Shifting Mindsets

Shifting mindsets – how school-based research has been transformational for children and staff

At the recent Kyra Research School Conference, James Siddle asked delegates: “Do you remember where you were when you first heard about the Sutton Trust’s toolkit?” For James, that first interaction with the document instigated a passion for research and a commitment to evidence-based practice that now runs through his school, St Margaret’s C of England Primary in Withern, like a stick of rock.

“Research was largely something you did at university and it was left behind there” says James. “Unlike in other professions such as law or medicine, robust research hadn’t – until a few years ago – had any major influence on professional discussions and planning in education.” Indeed, as delegates at the recent Kyra Research School Conference discussed, the profession is on a journey towards becoming far more research and evidence-based and St Margaret’s own inspiring story is soon likely to be reflected in many more schools up and down the county.

I begin by asking James where he was when he first came across the toolkit. “It was during a leadership development session I attended in 2010 and I remember being quite excited by the research around teaching assistant interventions – which didn’t sit with my personal experience at all. Within days I was enjoying an email debate with Professor Steve Higgins and I began to realise just how refreshing, interesting, and helpful it was to be discussing research evidence and how it related to practice in my own school.” Indeed, I remind James of the Kyra Leadership Conference in 2014 where most delegates, when asked by Sir John Dunford (at the time, National Pupil Premium Champion) whether they had accessed the toolkit, indicated that they had not. For James, and the wider alliance, it has been a rapid journey.

James’ interest in research, and specifically in the toolkit, quickly directed his attention to the importance of feedback – an area widely regarded as having the potential for bringing about significant positive improvement in pupils’ outcomes if applied and actioned with care. “I remember becoming particularly interested in how some of the evidence around feedback seemed to contradict what Ofsted was showcasing as best practice at that time. Ofsted’s emphasis on detailed marking of children’s books didn’t seem to sit well with the evidence and the toolkit’s emphasis on teacher interaction really interested me.”

It was at this point that the stars began to align towards a greater role for research in Lincolnshire’s schools. CfBT – then school improvement provider to Lincolnshire – launched a project encouraging greater collaboration and research across schools – particularly in rural areas. James and a number of colleagues embraced the opportunity with open arms – establishing a research project looking at innovative approaches to feedback. The project’s aim was to trial approaches that could potentially improve pupils’ progress across thirty four schools. It involved testing digital technology as an alternative method of providing feedback to pupils, and also included the use of blogging and peer to peer feedback amongst pupils. The research involved two groups of pupils at key stage 2. External markers were brought in to assess the impact of the teachers’ feedback and pupils also completed questionnaires, which helped to inform the school’s approach to feedback.

“What we found” says James “was a clear mismatch between our schools’ traditional approach to marking and feedback and what motivated pupils and helped to move their learning along – particularly in terms of improved writing outcomes.” There were also some clear indications that the impact of digital technology was greatest amongst pupils with special educational needs and those on free school meals and also that it was reducing teacher workload in relation to marking. The research certainly appeared to confirm the toolkit’s original findings on effective feedback. However, as James concedes, the project was ‘small scale’ and needed an opportunity to be both scaled-up and to benefit from more rigorous approaches – including the use of randomized control trial approaches.

That opportunity was not long in coming. The National College for Teaching and Leadership’s Closing the Gap Test and Learn project was seeking schools to participate in a number of small scale randomized control trials and James jumped at the chance. “Here was a chance to undertake a controlled intervention approach – building on our previous research and findings, and at a time when schools are investing in digital technology but weren’t necessarily clear on how to use it to benefit pupils. It was something we just had to be part of.”

The research ( which can be accessed here: https://nctl.blog.gov.uk/2015/11/02/closing-thegap-test-and-learn/ ) involved eleven classes from ten primary schools. This time the groups were randomly allocated, key variables were eliminated, and standardised approaches to teaching and both written and digital feedback were introduced. The study confirmed the original findings and the pupils’ view that they benefited more from digital feedback was reinforced by the RCT – which again showed greatest impact on pupils with SEND and on those wiith free school meals. There were still limitations – notably the scale of the research and the fact that the research did not take into account the specific needs of SEND pupils. There is also some interest in looking at the impact of digital feedback on pupil progress in mathematics.

James is clear about the impact that research has had on pupils and staff at St Margaret’s. “We have come a long way in the last three years. Pupil progress, achievement and engagement has improved significantly and much of that is down to the quality of interaction between staff and pupils and between pupils too. Involvement in research has been key to this. For staff, we have seen a big increase in professional confidence and much greater depth of professional dialogue and decision making. Staff won’t simply accept new research or new practices without understanding the detail behind it, how it relates to our pupils and our context, and – if they do introduce new approaches– how they will be monitored and evaluated for impact.” Indeed, James highlights his and his team’s membership of professional learning communities as being a key factor here – something which James and I have previously documented for Kyra: http://kyrateachingschool.com/professional-learning-communities-linking-cpd-to-daily-practice-michael-pain-james-siddle/

It is this impact on pupils and staff alike which lies behinds James’ passion for and belief in the Research School initiative. “It’s a chance to ensure that research has relevance to practitioners and classrooms across the country and the region” says James “in a way that has impact on children’s outcomes and changes the narrative about what it means to be a teacher. Teachers have the right to be discerning, challenging and convinced about the practices they use in their classrooms – but they also have a responsibility in helping to move research and practice forward in collaboration with their peers. Most practitioners will find that very motivating.”

James frequently refers to research as a ‘social process’ and it is clear that he wants the profession to both have ownership of the initiative and to embark on it with a strong spirit of collaboration. In doing so, they will be supported with carefully designed CPD which will give teachers the tools for translating research findings into their own context and undertaking further research based on the principles that underpin effective research. He’s also clear that the work of the Research School will be disciplined and that it will be contextualised – meaning that the research undertaken will respond to the needs of the schools taking part and that it is implemented in a way that recognises the differences with schools that have undertaken similar research in the past. “Research must be relevant – if it is to be sustained, we must use research to respond to some of the key challenges our schools are facing and maintaining our focus on where it can have greatest impact on our children’s learning and progress.”

The first step, says James, is to create a cultural shift whereby schools and practitioners are increasingly sharing research, engaged in what it says, and that those leading the way are championing and disseminating research throughout the county and the region. For James, the role of Research Champions and the growth of further professional learning communities is essential to this.

Before I leave St Margaret’s I ask James to pose for a photograph (to run alongside this article) in the main entrance hall. My attention is immediately brought to a poster, in prime position in the school’s foyer, outlining the 2015 Closing the Gap project and St Margaret’s findings on digital feedback. It represents the school’s passion for research but also its commitment to demonstrating the evidence that lies behind its work and to providing children with the very best learning opportunities. St Margaret’s has certainly showed us what will be possible when the Research School reaches its full potential.

James Siddle is Head of the Kyra Research School and can be contacted at: james.siddle@st-margarets-pri.lincs.sch.uk

Michael Pain was speaking with James.

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