'Research literacy' key to classroom success

Teachers must be able to engage with research and innovate in the classroom to help create a world-class school system, says Joe Hallgarten

Teacher in the classroomTeacher quality matters. Around the world, every school system is asking how it can improve the quality of its teaching force as part of the continuing drive to raise standards.

According to a recent inquiry into teacher education and research conducted by the RSA and the British Education Research Association, developing and sustaining teachers’ ‘research literacy'.1

Ultimately, the four UK nations’ attempts to create world class, self-improving school systems will fail unless greater prominence is given to teachers’ engagement with research, and attempts are made to ensure that all teachers become ‘research literate’.

A self-improving system

The evidence gathered during the inquiry is clear about the positive impact that a research literate and research-engaged profession is likely to have on learner outcomes. Despite this, teachers’ experience of professional development in most parts of the UK is “fragmented, occasional and insufficiently informed by research,” in contrast to that of internationally well-regarded education systems such as Finland, Canada and Singapore. Too often, schools’ ability to make a long-term commitment to creating a research-engaged workforce is being undermined by a target culture and short-term focus on exam results.

The inquiry makes the case for the development across the UK of self-improving education systems in which all teachers become research literate and many have frequent opportunities to engage in research and enquiry. This requires schools and colleges to become research-rich environments in which to work, and teacher researchers working in partnership with the wider research community, rather than in separate and sometimes competing universes. Finally, it demands an end to the false dichotomy between higher education and school-based approaches to initial teacher education.

Research literacy matters because it will give the teaching profession the capacity to create a genuinely self-improving system, and the clout to force governments and their regulators to reduce their level of intervention. Although a research-literate profession is no magic bullet to raise standards, it might provide the glue that helps all education interventions and programmes to be more effective and productive. 

Constructive creativity

However, while these principles are necessary for current improvements, they are not sufficient to address future challenges. A genuinely self-improving education system will also require teachers to develop their capacity for systematic innovation as a necessary complement to learning the basic ‘craft’ of teaching, and ensuring that their practices are informed by up to date research.

Disciplined creativity, to generate and test new ideas and evaluate their impact on teaching and learning, needs to become a fundamental activity for all teachers, regardless of their experience and the quality of the education system they are part of. It shouldn’t be simply an add-on that is only allowed when systems and teachers go from ‘good to great’. New technologies could play a key role in delivering consistent, evidence-based training on some of the so-called basics, transforming precious teacher time to focus on very different pedagogies and priorities.

Teachers need the motivation, skills, and sense of self-efficacy to develop robust new practices that can lead to the best possible outcomes for their pupils. Although only a few teachers may ever create genuinely new knowledge, the ability to develop effective approaches that are valuable in their particular context should be at the heart of any new ‘licence to teach’ – not just a right, but a responsibility for all teachers.

In short, teachers need the power to create, and the responsibility to do this rigorously through well-designed and tough-minded projects, avoiding the ambiguity of ‘hopeful’ interventions, and harnessing currently under-used evidence about effective practices. The capacity for systematic innovation requires teachers to be more critical about what is actually working, more willing to follow guidance and advice on what works, and more ready to stop doing things which have been shown not to work.

Unleashing teachers’ individual and collective ‘power to create’ might provide more important bottom-up protection against school system fragmentation than any structural solution, at local or national levels.

Joe Hallgarten is Director of Education at the RSA

Download the BERA/RSA report: Research and the Teaching Profession: Building the Capacity for a Self-Improving Education System (May 2014)

1. By ‘research literacy’ we mean teachers’ research knowledge, skills and dispositions, as well as the capacity to integrate knowledge from different sources, including practical, first-hand experience in the classroom, scholarship in a subject discipline and the latest high quality evidence from research.


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