‘How you can make teachers stop worrying about research – and learn to love it instead’

Teachers who use research to inform their teaching can often be evangelical about its benefits, but not all staff will be so easily persuaded. These tips might just help get them on side.

If you are having a conversation with a teacher who is really reluctant to engage with research, keep in mind they probably have good reason for this. A lot of education research is of poor quality, and we have seen well-intentioned research-based initiatives become time-consuming and ineffective.

Thankfully, things are getting better: the quality of the research is improving, more teachers and school leaders are making use of it, and support is available for those wanting to know more. But do not expect a Damascene conversion by break time. Using research evidence to inform decision-making in schools is the work of years, not weeks.

In the meantime, here are my five top tips for helping change the thinking of a research-reluctant teacher.

1. Let them talk

Often, research is seen as an obscure extra, making demands on severely-constrained teacher time. If you have never looked at research before, it can seem like an unwieldy and irrelevant beast. Sometimes, it is hard to see research offers a sustainable way to stop the cycle of “great new (unproven) ideas”, and it can actually save time by helping teachers avoid blind alleys. These views are hard to change, so listen carefully to what research-reluctant teachers have to say and understand why they not keen to engage. Then…

2. Provide time and space to reach new conclusions

When our beliefs are challenged and we try to hold a new, contradictory idea in our minds, a rather intriguing thing called cognitive dissonance takes hold, and it can be really unsettling. Ray Land at Durham University has done a great deal of work on the idea of “troublesome knowledge”: the idea that research could hold new information that improves teaching and learning can be massively troubling. For a teacher resistant to research, becoming more aware of research is really unsettling. So tread carefully and give them space.

3. Be clear that it’s not a panacea

One common source of resistance is the belief that research evidence will become a form of dictat, with journal articles written by academics who have never set foot in a classroom prescribing exactly the actions a teacher should take. This is a fallacy. The best research evidence can only tell us that something worked (or not) on average, somewhere, somewhen, somehow, and under certain conditions. But even with all these caveats, why would you not want to know what the research says before you plunge headlong into a new initiative? It is messy and makes us think hard, but that is not a bad thing.

4. Be substantive

Researchers speak a language seemingly understandable only to other researchers, and much of their discussions are of esoteric abstractions. That is enough to put anyone off, let alone a busy teacher. So, focus on research that might truly offer important insights to a teacher’s work: marking and feedback, class size, setting and streaming, for instance. Teachers want to do the best job possible for their students, so guide them to the evidence that actually means something to them, and steer clear of abstraction.

5. Show them the impact

I cannot understate the value of our Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) Toolkit as a potentially game-changing resource to decrease resistance to using research evidence.

By combining three key metrics (impact on learning expressed as months of progress, cost, and strength of the evidence), the toolkit presents a very balanced and accessible guide to the best available evidence. Simply reading the page on meta-cognition and self-regulation, for instance, can be a great way in.

For those who really want to know the impact on important student outcomes of the interventions they implement (year 5 reading scores, for instance), use the EEF’s DIY Evaluation Guide. I have a vested interest in it (I helped write it), but we’re really excited about the possibilities it has for schools to know their impact and make decisions using their own research evidence.


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