How I became the leader of evidence in my school

Jodie Lomax is a teacher at Culcheth High School. Here she writes about her journey towards becoming a research lead – a relatively recent role in some schools that requires them to be the main facilitator for driving evidence and research use in the classroom.

Between 2013–2015, Culcheth High School experienced a tumultuous period, going through four headteachers and many senior leadership changes. This ‘led to the school lacking direction and being without focused leadership’ (1). September 2015 saw a new lease of life injected into our school community. We had a new senior leadership team, with Chris Hunt being appointed as headteacher; and collectively, the leadership team embarked on a mission to change the culture of the school to ensure that all members of the school community could live up to the school’s motto of being ‘the best that we can be’.

Having joined the Teacher Development Trust (TDT) in 2015, we went on to achieve the Bronze CPD Quality Award, a clear reflection of the commitment made to put professional development at the forefront of the school improvement agenda. However, more needed to be done; and in order to sustain incremental change and improvements, the SLT decided to appoint a research lead to further support development of teaching, learning and assessment through evidence-based research and best- practice studies.

My journey

During the summer of 2016, I somehow found my way onto EduTwitter. Twitter was not a platform I was unaccustomed to, but I was curious about the movement I had been hearing so much of. I was immediately inspired by the largely altruistic online education community. I read about Rosenshine’s ‘Principles of Instruction’(2). I saw ‘cognitive load theory’ being discussed and I was introduced to the incredible work of the Learning Scientists. I was hooked. This all seemed so simple. So obvious to a degree! Why had I not been taught this during my teaching practice?

During staff meetings and professional development sessions, SLT were increasingly referencing evidence and research to rationalise school policies and procedures. There was an underlying tone of ‘research engagement’ and the tide of CPD at CHS was changing. I was introduced to the likes of Dylan Wiliam, Rob Coe and Daisy Christodoulou. Finally, things were beginning to become clear. It was a light bulb moment in my teaching career.

I knew that engaging with research would help me to become a better teacher and enable my colleagues to make better, informed decisions about their own practice.

When the role of research lead was advertised, I knew straight away: this was the role for me. Having worked with trainee teachers for a number of years, I had developed a passion for teacher improvement and I was frustrated to find that some ITT programmes were simply not moving forward. Trainees were engaging with lesson plans that required them to record which ‘learning style’ their activity would meet and each lesson saw at least three objectives and three outcomes as ‘non- negotiable’ requirements. I knew that engaging with research would not only help me to become a better teacher but also enable my colleagues to make better, informed decisions about their own practice. Simply put, engaging in research is empowering! Being the research lead has truly revolutionised my teaching. Now I focus on teaching. I focus on the learning that takes place. I focus on assessing that learning and knowing the best ways to plug any gaps.

This was a brand-new role and I was incredibly fortunate that I was given the autonomy from Chris Hunt (headteacher) and Adam Brown (AHT responsible for professional development) to make this role my own. I got to work and immersed myself in Tom Bennett’s report on The School Research Lead published by the Education Development Trust. This report gave me a really clear picture of what my role could be and the kind of things that I should prioritise in order to pursue the development of an evidence culture at Culcheth High School. I consider myself to be the ‘auditor’ who is tasked with ‘evaluating the whole school’s relationship with current research, and then using that baseline evaluation to generate targets and a vision for where the school needed to be’.(3)

My first priority was to introduce my colleagues to the fundamental principles of what makes great teaching and the ‘must-read’ research in a way that was timely and accessible. The newly designed #AlwaysLearning page was born – a portal that contains a range of research summaries, full papers and relevant blogs/articles. This included papers such as What Makes Great Teaching?(4), Rosenshine’s ‘Principles of Instruction’ and Sweller’s study on cognitive load theory(5). The portal now includes hundreds of reading materials that staff can access during #AlwaysLearning sessions, as well as in their own time, should they so wish.

I later developed the #AlwaysLearning newsletter, which was published termly in order to provide staff with ‘research bites’ and practical ideas of how this research could be put into practice. This evolved into a ‘reading briefing’ that would take place on alternate Thursday mornings, allowing staff to collaborate with peers in order to discuss and debate a range of reading materials and consider practical ways to transfer evidence into practice. Now, we are not only engaging with research but also engaging in research by adopting the PICO format (6), originally designed for evidence-based medicine, as a fundamental part of our whole school CPD programme.

A massively reduced workload, rising staff morale and consistently improving results are clear evidence that avoiding silver bullets and using research evidence is having a positive impact on teaching and learning in our school.

Over the last two years, the school leadership team have worked tirelessly to ensure that teacher development really is ‘the main thing’(7). In our last inspection, Ofsted found that ‘teachers are provided with a well thought out programme of ongoing training which has the teachers’ standards at its core … where pupils and staff can flourish’. We have been awarded the Silver CPD Quality Award by the TDT, who noted that ‘effective professional development includes significant engagement with external expertise and research to support and challenge practice. There have been many initiatives to support engagement with external providers, including the #AlwaysLearning page, appointment of the school research lead, and the research element within coaching plans.’ Most recently, CHS featured in the Parliamentary Review 2017/18, which highlighted the fact that ‘professional development at Culcheth High School takes an evidence-based approach’. This level of feedback is a true testament to the positive impact that a research lead can have on moving towards a culture where everything that you do is supported by evidence.

In 2017, I was awarded the Accomplished Lesson Study Practitioner Award accredited by Sheffield Hallam University in conjunction with the TDT. This programme offered me an insight into how the lesson study process can aid teacher engagement with research. I was tasked with designing and implementing a ‘lesson study’ programme that fitted in with the context of our school and our professional development needs. This provides colleagues with dedicated time to engage with research, collaborate with peers and aim to put evidence into practice and evaluate what works. Feedback has been positive and colleagues particularly enjoy the opportunity to collaborate with their peers and explore.

Where are we going?

Colleagues have recently completed an evaluation survey into their own research engagement inspired by the evaluation tools recommended by the Chartered College of Teaching. 93% of colleagues reported that they are aware of how and where to access appropriate research materials. 85% of colleagues reported that they have an ‘evidence mind-set’ and are conscious of the need to engage with evidence to improve practice, whilst 83% reported that their increasing engagement with evidence and research is improving their practice. A large proportion of colleagues said that they wanted to be given more time – more time to engage in collaborative research with peers, more time to put evidence into practice and more time to evaluate their own practice, using research to drive their practice forward.

The governing body and SLT, in consultation with the school community, have shown huge commitment to driving our evidence-informed school improvement agenda forward by changing the structure of the school timetable: students leave school an hour early one day a fortnight and this time is purely dedicated to #AlwaysLearning and collaborative engagement with research and evidence. This is a clear reflection that embedding evidence-informed professional development is absolutely ‘the main thing’; and a massively reduced workload, rising staff morale and consistently improving results are clear evidence that avoiding silver bullets and using research evidence is having a positive impact on teaching and learning in our school.

As Simon Smith (@smithsmm) wrote in his recent blog, ‘quality research should inform our practice but we need to be wary of assuming there is a silver bullet’. He argues that ‘when teachers are more knowledgeable about what works, that can only be good for schools’. However, as a school it is crucial that we always remain ‘healthily sceptical’. It is only through scepticism can we evoke change.


References

1. The Parliamentary Review (2018) The Parliamentary Review 2017/18 – secondary education: north west. Available at: www.goo. gl/1Tmftz

2. Rosenshine, B. (2008) ‘Principles of instruction: research-based strategies that all teachers should know’, American Educator 36 (1) pp. 12–39.

3. Bennett, T. (2016) The school research lead. Reading: Education Development Trust.

4. Coe, R., Aloisi, C., Higgins, S. and Major, L. E. (2014) What makes great teaching? London: The Sutton Trust.

5. Sweller, J. (1988) ‘Cognitive load during problem solving: effects on learning’, Cognitive Science 12 (2) pp. 257–285.

6. Jones, G. (2015) ‘The school research lead and asking better questions – part one’, Evidence Based Educational Leadership [blog]. Available at: www.goo.gl/9he4WB

7. Covey, S. (2004) The 8th habit: from effectiveness to greatness. New York, NY: Free Press.