Developing research capacity in teachers

Using educational research to promote professional learning is the focus of the ‘Hard to Reach, Hard to Teach' initiative. Led by the Anton Andover Teaching School Alliance in England, the program has enabled a group of experienced primary school teachers to become practitioner researchers, focusing on strengthening their practice and improving outcomes for students. Program facilitators Dr Hilary Emery and Dr Neil Saunders share their experiences of working with these teachers.

Practitioner research is a workplace-focused opportunity for teachers to engage in and with educational research related to their professional concerns and interests.

It provides an opportunity for ‘critical enquiry aimed at informing educational judgement and decisions in order to improve education action'. (Bassey, 1999).

‘Hard to Reach, Hard to Teach' was a two term research and development program led by the Anton Andover Teaching School Alliance in Hampshire, England, and supported by UK charity the Laurel Trust.

The context for ‘Hard to Reach, Hard to Teach' was provided by Teaching Schools, a framework developed in the UK following the government White Paper The Importance of Teaching (Department for Education, 2010). We were program developers who worked with Anton Andover Teaching School to formulate the program, and then acted as facilitators and critical friends for the program.

Teaching Schools are increasingly recognised as part of a developing school-led system (Hargreaves, 2012). They reflect thinking on joint practice development (Sebba, Kent & Treganza, 2010) and how practice can and does develop, showing that conventional approaches to dissemination of ‘good practices' are of limited impact in genuinely driving professional development.

Our experience is that the Teaching School model provides a potentially useful framework within which practitioner research can be successfully developed.

Program design and implementation

Developing research capacity within the Alliance involved providing motivated teachers with an opportunity to share and build upon their professional expertise.

An underlying theme of the program was the intention to enable participants to become more familiar with research findings relevant to their particular areas of interest and to apply them to their own research design and development of evidence-based practice. The inter-relationship of practice and theory was seen as critical in deepening professional understanding and building reflection and analysis into daily practice.

With this thinking in mind, teachers from the Alliance were invited to an information meeting to explore the proposed scope and structure of the program and how their learning would be supported. Twelve teachers from eight primary schools, including one special school and two headteachers, enrolled on the program and completed it successfully.

The 30-week program began with two full-day workshops, which we led and facilitated. The first day focused on exploring key research findings relevant to the overall focus. This was a chance for practitioner networks to be established as initial ideas for personal enquiries began to emerge.

This was followed by the second day workshop, when the research process was considered and individual enquiries began to be designed. We introduced essential thinking about research design, ethics, data gathering and analysis, and consideration of initial ideas about eventual dissemination of findings.

Over the following six months participants met regularly in focused seminar groups which Neil led. These helped to ensure the momentum of enquiries were sustained and progress in the research process maintained. The seminars were an important opportunity for continuing mutual support, and as relationships deepened, trust built and thinking was extended.

A change to learning provision or pedagogy

The focus on improving pupil outcomes implied change to learning provision or pedagogy.

Participants were encouraged to identify ‘baseline' data relevant to the context and monitor and track changes systematically over time, whilst being careful to maintain objectivity. For some participants the challenges of handling qualitative data was a particularly steep, but important learning curve. Most enquiries adopted an ‘action research' approach that enabled practitioners to focus upon identified problems and their resolution and the collection and analysis of relevant data.

Whilst supporting the engagement of participants in the research process was vital, so too was the emphasis given to the need for eventual dissemination of findings. This was an ongoing process for participants through internal sharing within their own schools. In addition, all participants successfully completed a concise report at the end of their enquiries. These are available on the Anton Andover Teaching School Alliance website.

The dissemination process also included a local conference, at which participants were able to share their finding and discuss their implications both within their own school and potentially more widely across the Alliance. The Alliance was also represented at a national dissemination conference organised by the Laurel Trust.

Using research to inform practice

We took the idea of using a series of lenses to consider the various aspects of using research to inform practice. Initially, participants explained the challenges and concerns they had about teaching and reaching the children causing them concern: talking about why it was a problem, what they had tried already, and what, if any, research evidence and ideas had informed their work. We were careful to acknowledge these were live concerns with which they were actively and professionally engaging. They were encouraged to explore with one another the issues, possible causes and implications for practice.

Our second lens focused on what national and international research shows about ‘hard to teach, hard to reach' (Boag-Munroe and Evangelo, 2010) and ‘closing the gap in educational achievement', including the debates about Leon Feinstein's research (2015); looking at definitions, causes and effects. Using these insights we encouraged participants to extend their understanding of their challenges and possible implications for practice. They considered how pre-conceptions may influence our interpretations of issues; for example whether families and children find help that is offered ‘hard to accept' rather than them being innately ‘hard to reach' (Landy and Menna, 2016).

This led into the third lens, focusing on how values and beliefs influence teaching and learning, including consideration of the ideas behind ‘growth' versus ‘fixed' mindsets and the implications for practice (Dweck, 2015). For the fourth lens, participants grouped their challenges into themes, considering how these related to the various groupings that researchers had proposed. The fifth lens focused on the evidence with reference to the themes and specific issues participants wanted to address, noting where research cited evidence of impact effectiveness and sustainability.

We invited participants to evaluate the research, including consideration of relevance, rigour, replicability and independent review (US Education Dept, 2004). This included consideration of examples of poor research that may have gained popular currency and the benefits and risks in using original research reports versus secondary sources; encouraging a questioning approach.

The group then formulated their own criteria for evaluating research:

  • Quality and rigour – especially in original research to consider: peer reviewed; replication; other examples of similar research; any counter evidence; expertise of the researchers; nature and quality of methods; types of data collected and used; interpretation of the data;
  • Objectivity – any vested interests; political or populist bandwagons; untested but handed down;
  • Accuracy versus simplification – possible risk in secondary sources such as research summaries, meta-analyses and references to research in texts; check more than one source;
  • Credibility and status – original researchers, authors of summaries and texts, reviewers;
  • Relevant and representative – age/background of children; country/location e.g. urban, coastal, rural; relevance to teachers'/school's context, interests, needs: does it answer your question?
  • Do-ability – sufficient information about what to do and how to implement faithfully; training information practical; accessible for most practitioners;
  • Affordability and practicality – initial and on-going costs; sustainable and cost effective.

The sixth and final lens was to focus on formulating research questions, identifying relevant research and considering how it might be implemented and evaluated in their context.

Evaluating the impact and influence of the program

The evaluation of impact and influence of professional learning is an important aspect of any professional development program. For this program, the external evaluation was undertaken by a local headteacher and focused particularly on the program's impact using Guskey's (2000) model of evaluation.

The evaluation reports ‘overwhelmingly positive participants' reactions to the programme'. Participants' learning is reported as ‘a significant feature of the project'. This is particularly encouraging given the varied, but generally limited research experience of participants at the start of their engagement in the program.

This initiative encouraged participants to focus very specifically on a small group of pupils. In some instances this was only one or two pupils. It seems to have been successful in encouraging depth rather than width, and avoiding inevitable shallowness in enquiries.

In instances where two or three teachers from the same school worked together on an enquiry this was effective. It provided an opportunity for mutual support and ongoing shared discussion. The active involvement of headteachers as program participants also worked well.

Sustaining development

Sustaining the longer-term development and influence of practitioner research is now the challenge for the Alliance. The success of this program, and particularly the development of the teachers involved is being nurtured in several ways.

Since completing their research most participants have become ‘Research Associates' within the Alliance. This designation recognises their experience within the locality and in the longer term their contribution to further local initiatives. The intention is to further develop collaborative research partnerships within the Alliance based upon whole-school teams.

Such an approach would reflect the successful work seen in schools that work to achieve shared goals in a culture that values adult learning with a focus upon improving pupil outcomes. It reflects how individual, team and organisational development need to go hand in hand to achieve long-term improvement in educational outcomes.


Bassey, M. (1999) Case Study Research in Educational Settings. Maidenhead: OU Press

Boag-Munroe, G and Evangelou, M. (2010) From hard to reach to how to reach: A systematic review of the literature on hard-to-reach families, in Research Papers in Education, 1–31, I, Routledge.

Department for Education (2010) The Importance of Teaching. London : DfE

Dweck, C. (September 2015) Carol Dweck Revisits the 'Growth Mindset' Education Week, London.

Feinstein, L. (2015) Social Class differences in early cognitive development: a response from Leon Feinstein, Longitudinal and Lifecourse Studies Volume 6, Issue 4, pp.476-483.

Guskey, T.R. (2000) Evaluating Professional Development. London : Sage Publications

Hargreaves, D. H. (2012) A self-improving School System: Towards Maturity. Nottingham: NCSL

Landy, S. ‎ AND Menna, R. (2006) Early Intervention with Multi-risk Families: An Integrative Approach, Paul Brookes Publishing, USA.

Sebba, J., Kent, P. and Treganza, J. (2010) Joint Practice Development: What Does the Evidence Suggest are Effective Approaches? Nottingham : NCSL

US Education Department (2004) The Journal.

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

As a starting point, this program encouraged teachers to explore their challenges and concerns. Think about your own context and student progress. What would you like to tackle? Why is it an issue? What have you already tried? What, if any, research evidence and ideas have informed what you’ve already done?