50 Shades of Uncertainty in Educational Research by @Lisa7Pettifer

Do we engage in educational research or don’t we?

Lots of people engage in educational research. Some of them make a living from it, even though they’re not teachers; some of them don’t, even though they are. It seems there are many tensions between the worlds of teachers, trained to teach (by the universities, for the most part, at least until recently) yet not engaged in research, and the worlds of researchers, engaged in gathering evidence about education, yet not involved, directly, in school teaching.

This is a re-blog post originally posted by Lisa Pettifer and published with kind permission.

The original post can be found here.

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Lots of people engage in educational research. Some of them make a living from it, even though they’re not teachers; some of them don’t, even though they are. It seems there are many tensions between the worlds of teachers, trained to teach (by the universities, for the most part, at least until recently) yet not engaged in research, and the worlds of researchers, engaged in gathering evidence about education, yet not involved, directly, in school teaching. At best, the university researcher offers an objective breath of fresh air to what might have become a stuffy room of ingrained practice; at worst, they are seen to function like a secret Ofsted, reporting to government agencies about what should be done in the world of education and how teachers should be doing it.

Researchers within universities may visit schools, engage in short- or longer-term partnerships and conduct research based on the activities they find going on or they might assist schools in trialling and assessing a new idea or strategy. Hundreds of journal articles per year are produced, aiming to explain, understand or evaluate practices, with the intention of adding to knowledge about the effectiveness of aspects of our education system. How many of these articles might there be- and what’s the likelihood of teachers being able to meaningfully digest the sheer amount of information contained therein, and to be able to act on findings in order to improve the lot of our pupils (and if teachers themselves don’t engage with this material, how can it be funnelled into schools and school practice)? Effective mediation between these two sectors is still thin on the ground, particularly in areas where access to a university isn’t easy.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are the teacher practitioners, working within their own contexts, finding out ‘what works’ through intuitive procedures. Many argue that this is what teachers have always done – regardless of the call for ‘evidence-based teaching’ – indeed, that this is what good teaching is: responding to the needs of given individuals in a given class, adapting our delivery according to previous successes, anticipating need based on knowledge of prior achievement… Yet these shifts in practice happen minute by minute – we don’t wait for the statisticians, the peer reviews, the replication – we’re on to the next judgements on the next topic or the next test or even the next year group already. This sort of teaching is the art rather than the science, it’s the feeling rather than the fact and it’s based on never-ending cycles of adaptation rather than a conclusive summation.

Can we engage in educational research or can’t we?

There are examples of teacher research that fall short of what might be considered an academic standard, examples of classroom-based enquiry that are really personal journals of reflective practice rather than systematic, objective studies. For some, these provide opportunities for thought clarification that wouldn’t have been possible without the discipline of reflection and writing. For others, such a mini-study might prove to be the first step towards a more rigorous and informed approach to evidence-based teaching.

There are those who argue that true research isn’t possible in schools because of the difficulties in operating randomised controlled trials and there are those who argue that qualitative research falls short of the necessary objectivity required for a full explanation of causality. Others argue that most teachers are ill-equipped to engage in research properly because of a lack of mathematical understanding and inability to apply statistical methods or evaluate results using mathematical processes.

There are though, numerous examples of practices, such as the lesson study model, or similar in-house developments that have been created, that are being deemed as successful modes of enquiry. The claims here are two-fold: that practitioner enquiry leads to more effective classroom delivery, and that such a focus is itself a more fruitful form of CPD. Perhaps both claims, like many issues in this debate, need to be further evaluated.

The extent to which teachers can make use of educational journals is often cited as a key decider in whether or not we can engage with the world of educational research – the Capitol, compared to the Districts of Pamen – it seems. Doubtless, academic writing is complex, abstract, specific and stylised, and almost certainly it presents challenges to the untrained eye. This is not to say that research leads or other staff development figures could not assist here. Several schools operate ‘reading/study’ groups, whereby those with the eye and appetite for such reading work with the journals and pass on key messages to other staff as part of ongoing development work. A claim related to this is that our ‘local’ universities, if we have them, might be open to partnership work – some operate collaborative projects whereby schools offer up their settings, classes and pupils for the purposes of the university’s research, and the university staff, in return, offer time and expertise in developing capacity for school-based research among teachers.

Will we engage in educational research or won’t we?

It depends. Increasingly there are calls for teaching to be evidence-based, or evidence-informed. In the ideal world, if this is to be the case, teachers will be properly trained in what might be an entirely new venture. Time will be allowed for a gradual building up of skills, trial projects – the efficacy of school-based research itself needs to be researched and evaluated before a whole-scale roll-out might be attempted. More sensibly, we might ensure that new entrants to the professionals are fully trained in research processes and practices and that their career progression is at least in part built on increasingly significant contributions to evidence-based developments.

More likely though, we should anticipate a Sunday morning announcement, via The Telegraph or The Andrew Marr Show, telling us all to start the next day on research projects, that our salaries and performance management are going to be dependent on the successes of these projects from Tuesday and that our schools will be closed down by Wednesday if we don’t.


Should we engage in educational research or shouldn’t we?

This might be for you to decide as an individual, or it might be something that is decided on your behalf. It might be something totally new to you, something from far back in the mists of time or something for which your recent training has prepared you well. You might work in an already research-rich school and be keen to take your place among the research leads. If your school is part of a chain, or affiliated to an umbrella organisation like SSAT, you might have access to conferences, training materials, mentors or university link projects. If you’re in a training school alliance, you might be involved in school-to-school collaborative projects.

My school isn’t, and doesn’t, and maybe won’t. SO good luck if yours does, and will and is.

And if lots and lots of reading about educational research is something that excites you as it does me – feel free to browse the links below….

Thanks to all those listed:

Research-related links
















media.education.gov.uk/assets/files/pdf/b/ben goldacre paper.pdf

www.curee-paccts.com/files/publication/[site-timestamp]/Response to Intervention BERA 2014.pdf


























Lisa Pettifer is based in Cumbria (UK), and describes herself as a CPD leader, English Teacher, Education junkie, ‘UK teacher’ facebook page, usually drowning in marking. Blog ‘Over the Rainbow‘. You can follow Lisa on Twitter via @Lisa7Pettifer.

Explore other articles by Lisa by clicking here. Follow her on Twitter…

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