Sunday, 11 September 2016

Research in the classroom - Reflections from ResearchED

At ResesarchED this weekend, teachers, academics and 'others' gathered to share, debate and present ideas around research in education, schools and classrooms. 

One of the sessions I attended was presented by James Murphy (@horatiospeaks) the title of which was 'Research design you can use in the classroom'. The title resonated with me, as I have been thinking a lot recently about enquiry and research, particularly with the #SCELenquire events coming up soon, here, for which I am doing the keynote for the Edinburgh event, but also leading a learning conversation at each of the other events.

At GTCS, we are strongly focused on teacher professionalism and teacher identity, and how to support teachers to engage with research to develop an ‘enquiry as stance’ disposition through undertaking practitioner enquiry and other activities. One of the issues with this aspiration, is how to make enquiry and research meaningful but manageable for teachers, so they can engage with research to inform their practice but also generate their own research. So off I went to James’s session to try to find out more about how to support teachers research in their classrooms.

James's session challenged the myths about the need for large scale research in classrooms and offered a discussion on single subject 'quasi-experimental' research design to support teachers to be consumers and creators of research. 

Large scale research like random control trials (RCT), I would suggest are not the way forward, as for teachers they have more limitations than benefits. Firstly, there would be an issue with scale. The sample size would not be practical i.e. the number of participants needed would be in the thousands, this is unmanageable both in terms of access to that number of participants but also the time involved in doing such research. Secondly, cost, both monetary and time, for RCT is prohibitive for teachers. Finally, the depth of analysis i.e. separating out the variables is very difficult, RCT usually reports on a whole programme, not one variable, making this type of research very difficult given the multiplicity of factors that influence people and learning.

Quasi-experimental research, to use James’s description can be used by teachers in classrooms to enquire into and inform practice. There can be limitations with this type of research as these enquiries can have limited transfer. There is also an issue with the sample size, as it can range from a few individuals to a whole class, so can it be valid research? I would argue that it is valid, if it is contextualised and informs the teachers’ practice to support improved outcomes for young people and children with whom they support. To increase validity and the possibility of transfer, it would be valuable to be able to replicate the intervention/strategy. It is the responsibility of the teacher when they share their enquiry to describe their intervention/strategy clearly enough, for replication for themselves and other teachers. The data collected may also be questioned as often enquiry in classrooms relies on qualitative data. Qualitative data can be interpreted differently depending on the researchers’ bias, so it may be of interest to other teachers but it needs to be understood that the impact is highly contextualised with these pupils, within that classroom, at that time. There is also a further caution in that the relational data generated may show correlation between the intervention and impact, but without further study it does not give causation. Correlation taken as causation, can be dangerous, so in sharing and reporting findings teachers must acknowledge the limitations of their enquiry. Another consideration when carrying out an enquiry is the ethical dimension. The removal of an intervention/strategy to have replication has ethical implications, if we have removed an intervention/strategy where we have some evidence that works, it would be unethical to remove this just to show correlation or causation, depending on the research question. Using control groups also has ethical implications, I suggest it would be unethical to prevent one group of pupils receiving an intervention/strategy, that has some evidence that works to show impact and causation. An alternative to this would be to use students as their own control, this allows isolation of the variable and the teachers to do a comparable study of pupils, before and after the intervention/strategy as evidence of impact.

To finish the session James offered a simple enquiry framework, see below.

I would add to this the literature review, which should underpin any enquiry. Once the enquiry question has been defined, the teacher should find out what is already known about this. If you are a GTCS registrant, you can access academic journals and ebooks through the GTCS website, here, to help you.

I was asked to say why I was attending ResearchED, I wrote, I want to learn about new ideas and methods to support teachers to become enquiring practitioners and research informed’, I think this session perhaps did not give me anything new, but made me ask more questions about how the GTCS can support teacher professionalism and teacher identity through helping teachers to engaging with research and enquiry.

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