Do teachers need to read original research papers?

16 Mar 2020, 5:00

How much research is too much, and what’s the best way to ensure it leads to best practice? Cat Scutt looks at the evidence

The idea that engaging with research leads us to become more effective and ultimately improve outcomes for our pupils is a compelling one. With increasing numbers of teachers joining the Chartered College of Teaching, attending ResearchEd events, and browsing the EEF Toolkit to support their decision-making, there’s certainly buy-in.

But there’s also kick-back. Some question how anyone can expect over-worked teachers to read lengthy research articles that may provide little practical insight. Others argue that teachers don’t have the necessary grounding in research methods to judge the quality of studies.

Of course, research engagement should help us to be more efficient as well as more effective. Thus, time invested in reading research pays off as we reduce time spent on things that don’t really make much difference to learning.

But the question of whether teachers really need to read 30-page original research papers remains. James Mannion estimates that two Shards’ worth of education research is published every year (a Shard being a well-recognised measurement of research volume). There’s also a risk in placing too much weight on the findings of one individual study. So while teachers should have access to original research papers, it’s not clear that we should expect them all to use it.

Some sources claim to be research-informed yet actually cite very little of it

Many sources provide summaries and syntheses of key research with a teacher audience in mind. This is the approach we take with our journal, Impact, which includes articles by both researchers and teachers. Meanwhile, The Science of Learning and Kirschner and Hendrick’s How Learning Happens summarise and reflect on key studies, providing concise, carefully-selected collections. Many blogs do similar.

Sam Sims and colleagues’ research around teacher journal clubs concluded that the articles teachers found most useful were comparatively short, focused, and summarised evidence around a topic, then included more detail on a few key studies. We’ll be trialling this approach with primary and secondary science teachers in a free online journal club project funded by the Wellcome Trust. The sustained, collaborative engagement with research encouraged in a journal club approach also has the advantage of tackling the challenge of moving from theory to practice, similar to Dylan Wiliam’s Teacher Learning Community approach.

Reading summaries and syntheses rather than original research also potentially makes research more accessible – in terms of time, cost and interpretation. Research by Plavén-Sigray and colleagues suggests that the readability of scientific texts is decreasing over time, and whilst many teachers are comfortable with the difference between qualitative and quantitative methods, what an RCT is, and the risk of confusing correlation with causation, not all would confidently claim to be able to judge whether the approach to sampling or statistical analysis in a given study is appropriate.

However, there is need for caution in ‘outsourcing’ the judgment of research quality. First, the further removed one is from the original research, the more likely it is that misinterpretation creeps in. When building one’s own understanding by reading a blog based on someone else’s summary of yet another’s research, it’s likely something will have got lost along the way.

Second, some sources claim to be research-informed yet actually cite very little of it. Inevitably, interpretation of research and its findings may be coloured by someone’s biases. Readers should therefore be suspicious of anything that doesn’t link back to an original source, but equally wary of generous interpretations of research to support particular perspectives.

Both of these risks are precisely where access to the originals comes into its own, but is it enough? In our recent Teacher CPD publication, David Berliner wrote about a rather different approach to supporting teachers to engage with research articles that avoids  unwitting misinterpretation creeping in through multiple layers of translation, whilst also recognising the challenges in reading research. In his model, teachers read original research articles but annotated by research specialists, building their research literacy and knowledge of effective practices simultaneously.

With researchers regularly bemoaning the (misplaced) approaches to which their studies sometimes give rise, perhaps the education research community could learn something from Berliner’s ‘No Fear Shakespeare’ approach. They and the teaching profession both stand to gain – and ultimately therefor

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