How schools can engage with research and evidence

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It makes sense that the most effective teaching methods are used in classrooms, and that the most effective leadership and governance practices are used in schools, but how do educators decide on which evidence they should rely, to whom they should listen, and how they might engage meaningfully with research findings? How do we know what research is worth listening to, what is worth ignoring, and what has been debunked?

In my last post for the CEM Blog, I explored the dangers of educators accepting seemingly simple solutions to the complex problems of education. In this post I suggest five ways in which teachers, schools, and systems can meaningfully engage in research.

  1. Engage teachers in research thinking. I work with teachers and teams in my school who are involved in action research projects in their own areas, helping them to apply research methodology to their education practice. I also run small professional groups based around reading, understanding, interrogating, and acting on research. While often presented with arguments that begin with sweeping and unsubstantiated statements like ‘the research says’, teachers need to be encouraged to ask questions of research such as: Where did the studied intervention work? For whom? Under what conditions? How many participants were in the study? From what school contexts? How were data generated? What were the ethical considerations and how were these dealt with?
  2. Consider creating a research role for school, department, or district. While budget constraints might make this difficult for some schools or education departments, a role of ‘Research Lead’, ‘Head of Research’, or in my case ‘Dean of Research and Pedagogy’, can provide a conduit between a school or system and the world of education research. I have written here about some of the things I have been doing to build a research culture in my school.
  3. Build a professional reading culture for your school, district, or system. This might include subscribing to practitioner or academic journals, as well as access to research-based practitioner books or academic books. There are also affordable subscriptions, like those of the Media Centre for Educational Research Australia, the researchED Magazine, and the Chartered College of Teaching’s journal Impact. Online publications such as the EduResearch Matters blog, The Conversation and the Times Education Supplement are also vehicles used by scholars to make research accessible to education practitioners. In my Dean of Research and Pedagogy role, I publish regular Research Reports which draw together relevant recent research for staff, and make it accessible.
  4. Engage with academics and universities. This can be through professional learning or school-university partnerships in order to bridge the gap between those doing educational research, and those seeking to understand and enact it in practice.
  5. Encourage post-graduate study for teachers and school leaders. While no-one should be expected to do post-graduate study, undertaking a Masters or a doctorate gives educators a grounding in research methods, access to research literature, and access to relationships with other researchers. Schools and systems can provide incentives, such as financial support.

Evidence-based education does not need to be an embracing of simple solutions to the complexities of education. Using evidence or a research basis to help make decisions that best serve the students in our schools is about honouring teacher expertise and bringing a research lens to the teaching profession in a way that combines the best of the wisdom of practice with what research can tell us. It is by engaging with research in ways that are meaningful to their daily contexts, and drawing back the curtain to ‘see the workings’ of research, that evidence can become part of teacher professional practice, and ultimately improve outcomes for students.

More Information

Researcher, school leader, and teacher Dr Deborah M. Netolicky has almost 20 years’ experience in teaching and school leadership in Australia and the UK. She is Honorary Research Associate at Murdoch University and Dean of Research and Pedagogy at Wesley College in Perth, Australia. Deborah blogs at, tweets as @debsnet, and is a co-Editor of Flip the System Australia.

Read Dr Gary Jones’s blog post ‘Evidence-Based Practice: What it is and what it isn’t