Friday 9 December 2016

The school research lead and making the most of abstracts

There are a number of reasons why it is particularly important for both school research champions and evidence-based school leaders to make good use of the abstracts found at the beginning of published papers.  First, the full text of the majority peer-reviewed published papers sit behind pay-walls, which makes it expensive for the evidence-based school leader to access research.  As such abstracts provide a summary of the paper indicating the topics covered, the approach adopted and the main claims made, without the expenses of paying for access to the full-paper.   Second, because so much research is published each and abstracts are very short, often no more than 150-200 words, skilled reading of research abstract makes it much easier to keep up with the latest research in your area of interest.  Finally, and most importantly as (Wallace and Wray, 2016) note the very brevity of abstracts, encourages the development of critical reading.  The relative lack of information in an abstract, will facilitate the development of your skills as a critical reader, by forcing you to ask questions about what additional information is required for you be convinced by the argument underpinning the research.

To help us make the best of research abstracts  (Wallace and Wray, 2016)  have identified  a number of questions that may wish to ask of a research article, which uses statistics.

Yes, but what did mean by that term?
You have told me what sort of informants you used, but how many were they, and why did you choose them?
You have told me what you wanted to find out, but why was it interesting and important to find it out
You said that a lot of research has been done on this topics, but what are the key studies I should be checking out?
You said that you have found a significant differences between your two experimental groups, but what statistical test were you using? p30

It may well be that when you read the full paper all of your questions are answered. On the other hand, it may be that a few of your questions are not answered.  (Wallace and Wray, 2016) argue that you are more likely to identify these unanswered questions when you are looking for answers.  Furthermore, as your questions reflect your current knowledge, skills and expertise, then it is likely that these questions are extremely relevant to your problem of practice and associated well formulated and answerable question.

A worked example

(Wallace and Wray, 2016) go on to suggest that the best way of illustrating of how to critically read an abstract is through a worked example. So here is an example using an article which looks at value, ethics and decision-making.

Source: Educational Management Administration and Leadership 2015 Vol 43 (2) 198 - 213
This journal focuses on educational leadership, with original contributions from educational researchers from around the world
Title: Value(s)-Driven Decision-Making: The Ethics Work of English Headteachers within Discourses of Constraint

What does the author mean by value(s) driven decision-making
What is the ‘ethics work’ of headteachers?
What sector(s) are the headteachers drawn from
Author: Linda Hammersley-Fletcher, Institute of Education, Manchester Metropolitan University, Crewe Green Road, Crewe, Cheshire, CW1 5DU, UK.

What’s the author’s main purpose in writing the paper?
This article considers the experiences and perceptions of practising English headteachers and the tensions that they face when juggling government prescription and government initiatives, which may be antagonistic to their educational values and beliefs

How long have the headteachers been practising
What are the tensions arising from government prescription and initiatives
What do we mean by educational values and beliefs.
How might these values and belief be at at odd with government initiatives
Managerial control over teachers work has been particularly acute and destructive to ‘human flourishing’.

What is meant by managerial control?
What is the work of teachers?
What is meant by ‘human flourishing’?
Headteachers have a moral and ethical responsibility for the welfare and education of pupils.

What are the moral and ethical responsibility of headteachers?
Is there a difference between the education and welfare of pupils?
Such professional ethics oblige the professional to seek the good of the pupil and therefore good is viewed as intrinsic to the work of an educator.

Is there a difference between professional and educational ethics?
Is the intrinsic role of headteachers confined to seeking the good of the pupil?
Thus headteachers are directly involved in negotiating between sometimes contradictory imperatives and drivers.

What sort of imperatives are there?
Do these imperatives changes over time?
What scope do headteachers to negotiate contradictory pressures?
How then does the headteacher cope with what Colley refers to as ‘situated ethics work’?

What is meant by ‘situated ethics work’
What coping strategies do headteachers adopt
This article presents data derived from written responses from 10 headteachers that begin to open up this question.

How were the headteachers selected?
Were the headteachers given a proforma to respond to?
How were the written responses analysed?
I argue that it is not uncommon for people to weaken in their values-driven stance when under great pressure

How frequent is ‘uncommon’ ?
What types of pressure are headteachers under?
How does the pressure change the decision-making of headteachers?
What other decisions would they be taking?
It is however important to recognize the extent to which educational values are constrained by neo-liberal value-based market agendas in order to continually question and re-evaluate what is happening within education rear- ticulating this for the benefit of pupils.

What are neo-liberal value based market agendas?
How are headteachers re-evaluating what is happening?
In what ways are these values being re-articulating the meet the need of pupils

It should be noted that this a fairly eclectic list of questions, which could be added or subtracted from depending your particular problem of practice.  As such, you should not see the above as a definitive list, rather it should be seen as an initial stimulus to develop your own thinking.  

Some final words
Often when thinking about research evidence we mention that teachers haven't got the time to undertake research, or they don't have access to current research, or maybe, they don't have the skills to critically consume and engage with research. The use of structured approaches to the critically reading of abstracts is something that should be possible for all teachers to engage, and would be a worthwhile activity in school journal clubs. And if it whets the appetite for further reading so much the better.


WALLACE, M. & WRAY, A. 2016. Critical reading and writing for postgraduates, Sage.    


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