Can networks close the research practice gap in the classroom?

10 Jun 2019, 5:00

Networks are powerful. Look at Barack Obama’s election based on community networks through the “snowflake model’ to see the potential of an informed, enthused, and mobilised community. While networks are already central to disseminating good practice among medical professionals, in education there appears to be a disconnect between best practice and actual practice, known as the research-practice gap.

Teachers’ networks can be informal chats over coffee or formal conferences. Either way there is a desire to find ways to improve practice and, ideally, these should be based on sound theory. As Professor Rob Coe, director of research and development at Evidence Based Education (EBE) outlined in his Manifesto for Evidence-Based Education, “education may not be an exact science, but it is too important to allow it to be determined by unfounded opinion”.

So how does research help us to understand more about teacher and leader networks? How can we use that understanding to help both groups find the information and techniques that are robust and well-evidenced?

A researcher in a teacher’s extended network helps

In 2018 and 2019, The Michigan School Program Information Project in the UK (MiSPI UK) set out to understand how heads of teaching and learning use their social networks to engage with research, who they engaged with, and the extent of the research-practice gap. Conducted with EBE and Shotton Hall Research School, the study results from the northeast of England reveal echo chambers and information stagnation, as well as highly productive networks of well-connected professionals.

An online survey found these senior staff on average turned to one or two “information brokers” (internal and external colleagues) for information on school programmes and practices. These could be colleagues in the same school, someone in another school or an organisation that pushes out research, such as the Education Endowment Foundation.

Some respondents said they relied on their own knowledge and judgment because they thought themselves the best authority on the subject. Small though the research sample was, it raises concerns about the accessibility and use of high-quality information sources to inform big decisions made by school leaders.

A limited network might seem problematic, but it is sensible to recognise that in-school colleagues are likely to be the first stop for new information, given the reality of busy working lives. The lead researchers on MiSPI UK highlighted some small steps that teachers and leaders can take to help to close the theory-practice gap.

Don’t discount research because it’s not identical to your context

Teachers should weigh up how far the research applies: ask questions about how it might work under different circumstances; consider what characteristics in the study will make it successful, and what tweaks might make it work.

Connect with interested colleagues

Connect with a variety of sources within and beyond your school. And look to organisations whose role is to promote research to build a bigger picture. Take time for constructive challenge to make it easier to differentiate between useful and less useful research and perspective.

Innovate, implement, iterate

Good implementation outcomes are often linked to a committed and varied group of colleagues trying things out. Experiment.

Research network utopia

Pursue a two-pronged network model: a tight-knit community of practice within the school and strong links to people out in the rest of the world, whether that’s through other schools or through a research-focused organisation.

A researcher within every teacher’s extended network would be significant in closing the gap. Networks can help to overcome pedagogical challenges as well as addressing research gaps in a range of areas. Whatever the network, it doesn’t need a logo or a motto; rather, it needs members who are informed, sceptical, willing to
share practice and critically engage with research to find solutions to real problems of practice.

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