Friday 24 March 2017

The school research champion: Are we asking them to do mission impossible?

Are we asking the school research leads/champions to do mission impossible? Over the last two years I have had the privilege of meeting colleagues from around the world, be it England, Scotland, Sweden, Australia and the USA, who are attempting to embed the systematic use of evidence within their schools.  However, the more I both talk to school research champions and read about knowledge brokering, the more am I inclined to the view that we may be asking the individual school research champion to do the impossible.  If not the impossible, maybe we are asking the school research lead to have a range of skills which are highly unlikely to be found in a single individual.   Instead, maybe we should be thinking in terms of ‘teams of champions’ who together have a diverse range of knowledge, skills and experience, and who are able to deal with all aspects of the role of a school research champion/knowledge broker.    So over the rest of this post, I will draw heavily upon the work of (Kislov et al., 2016) who explored the challenges faced by knowledge brokers within a health care setting, to help us understand the ‘impossibility’ of the school research champion’s job.  In doing so, we will:
  • Describe what we mean by a knowledge broker
  • Explain the different aspects of the role of the knowledge broker
  • Examine the tensions between different aspects of knowledge brokering
  • Consider the tensions between different types and sources of knowledge
  • Look at the the tensions resulting from the ‘in-between’ position of brokers
  • Note the unintended consequences of knowledge brokering
A future post will explore: how those tensions can be managed by adopting a team-based approach to (One final point, during the rest of this post I will be using the terms knowledge broker and school research champion/lead, synonymously).

What do we mean by the term ‘knowledge broker’?

(Kislov et al., 2016) describe knowledge brokers as:

… individuals that bridge a gap in the social structure and help knowledge flow across that gap by enabling translation, co-ordination and alignment between different perspectives and facilitating transaction between previously separate practices. (p107)

Different aspects of the role of the knowledge broker

(Kislov et al., 2016) state that knowledge brokering is a multi-dimensional process which includes three separate tasks.

Information management involves identifying analysing, packaging and spreading research evidence and other forms of codified knowledge, such as data from quality improvement projects, in order to inform policy and practice decisions of research users.

Linkage and exchange enables the interaction co-ordination and exchanges of ideas between different professional groups such as policy makers, researchers, managers, doctors and other clinicians (and in the case of education CEOs of MATs, headteachers, teachers and teaching assistants)

Capacity building implies using knowledge to develop capacity in the health care (education)  system to utilize research evidence and, ultimately enact positive changes by improving services (schools) and patient (pupil) outcomes.  (p108)  Amended by the author .

Table 1 (Kislov et al., 2016) p108 attempts to capture aspects of knowledge brokering role and the skills required for their realisation.

Information management
Linkage and exchange
Capacity building

Generic skills
·      Understanding the cultures of both the research and decision-making environments
·      Ability to establish credibility
·      Ability to assess the context of implementation
·      Communication skills
·      Problem-solving skills
·      Project management skills

Specific skills
·      Searching and retrieving evidence
·      Appraising evidence
·      Synthesizing evidence
·      IT skills
·      Tailoring resources to local needs
·      Mediation skills
·      Negotiation skills
·      Networking skills
·      Interpersonal skills
·      Stakeholder management and influencing skills
·      Teaching skills
·      Mentoring skills
·      Facilitation skills
·      Change management skills
·      Improvement skills

Examining the tensions between different aspects of knowledge brokering

As (Kislov et al., 2016) note in an ideal world the different elements of knowledge brokering would complement one another.   However, both linkage and capacity building, which are both difficult to measure, may get less attention that information management.    Kislov et al argue that within a capacity building role knowledge brokers may switch from ‘facilitating’ – helping others to mobilise evidence – to doing – when they implement change on their own.  So in the case of the school research lead/champion – they may find it much easier to conduct an inquiry into some aspect of the school, rather than bringing about changes in teachers’ capacity to use different sources of knowledge and evidence.  Indeed, with capacity building there may be a tension between activities which create the impression of building capacity – say journal clubs, seminars and visiting speakers – and activities which build genuine capacity to increase teacher use of research.

Considering the tensions between different types and sources of knowledge

(Kislov et al., 2016) cite the work of (Gabbay and May, 2004) who argues that doctors rather than relying on clinical guidelines in their decision-making, use ‘mindlines’ – collectively constructed, internaliszed, tacit guidelines, which are are mainly informed by their own clinical experience, as well as by informal interactions with with peers, patients, local opinion leaders and pharmaceutical representatives (p108).

So in the context of the school research champion, it will not be enough for them to be ‘research literate,’ they will also need to have good pedagogical knowledge to understand how the research impacts on the work of teachers.  They will also have to have excellent managerial skills, as they will need to link different people within the school, be it teaching assistants, teachers, heads of department and members of senior leadership teams.  The school research champion will also have to be aware of the context and have ‘situational’ knowledge and be able to identify the ‘school as it is’ rather than the ‘school they would want.’   In other words, the school research champion will need to be aware of the willingness to participate in knowledge management and the priorities of the school, which may at this time lend itself to a significant use of research evidence.

(Kislov et al., 2016) go onto note that the requirement to weigh up different sources of evidence poses a number of practical questions.
  • How does the school research champion take into account both the written evidence – eg the EEF Teaching and Learning Toolkit – and the tacit knowledge of teachers?
  • What skills are most important for the school research champion?
  • Do school research champions have a vested interest in working with external partners on say – EEF trials – which may not have the same priority for classroom teachers 
The tensions resulting from the ‘in-between’ position of brokers

(Kislov et al., 2016) note that the in-between intermediary position of the knowledge brokers enable them to bridge gaps between previously separated communities of practice, be it researchers and teachers.  School research champions may also sit between the school senior leadership team and teachers, and may be seen as someone who has a ‘foot in both camps’. 

Nevertheless, as (Kislov et al., 2016) note this ‘in-betweenness’ across creates a number of tensions, which have important implication for school research champions.
  • There is a risk that school research champions being seen as being more interested in research and theory rather than the practical needs of school teachers
  • There is a risk that school research champions are seen as neither part of the senior leadership team or the mainstream teaching staff.
  • There is a risk that that knowledge mobilisation and brokering within schools has a low priority, with insufficient resources being made available to support the brokering process.  This may lead to a focus on low effort/low impact activities, which get perceived to make little difference to the either the school or more importantly, pupil outcomes.
Unintended consequences

(Kislov et al., 2016) note that are a number of unintended consequences of allocating the role of school research champion to particular individual.
  1. How the role of school research champion is performed is contingent upon the school research champions knowledge, skills, experiences, preferences and values.
  2. It may be difficult to recruit individuals with the right skills set, especially research literacy.
  3. School research champions may seen the role as a ‘stepping stone’ to senior leadership
  4. Sustainability may also be weakened if ‘knowledge’ is seen narrowly as research evidence – as this compromise the credibility of ‘research use’ if practitioner expertise is largely ignored. 
(Kislov et al., 2016) go onto state:

All these factors can lead to a situation where the brokered evidence is made available (transferred or translated) to knowledge recipients without being taken up (mobilised or implemented) in practice.  In other words, knowledge brokers may be at risk of failing to broker knowledge, with the latter being lost in the ‘in-between’ world. p110
To conclude

As (Kislov et al., 2016) note - is it  reasonable to expect anyone individual to have all the skills necessary to be a successful school research champion, cope with the different types of knowledge, build connections both within and outside of the school, and at the same time maintain their credibility with diverse audiences – be it researchers, senior leadership or teaching colleagues.  Even if such colleagues do exist, are there enough of them to go round England’s 20,000 plus schools, probably not.  So in my next post, I will look at how we can address this issue by using a team-based approach to knowledge brokering within schools.


GABBAY, J. & MAY, A. L. 2004. Evidence based guidelines or collectively constructed “mindlines?” Ethnographic study of knowledge management in primary care. BMJ, 329, 1013.

KISLOV, R., WILSON, P. & BOADEN, R. 2016. The ‘dark side’of knowledge brokering. Journal of Health Services Research & Policy, 1355819616653981.

Friday 17 March 2017

The school research lead and coaching - Is there any evidence that coaching works?

Recently on #SLTChat there was an extended exchange of tweets on what does effective coaching look like.   However, just as any neophyte evidence-based practitioner knows, one of the first things  that they must do is challenge assumptions.  In this case, the assumption has been made that coaching is effective, an assumption which is has already been challenged by (Briner, 2012).   However, more recently (Grover and Furnham, 2016) have undertaken a systematic review of the empirical and practitioner research on executive, leadership and business coaching to assess the current empirical evidence for the effectiveness of coaching and the mechanisms that support it.  So the rest of this post will do two things; first, briefly summarise the work of Grover ; second, consider the implications for the use of coaching with adults within a school-setting.

Summarising the findings of Grover and Furnham


Grover and Furnham undertook a systematic review and started with search of electronic databases, looking for the following key words: leadership, coaching, business coaching, executive coaching, work-place coaching, developmental coaching, coaching effectiveness, coaching efficacy, coaching evaluation, coaching outcomes and effect of coaching.  Grover and Furnham for articles that included quantitative data on effectiveness of coaching or mechanisms that contribute to the effectiveness of coaching, with only studies conducted in an organisational setting or utilised coachees in full or part-time employment used, whilst coaching studies utilising students or in university settings excluded.  Studies were included that utilised a professional coach – internal or external – and who did not have any managerial supervision over the coachee.  As such included studies focused on coaching explicit to an organisational environment   health, life or sports coaching were excluded, along with online, team and peer coaching,   Finally, studies which included a coaching intervention in tandem with other development interventions – e.g classroom training – included

The results

52 studies met the inclusion criteria and included in review
20 studies only used self-reporting measures to assess effectiveness of coaching
32 studies focused on the impact on the individual
*18 studies looked at organisational impact

The main findings are

Not enough data is available to make a definitive judgment about effectiveness of coaching – plus issues with experimental rigor and large enough sample size - although results do tend to lean towards coaching being an effective intervention.  However, coaching was found to positively impact on a coachee's self-efficacy and with a higher or continued coachee goal attainment. As for job satisfaction and job performance, no definitive support was found for coaching increasing these outcomes for the coachee.   Nevertheless, in terms of direct impact on organisations, the distal outcomes of the research show coaching helps improve leadership and management behaviours – plus impacts on turnover, increased satisfaction and job commitment.

Implications for school leaders

First, there is insufficient evidence to make a definitive judgment about the effectiveness of coaching, so it should not be seen as some form of ‘magic-bullet’ that solves all managerial problems or guarantees school improvement

Second, the review does not provide any evidence about the effectiveness of line manager (coach)/subordinate (coachee) relationships – as such the review should not be used as evidence to justify line manager/subordinate relationships becoming more coach-like.

Third, there is some tentative evidence to suggest that coaching efforts should be directed at newer members of staff, who may be more motivated to respond to coaching. As such, this may the best returns on investments in coaching may be with new qualified or early career teachers

Fourth, there is some evidence that the benefits of coaching are not restricted to the coachee (say a senior manager) and that the benefits are also experience by ‘subordinates/’ in terms of positive relationships, reduced intention to leave, increased job satisfaction, work engagement and organisational commitment.    As such,  coaching interventions with  leaders and managers may well be a key mechanism to address the emerging teacher recruitment crisis

Finally, it needs to be acknowledge that none of the reported studies were conducted in school settings, so we need to careful in attempting to generalise any of the findings for those leading and working within schools.

For a full review of the work of Grover and Furnham you may wish to follow this link


BRINER, R. B. 2012. Does coaching work and does anyone really care. OP Matters, 17, 4-12.
GROVER, S. & FURNHAM, A. 2016. Coaching as a Developmental Intervention in Organisations: A Systematic Review of Its Effectiveness and the Mechanisms Underlying It. PloS one, 11, e0159137.