Saturday 10 June 2017

The school research lead, jobs to be done and what you can learn from the humble milk-shake

In a recent Education Endowment Foundation blog (Yeomans, 2017) states:

New research in education makes for interesting reading. But ultimately, commissioning and conducting it is only worthwhile if it is useful to teachers and can inspire helpful changes in their everyday practice – either leading to new practices being adopted, tweaks to what they currently do, or a reduction in the time spent on ineffective approaches.

So in this post, we will use the work (Christensen, Dillon, Hall, & Duncan, 2016) and their notion of ‘job-theory’ to try and understand the challenges of translating research outcomes into changes in classroom practice.  In doing so, we will consider how the humble ‘milk-shake’ maybe an essential element in trying to understand how to bring about more evidence-informed classrooms.

Job Theory and Milk Shakes

(Christensen et al., 2016) argue that job theory is based on the notion that if we use a product or service, we are essentially ‘hiring’ something to get a job done.  In this context, (Christensen et al., 2016) view a ‘job to be done’ as something that helps an individual make progress in his to her working life.  If the product does the job well, then in similar circumstances we are likely to use that product again.  On the other, hand if the product does a poor job we are far less likely to use it again, and will look for something else to help us make progress.   

(Christensen et al., 2016) go onto explain the notion job-theory of  by examining why individuals may purchase a ‘milk-shake’ on his or her commute to work.    Or put another way, I wonder what job arises in people’s lives that causes them to come to this restaurant to ‘hire’ a milk-shake?  Using this perspective market research was undertaken in a fast-food restaurant watching: What time people bought milk-shakes? How were they dressed? Who were they with? Did they buy food as well, or did they just drive off with it.

The research found that a more than expected number of milk shakes were being sold to individuals who came into the fast-food restaurant before 9.00 am, did so alone, only purchased a milk-shake, and then drove off with it.    These individuals were then asked what ‘job’ they were trying to do for themselves that causes them to stop and buy a milk shake.  Initially, the customers found it difficult to answer the question, but eventually the researchers were able to come up with an answer.  Customers were buying milkshakes to ‘Help me stay awake and occupied while I make my morning commute more fun.’

Of course, buying a milk-shake to make your morning commute more interesting isn’t the only reason why people buy milk-shakes in the morning or at other times of day.  However, it does illustrate the what causes them to undertake a specific course of action in a particular circumstance in order to make progress in some aspect of his or her life.

So as (Christensen et at, 2016) note - a job would appear to have two key elements: progress and circumstance.  Progress represents movement towards achieving some aim, objective or aspiration, and a job is nearly always being a process rather an event to enable progress.  On the other hand, circumstance represents the specific context in which the need for progress arises.  As such circumstance takes into account a range of issues, for example, in what context does the job take place, who needs the job to be done, when does the job need to done. 

In addition, a job is not only about progress in a given circumstance, but also emotional and social dimensions – be it what people think is important, what they believe, how they relate to others and how they want to be seen by others.

Job Theory and Research Use

So how can we use job theory to think about how we can close the research-practice gap. Well one way is for commissioners/publishers and producers of research to pose a number of questions about the potential impact and transferability of the research

How will the research help teachers make progress in their working lives?  This progress could take multiple forms, for example, improved pedagogical knowledge, pedagogical content knowledge or subject expertise,

Who will use the research? At what stage of his or her career? In what type of school, with what type of pupils? When will they use it? How often are they likely to use it?

What’s currently getting in the way of teachers making the progress they wish to make.  Will the research help them get over these obstacles?

How are teachers making do with sub-optimal solutions by ‘cobbling’ together something that just about works?   Or are they not doing anything at all?

How would teachers define what ‘quality’ means for a better solution, and what tradeoffs are they willing to make (adapted from Christensen et al., 2016)

Alternatively, you may be a school research lead screening and reviewing research evidence which may or may not be used in your school.  This set of questions will help you identify why colleagues might ‘hire’ the research so that they can make progress in his or her working life.  If you can’t identify the ‘job to be done’ or the circumstances in which that ‘job’ will take place, then it’s highly unlikely that your colleagues will ‘hire’ the research. 

And some final words

Closing the research-practice gap in schools is never going to be easy.  It is tempting to spend time thinking about how to improve the communication of the research or how we might make the research better – or in the case of our milk-shake – how do we let the world know we’ve made a better milk-shake.  However, unless that research help teachers get a job done – no matter how interesting and flavoursome the research – it’s unlikely to be used.


Christensen, C. M., Dillon, K., Hall, T., & Duncan, D. S. (2016). Competing Against Luck: The Story of Innovation and Customer Choice.
Yeomans, E. (2017). What happens next? Generating evidence is a start, helping teachers use it is the real challenge


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  3. It's really good to see jobs theory (or the jobs to be done approach as it's also known) being applied to a new area.

    I agree completely that commissioners, researchers and school research leads all need to understand the jobs teachers have that they are hiring research to complete - and to ensure that the research offered helps teachers to get their important jobs done.

    However I believe that how research findings are communicated is a critically important factor that commissioners, researchers and school research leads need to consider in more detail.

    In additional to people's functional and emotional jobs (ie. what outcomes they want to achieve and what problems they want to solve), they also have consumption jobs ie. how they find, consume and use particular products and services.

    However much potential a piece of research has to help teachers get important jobs done, if it doesn't meet their consumption jobs in terms of being understandable, capable of being picked up in a shortish time and easily implementable, then that research will have less of an impact.

    The question of how research can be communicated more effectively requires more discussion. Oliver Caviglioli's infographic on Paul Kirschner's work on fully guided instruction - - provides an excellent example of what can be done.

    Multi-level summaries could also be considered. I have written a document - - which addresses the consumption jobs of non-fiction readers and how non-fiction books can be made easier to understand, remember and act on. However the approach could also be used in communicating research results.

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