Evidence-informed practice (EIP) in education is now seen as central to school improvement. At the same time, the meaningful and sustained use of evidence by teachers remains difficult to achieve.
Teacher engagement in research and with evidence is vital and, if done in the right way, can help teachers to improve their practice and, therefore, the outcomes for their pupils.
The difficulties of teachers actually engaging in EIP centres on issues that include the level of skills they have in this area; the inaccessibility of academic research to most teachers; not being allocated adequate time or, through timetabling, being unable to work collaboratively with others.
In response, early in 2014, the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) opened a competition for projects that would focus on increasing the use of research in schools.
Trust is the main driver of teachers’ engagement with research
To address the foundation’s aims, I proposed a project “Research Learning Communities” that involved the use of an innovative approach to circulating knowledge within schools; using “social network analysis” to find informal school evidence-use champions – that is, those individuals who advocate EIP and who have influence in the staffroom but are not formally part of senior or middle leadership teams.
Working with these informal champions as well as senior leaders from their schools, my team of facilitators and I are working with some 14 research learning communities (RLCs) — groups of research champions from across some three to five schools.
Running for two years, RLCs centre on engaging participants with research and helping them to develop and embed solutions based on evidence to improve key aspects of their teaching and learning provision. Currently, 114 primary schools across England are involved in the project, with just over half (58) forming RLCs; with the others forming a control group so that the impact of this approach can be assessed.
As the project enters its second year it seems pertinent to share some of the key findings.
After surveying 828 teachers in 43 of our schools, we found the levels of trust held by teachers is by far and away the biggest driver of research-use: in fact, trust is almost three times more significant than factors such as whether a school has organisational learning systems and structures in place.
This is because, although organisational learning does positively impact on the degree to which teachers engage in research use, it is the level of trust that determines how staff in engage in organisational learning.
We also found that higher levels of trust are significantly associated with more frequent (and useful) knowledge-related linkages between teachers.
In turn, these linkages tend to result in a variety of relationship-centred efforts, including collaboration, learning, complex information sharing and problem solving, shared decision making, and coordinated action: that is, actions essential to the development of new and effective practice informed by research and evidence.
Our conclusion is that trust thus acts as the main driver of teachers’ engagement with research, with their perceptions that they operate in an environment that encourages the use of research and evidence.
The leadership question that results, therefore, is how and in what ways can leaders create and nurture the conditions for high levels of trust as a precursor for EIP in their schools.
Based on forthcoming analysis by the author, with Professor Alan Daly and Dr Yi-Hwa Liou