Friday, 2 January 2015

The school research lead and asking better questions - part one

At the recent ResearchED Research Leads one-day conference one of the tasks that emerged for the role of the school-research lead is to help colleagues ask well-formulated and answerable questions. Indeed, there was some discussion as to whether this required input from a higher education institution.  Fortunately for both current and prospective research leads there is a wealth of material produced by the evidence-based medicine movement (Straus, S, Glasziou, P., Richardson, W.S.and Haynes, R.B (2011) Evidence-Based Medicine : How to practice and teaching it, 4th edition) which can help with the development of well-formulated and answerable questions, which I will now adapt for the use of school research leads.

Background and Foreground Questions
Straus et al state that in the first instance it is necessary to make the distinction between background and foreground questions, with background questions being made up of two parts:
* A question root (who, what, how, when, how ) with a verb
* An issue or matter of interest

So examples of educational background questions could be:

* How does homework improve student achievement?
* What are the benefits of e-learning?
* When is the best-time to give students diagnostic tests?
* Who is best placed to undertake performance reviews and appraisals?
* Where can you find examples of effective 'flipped' learning

Whereas a foreground question asks far more specific questions about a particular action, intervention or innovation, for example, does 24/7 access to iPads compared to the use of Chromebooks improve the timely completion of homework tasks. 

The PICO Format
Invariably foreground questions can be constructed using the PICO format developed for evidence-based medicine and which contains 4 basic elements which I have adapted for use in schools.

P —  Pupil or Problem. How would you describe the group of pupils or problem?
I  —  Intervention. What are you planning to do with your pupils?
C —  Comparison. What is the alternative to the intervention/action/innovations
O —  Outcomes. What are the effects of the intervention/action/intervention?

Two examples of foreground questions could be :
  1. For pupils requiring additional learning support (P) how does the provision of 1 to 1 support (I) compared with group support (C) affect achievement rates.
  2. For pupils aged 16 who failed to achieve at least at a grade C in GCSE English (P) and subsequently retake GCSE English (I) at the end of the academic year, how well do they achieve (O) compared to students who have been prepared and entered for iGCSE English (C)
Benefits for school-research leads
So what are the benefits for school research leads of using the PICO format, well for me three benefits come to mind.
  1. PICO provides a mechanism for developing answerable questions, which should make it easier to pinpoint the relevant evidence necessary to answer the question. 
  2. PICO provides a structure by which the staff who are being supported by research leads are able to ask better questions for themselves.
  3. PICO should reduce the time-pressure on research leads as it will lead to far more empowered colleagues.
Given these provisional benefits of using the the PICO format,  in future posts I will look at extending the use of the PICO format to help ask a far greater range of well-formulated questions.


  1. Great practical guide for school leaders and teachers wanting to ask better research questions. I also recommend using PICOS, where S is Study Design, to evaluate quality and relevance of published research for their school.

  2. This is really helpful, thanks. I am interested in looking at e-learning and other areas within FE but was not sure where to begin.

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