Putting education research into practice

| July 7, 2021

Ask a teacher about how they use research in schools, and you might get a different response to a school leader.

At the risk of stating the obvious, using research well means that the research itself needs to be relevant and appropriate for a given issue or situation. Using it is a thinking process that goes deeper than the mere reading of information to engage with it in a discerning, critical way.

This requires skill – assumptions need to be challenged, hypotheses tested, and ideas continually explored and reassessed. This process is of particular importance to both teachers and school leaders.

A recent study by the Monash Q Project team found teachers’ views of research use often differed from school leaders. In saying that, teachers and school leaders believe in the value of using research in practice, but need help in doing so.

As part of a five-year partnership between Monash University and the Paul Ramsay Foundation, we surveyed 492 educators to explore how Australian educators find and use research and evidence. Respondents included senior leaders (20%), middle leaders (12%), teachers (57%), and staff in other roles (11%) from 414 schools in New South Wales, South Australia, Queensland and Victoria.

The study found teachers responded mainly from their own perspectives of research use, whereas school leaders offered a wider view of the impacts of research use, and were more likely to refer to others or the broader school community.

The main difference, though, was the criticism that each levelled at others in relation to how research was used.

Teachers were more explicitly critical of school leaders when research was not used well, saying research is used poorly …

“… when it is used to make decisions by those at the top without giving teachers an opportunity to consider the evidence and to discuss its implications.” – A Teacher at an independent P-12 school in South Australia.

Another example cited was that poor research use involves “one senior leadership person taking a piece of research ‘as gospel’ and deciding practices within the school should change without consultation.” (Teacher, independent P-12 school, Victoria)

Poor research use also included selecting …

“… research [that] is conducted by and/or chosen by someone who is no longer teaching. Research is used as a one-size-fits-all approach. Teachers are not meaningfully consulted about how to best implement the research findings.” – A Teacher at a Catholic P-12 school in Victoria.

School leaders, on the other hand, were less explicitly critical of others, at times even implying their own or system leadership may present challenges.

For example, one senior leader, when making an observation of their school’s poor use of research, said that …

“… staff feel as if this is another layer to their teaching routine. There is a reluctance to take on board another change, and the research is [being] used [as] a mandate to change.” – A Senior leader at a Catholic secondary school in Victoria.

Nevertheless, when poor research use was attributed to others by school leaders, survey responses highlighted concerns in relation to teachers.

Poor research use was associated by some school leaders with teachers who “disregard the research, and do not simply ‘give it a go’”. (Senior leader, Catholic primary school, Victoria).

Teachers were also criticised for neither reading research/evidence, nor incorporating or making adjustments based on it.

Research is used “for reading alone [and] not acted on to enhance student outcomes”, said one respondent. (Middle leader, government primary school, New South Wales).

Another said poor research use was also associated with “doing the same thing each year” without using research and data, because “this is the way [teachers have] always done it, and I reckon it works”. (Senior leader, government primary school, South Australia).

So what does this all mean?

Expectations in Australia and internationally that schools and school systems will use research to inform their improvement efforts are high. Used thoughtfully and appropriately in context, and identifying and utilising research well, has the potential to improve the quality of teaching and learning.

A teachers standing in front of a group of students in a classroom.

From our study, differences in teachers’ and school leaders’ perspectives provide important cues for how to increase and improve the use of research.

Overall, our findings suggest that teachers want their school leaders to guide and involve others when using research.

They want leaders to provide clear and consistent direction regarding research use, and help to develop their own confidence and skills to critically engage with different research.

These perspectives suggest the need for more conversations between teachers, school and system leaders about the use of research, if only to understand whether educators are on the same page.

Collaboration is key, alongside quality research use that is embedded, purposeful, time and effort-dependent, curiosity-driven, and connected to teacher professionalism.

Access the latest Q Project discussion paper for full report and findings.

More information on the Monash Q Project, and how to get involved, is on the website.

This article was written by Lucas Walsh, a Professor of Globalisation Leadership and Policy at Monash University; and Jo Gleeson, a Research Fellow in the Faculty of Education at the same institution.  It was published by Lens.