision-making and teacher practice.  As such, this post will examine the recent Ashford Teaching Alliance Research Champion EEF Evaluation report and executive summary published in  May 2016 .   I will then use an analytical framework developed by Kegan and Lahey (2009) to attempt to explain why one of the report’s key findings i.e. there was no evidence that teachers’ attitudes towards research, or their use of research evidence in teaching practice, changed during the intervention – should not be particularly surprising.   I will then go onto examine the implications of the key learnings arising from the project those wishing to lead the use of research and evidence within schools.

Overview of the Ashford Teaching Alliance Research Champion Pilot Project

The aim of the Ashford Teaching Alliance (ATA) Research Champion project was to pilot intervention aimed at developing teaching expertise and practice by promoting the use of educational research in decision-making and teacher practice. The underlying objective of the intervention was to consider whether, and to what extent, research communication and engagement strategies had the potential to improve teachers’ use of, and attitudes towards, academic research to support pupils’ progress. The intervention ran for the 2014-15 academic year within five school of the ATA. The intervention had four key elements ‘audits’ of needs and research interests for individual schools; a series of research symposia for teachers; termly research and development ‘twilight forums’ (events held at the end of the school day at one of the participating schools); and bespoke research brokerage. Finally, delivery of the intervention was led by a ‘Research Champion’, a senior teacher based at one of the schools who worked with research leads, other teachers, and senior leaders to promote engagement with research evidence.

The main findings
  • There was no evidence that teachers’ attitudes towards research, or their use of research evidence in teaching practice, changed during the intervention.
  • Teachers found the research symposia and twilight events valuable, particularly as opportunities to learn about developments in educational research and reflect on teaching practice outside the classroom.
  • Attendance and engagement in the programme was occasionally low due to time pressures faced by teachers. This posed a serious threat to the feasibility of the programme.
  • A greater commitment from senior leadership teams to fully support staff with release time and classroom cover is likely to be necessary for successful implementation.
  • The programme requires further development before it is ready for a trial. In particular it requires a clearer specification of the key features of the programme in terms of structure, content, and which components are required (p4)
Kegan and Lahey and the Immunity to Change

Kegan and Lahey refer to a recent study which showed that when doctors tell heart patients that they will die if they do not change their habits, as few as one in seven will be able to change their lifestyle habits and change successfully.   Even when the stakes are a matter of life and death the power of the status quo and existing habits and practices can be incredibly attractive.  If this is the case, and given that CPD is often about bringing about much lower stakes change in habits and behaviours we should not be surprised if CPD is more often than not ineffective in bringing about sustained and meaningful change.  So if this is the case, we should not be surprised at the finding of the Ashford Research Champion project that there was no evidence that teachers’ attitudes towards research, or their use of research evidence in teaching practice, changed during the intervention (p4).  Indeed, we should have been extremely surprised if this had not been the case.

Kegan and Lahey argue that both individual and collective beliefs provide a powerful antidote to change. This mechanism is illustrated in the following table - amended from Kegan and Lahey  - which looks at the immunity to change, and which uses an example the integration of research evidence into day to day teaching practice

Commitment
Doing/not doing instead
Hidden competing commitment
Big assumption
We are publicly committed to integrating research evidence into out teaching practice
We continue not to integrate research evidence into our teaching practice.
We value existing teaching practices over those which might be suggested by research evidence
We assume that if we integrate research evidence into practice – it will reveal our lack of understanding of research or that current practice is ineffective

Alternatively the 'immunity to change' process could work in the following manner and which shows how a school's professional learning community may not support the 'research champions' who wish to turn research into practice.


Commitment
Doing/not doing instead
Hidden competing commitment
Big assumption
We are publicly committed to integrating research evidence into out teaching practice
We continue not to integrate research evidence into our teaching practice.
We value our place within the school's professional learning community and wish to act in a manner which is consistent with its culture and values
We assume that if we publicly integrate research evidence into practice – this may leave us professionally isolated within the school community - as other colleagues do not value the use of research evidence



Kegan and Lahey's model of how an individual or group may think gives a profound insight into why many seemingly well supported CPD initiatives fail, i.e there maybe an individual commitment to the change but other things are more important and overpower that commitment.  Given the seeming power of this model to explain the immunity to effective CPD and resultant change may have a number of implications for the reported key learning emerging from the Ashford Research Champion project. So let's examine the proposed key learning in more detail.

Implications of Kegan and Lahey model for the key learning emerging from the Ashford Research Champion project

The project evaluators identified a number of key learnings which developers should take into account when designing future interventions, and these include:
  • Explore ways to ensure participating staff are given regular, dedicated time for the programme—in particular, release time to attend all events and to engage with the brokerage service, and time to plan, implement, and review changes in classroom practice;
  • Foster support from senior leaders at the school—encouraging buy-in from senior leadership teams would lead to more support for staff, including release time and classroom cover, as well as greater likelihood that learning from the project would be shared and taken forward across the whole school;
  • Allow flexibility for schools to tailor strategies to their own context—this was viewed as key to promoting engagement and buy-in from teachers and senior leadership teams; and
  • Provide practical examples and materials that could be used to facilitate classroom implementation, with a focus on simple strategies expected to bring ‘quick gains’. (p5)

However, the Kegan and Lahey model would suggest that all of the above are what could be described as ‘necessary but not sufficient conditions’ for success.  The provision of time, support, flexibility and practical examples of research into practice in themselves will not be enough to bring about changes in both the attitudes toward research evidence and teaching practice.  For want of a better phrase – time, support, flexibility and applied examples – are what could be described as ‘hygiene factors’. 

So what does this mean for those wishing to lead the use of research evidence in schools? Well for me there seems to the three implications.   First, it would be worthwhile for senior school leaders to explicitly work through their “Immunity to Change’ by articulating their public commitments; what they are doing or not doing; identify their competing commitments; and finally, highlight any hidden assumptions that they have towards the use of research and evidence within schools. As in doing so, this may identify those factors which may or may not get in the way of success.  

Second, in doing so, it will be necessary to really think through current conceptions held about the relationship between research, evidence and teaching practice and what that implies  (see the Role of Research Evidence in Educational Improvement).  

Third, it's not enough to think differently, success comes from taking specific steps which are inconsistent with our immunity to change and in doing so, challenges our thinking.  As such the pace of change likely to be erratic, this is messy stuff and individuals need to have safe places to try out behaviours which are inconsistent with their belief systems.

References

Kegan, R and Lahey, L, l. (2009) Immunity to Change : How to overcome it and unlock the potential in yourself and your organisation, Harvard Business Press, Boston.

Griggs, J, Speight, S.,  and Cartagena Farias, J (2016) Ashford Teaching Alliance 
Research Champion Evaluation report and executive summary May 2016 , Education Endowment Foundation : Accessed 8 June, 2016


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