School Leaders and Research Culture

Introduction

High performing educational systems have a culture of research and are characterised by inquiry and evidence-based decision making. Within these education systems, school leaders and classroom-based educators are research literate – they are able to research their own practice as well as engaging with the research of others.

Why is a school-wide research culture important?

In research-rich and self-improving education systems

  • All learners are entitled to education that is informed by research
  • All teachers are entitled to work in environments that are research rich and support their own development of research literacy as well as their capacity to undertake research
  • Teachers have a responsibility to develop their research literacy to inform their practice
  • Teachers have opportunities to conduct research and collaborate with others
  • (BERA-RSA, 2014, p. 7)

The implications are that high-performing schools must have a research culture that fosters these important characteristics. A school-wide research culture requires and enables all teachers and school leaders to have research literacy. It has an ethos that fosters and encourages all educators to engage with and in research both individually and collaboratively.  

What is research literacy?

The first step to developing a research culture in a school is to understand the nature and importance of research literacy. The term research literacy refers to educators’ familiarity with research methods and their knowledge of contemporary research findings and the implications of research for school-based practice and policy. When educators are research literate, they are able to confidently, competently, and critically engage with and in research (BERA-RSA, 2014).

In short, research literacy is essential to the professional identity of educators in the 21st Century:

Figure 1. Dimensions of teacher effectiveness and teachers’ professional identity
(BERA-RSA, 2014, p. 10)

What are the benefits and outcomes of a culture of research?

Schools that we have worked with over recent years have steadily developed a research culture that permeates decision making and empowers the educators within them. The benefits to these schools include

  • Context-specific evidence to support decisions, programs, pedagogical frameworks, and staffing
  • Greater engagement by teachers in research, critical reading of research papers, and shared collegiality
  • Enhanced pedagogical processes and curriculum frameworks
  • Increased sense of belonging and empowerment of teachers and middle leaders

One of the most important reasons for developing a school-wide research culture is that when supported by school leaders, educators who engage in and with research have the capacity to impact on school improvement (Mincu, 2015).

What is needed on the part of school leaders?  

In our experience, the most important contribution a school leader can make to the development of a culture of research is to encourage and support educators within their school to engage in and with research. In the early stages of a school’s research journey, school leaders often participate in the practitioner research program alongside teachers. This achieves several important goals:

  • It immerses the leader in the research process and provides the opportunity to develop their own research literacy
  • It demonstrates to teachers that the school leader values the time and energy teachers are committing to research
  • It builds understanding and collegiality among teachers and school leaders

In addition to a willingness to support and encourage teachers to undertake their own research, school leaders need a willingness and flexibility to accept the research ideas or ‘wonderings’ that teachers have and to support their research goals. Again, in our experience, this is empowering for teachers but more importantly, it gives leaders an opportunity to have meaningful and deep conversations with teachers about their practice and how their research aligns and supports school priorities.

What are some common models used by schools with a culture of research?

Our approach is always to work with school leaders to learn about their school context and the educators in their school. There are many possible models and most schools work to build them over a period of years. The most common models that we have seen include

  • Professional Learning Communities or Communities of Practice involving all educators in the school in working collaboratively on research projects aligned with school priorities
  • Practitioner research projects conducted across a school year individually, in pairs or triads to focus on researching an identified aspect of professional practice
  • Action research either in teams or individually to focus on a specific set of research goals and engage in a series of cycles of inquiry over a short or longer period of time
  • Action learning – research is less formal and usually conducted in groups who share common professional interests

In the beginning, it is important that school leaders have some long term goals but also a willingness to adapt and modify in response to the experiences and outcomes at each step of the journey.

What are the outcomes of embedding a culture of research in schools?

Some of the key outcomes we have noticed over the years we have worked with practitioner researchers are

Classroom-based outcomes

  • Physical outcomes (e.g., changes to classroom layout)
  • Teaching and learning approaches (within some classes)

Student-centred outcomes

  • Subject-specific (related to mandated curriculum)
  • Non-subject-specific (cross-curricular in nature)
  • Affective outcomes (e.g., engagement, self-regulation, positive behaviour)

School-wide outcomes

  • School-wide change to teaching and learning approaches (e.g., differentiation, digital pedagogies)
  • Logistical change (e.g., new management structure and roles, employment of additional teachers, extended non-contact time for teachers)
  • Introduction of further training and professional development for staff

Beyond school outcomes

  • Dissemination of research (e.g., journal articles, conference or workshop presentations)
  • Sharing and adoption of resource materials or new approaches (e.g., in school districts, via online media)
  • Adoption of programs or other findings by other schools within school districts (e.g., literacy enhancement programs, teacher research programs); or nationally and internationally (e.g., growth mindset development materials)

Conclusion

When schools have a culture of research, teachers are empowered and are able to engage in evidence-based decisions that lead to school improvement. Sometimes a research culture develops slowly and like any change, the pace depends on numerous factors. Schools have their own unique contexts, staff, students and communities and the most effective approach is one that aligns with the context. Leaders who are enthusiastic and supportive of the educators in their schools engaging in or with research are already on the road to developing a culture of research in their schools. The outcomes for both individual educators as well as students, colleagues, and the school more broadly are both varied and valuable.

References

BERA-RSA. (2014). Research and the teaching profession: Building the capacity for a self-improving education system. Retrieved from https://www.bera.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/BERA-RSA-Research-Teaching-Profession-FULL-REPORT-for-web.pdf

Mincu, E. M. (2015). Teacher quality and school improvement: What is the role of research? Oxford Review of Education, 41(2), 253-269.