A school's focus on educational research

Born in the United Kingdom, Greg Ashman studied physics at Cambridge University before taking up teaching. When he moved to Australia with his young family, Ashman took on a job at Ballarat Clarendon College in Victoria. He says he was immediately impressed by the school's focus on research. ‘I had encountered research before, usually through government supported national strategies, but this was something different. Clarendon make real use of research evidence rather than simply pay lip-service to it, a feature of the school that ignited an interest in me that has led all the way to me pursuing a PhD in instructional design.' It was also this interest that led him to his current role of Head of Research at the school. In today's Q&A, we find out more about the role.

Your current title of Head of Research is quite a unique role in schools. What does it entail?

There is a lot of education research out there. Much of it is not particularly helpful to practising teachers, even if it deals with some pretty big ideas. For instance, research on how to structure school systems is of little help in the classroom. Quite a lot of research that does relate to the classroom is conducted by proponents of various sociological theories. Again, it is unclear how this research implies practical consequences for teachers. So my role is to look for research that examines the impact of different strategies that teachers could potentially pursue; studies where the strategies are well-defined and where there is a rigorous approach to testing effectiveness. In particular, I seek out research that addresses the key priorities that we have identified as a school.

There are a number of guides available that attempt to summarise research for teachers; guides such as John Hattie's table of effect sizes or the Evidence for Learning toolkit. However, I believe there is risk associated in the way that these guides rank approaches based upon effect size. For instance, the effect of feedback is usually quoted as large but teachers need to bear in mind that feedback can often have a negative effect, and feedback is often misinterpreted to mean marking. In my view, there is no alternative to delving into the detail of the various studies that these figures are based upon.

What does your work involve on a day-to-day basis?

Primarily, I am a teacher. I teach senior physics and mathematics and I am also the Head of Maths. Teachers work hard in all schools, but I wonder whether they are sometimes working on the wrong things. With a little coordination, the teachers in my team are able to prepare together rather than all developing a separate plan to teach the same lesson. We also look at assessment data to evaluate the strategies that we have tried. This is the bulk of the work and it is about engaging with the fine detail rather than developing grand plans.

I also work across a number of other groups such as the English team and the teams that coordinate the work of the school at different age levels. My focus is bringing a research-informed perspective to discussions.

When was the role established at the school? What was the school's motivation behind establishing such a role?

The role was established in 2015. The principal, David Shepherd, and the vice principal, Jan McClure, had been discussing how to move the research agenda forward in the context of a school that was growing in size. At that time, and with the support of the school, I was about to embark upon my PhD research and I was enthusiastically sharing research articles with colleagues, whether they had requested them or not! So there was an element of serendipity.

In what ways do you connect and network with other educators who work in a similar capacity?

I am not aware of many educators who are pursuing quite my pathway. There are other schools with a research focus but this is often in areas that are not an identified priority for Clarendon. Instead, I gain a lot of knowledge by networking with colleagues via social media. This has the advantage of making it as easy to discuss an instructional approach with a colleague in Britain or the US as it is with someone in Victoria.

Another important development has been the emergence of researchED. This was started by a British teacher, Tom Bennett, following a discussion on Twitter in which people complained that education research conferences are expensive to attend and usually take place on weekdays when teachers are teaching. Tom organised the first ever researchED conference in Britain and it has taken off from there, becoming and international phenomenon. As a grassroots movement, researchED seeks to connect teachers with academics and both groups give research-focused presentations at its conferences. Speakers don't ask for a fee, allowing the ticket price to be kept low, and the conferences take place on a Saturday so that nobody has to ask for time off work to attend. I have been lucky enough to present at all three of the Australian researchED conferences so far and I look forward to contributing in the future.

What resources do you use to stay abreast of the latest research in education?

RSS is my friend. I look at the feeds from the major journals in education psychology and education research more generally. I scan the abstracts as they come through for anything interesting. I have also been fortunate enough to make contact with a number of researchers, some of whom curate their own blogs. These are a great source of research evidence presented in a digestible form.

I have the advantage of access to research papers through my PhD, but it is really hard for many teachers to obtain studies they might be interested in. Before I started my PhD, I would often email academics and ask for copies of their papers. Although, to their great credit, the majority would write back and provide a paper, it was time consuming and not something you would do if you were unsure whether a study would be of interest. I think the teaching profession in Australia would be better served if we could negotiate access to research through the state teaching bodies, much as teachers have such access in Scotland.

In your view, why is it important to promote research-based knowledge and services for both staff and students?

Education is the realm of myth and legend. We are the part of the map where, ‘here be dragons,' is still an accurate description. This is partly caused by the way that many academics think of educational research; they defend it from attempts to make it more scientific on philosophical grounds. However, this leaves the door open to gurus with novelties to sell and makes us susceptible to fashions.

For instance, Australian education is currently enamoured by project-based learning. A recent study by the UK's Educational Endowment Foundation reviewed the literature before running an experimental test of its own. Not only did they find little evidence from previous studies to support project-based learning, their own experiment showed potentially harmful effects, although these findings were weakened by the fact that a number of schools dropped out of the project-based learning trial. Such a result is not surprising to those who study the way that people learn and yet project-based learning is as popular as ever; on social media, at conferences and within education departments.

A better engagement with research would help schools make informed choices rather than risk following unproven trends.

As a school leader, in what ways do you support staff in accessing research-based knowledge and services?

As a teacher, which resources do you use to stay abreast of the latest educational research? Do you encounter any limitations in doing so? How do you work to overcome these challenges?