In the last post I concluded, based on a survey of 223 teachers, that teachers’ positive attitudes towards reading academic research on teaching were not always matched by their behaviour in real life. The remainder of the survey contained two questions which may help us to explain why this disparity exists. One set of questions asked about how ‘easy’ teachers found it to build academic research they have read into their practice. Another asked how ‘effective’ they have found it when they do.
Academic research is not always easily accessible to even the interested outsider. Evidence also suggests that the approaches and engagement of non-specialists with such material is highly variable. In addition, research is often presented in fairly abstract terms, or based on experimental designs which have few obvious connections to a real classroom. It may be, therefore, that despite generally positive attitudes towards the use of research, teachers actually don’t find it very easy to apply what they read to life at the coal face.
A second possibility is that teachers do not find it difficult to apply the findings of research, but that they simply don’t find them very effective. There are many plausible reasons why this might be the case. The research could have come from a different educational setting (a rural, single-sex grammar school can be a very different place to a mixed, urban comprehensive), used slightly different resources, or staff may have had different training. Whilst no finding is a silver bullet and we should be patient when evaluating any new idea or technique; education is a multi-factorial game with a huge number of things that teachers could be potentially be working on to improve results. They will, and should, only have patience with any new ideas for so long if they don’t see results (unless there is very strong evidence that results will emerge slowly over time).
I therefore asked teachers how easy they had found it to build research findings into their practice, based on what they had read. A separate question asked them how effective they had found this when they had done so. As with the previous questions, respondents were separately asked about reading both research papers themselves, and research summaries/digests.
My initial hypothesis when considering these questions was that teachers would find summaries of academic research easier to build into their practice than the research papers themselves (though not necessarily more effective).
Bearing in mind the caveats of the previous post about the very unequal group sizes here, I am again struck by the relatively consistent ratings across sectors. Collapsing the different types of school together and analysing the difference between research and summaries in each case, we find that for ease of use there is a significant difference between the groups (Research: M=4.98, SD= 1.76; Summaries: M=5.60, SD=1.75; t=4.251, p=<0.0001), suggesting that for the majority of respondents, it has been easier to apply summaries of research findings to their practice that it has when reading the research papers themselves. This is not necessarily surprising; the summaries may well have been written with teachers in mind and with a specific focus on translation into the classroom, whereas the research papers may not. Still, it is an important point in terms of suggesting future directions of the evidence-based teaching movement.
Comparing the effectiveness of the two sources of information, there is a marginally significant increase in the ratings for summaries, compared to research papers, but this is not as strong as the previous trend (Research: M=5.33, SD= 1.89; Summaries: M=5.60, SD=1.75; t=1.974, p=0.05). Further work would be needed to be more confident that teachers actually did find research summaries more effective (and of course judgements of what is meant by the term ‘effective’ may well vary widely).
Discussion of findings
For me, perhaps the most important result of the survey was the response to question “Would you be in favour of receiving digests or summaries of educational research, containing evidence-based suggestions for teachers to try?” This received very positive responses across all sectors:
The wording of the question here to some extent presupposed that this was something that the respondent was not receiving already, which may of course not be the case. I assumed, however, that if this was the case then they would probably give a low score. The fact that the mean scores were so high, and the number of people providing high ratings (2/3 of the sample answering 8 or above), is especially noteworthy.
Demanding a better supply
My main conclusion from this exercise is that there is a real demand amongst teachers for empirical information on their craft, but a shortage of material providing this. The demand seems to be lacking a supply. There is clearly an openness to engage with empirically tested ideas about teaching practice, and an appetite for these to be communicated to teachers. However, for whatever reason, they are not getting through. How can we make sure that fantastic resources such as the EEF are not preaching to the choir, but out there finding new converts? Is this something that could be publicised by organisations with a wide reach such as the TES? An EEF newsletter to all schools (the EBTN already do something similar, but on a smaller scale)? One thing that would guarantee it instant traction would be an OFSTED recommendation. This raises its own questions about whether top-down mandates are the best way to disseminate this kind of information, rather than hoping/assuming that popularity will slowly bubble up from below. It would be interesting to hear the thoughts of other teachers and researchers on these questions (or any of the other aspects of these last two posts).
In retrospect, there are a number of questions that I didn’t ask in the survey, which I now wish I had.
- A question about the most common reasons why teacher might not read academic research even though they might want to.
- A question such as “How aware of you of the research base behind the strategies you use in the classroom?” or perhaps “How common is it for you to consider a teaching strategy, at least in part, because of research findings?”
Perhaps a lot of the strategies in use in classrooms are evidential already. It would have been useful to have a baseline figure for teachers’ awareness of the existing evidence base behind their preferred methods. These are issues that I would like to look at further at some point.
John S. Zeuli, How do teachers understand research when they read it?, Teaching and Teacher Education, Volume 10, Issue 1, January 1994, Pages 39-55, ISSN 0742-051X, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/0742-051X(94)90039-6