Sunday 25 October 2015

The school research lead and '57' definitions of research

If you work in a school and have anything to do with research, evidence-informed teaching or practitioner inquiry, this post is for you.  In particular, this post is aimed at anyone who finds the current use of these and other similar terms - evidence-based practice, action research, enquiry-based learning -  confusing and a barrier to both your own professional development and the bringing about of improved pupil outcomes within your school.

So what do we mean by the terms : research, evidence-informed teaching, evidence-based practice, action research, teacher/practitioner inquiry?

Accepting that a range of definitions which could be used for each term, I propose the following as a starting point for subsequent discussion.

Research* is systematic and focused equiry seeking truths that are transferable beyond the setting in which they are generated (Greenhalgh, p191)

Evidence-informed teaching involves the 'conscientious, explicit and judicious use of best evidence in making decisions about teaching and learning' (adapted from Sackett, 1995)

Evidence-based practice as 'best-practice' is considered as any practice that has been established as effective through scientific research and according to a set of explicit criteria (Mullen, 2002)

Action research is the systematic collection of information that is designed to bring about social change (Bogdan and Bilken, 1992 p223)

Enquiry-based learning Much of the kind of activity that the professional research community might define as “action research” is more commonly referred to by teacher-researchers as enquiry-based practice (BERA/RSA 2014 p40)

Teacher/practitoner inquiry is defined as systematic, intentional study of one’s own professional practice.

So what are the differences between the terms?

Dana and Yendol-Hoppey (2009) quite rightly point out that the terminology used around teacher inquiry all carry a degree of baggage.  For example,  research is associated the notion of impersonal objectivity and creation of generalisable knowledge.  Action research is associated with critical practice designed to bring about social justice. Evidence-informed practice is associated with evidence-based medicine and the use of RCTs.  Evidence-based practice is associated with bureaucratic rules which remove the discretion and autonomy of the teacher.   So where do we go from here?  Wiliam (2014) argues that education can never be a research-based profession and states:

Unfortunately, Wiliam does not describe 'disciplined inquiry' so we need to look elsewhere for guidance.

So what is disciplined inquiry?

Cronbach and Suppes (1969) state:

Disciplined inquiry has a quality that distinguishes it from other sources of opinion and belief. The disciplined inquiry is conducted and reported in such a way that the argument can be painstakingly examined. The report does not depend for its appeal on the eloquence of the writer or on any surface plausibility, (p. 15).

Hood (2003) usefully identifies a number of the characteristics of disciplined inquiry, which include:
  1. Meaningful topics are addressed
  2. Systematic, clearly described procedures are employed and described so that readers can follow the logic of the study and assess the validity of the study's conclusion
  3. There is sensitivity to the errors that are associated with the methods employed and efforts are made to control the errors or consider how they influence the results
  4. Empirical verification and sound logic are valued: and
  5. Plausible alternative explanations are considered (p2)
So what are the implications for colleagues interested in school based inquiry?
  1. The purpose of inquiry within schools should be to support the development of 'practical wisdom' within the school rather than attempting to emulate the 'research' undertaken in universities.  In other words, inquiry is about making better decisions and improving practices for the benefit of pupils, teachers, the school and the community 
  2. Be aware that although all these terms - evidence-informed teaching, action research, practitioner inquiry -  may be describing some form of disciplined inquiry, they are not the same thing, and they have different meanings which may or may not get in the way of your approach to inquiry
  3. Whatever form of inquiry you adopt it should seek to address questions that matter to pupils, teachers, the school and the community.
  4. Seek to ensure that the processes of inquiry are open and transparent and that the 'logic' of the inquiry is clearly articulated, particularly any underlying assumptions
  5. All members of the school-community need to work together in such a way as to create the conditions in which colleagues are prepared to have a go at 'inquiry' and knowing that colleagues will both be supportive and challenging.
  6. Ensure that the outcomes of inquiries are communicated to colleagues in ways which are both meaningful and informs practice.   
And finally

To become a virtuoso inquirer or supporter of inquiry,  will take time and will involve a process of going from novice to higher levels of expertise.  This in turn will require going through many cycles of inquiry.  With this in mind  maybe the best we can hope for is to become competent and proficient as school-based inquirers rather than expert.


I have deliberately chosen not to use the BERA/RSA definition of research as
 .. any deliberate investigation that is carried out with a view to learning more about a particular educational issue. This might take a variety of forms and be concerned with a range of issues, for example: the secondary analysis of published data on school exclusions, interviewing a range of colleagues about examination performance in the English Department, taking part in a national Randomized Control Trial concerned with the teaching of Mathematics, responding to a survey about teachers’ use of the internet to inform curriculum planning, working with a university department of education on a study into teachers’ use of new technology. (BERA/RSA 2014 p40)

As you can see this definition describes types of research activity rather than a provide any guidance as to what generic processes are associated with inquiry.  Indeed, in my view the the definition is particularly unhelpful as it lacks precision, and may lead to teachers believing that it is easy to become a researcher.


BERA/RSA (2014) RESEARCH AND THE TEACHING PROFESSION : Building the capacity for a self-improving education system : Final report of the BERA-RSA Inquiry into the role of research in teacher education

Bogdan, R & Biklen, S (1992) Qualitative Research for Education : In introduction to theory and methods (second edition) : London, Allyn and Bacon.

Cronbach, L. J., & Suppes, P. (Eds.). (1969). Research for tomorrow’s schools: Disciplined inquiry for education. New York: MacMillan. This is a report of a special committee of the National Academy of Education. It includes a detailed discussion of disciplined inquiry, a number of historical case studies of educational research programs and a set of policy recommendations.

* cited in Shulman, L.  (1997) Disciplines of Inquiry in Education: An Overview in Jaeger, R. (ed) (1997) Complementary Methods in Complementary Methods for Researchers in Education, American Education Research Association, (pp 3-19)

Dana, N F and Yendol-Hoppey, D. (2009) The Reflective Educator’s Guide to Classroom Research: Learning to Teach and Teaching to Learn Through Practitioner Inquiry (Second Edition) Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press

Greenhalgh, T. (2014). How to Read a Paper: The Basics of Evidence-BasedMedicine (5th ed.). United States: John Wiley & Sons.

Hood, P. (2003) Scientific Research and Evidence-Based Practice : WestED

Mullen, E (2002) Evidence-Based Knowledge : Designs for Enhancing Practitioner Use of Research Findings - Presentation at the 4th International Conference on Evaluation for Practice, University of Tampere


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