When it comes to using research evidence in schools, the only question that seemingly matters is ‘What works?’ So much so that the government created a What Works Network, which includes the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF). Its mission is to discover what works in classrooms… so we can all sit back, relax and wait for the answers to roll in, right?
Well, no, as those at the frontline are only too aware, it’s not that simple. The EEF’s James Richardson noted that there may be "more similarities between schools than difference", but there are still no silver bullets when it comes to ‘closing the gap’. Context will always be crucial to the success of an intervention. Indeed, we should think of research findings as telling us what works… some times and in some places.
So where does that leave us? Needing practitioners with the professional judgement and skills to understand not only ‘what works’, but also ‘how and why?’ And, crucially, to ask ‘will it work for our pupils?’
A recent visit to Canons High School in Harrow gave me an opportunity to see how one school is tackling these questions. Its headteacher is Keven Bartle, who emphasised the need for teachers not to be mere consumers of research but active producers and critics.
And this philosophy is evident in the school’s approach. For starters, Canons has a designated research advocate and its CPD offer for teachers includes lesson study and a book group that is currently debating the merits of Full on Learning by Zoe Elder.
From next year, Canons will also be trialling a journal club to give teachers the opportunity to engage with academic review articles and discuss how these findings can inform their practice. The school will be working with Sam Sims of UCL’s Institute of Education to evaluate how effective this approach proves.
Importantly, journal clubs are seen as a way of putting teachers in charge of their own learning. As Sam explained:
Participants choose what to read, how to interpret it and work together on how to implement it in the classroom. It's about empowering teachers by linking them directly with the latest education research.
So if we're aiming to get teachers enthused about research, school leaders and governors can play a vital role by ensuring that school cultures and CPD programmes encourage teacher-led critical engagement with research. Ultimately, getting to grips with why an intervention is likely to be successful (or not) in a particular context, understanding how to effectively evaluate its outcomes, and knowing when to adapt or abandon a failing strategy are the skills we need to develop. That'll be what works for pupils.