Teachers’ Engagement with Research

May 2021 research of the month features Vivienne Baumfield

Vivienne Baumfield talks about her research on teachers engagement with research.

Central to the mission of Culham St Gabriel’s Research Strategy is recognition of the value of a productive relationship between research and practice in developing an evidence base on which to improve teaching and learning in RE.  However, much remains to be done to understand how teachers engage with research and how best to promote collaboration with researchers that recognises the expertise of teachers.  We need to know what kinds of research teachers use, how it is used and to what effect?  Developing such understanding is of lasting value to the professional knowledge, confidence and autonomy of present and future RE teachers.  The Teachers’ Engagement with Research project had three phases: a mapping review of published literature on general factors affecting teacher engagement with research; interviews with RE teachers to explore their experiences of using research; integration of the factors from the literature with themes from the interviews.  The outcome is a resource to guide support for RE teachers’ engagement with research.

So, what did we learn?

  • Teachers are interested in research focused on student learning matched to curriculum design as this has immediate relevance to the paradoxes and dilemmas of their everyday world. RE teachers would like greater focus on subject specific research that did not get caught up in discussions about what the name of the subject should be.
  • Access to rigorous evidence to support innovation increases teachers’ willingness to experiment in order to improve their practice, to justify their actions according to educational principles and to take ownership of change. RE teachers would welcome guidance on evaluating the aims, methods and outcomes of different types of research.  Accessible digests of research and funding for subscriptions to journals were also highlighted.
  • Deepening understanding of research does not necessarily provide answers but it does promote ‘boundary crossing’ between the domains of researchers and teachers, flattening hierarchies of knowledge.
  • It is a case of recognizing mutuality rather than similarity; teachers value alternative perspectives from researchers on situations, a ‘different set of eyes’ and working together as ‘co-learners’.
  • The conditions in school to support evidence-based change might be just as important as any efforts to communicate research evidence as schools as institutions can limit possibilities.
  • Research engagement needs to be a long-term, sustainable school improvement strategy with resources allocated to provide time for research in the working day and provision of teaching cover when necessary. Barriers to engaging with research identified by RE teachers include time, mental space and school culture.
  • Efforts to establish a research oriented culture are more likely to be successful when attention is paid to the development of school leaders.
  • Long-term partnerships with research-based institutions are beneficial provided the type of collaboration is discussed and agreed. Determining levels of autonomy and making strategies for critical friendship explicit is important.  Subject-specific organisations such as Culham St Gabriel’s, NATRE and Christian Education were mentioned as sources of support for engaging with research by RE teachers.  They also referred to key individuals, often Initial Teacher Education tutors, whose research in RE continued to be influential in their professional development.
  • We need to establish environments, hospitable spaces, in which learning conversations between teachers and researchers on the nature and use of evidence can flourish.

What next?

The project report includes full details of the mapping review enabling teachers and researchers to have an overview of what is known, what is not known and what we need to know from published sources on teachers’ engagement with research.  Most importantly, they will also be able to see how the review was conducted and evaluate its strengths and limitations.  The factors in supporting RE teachers’ engagement with research can guide the setting of priorities for future activity by research-focused institutions such as Culham St Gabriel’s, teachers and researchers who share a commitment to developing an evidence base on which to improve teaching and learning in RE.