Saturday, 9 July 2016

School Research Leads and the Use of Theories of Action to Bring about Change

If you are an evidence-based practitioner, school research champion or school senior leader and interested in how to ‘overcome’ the resistance to the use of evidence within your school, then this post is for you.   Indeed, this post may be especially relevant to those 400 plus delegates  #researchED York who are returning to their schools and positively enthused about how research can improve teaching, learning and pupil outcomes.  Drawing upon the work Robinson (2011) this post articulate two quite different theories of action about how research evidence can impact upon teaching and learning.  I will then go onto explore two different strategies which can be used to address (or not) those differences.  Finally, I will consider the implications of this analysis and discussion for your role as school research lead.  But first, let's unpack what is meant by the term 'theory of action.'

A theory of action

Robinson – drawing upon the work of Argyris and Schon – defines a theory of action as: the values and beliefs that explain people’s actions, together with the consequences of those actions. When we understand a person’s theory of action we understand why he behaved as he did and we can work with him to evaluate whether or not the theory in his action matched his intentions(p115)

The following figure - which amends a similar figure in Robinson’s work (Fig 1 p117)   seeks to outline two competing theories in action about the use of research evidence and the impact on pupils’ outcomes.  However, it is important to note that these are not the only theories of action which could have been developed.  As such, they have been developed to help understand the differences in competing theories of action.

Competing theories about the use of research evidence and pupil outcomes

School Research Champion/Leader

Beliefs and values
Use of research evidence will improve the quality of teaching

Teachers are not using research evidence because of a lack of awareness and understanding

Research evidence is not relevant to our teaching
Plan and lead  staff meetings on how to understand and use research for lesson planning and the development of schemes of work  
Attend staff meetings

Do not use research for purposes of lesson planning and development of schemes of work

Teachers will use research for lesson planning

Pupil outcomes will improve

There is no change in teaching practice

Pupil outcomes remain unchanged

As such teachers’ resistance to use of research evidence can be seen as a product of two competing theories about the relevance of research evidence to teaching and pupil learning.  The theory of the school research champion explains his model of the implementation of change and associated expectation of outcomes.  Whereas, the teachers’ theory of action explains why they continue not to use research evidence in lesson planning.   The importance of this is that Robinson argues - once we understand someone’s theory of action, we can begin to understand the reasons for the actions they are taking and create the conditions for productive dialogue and discussion.

Contrasting approaches to leading change

Robinson argues that when leading change there are two contrasting approaches.  In the aforementioned example the first approach involves the School Research Champion bypassing the teachers’ theory of action, and focussing on the actions they want to change.  As Robinson states: In short, they don’t ask enough questions of teachers about why they are doing what they want them to stop doing (p119).  In other words, no attempt is made to try and understand the underpinning theory of action held by teachers.  This strategy of bypassing the teachers’ theory of action is in all likelihood is going to lead to teachers continuing not to use research evidence in lesson planning, as it does not explore the underpinning reasons teachers choose not to use research evidence.

The second strategy, involves the School Research Champion/School Leaders seeking to engage and understand the teachers’ theory of action.  Summarising Robinson they listen to what teachers have to say about the relationship between research and practice. They challenge teachers when they disagree.  They summarise and show demonstrate understanding of the teachers’ theory of action.  They check whether they can agree on areas of difference between the different theories of action.  They collaborate with teachers to explore the consequences of these difference.   They keep talking and until there is agreement about a new theory of action, or agree that now new theory of action is required.   By engaging in this dialogue school leaders will gain a real sense of the implicationa of differing theories of action, and begin to understand what may or may not be possible

Implications for you and your role

For me there would appear to be several implications:
  • School research champions and senior leaders should articulate their own theories in action about how research can influence teaching and pupil outcomes.
  • School research champions and senior leaders wishing to bring about the increase use of research evidence within their schools, could be well-advised to start with researching their colleagues’ theories of action relating to research evidence.   
  • School research champions and senior leaders will need to develop their active listening skills to ensure they are properly engaging with colleagues’ theories of action.  
  • The key resource in this process may well be time – ensuring that colleagues have the time necessary to undertake a genuine process of engagement with their colleagues. 
  • A recognition that to bring about lasting and real changes in colleagues’ practice will require persistence and patience.  With the important factor being the the ability to keep the conversation going (Willingham, 2015)
Some final words

Daniel Dennett in his 2013 book Intuition Pumps And Other Tools for Thinking suggests that at times of disagreement we should use Rapoport’s Rules:

1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”

2. You should list any points of agreements (especially is they are not matters of general and widespread agreement).

3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.

4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism

Further reading

Dennett, D.C., 2013. Intuition pumps and other tools for thinking. WW Norton & Company.

Robinson, V., 2011. Student-centered leadership (Vol. 15). John Wiley & Sons.

Stone, D., Patton, B. and Heen, S., 2010. Difficult conversations: How to discuss what matters most. Penguin.

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