Ethical issues in teacher-led research

At the last research leads event at Cambridge, I raised the issue of ethical considerations where teachers engage in research. Here are some thoughts:

First of all, it’s important not to over-state the seriousness of ethical issues in teacher-led research within schools. The sorts of things that most teachers ‘investigate’ are close enough to the activities which take place as part of ordinary teaching in schools that ethical issues are not a major concern: Trying out a new writing frame, creating a formative assessment to identify misconceptions, developing questioning techniques, adapting materials to help EAL students access learning, implementing low-stakes quizzes to help consolidate previously taught topics, etc. Teachers already have a duty of care towards their students and should simply exercise professional judgement when planning innovations in their teaching. Thus, in my opinion, the vast majority of teacher inquiry projects likely require no additional ethical permissions or protections.

What probably is important, given that most teachers don’t have a background in social science or educational research, is that teachers have some guidance on ethical issues they might not have considered and a clear pathway to seek advice if ethical issues arise as part of their inquiry projects. Thus, I think it would be useful for schools to have sensible guidelines laid out in advance: A straightforward policy on research ethics – agreed by the school and shared with teachers who are engaged in research.

There’s a great starting point for discussion about this on Gary Jones’ blog:
Jones (2015) We need to talk about researchEDthics – School Research Leads and Ethical Research and Evidence-Based School Cultures

I’ll mainly be drawing from two other resources which research leads might find useful to look at:
BERA: Ethics and Educational Research (Hammersley and Traianou, 2012)

BPS: Code of Human Research Ethics (The British Psychological Society, 2010)

I’m going to talk about the three main areas of ethics in research that teachers may need to consider when planning research projects: Minimising harm, informed consent and confidentiality.

Minimising Harm

Jones suggests we should consider both ‘Beneficence’ and ‘Non-maleficence’ when planning research in schools: That the action or intervention is intended for the benefit of the individuals involved and that we have considered carefully any broader negative consequences which might arise. For the overwhelming majority of teacher inquiry projects, a teacher’s evidence-informed professional judgement will suffice, I would argue. However, there may be circumstances where a greater or more formal consideration of potential harm should be carried out.

In my view, this becomes a potential issue when considering psychological interventions with students – rather than teacher inquiry related to ordinary classroom activities. For example, I recently wrote about some of the concerns raised by teachers and academics about the rise of therapeutic interventions within schools. Little is known about the potential for adverse reactions or contraindications for psychological interventions.

The BPS guidelines state that psychological researchers should always consider research from the standpoint of the participants; with the aim of “avoiding potential risks to psychological well-being, mental health, personal values, or dignity.”

The BERA article makes the point that consideration of harm may include reputational damage for the teachers and potentially the institution involved:

“Minimising Harm. Is a research strategy likely to cause harm, how serious is this, and is there any way in which it could be justified or excused? Note that harm here could include not just consequences for the people being studied (financial, reputational, etc) but for others too, and even for any researchers investigating the same setting or people in the future.”

I would argue that there need to be some additional safeguards in place when school-based interventions are based on therapeutic models like cognitive behavioural therapy or mindfulness. Whilst ‘side-effects’ are unlikely to be as serious as they would be for a medical intervention, there’s a question as to whether children suffering from clinical depression or an anxiety disorder are benefited or harmed by some of these interventions. Given that the Annual Report of the Chief Medical Officer (2012) suggested that as many as 1 in 10 children possess a clinically diagnosable mental disorder. Some consideration of monitoring throughout such projects might be ethically justified here; along with possibly some sort of screening.

Another aspect of education research broadly encompassed by ‘harm’ might be where children are removed from regular lessons as part of a project. There is an ‘opportunity cost’ to a child’s education if they are removed from subject lessons. Do children benefit from missing maths lessons to partake in a character education project? What about history lessons? Or RE lessons? Good intentions alone are not enough here, I would argue. Schools should engage in a more formal costs and benefits analysis when considering such major changes to curriculum – and demand up-front the evidence for proposed benefits and the monitoring arrangements during the project which will identify whether intended benefits are being delivered compared to the ‘costs’ imposed on that child’s regular education.

Informed consent

These issues are unlikely to feature in the majority of teacher inquiry projects, as the activities students undertake are part of lessons within the normal context of classroom practice. Where a research project involves appreciable risk or significant opportunity cost however, the issue of informed consent may become more important.

In psychological research, participants should be given sufficient information about the research so that they can make an informed decision as to whether they want to take part. Part of the protections for participant autonomy is also their right to withdraw from a research study. With children under the age of 16, there’s an additional protection: Additional consent of parents or guardian of the individual should normally also be sought.

However, the BPS guidelines make an exception when it comes to research conducted in schools.

“In relation to the gaining of consent from children and young people in school or other institutional settings, where the research procedures are judged by a senior member of staff or other appropriate professional within the institution to fall within the range of usual curriculum or other institutional activities, and where a risk assessment has identified no significant risks, consent from the participants and the granting of approval and access from a senior member of school staff legally responsible for such approval can be considered sufficient.”

In schools this will likely be the head teacher.

BERA frames this aspect as respecting autonomy.

“Does the research process show respect for people in the sense of allowing them to make decisions for themselves, notably about whether or not to participate? This principle is often seen as ruling out any kind of deception, though deception is also sometimes rejected on the grounds that it causes harm.”

Where permission of parents is considered a justified step, there is a further question of whether passive or active consent should be obtained. For example: Noret (2012) Guidelines on Research Ethics for Projects with Children and Young People

“Active consent refers to the use of a consent form, whereby parents/guardians are required to sign and return a form indicating their consent for their child to participate in the study. Non-return of this slip is taken as an indication that the parent(s)/ guardian(s) do not want their child to participate in the study.
“Passive consent on the other hand, requires participants to return the slip only if they do not want their child to participate in the study. Non-return of the slip is then taken as consent for the child/young person to participate in the study (Ellickson & Hawes, 1989).”

Where research involves very young children, sensitive topics or intrusive methods, or where the research will involve students travelling outside the school environment, then active consent may be more ethical than passive.


This is an area where schools already have some policy in place. For example, schools have to work within the Data Protection and Freedom of Information legislation. There’s a summary of how these impact on schools by BECTA here: Data protection and security – a summary for schools

As such, most teacher inquiry projects will simply need to comply with these already existent policies. Teachers need to collect information about students as part of their professional role. Things like data security and filming in the classroom likely already have guidelines which teachers are expected to follow. Research which involves the collection of data regarding students and falls within these existing rules is unlikely to raise additional ethical considerations.

However, there are some general principles which might inform professional judgement about confidentiality. For example, the BPS suggests that information obtained from and about participants during an investigation is confidential unless otherwise agreed in advance.

“Participants in psychological research have a right to expect that information they provide will be treated confidentially and, if published, will not be identifiable as theirs. In the event that confidentiality and/or anonymity cannot be guaranteed, the participant must be warned of this in advance of agreeing to participate.”

On the other hand, the BERA article argues that confidentiality may not always be desirable in educational research:

“Protecting Privacy. A central feature of research is to make matters public, to provide descriptions and explanations that are publicly available. But what should and should not be made public? What does it mean to keep data confidential, and is this always possible or desirable? Can and should settings and informants be anonymised in research reports?”

This becomes a potentially important issue when collecting data from and about teachers within a school. In this case, I find myself agreeing with the BPS on the issue of confidentiality: It should be a reasonable expectation that data generated by research should be treated as confidential and only published in forms where their identity cannot be ascertained.

For example, in piloting student surveys as a way of investigating teaching, there were several issues relating to confidentiality which I considered before starting out.

Firstly, it seemed important to the process that student responses to the survey should be anonymous – therefore, student names were not collected on the questionnaires and the classroom teacher would step out of the room whilst students completed the surveys. This helps ensure that students give a more honest reflection of their views than they might if they could be identified. The second issue relates to the use of this data. The issue of confidentiality needed to be agreed with the teachers concerned. In this case, the decision was taken to ensure the confidentiality of student feedback on teaching – in order to build trust and confidence in the process.

In summary

In the main, ethical considerations in teacher-led research can rely upon the evidence-informed professional judgement of the teachers involved. There are barriers enough already without adding lengthy ethical procedures to the list! It’s worth remembering that schools are likely to already have policies relating to some of these issues that teachers must follow – and there’s no point over-complicating or duplicating these policies. However, in my view, there are some types of school projects which may be worthy of more formal ethical consideration. Plans involving aspects of psychological therapy or significant changes in a child’s curriculum should be reasonably interrogated for the expected benefits versus the opportunity costs involved.

Given few teachers have a background in social science research; it might be reasonable for research leads to think about running a session or distributing a summary about ethical issues in education research to better inform those judgements.

Ethical issues in research cannot always be anticipated, however. Whilst the vast majority of the research projects teachers undertake are going to be unproblematic, it might be wise to have some simple guidelines and procedures laid out so teachers know where they can seek advice during their research. This will serve to protect both students and the teachers involved in research, should any ethical problems emerge as they carry out their investigations.

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5 Responses to Ethical issues in teacher-led research

  1. Pedro says:

    Reblogged this on From experience to meaning… and commented:
    This is a very relevant post for any teacher wanting to do some research (which can by the way be a good idea).


  2. Pingback: Ethical issues in teacher-led research | Teacher reflections

  3. smjc3 says:

    Reblogged this on smjc3.


  4. Pingback: Threshold Concepts (…and the space in between- part 2) – Kaye Chem Notebook

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