Developing research leads in schools: The Janus-faced role of a research lead

researchED: Research leads network day, Cambridge. March 14th 2015

Janus_coin source:

In a brief stop-over between Sydney and Dubai, Tom Bennett was surprised and delighted to discover so many teachers prepared to ‘give up a Saturday’ to come and explore the role of a research lead. It shouldn’t come as such a surprise. The event, expertly organised by Helene Galdin O’Shea, involved a combination of thought-provoking speakers and the opportunity to meet exceptional colleagues – making it extraordinary CPD. Here’s my reflection on the day and a (dreadfully inadequate) summary of some of the talks I attended.

Philippa Cordingley opened with a keynote identifying some effective ways to lead research within schools. Schools are increasingly creating directed time for professional inquiry (whether it’s called coaching, lesson study or action research) and she related some interesting case studies of how schools were structuring these opportunities. She related the importance of having a research base which reflected ‘the things that wake teachers in the middle of the night’ – and this is an important issue. Finding, accessing and disseminating the sort of educational research which can be applied by classroom teachers is one of the great challenges.

Philippa referred to the bottle-neck between research and practice based knowledge and the work that CUREE has been doing to overcome this:

A number of resources which may be useful to research leads:
… and a host of Education research links:
… she also described some of the tools and research resources, like ‘route maps’, which CUREE use to help teachers engage with research:

Philippa emphasised the need for professional learning to involve creating new ideas and strategies with a clear focus on student outcomes. It wasn’t so important whether teachers engaged in their own research or the research of others, rather that it was the process of challenging prevailing orthodoxies and supporting teachers as learners which had the greatest impact.

One of the most interesting items she raised was importance of school leaders actively participating and modelling this process. To support the argument, Philippa referred to research by Robinson, Hohepa and Lloyd (2009). Their meta-analysis into school leadership and student outcomes identified that the factor which had the greatest influence was promoting and participating in teacher learning and development:

Robinson, Hohepa and Lloyd Source:

The fact that this appeared to have greatest influence on student outcomes raised a few eyebrows. It might be expected that school leaders participating and promoting professional development would have an impact on outcomes for students, but the fact it appeared to be the most influential factor was surprising.

The day then presented some difficult choices! I missed Jude Enright’s talk on enquiry based practice (which she has very kindly blogged about here), Beth Grenville-Giddings talk on setting up a journal club and Robert Loe talking about how we might explore and measure ‘relationships for learning’. I hope someone will blog on these.

Gary Jones led the second session with a focus of how we can help teachers ask better questions about their teaching. Drawing parallels with evidence-based medicine and clinical practice, he related a number of ways that we can move from ‘background questions’ which tend to be poorly formulated and difficult to evaluate, towards ‘foreground questions’. In essence, he gave some useful ideas on how teachers might operationalise their own research in more productive ways:

One model, which I really liked, was the PICO format:

P — Pupil or Problem. How would you describe the group of pupils or problem?
I — Intervention. What are you planning to do with your pupils?
C — Comparison. What is the alternative to the intervention/action/innovations
O — Outcomes. What are the effects of the intervention/action/intervention?

There is a host of interesting ideas and resources for research leads on Gary’s blog. I might also recommend his discussion on some of the pitfalls and misconceptions that research leads would be wise to avoid:

The school research lead and pitfalls to be avoided.

The SUPER partnership (the ‘Power Rangers’ of researchED) is a school-university partnership for educational research between schools in the East of England and the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge. The SUPER partnership was bringing researchers and schools together years before researchED was even a twinkle in Tom Bennett’s eye. If you haven’t seen their blog, there’s a pretty comprehensive list of research resources that research leads would find useful:

SUPER blog: access to research

The talks by Clare Hood and Abi Thurgood were a fascinating insight into the challenges of the research lead role. Clare contrasted the fast-paced culture of accountability and ‘evidence’ that currently exists in many schools with the slower pace of academic research. She also talked of the value of having the Cambridge team as a ‘critical friend’, especially when formulating research questions across a teaching alliance. Abi identified some of the core aspects of her role: Formulating teacher and subject department research questions, the dissemination of practitioner research through a ‘marketplace’ format, links to the Cambridge MEd programme and the very interesting idea of bringing in student researchers through EPQ projects. Both talks emphasised the ‘sense of re-professionalism’ that came from teachers having opportunities to choose their own development goals rather than working to imposed targets.

One question that arose in my mind, as research leads become more common place in schools, is how we ensure an appropriate ethical framework for teacher-led research. University-based researchers have a range of ethical checks and guidelines to ensure research is conducted in a responsible way and minimise risk to participants, but few schools appear to have a research ethics policy. I have some ideas about this which I’ll endeavour to blog about before the next researchED research leads conference at Brighton in April. If people think it’s an area worth exploring, I’d be happy to present something and facilitate a discussion at a future event.

The issue of access to research was an enduring theme across the day. Vincent Lien made a reasoned and impassioned argument for teachers to have free access to education research. If you haven’t signed his petition yet, it’s available here:

Free access to research ejournals for teachers

Jonathan Sharples and Caroline Creaby related examples of connecting teachers and researchers together. Jonathan related some of the barriers which exist in sharing and promoting the use of evidence in schools. He made the point that this process was likely to be slow going – NICE estimate it takes up to 15 years for research evidence to become embedded within medical practice. The ‘Push’ of evidence-based research coming from universities will be slow to change education on its own. One of the roles for a research lead might be to help ‘pull’ evidence-based research into schools and foster the ‘links’ between universities and schools. Caroline gave some excellent examples of how teachers had been able to draw upon the expertise of university researchers through mechanisms as simple as emailing questions. However, I suspect these informal channels of communication – whilst excellent – are not really scalable across a large number of schools.

Academics tend to be very generous with their time and keen to talk to teachers about research, but without a more formal framework it’s difficult to see how this can genuinely make an impact across a school system. However, plans are in motion. Caroline is about to project manage ‘evidence for the frontline’ – involving the Coalition for Evidence-Based Education (CEBE) and the Institute for Effective Education (IEE) at York.

Essentially E4F appears to be a brokering service, linking up teachers with research expertise and resources. One of the things that they want to create is a map of expertise showing practitioners, researchers and other providers:


Ffion Eaton took up the role of research lead in 2013 and talked about embedding a research culture, through a whole-staff action research programme, within her school and teaching school alliance. Her school is part of the RISE project – EEF funded research examining whether research leads help improve student outcomes in schools – and she described a little of the training, resources and support this had provided. One of the key initiatives she related was the difficulty in maintaining communication of research across the school – it’s easy for research to go on in isolated pockets within schools. One interesting idea was the development of a teaching and learning bulletin and mini ‘research conferences’ to help disseminate some of the research and findings across the alliance.

There felt like a convergence in many of the arguments raised across the day: A key focus upon research leads playing a role in strengthening professional development and using evidence-based research as the starting point for improving student outcomes. This aligns well, I think, with the recent Sutton Trust report on improving professional development. I think the six principles of teacher feedback listed in that report might serve as an effective summary of some of the major themes arising from the network day:

Developing Teachers: Improving professional development for teachers. January 2015

Six principles of teacher feedback

Sustained professional learning is most likely to result when:
• the focus is kept clearly on improving student outcomes;
• feedback is related to clear, specific and challenging goals for the recipient;
• attention is on the learning rather than to the person or to comparisons with others;
• teachers are encouraged to be continual independent learners;
• feedback is mediated by a mentor in an environment of trust and support;
• an environment of professional learning and support is promoted by the school’s leadership.

The Janus-faced role of a research lead

The metaphor of bottlenecks and bridges between research and practice-based knowledge emerged more than once over the course of the day. The Roman god of bridges, doorways and passageways was Janus. What emerged from the day, for me, was the ‘Janus-faced’ role of a research lead in schools: outward-looking towards the extensive and sometimes difficult-to-access research evidence that might inform practice; and inward-looking towards facilitating teachers investigating their own practice.

University researchers and classroom teachers expressed frustration at the ‘closed doors’ to each other’s institutions. At the moment, many of these links appear informal and rather haphazard – working through personal connections and chance encounters. To scale these mutually profitable relationships across the school system will likely involve more formal mechanisms by which schools can network with university researchers. Teachers need access to the broader evidence base to stimulate ideas, help formulate questions, gain research tools and act as a valid foundation for their own professional inquiry into their teaching. Researchers need access to schools and sometimes encouragement to focus their research on some of the applied problems that teachers face trying to improve outcomes for their students. Janus was associated with such travelling and trading, and research leads might also adopt this aspect – coordinating closer links and a greater trading of ideas, between school-based and university researchers.

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5 Responses to Developing research leads in schools: The Janus-faced role of a research lead

  1. Pingback: researchEd ‘Research Leads’ Cambridge Network Day 14/3/15 | The SUPER blog

  2. lisaryder10 says:

    Reblogged this on Associate Educational Fellowship Programme and commented:
    AEFP – part of the Power Rangers!


  3. Pingback: Causation and Correlation in Education | RISE

  4. Pingback: Ethical issues in teacher-led research | Evidence into practice

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