How teachers use research: two studies
How do teachers use published research? What do they do with it and how does it change their thoughts and actions? These are among the questions that I have addressed through two empirical research studies. Working with two teacher research groups over a 12-month period, I have discovered how some teachers made links from research papers to practical concerns. The studies were identical in their aims and methods; their overarching research question was, ‘How can educational research impact on teachers and teaching?’
The research took place in two Secondary schools in the North of England, anonymised as ‘Hilltown High’ and ‘Riverside’. Both Headteachers perceived the need to improve provision for their ‘gifted’ and ‘talented’ (G&T) students, many of whom were not achieving the expected academic standards. They appointed a coordinator and recruited volunteers to join the project – eight teachers from Hilltown and six from Riverside – with the expectation that they would read research articles that I provided for them and, bearing in mind what they had read, would use these papers to inform their own practitioner enquiry. Research around teaching G&T students was presented in the form of three journal articles, which I thought would be accessible to practitioners: Berlin (2009), Rogers (2007) and Tomlinson (2005). Two are authoritative literature reviews and the third is an empirical study. The teachers were told that they could access further research if they wished; in Hilltown, the coordinator provided each teacher with a copy of an Ofsted report about G&T (Ofsted 2009) and one of the teachers sourced and used additional research into teachers’ use of questioning; otherwise, the influence of research on practice came through these three journal articles. During an early meeting, the teachers presented their understanding of the research papers to each other. Thereafter, my role was to support their practitioner enquiries through monthly meetings at which I prompted discussion, chiefly by asking questions about their projects and their use of research evidence.
With their consent, I interviewed the teachers, twice each: once at around the mid-point of the project and once towards the end. Interviews were semi-structured around a few questions, allowing for fairly free-flowing conversations, and the time to explore matters in some depth. Interviews were audio-recorded and transcribed; data were split into meaningful units for coding. At the conclusion of the research, the teachers wrote brief descriptions of their projects; these were published internally by the schools and also formed part of the research data, along with my field notes of our monthly meetings. In summary, the data included:
• Field notes from 14 selection interviews and 22 monthly meetings
• 26 Individual interview transcriptions (each c.30 minutes)
• 14 written reports of the teachers’ projects
The teachers’ discussions were fairly wide-ranging, they rarely discussed the research papers directly, except in the first meeting and occasionally, during interviews. Nevertheless, by comparing what they said with what was in the three papers, it was possible to see how the teachers had understood the papers, how this had affected their thinking (or not) and what, if anything, they had done with what they had read.
Findings: how the teachers incorporated the research into their thinking
The teachers incorporated information from the research papers into their thinking by bringing research-generated knowledge into relationship with other knowledge. The process began when teachers asked, possibly subconsciously, ‘does a particular claim in the research paper match my previous experiences?’ The answer to this question seemed to determine their further engagement with the research – whether they dismissed the claim as either implausible or obvious, or whether they continued to include the research in their thinking. Sometimes, they ignored the claim, moving quickly onto other matters. If this did not happen, i.e. if they decided, individually or collectively, to give the research more thought, they,
a) used concepts from research to develop their own understandings of concepts they had gained practically. For example, from seeing their G&T students as essentially privileged (with ‘gifts’ or ‘talents’) they moved to a position of seeing some of the as possibly not necessarily adapting well to school, being sometimes bored, insufficiently challenged and, although probably having a passion for their particular area of expertise, unwilling to present themselves as able, for fear of peer pressure. In discussion, they explored how research findings were applicable to their schools: how students find it generally acceptable to be seen as G&T in some (mainly practical) subjects but not others; how girls can feel comfortable to be seen as G&T in some subjects where boys cannot; how students do not necessarily like their achievements to be publicly recognized (e.g. in school assemblies).
b) related research findings to instances from their previous experiences of teaching and being taught. These previous experiences gave them a means to explore and understand the general in the light of the specific and vice-versa, and enabled impersonal and abstract knowledge, generated in unfamiliar contexts beyond the institution, to become useful within a familiar institutional context. Cases usually consisted of individual students or classes. For example, Tomlinson (2005) has an extended passage, explaining why gifted students are ‘anything but formulaic’ in terms of the spectrum of ability they display, their socio-cultural backgrounds, biological characteristics and the presence or lack of additional needs (p. 160). The teachers related this passage to students they had known, and also recognised that, in the words of one teacher, ‘that’s the problems with groups, and groups having names [i.e. labels]. Sometimes you almost wash over them and think, ‘well this works for these students’, rather than thinking of them as individuals’.
c) imaginatively diffused implications from research into areas beyond those in the original research. Teachers extended knowledge from the research papers imaginatively into their thinking about many topics. This occurred because, although teachers’ knowledge is necessarily widely-focused, each aspect of their pedagogical knowledge inter-relates with others. So, although the research papers focused strongly on G& T students, the teachers discussed what these matters might mean for issues including curriculum, pedagogy, teaching techniques, other students, learning, resources, assessment, behaviour management, leadership, management, policy, accountability and values.
Long, focused discussions and the ‘Third Voice’
In each school, the whole project, including the research texts and the teachers’ practitioner research, can be thought of as one, long, focused discussion, addressing the question, ‘How can we better provide for our G&T students?’ In discussion, the teachers offered their thoughts and opinions, supporting them with evidence from their values and knowledge, particularly experiential knowledge. Sometimes agreeing with each other, sometimes disagreeing, they supported and encouraged, tested and challenged each other. They questioned old ideas and developed new ones, critically examining possibilities. Effectively, the research acted as a voice in this ‘long, focused discussion’. In discussion, each teacher had access to three sets of voices: their own, articulating their values, previous experiences and ways of thinking and acting (the ‘first voice’); their colleagues’, who shared some of these but not others (the ‘second voice’); and the research, which provided an external view (the ‘third voice’).
This ‘third voice’ was never a strong voice; it was always subordinate to the ‘first’ and ‘second’ voices. Some teachers found it old and possibly out-of-date; it was generated in unfamiliar contexts and was perhaps slightly inaccessible. It could be ignored at times, and the teachers did not shy away from criticising it. But sometimes, the research voice was thought about and acted upon. Experience sometimes prevailed but at other times, the teachers’ opinions and habitual ways of thinking changed, as discussion with their colleagues and the research challenged them with perspectives different from their own.
In order to be admitted to the discussion, knowledge from research had to be brought into relationship with other knowledge, usually from the teachers’ previous experiences of teaching and being taught. At least one teacher in the discussion had to find the research knowledge neither implausible nor obvious. Once admitted to the discussion, the research influenced both the content of teachers’ thinking, and their ways of thinking. This sometimes led to practical changes and, when it did, this could be called ‘research informed teaching’. Research which was not brought into the discussion was either ignored or used strategically, to justify pre-determined actions. Sometimes, research fulfilled a confirmatory role, reassuring teachers that their practice accorded with research.
Within these long, focused discussions, the research texts gave the teachers material to think about including,
a) Focuses for inquiry. Most teachers reported that the research projects had encouraged a stronger than normal focus on G&T students and often, the focus raised questions about their practice, in the light of research. For example, the teachers discussed diversity of G&T students, pace of instruction, appropriate curriculum and developing passions (from Tomlinson 2005); perceptions of G&T students, confidence and self-efficacy (from Berlin 2009); challenge, grouping and independent learning (from Rogers 2007).
b) Challenges to existing thinking and practice. One example of existing thinking was the belief that students’ learning is made more secure by teaching others. This idea was accepted at both schools, and Riverside School had a policy that G&T students would act as ‘Lead Learners’, teaching other students. However, the teachers interpreted a finding in Rogers (2007) as challenging this policy and, in discussion, the teachers agreed that, although their own knowledge was consolidated by teaching others, what is true for teachers, is not necessarily true for students.
c) Concepts. One example of a concept is the notion of ‘peer sanctions’ which non-gifted students sometimes apply to their G&T peers (Berlin 2009). Riverside teachers thought that such sanctions no longer occurred in their school but Hilltown teachers were less sanguine, saying for example, ‘some of the G&T students identified, do in some ways want to be under the radar because of the negative social stigma’. Thus the concept of ‘peer sanctions’ sensitised the teachers to possibilities, prompting them to see problems which they did not see previously (Biesta 2007).
d) Ideas for action. For example, one teacher was motivated, by understanding that G&T students can need comparatively little practice in new skills, to create new resources for G&T students which did not rely on practising of new skills but on ‘quite philosophical articles and higher order questions’.
There is also evidence that the research papers influenced how the teachers thought. This included,
a) Becoming more willing to experiment. For example, one teacher explained that she had been afraid of challenging students in her lessons, in case they did not understand her questions. However, reading the research had given her permission to do this and she had now done this, even though it had sometimes provoked uncomfortable silences. She remarked, ‘I think it's helped me be a better teacher’.
b) Becoming more critical. At various times the teachers critiqued the research papers, citing within-research issues, issues around generalizing from research to practice, and non-congruence with personal values as reasons for their ctiticism.
c) Developing their understanding of evidence. The teachers discussed differences between what they called ‘hard’ evidence (such as test data) and ‘soft’ evidence (such as observation data). Although they started with a preference for hard evidence, and tried to gather hard evidence for their own practitioner enquiry, they moved to a more sophisticated view of evidence which reflected the complexity of educational situations.
d) Developing ethical awareness. The teachers discussed ethical issues such as paying more attention to G&T students (and possibly less attention to others), grouping G&T students together, and providing activities specifically for G&T students.
Such influence came not only from research findings but the whole papers, including literature reviews and discussions of findings.
The process, including some aspects which have not been fully discussed here, is illustrated below. Further details are available in the published papers (see references).
How robust is this theory?
This theory is based on only two studies, both of which were small-scale. The teachers were volunteers and, as part of the project, were using the published papers to guide their own practitioner research projects. This means that:
These studies have not shown how all teachers will use published research, only how some teachers have used published research.
Further questions arise: how many teachers (for example, as a proportion of the workforce in England) will use published research in the ways described here? Which ones? What are the main factors that determine who does, and doesn’t use research in these ways? What are the factors to do with, a) the research, b) the way in which the research is presented, c) the individual teachers and d) their schools? As always, these studies have posed more questions than answers but they also present a theory which can be investigated further.
References (copies available from the author on request)
Cain, T. 2015a. Teachers’ engagement with published research: addressing the knowledge problem. Curriculum Journal, 26(3), 488-509.
Cain, T. 2015b. Teachers’ engagement with research texts: beyond instrumental, conceptual or strategic use. Journal of Education for Teaching.
Cain, T., 2016a. Denial, opposition, rejection or dissent: why do teachers contest research evidence? Research Papers in Education, ahead of print.Cain, T., 2016b. Research utilisation and the struggle for the teacher’s soul: a narrative review. European Journal of Teacher Education, ahead of print