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PhD teachers hold the key to research-informed teaching, new study shows

A new study from The Brilliant Club has shown that teachers who join the profession with a doctorate in their subject are at an advantage when it comes to interpreting education research and applying it to their teaching, with nine-in-ten reporting confidence in engaging with education research and analysing research information.

In recent years government and numerous commentators have called for wider use of education research in the classroom. While progress has been made – with teachers engaging with the Education Endowment Foundation Toolkit – a significant number of teachers still struggle to use academic literature to directly inform their classroom practice. Amid concerns about teacher workload,  some have questioned whether it is feasible for classroom teachers to engage with, often inaccessible, academic research on top of their wider responsibilities.

But the new study shows how a group of teachers with PhDs have been able to champion research use in their schools. The study involved Researchers in Schools (RIS) teachers – PhD-level subject experts on a three-year teacher training and development programme, supported by the Department for Education. The programme is designed to capitalise on participants’ prior engagement with research and to encourage them to promote effective use of education research within their schools. All RIS teachers are given dedicated support in completing the Research Leader in Education Award.

In the study, RIS participants in their first, second, and third year of teaching completed a survey from the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER). Their answers were compared to results from a representative sample of 509 teachers who completed the NFER survey as part of a pilot study in 2014. The Brilliant Club analysed the results from their participants relative to the results from the pilot study to see how the participants matched up to the wider workforce.

Key Findings:

  • The study shows that RIS teachers are particularly confident engaging with education research, with 90% of RIS teachers reporting they were confident about analysing research information, relative to 66% of non-RIS teachers.
  • RIS teachers are also very likely to see the value of using research – 60% of RIS teachers reported that academic literature was one of the most important information sources when adopting an approach to improve pupil outcomes, relative to 16% of non-RIS teachers.
  • RIS teachers are highly likely to use education research, with 83% agreeing that research information plays an important role in informing teaching practice. 69% of non-RIS teachers agreed with this statement.
  • RIS teachers get better at using education research throughout the three-year training programme. The percentage of RIS participants reporting that they found academic education research ‘very easy’ to understand increased with each year on the programme. First year participants were on par with the general teaching population (12%), increasing to 17% in the second year and 27% in the third year of the programme.
  • By the third year of the programme, RIS teachers are almost as confident in using education research to influence colleagues’ classroom practice as much more established teachers. 42% of respondents in the NFER study reported using education research to influence colleagues’ teaching practice. As one would expect, first year RIS participants were focusing on the basics of teaching, but by the first term of their third year, 38% were already reporting using education research to influence their colleagues.

Hiring teachers who are more engaged with education research has practical benefits for both pupils’ learning and teacher development. Examples of how RIS teachers have influenced their colleagues include running journal clubs within school, or leading departmental CPD on the use of homework. This enables other teachers to have a dedicated focus point for education research, which in turn will have wider benefits for teaching and learning within the school.

National Programme Director for Researchers in Schools, Kike Agunbiade, said:

“We’ve always believed that having a PhD would enable Researchers in Schools teachers to be champions for using evidence in their classrooms. This study shows how – with the right training and support – PhD subject experts can become both great teachers and advocates for education research within their schools.”

Martin Knowles, Headteacher of Essa Academy in Bolton, who has three RIS teachers in his school, currently in their second and third years of teaching, said:

“Our RIS teachers have brought an energy and enthusiasm to the staff body. Because the participants bring a deep and knowledgeable love of their subject, staff are having real, engaging subject-based discussions. The participants’ RIS educational research projects are aligned with our school needs and they are working with a member of the leadership team who is completing their NPQH to ensure that the school benefits as much as possible.”

Researchers in Schools currently has candidates ready to be placed in schools across England, in all EBacc subjects, for the 2020/21 academic year. Schools interested in hosting a RIS teacher from September 2020 should visit: www.researchersinschools.org for more information.

Methodology

In 2014, the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) announced a major funding cycle to explore the use of research evidence in schools. This evaluation included commissioning the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) to develop a baseline and outcomes Research Use Survey (RUS) to measure teacher research engagement. The pilot study involved 509 respondents from 256 schools, representative of the national picture, who were divided roughly equally by seniority.

In 2019, the pilot survey was administered to Researchers in Schools (RIS) participants. This study was not a matched control comparison. The two administrations of the survey were conducted independently of each other and sampled different populations of the teaching community. The two datasets were not merged and any observations of differences between the two samples are based on comparisons of findings; not of the data itself. The aim of the study is to emphasise the unique attributes of RIS teachers relative to the general teacher population.