by Finley Lawson
I have been using a design-based implementation approach to co-creating educational research since 2019 at Canterbury Christ Church University, where a cross-institutional team of teachers, researchers, and school senior leaders grapples with where and how to provide opportunities for students to become ‘epistemically insightful’ (equipped with an understanding of the nature of knowledge within disciplines and across disciplinary boundaries). Previous research by the Centre discovered that pressures within schools dampen students’ expressed curiosity in questions about the nature of reality and human personhood and limit the development of their epistemic insight into how science, religion and the wider humanities relate. We developed the Epistemic Insight Initiative to understand the kinds of interventions, tools, and pedagogies that would address the current challenges posed by a compartmentalised curriculum. The challenge we faced was how we could transform whole-school curriculum practice without removing teacher agency. We wanted to ensure that the intervention(s) met the needs and experiences of each school community, without becoming so contextualised that that the findings and approaches couldn’t be generalised to have wider applicability (and ultimately impact).
Part of our role as universities is to produce (and facilitate the production of) knowledge. As the REF puts it we should be “illustrating the benefits research delivers beyond academia, including how it brings tangible changes to aspects of society and life, and the public value it delivers”. Yet within educational research there is a perceived disjunct between the research undertaken by universities (or professional research organisations) and the research used and undertaken by teachers and practitioners in schools and other educational settings. This is highlighted in practitioner-focused literature where evidence-informed practice is often divided between desk based ‘research’ by teachers as separate from ‘academic research’ conducted by universities or research organisations – a model which emphasises the teachers’ role as a consumer rather than creator of research (Nelson and Sharples, 2017). This divide can also border on a dismissal of teachers’ ability to engage with academic research, by insisting for example that we shouldn’t “expect teachers to learn to read research” and our role as researchers should be to create “teacher-friendly research”, with the implication that this is somehow ‘less than’ academic research (Miller et al, 2010). Why is this divide important for SRHE? We are after all focused on higher education so, apart from a call to consider broader dissemination avenues for our research, why does it matter?
My answer is impact. Not solely, or even primarily, in terms of a ‘REF-able’ impact, but because we know that education research has the power to transform students’ experiences of learning and thus broaden their aspirations for higher education. Whilst there is a wealth of literature on the importance of research engagement within initial teacher education and professional development (for example see Hine, 2013; Hagger and Mcintyre, 2000; Murray et al, 2009), the question of how to ensure that the research ecosystem is reciprocal (i.e. that teachers/practitioners are viewed as knowledge producers not just consumers) is still relatively under discussed. A research ecosystem can be seen as analogous to a natural ecosystem where knowledge is transferred between stakeholders in a process that leads to the emergence of systemic change. The current challenge is to ensure that knowledge flows from teachers/practitioners into the system; Pandey and Pattnaik (2015) discuss this within a university and Godfrey and Brown (2019) within a school but there is less research on bringing these “micro-systems” together into a mutually enriching “macro-system” (although research by Connelly et al (2021) in the Irish context is promising). Educational research is about improving the opportunities and outcomes for those in education. For this to happen the change/intervention must continue to be implemented beyond an individual project, and often within the constraints of existing curricula and assessment frameworks. This means that teachers and educators need to be seen not as a resource for ‘local expertise’ but as a crucial part of the research ecosystem.
The establishment and development of a co-creation relationship across a diverse group of primary and secondary schools has taken about three years and has been led by both teachers and school senior leaders. The linchpin for these relationships has been a shared recognition of the challenges identified within the previous research, and an interest in examining how school students can be better equipped to navigate disciplinary and curricula boundaries. This shared goal means that the school and research centre aims are aligned and therefore the core data collected can be standardised across the schools, but with the addition of contextualised questions that address the specific questions of each school. These local questions alongside school-level data for the core questions are shared with the school to support their practice and development plans. As a research centre we analyse data from across the partner schools, with the advantage that, as the research addresses shared concerns, teacher engagement with the research is high. This ensures a 95% plus response rate across multiple data collection points for each cohort. Teachers and school leaders receive training on the philosophical framework underpinning the research and the learning tools but work in collaboration with the centre to develop lessons and curricula that meet the aims of the research. As researchers we act in a quality assurance role during the intervention development, which means that the teachers are at the forefront of shaping the intervention for their students and within their institutional constraints. This close collaboration means that we address two of the key features required in building research in schools (a) “a willingness to embed the research activity into existing school systems” and (b) “access to sources of expertise and advice” (Sanders et al, 2009). In one school this saw a movement from 10 teachers being involved in the initial curriculum design (plus delivery by 7 members of the senior team) to, in the second year, the entire professional development programme being restructured around research-engaged Professional Learning Communities, where staff undertook their own action-research projects. Now, in the third year, all staff including support staff are in mixed research teams as part of their professional development.
Sharp et al identify a range of benefits to schools in being research engaged, including teacher retention, raised standards and school development. The biggest impact we have noticed, shared by our partner schools, has been the combined impacts on teacher development/practice and their epistemic agency to investigate the educational questions that matter to them, empowered by an ethos that acknowledges that not every intervention will succeed. 80% of participating teachers in one school agreed that it has improved their understanding of disciplinary methods of their own discipline in relation to one they don’t teach. Across the schools, teachers have changed practice within their teaching and have been empowered to signpost students better to links with other subjects. As researchers, we have seen our work embedded in ways and places that we could not have envisioned and seen a genuine interest from schools to engage in research that required the time and expertise of sometimes the whole staff body (particularly in primary schools). This kind of impact with whole year groups, even whole schools, taking part in research-engaged curriculum interventions and redevelopment would not be possible were we using a ‘traditional’ research model that excluded co-creation. The power of co-creation is that these ‘interventions’, if they can still be called that, will continue far beyond the directly funded projects that started them, because those involved have ownership of what is taking place.
Our role now, outside the continued partnership, is to understand how we, in HE, can use our position to amplify practitioner voices, to share this practitioner research widely within the research landscape. We are still looking for the best way to support those teachers to share their research-engaged practice into teacher education directly (through knowledge exchange opportunities with students on QTS programmes) and with educational researchers. In placing practitioner research within the research landscape, we truly recognise its value within the research ecosystem and can share how generalised interventions/findings can be implemented in practice, in schools or other settings every day. We must ensure that our HE practice includes acting as a knowledge broker, supporting, and enabling the production of knowledge by the communities which HE serves and feeding that back into the wider research environment.
Finley Lawson is the Lead Research Fellow for Outreach and Schools’ Partnership, at the LASAR (Learning about Science and Religion) Research Centre at Canterbury Christ Church University, Kent. His recently-submitted PhD examines the implication of scientific metaphysics for incarnational theology (Christ, Creation, and The World of Science: Beyond Paradox). He is interested in the dialogue between STEM, Religion, and the wider humanities, and how this can be fostered in school curricula. Finley is the Lead Researcher on the OfS-funded Inspiring Minds Project. The co-created research with schools discussed here has been funded by the Templeton World Charitable Foundation and forms part of the wider Epistemic Insight Initiative. As a centre we would like to thank all the schools who have been actively involved in our research but in particular the staff and students at Astor School, Bromstone Primary School, and Wilmington Grammar School for Girls, who have been case study schools during the project and have been involved in publicly sharing their work and experiences.
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @FinnatCCCU