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An impressive range of technology enhanced projects has been developed at Shireland Collegiate Academy in the West Midlands, supported by the West Midlands Examinations Board Fund.
The 'active research' projects exemplify the Academy’s approach to using digital solutions to investigate teaching and learning and have been disseminated through a network of schools and colleges across the region.
Through close collaboration in the projects, OCR’s subject teams have been able to develop new resources, such as guidance on flipped learning, based on the findings of the Shireland projects, to benefit other schools and teachers.
Many schools are interested in learning from other practitioners’ classroom-based research, but all too often this implementation fails to replicate the impact read about in the research.
Schools lift a key concept and apply it wholesale to their cohort, thinking this approach will maximise impact whilst minimising effort.
Unfortunately this strategy usually doesn’t pay off – instead, it makes teachers and education leaders cynical about the value of research.
Here, we offer some thoughts on how to approach applying principles from research in a new context.
Too often classroom practitioners implement surface changes – providing learners with water to drink, playing music in the background during the lesson, using a particular teaching technique – without really understanding the conditions under which these changes demonstrated impact in the research, and therefore without really knowing what end result they expect from their class (or whilst expecting an entirely unrealistic impact).
Use existing school or cohort data, or collect new data, to identify and prioritise the area(s) you want to focus on. Define the scope of your work, and articulate the problem you want to solve (‘I want all my classes to behave perfectly’ might be true, but a more manageable problem might be ‘I want my most challenging year 10 boys to sustain their effort when faced with a tough question’). A specific group of students in a particular context will work best to start with.
We hope you’ll find something in our research projects which will help with the problem you’ve articulated, but if not, of course there is plenty more out there to read about. You might also contact another school with a similar demographic or need, and ask them what they’re doing that works. As you read, you should look for what question they were trying to answer, or what hypothesis they were testing. Think about whether this would be your question too, or whether you have a different idea in mind. Formulate your own research question, and look critically at whether the research method used will really answer that question or whether there are tweaks you’ll need to make. Take time at this stage to consider how you will estimate impact and how you will determine what constitutes ‘success’. Remember to consider qualitative as well as quantitative data such as student voice information, confidence measures or attendance at parents’ evening, and think about what baseline measures you want to record (and how you’ll gather this data) before starting your intervention. Both types of data are important – quantitative to help identify impact, and qualitative to help understand why something may or may not work.
To ensure you are able to confidently report on any impact from your intervention, it’s recommended that you make a comparison between two groups of pupils where as far as possible the main difference is that one group receives an intervention and the other doesn’t. It’s best if any tests are anonymised and marked blind – if possible by someone who doesn’t teach either the control or treatment group and so has no way of knowing which group a student is in.
Of course it’s important at this point to give due consideration to ethics – particularly considering whether there might be a positive or negative impact on students involved in or excluded from the research (and how any potential negative impacts might be mitigated), as well as the need to keep student data confidential or at least anonymise it before publication, and whether consent is needed. For more detailed guidance take a look here: http://www.open.ac.uk/cobe/docs/AR-Guide-final.pdf
You’ve now critically engaged with the research you want to implement, so it’s time to plan for your own implementation of the research. This phase should be focused and time-bound, just long enough to give you enough evidence to evaluate the impact of the research and think about what’s working or not. Plan time as soon as possible after generating evidence to take a step back and reflect on your project – ask some key questions of your data:
What’s happening? Is it what I expected or not? Why/why not?
Should I keep going as planned, or should I try something slightly different? Is my research question still the same?
It’s critical once you’ve completed your action research cycle to make time to engage with the evidence you’ve gathered, and really interrogate what it tells you. Did your project have the impact you expected? Do you know why? Was it for the reasons you expected? How do you know? You may find that you want to go back and gather some more data to check some assumptions, or you may feel it’s time to extend your implementation to another group, or to get another colleague on board.
If you have information to suggest that your original objectives have not been met, do not proceed to step 5, but instead work on improving your process, or consider selecting a new strategy which might have better success. It’s worth noting that if no impact is detected, this may be because the intervention isn’t working in this context (possibly due to factors related to your implementation, or maybe because it’s simply not appropriate in this context) or it may be that it is working, but the research hasn’t managed to detect this. With small numbers in one school, this can easily happen.
At this stage you are moving back to the first steps again for the new contexts you are planning to implement into. This is where innovative methods can stall and end up confined to one teacher or one group of students. Make time to discuss with colleagues the steps you went through in implementing the original research’s recommendations, and help them consider how they might want to move forward with their own classes. You might also need to consider whether any training is needed to secure buy-in by improving confidence. Make sure your expectations regarding implementation are clear, and create a system for monitoring this stage to secure transition into your school or college’s normal working practices.