4 concerns with applying education research in schools and how to address them

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One of the great concerns of some teachers is school leaders going to conferences. Concerns may be aired as, “what are they [the leader] going to bring back this time for us to do.” Another concern may be of the school leader who likes to read books about education in their summer vacation. Again, concerned voices can be heard saying, “what great finding are they going to share with us and ask us to implement this time?” When education consultants and keynotes speakers are brought in to work with schools, similar types of concerned reactions can occur. Note that depending on the situation, all, most, some, or just a few teachers may display an element of concern.

So what lies behind these concerns? Here are four possibilities:

  1. Could it be that teachers are fearing yet another new initiative?
  2. Could it be that teachers do not understand why engaging in this new learning / idea / initiative is important?
  3. Could it be that teachers do not respect the educational research / ideas presented?
  4. Could it be that teachers do not view what the leader is asking them to engage with as important; the teacher(s) have other priorities?

Concern #1 relates, in part, to teacher workload and the fear of ‘not another initiative / thing we have to do’. It plays a significant role on its own or combined with any of concerns 2, 3 or 4. Workload is an issue in any school, it can never be fully addressed but good leaders can make decisions that reduce how much attention teachers pay to their workload. If teachers have seen initiatives fail before, they are most likely going to have a cynical reaction when a new initiative is next presented, as they feel their time has been wasted and time is precious.

Addressing Concern #1

For initiatives to succeed, workshops to be worthwhile and education research to be implemented, the change desired must be carefully planned by the leaders and adequate time and resources given for implementation. School leaders have to their very best to shield teachers from some of the mandated initiatives imposed by governments or other external agencies, so that their school keeps focusing on what is important.

Concern #2 justifies why Simon Sinek’s work, understanding ‘Why?’, is crucial to engagement. Teachers need to see the importance and relevance of educational research. If teachers see no reason to engage, then they are not going to and the behaviours displayed as a result make school improvement more difficult than it should be. It is crucial that teachers can also see that what they are being asked to engage with links to the school’s improvement plan.

Addressing Concern #2

If leaders of a school wish to have a focus on teachers better applying the educational research on giving effective feedback to students, then they have to start with ‘Why?’. Time must be set aside to explaining why we are having this presenter come to our school, why we are engaging with this research, why we are giving up an entire day to this and not focusing on something else.

Concern #3 stems from the contestable nature of education research and the practicalities associated with applying it in schools. Does education research matter? Education research is not an exact science, there are many ways to do things right and most teachers think that what they are doing is right because, unfortunately, they do not get enough feedback to tell them otherwise and, possibly, they do not go looking for that feedback either. So, when new ideas or ways of working are presented they request that teachers change their habits, their ways of working. We know that habits are hard to break. This matter is further complicated by the ideals that lie in the research and the fear that some teachers may have of not being able to apply the research / theory perfectly or properly. When these doubts come in, it is common to see education researchers and presenters criticized for not being in touch with the reality of life in schools or never having worked in schools. This view itself can be a massive roadblock to trying to apply research to classroom practice.

Addressing Concern #3

It is important for school leaders to cultivate an open-minded school culture of learning. There is also a strong need to breakdown the fear of teachers not being able to apply ideas perfectly and create a school culture of incremental gains and improvement rather than sweeping changes or revolutions.

Concern #4 is probably the toughest to address, as this brings out what I think is the biggest tension between teachers and leaders in schools. It lies in who decides on the priorities, the improvements that need to be made. It is not easy to build consensus in schools and rarely is it ever achieved; most consensus is achieved with less hotly debated issues. When is comes down to improving student learning, everyone in the school building has their own point of view. So who is the expert in determining what is the right work to focus on? This is perhaps the hardest challenge for schools.

Addressing Concern #4

This concern cannot be completely solved but there needs to be a balance between supporting the school’s priorities and individual teacher priorities. If leaders are faced with teachers that do not wish to support the school’s direction and goals, then direct feedback needs to be given; the difficult conversation cannot be avoided. When setting strategic direction and goals to support student learning the leaders in the school have to show flexibility in that a one size fits all approach in the application of educational research / ideas will not work for everyone and small group and individual teacher needs to do need to be met. Above all, try to make the priorities evidence based, which can help with Concern #2, which may lead a better overall understanding for why teachers should engage with this particular educational research / presentation / workshop as opposed to something else that they prefer. For example, if your leadership team feel that the teachers across the school need to improve their student questioning techniques, this should be informed by evidence from observing question and answer sessions in classrooms, so that feedback is given to teachers on why this needs to be addressed ahead of anything else.

Why raise this issue?

Educational leaders need to understand the reactions of teachers to their actions, so that they can better prevent negative responses from occurring in the first place and better address the negativity if it arises.

Huge amounts of money are spent by schools every year in sending teachers to workshops and conferences. Money gets spent on bringing keynote presenters and consultants into schools to work with teachers. Financial commitment is made to having online professional learning services or developing teacher resources libraries and paying for teachers to be members of professional associations.

A lot is gained from this investment in professional learning for teachers and providing them with the educational research to improve what they do in order to positively impact on student learning.

At the same time a lot of the money is wasted, which is inexcusable given the limited resources given to schools in the first place. We can do better.

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