There has traditionally been a distinction between research knowledge and classroom practice. One reason for this is that much research has been conducted to seemingly only contribute to the ‘knowledge pot’ (to learn more about a specific topic), and it has been difficult for practitioners to find out about current, innovative and exciting research and how it can inform their teaching. Recently, users of research (be that teachers, practitioners, head teachers, TAs, policy makers or innovators) are asking what the knowledge accumulated by researchers means for the children in the classroom; what does it mean for the way we teach, what does it mean for how we manage schools? The emergence of this new practitioner audience has resulted in the involvement of teachers in academic research.
Bringing research into the classroom
Another reason why it has been difficult to translate research into practice relates to how research is conducted, and who it involves. Lab studies offer the research team more control over different factors, and tend to generate more causal findings (X leads to Y). But, what works with one researcher and one or two child/ren is unlikely to generate the same outcomes in a classroom with one teacher and thirty children. A practitioner would most likely have a hard time implementing the findings from a lab study in their classroom.
Field studies that happen in the classroom, in the school environment, aren’t perfect either. The fluid, uncontrolled (in an experiment sense), and often unpredictable social environment in which a practice is researched, could be very different from the one in which a practitioner might want to replicate it.
Context is crucial! The differences between the context of a study and the user’s own classrooms matter (this is apparent even more so across global contexts). A term that is becoming more fashionable is ‘evidence-based’ practice. But it is important to be critical before adopting such practice. What exactly was evidenced? Where, and with whom? These are some important questions that users of research can ask when they come across ‘evidence-based’ strategies that they might like to try out.
What are we doing to bridge this gap?
At PEDAL we’re trying to overcome the barriers between research knowledge and classroom practice by engaging directly with teachers as co-researchers. They conduct research in their own classrooms with guidance from us, the research team.
The Stepping Stones project has collaborated with groups of teachers to both shape and direct our research study, which focuses on developing a new pedagogical approach to support children’s autonomy. As co-researchers, teachers are trialling new pedagogical techniques which are conceptually guided by the research team. As a result, teachers have experimented with, reflected on, and modified their practice, and shared those experiences with each other in a Community of Practice. These teachers are therefore engaging with research-informed strategies in their own practice. They are given professional integrity and autonomy, and trying out what they can in their own context.
We are learning a lot through this, including important lessons about implementation. We have seen that school context matters. Teachers from schools where the leadership team is open and flexible were more comfortable with taking risks in their teaching practice and implementing bigger changes compared to their normal practice. Teachers working within more rigid systems met with constraints along the way and were unable to implement the riskier (but more transformational) classroom practices. We are in the very early stages of collating the formal data so will have more concrete findings at a later date, but what this approach demonstrates is that even with the same conceptual framework from us, there were differences in what the teachers could try out because of context.
There are other forms of research that practitioners can get involved in: participatory action research and lesson study are examples of how teachers can engage in their own school-based research, with or without a university-based research team as a sounding board.
With any of these approaches, the key is for practitioners to figure out how findings can be adapted for their own context. If the makers and users of research continue to collaborate, practitioners will be better equipped to assess the quality of usable research, and to use it to evolve quality practice.
Former PEDAL Research Assistant