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How research-informed is your teaching?

Blog: Lisa Coe, Mathematics Mastery Development Lead

How research-informed is your teaching?

Posted: 3/06/19

Development Lead Lisa Coe explores the challenges of applying research in the classroom, talks about her own experience of being a research-informed practitioner and shares her advice for how you can use the ‘best bets’ of research to become an evidence-informed teacher.

The status quo and the challenges

In recent years, teachers have begun to engage more with research, with the rise of research-driven conferences, blog posts frequently citing research papers, and teachers seeking research to back up classroom practice.

But just how challenging can it be to apply research to everyday classroom life?

Recent publications by the EEF and the NFER show that although most teachers report that their school environments are conducive to evidence-informed practice, research evidence continues to have a small impact on their decision-making in comparison to other sources of information, including their own experience. The NFER survey did not look at the reasons for this, but Hendrick and Macpherson, in their book What does this look like in the classroom? suggest that accessing research can be challenging for teachers as it often uses ‘obtuse and unnecessarily complex language’. The DfE conducted research into the use of evidence-informed practice and found that many teachers ‘did not feel confident in engaging with research’.

Churches et al, in Neuroscience for Teachers, point out that some studies, particularly around the way in which scientists believe the brain stores information, present challenges of ‘ecological validity’ – that is, just how far research conducted in a lab can be applied to the classroom.

Research findings can also be contradictory. Follow-up studies can produce different results or research can be debunked. Growth mindset, based on research by Carol Dweck, is one such example, with follow-up research questioning the validity of her findings despite teachers suggesting her approaches work in the classroom.

With all these potential barriers, why should teachers use research to inform their practice at all?

Hendrick and Macpherson do identify an advantage to engaging with research: “…what we are finding out is that children are often more similar than they are different in how they learn … and what we are now beginning to gather is a series of ‘best bets’ about effective practice in the classroom”. Although children are unique and practitioners work in a range of settings, research suggests some common threads in effective maths learning. Mathematics Mastery has used this research to develop our approach. For example, a number of studies and reports, including this EEF report, suggest that carefully considered representations, including concrete manipulatives, can be powerful tools for supporting pupils to engage with mathematical concepts. It is therefore possible to make a ‘best bet’ that using multiple representations chosen based on pedagogical principles will support the development of conceptual understanding.

How did I go about using research in my teaching?

Mathematics Mastery has developed a professional development course where participants apply research to their normal cycle of planning, teaching and reflection. A teacher will read and reflect on research around a specific idea – task design or dialogue, for example – and plan a lesson or series of lessons based on this research. I have participated in a trial of the PD course, and have applied my reflections on the implications of the research when teaching a Year 5 class.

It is important to acknowledge that what I felt was a key message may not be everyone’s experience reading the research, but I don’t think this matters. What was important was that I identified an aspect of my own practice which research suggested I could improve, and acted on this, seeking to incorporate this new idea in order to gather evidence in the classroom. This approach was successful; the pupil was able to articulate why the answer was correct without the need for a chain of ever-narrowing questions to achieve an answer. I could then gather further evidence over time, to inform if I continued with this pedagogical approach.

Being evidence-informed

Louise Stoll draws a distinction between the terms ‘evidence-based’ and ‘evidence-informed’, and I feel it is the latter that characterises the way I have approached applying research to the classroom. Evidence-informed teachers bring various forms of evidence to adapt their practice, including knowledge of their pupils, understanding of their context and external research findings. Stoll says that in this case, teachers stay in the driving seat, not the evidence; ‘evidence’ is only as useful as its enacted consequences in the classroom.

How could you be more research-informed in your practice?

  • Evaluate your own teaching practice. Identifying an area of development in your own classroom allows for purposeful, research-informed changes.
  • Know where to begin to find research: make use of resources such as the EEF Toolkits, NRICH CPD articles and our Research and Articles section in our toolkit*. You may also wish to consider becoming a member of the Chartered College of Teaching whose regular publication Impact provides further ideas for application.
  • Plan to incorporate a new idea into your practice and focus on pupils’ responses. This will provide you with evidence of what works in your setting with your pupils.
*toolkit access is only available to Mathematics Mastery partner schools. Find out more about how to join us.

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