Not all research is top-down from senior teams, says Tim Cain. Teachers are finding out for themselves how research can influence what they think about and how they think

From the Department for Education, Ofsted, the Chartered College of Teaching and beyond, the message is clear: teachers should use research evidence to inform their decisions.

This has been the message, at least since the Goldacre report somewhat patronisingly claimed: “We all expect doctors to be able to make informed decisions … using the best currently available evidence; I think teachers could one day be in the same position.”

Details are set out in the Education Endowment Foundation’s (EEF) guide, Putting Evidence to Work, which says schools should “identify a tight and specific area of focus … Determine a programme of activity based on existing evidence … Examine the fit and feasibility of interventions to the school context … Create a clear, logical, and well-specified implementation plan” and so on.

Research should be used, primarily by school leaders, to inform the planning and delivery of a “programme of activity”, including training for the teachers who will implement the programme, and monitoring to ensure that they do this properly. The EEF’s model is linear, logical and focused. It is also very top-down: Leaders use research to decide what to do, and class teachers do it.

In contrast, research that I’ve done with my colleagues found a very different model. Based on 153 interviews and observations in 85 schools and colleges, we found that teachers use research to expand their “teaching mindsets”. In other words, research influences the general approach of teachers, particularly when teaching.

Typically, the process starts when teachers encounter research findings or theory that challenges their existing thinking. Sometimes this happens through professional development, but also through reading newspapers, magazines, websites or blogs. Twitter is a common source of research ideas. Teachers then ask themselves, possibly subconsciously, questions such as, “Is this credible?” “Does it match my experience?” and “Should I change what I am doing?” In general, the first of these questions is the most crucial; if the research is not credible, teachers tend to dismiss it (although there is also some evidence that colleagues can persuade them to revise their opinions).

Teachers use research to expand their ‘teaching mindsets’

Engaging with research texts can influence teachers’ thinking in two ways. First, research can influence what they think about. Research texts can provide focuses for challenging their own practice and can also encourage teachers to undertake their own practitioner inquiry.

Research can also influence how teachers think. It can encourage them to experiment, trying out ideas from the research. Discussing it with colleagues, they become more critical of the research they read, and less likely to accept research at face value. They develop their understanding of evidence, including evidence from pupils’ test scores, and they can develop an awareness of ethical issues in their teaching.

As a consequence, research-engaged teachers develop their teaching in general ways. For example, one teacher said that she had been reluctant to pose challenging questions to a class, but that research had given her permission to do this. She told me, “it’s helped me to be a better teacher”.

School leaders understand this way of using research. Many schools we studied are generating engagement with research amongst all their teachers, not only senior leaders. Some fund (or part-fund) staff to undertake postgraduate study, some organise action research projects; some create informal research reading groups. Some hold an annual research conference, typically involving external speakers and teacher researchers. One school has a research seminar series and another employs a “researcher in residence”, a university tutor who works regularly within the school.

Schools also fund teachers to attend external conferences and discover new ideas. These activities are underpinned by a desire to develop the school as what one headteacher referred to as “a thinking school”.

Often, when teachers engage with research findings, they also undertake formal or informal enquiry into their own practice: they try out ideas from research and monitor the effect of these ideas on pupils. They also use research when training student teachers.

The EEF’s top-down approach to using research is certainly not the only one. Using research to expand “teaching mindsets” can complement its use as a decision-making tool; it can help professionalise teaching and potentially allow all teachers to have agency over their own practice.