Teachers don’t have the time to do research?

Working with teachers to understand research mobilities in primary literacy education in turbulent times

May 31 2022

Petra Vackova

COVID-19 | Primary literacy | Research | Teachers

When we launched our Research Mobilities in Primary Literacy Education research project we knew that listening to and thinking together with teachers must be at its core. In the current turbulent educational climate, in which teachers are dealing with the effects of a COVID-19 pandemic, it is more important than ever to come together, to talk, and to learn from teachers about what we can do to support and build a strong, equitable, and forward-looking education system for all. Reading worrisome newspaper and magazine headlines that teachers are “overwhelmed and exhausted” and teachers are “buckling up under strain,” or hearing directly from teachers that their workloads have tripled as colleagues are off-sick or quitting due to rising pressures, we knew that getting teachers to commit to yet another project, adding another to-do-item to their already long list, would not be easy. Nevertheless, more than 30 teachers at different career stages and with different roles have already signed up to take part in our project. Some of these have been teaching for many years while others are newly qualified. Some are Literacy leads, others are headteachers or have other roles. Many share a passion for English and literacy. Attending our workshops in between meetings, after work, and taking time away from family, these teachers have engaged with us in future-looking discussions about the intersection of research and literacy education, demonstrating the considerable enthusiasm and commitment that teachers dedicate to their roles and to education even at the most difficult of times.

And so we are here, in the midst of the exciting first phase of our Research Mobilities in Primary Literacy Education project in which we are talking with teachers about their experiences of accessing, exchanging and conducting research, while still recruiting more. The challenges facing teachers today are plentiful and real, yet they are finding the time and energy to share their experiences with other teachers, researchers and stakeholders to reinvigorate current debates about the relationship between primary literacy research and practice.

The teachers taking part in our project are collectively discussing and carefully logging how, when and where they encounter research in primary literacy and/or English. The goal is to produce a rich dataset on the complexities of teacher’s experiences of research that illuminates the scope, nature, and mediation of teacher’s encounters with research within formal and informal contexts. The aim of this first phase is to explore how literacy research moves to and between teachers, which research gains traction and which does not, and the role played by different brokers (e.g., charities, influencers, algorithms) in helping research to travel through complex and intersecting networks within the field of primary literacy.

In this research we are discussing various aspects of research mobilities in focus groups and interviews. We are also asking teachers to collect examples of ‘encounters’ with research, using a method inspired by the lifelogging methods of Alberto Frigo (2017). We wanted an approach that would take as little time as possible, that would fit easily alongside teachers’ many other commitments and that teachers could adapt to suit their personal preferences. We have therefore asked them to log any times in which they feel they are engaging with/in, accessing or drawing on research. They are doing this in whatever way suits them. Some are taking photos, others are simply making lists, and others are using apps such as Jamboard and Notability. One participant has taken up a one-second everyday video diary. Teachers are then meeting up with other teachers to share and reflect on their encounters and their relationship with primary literacy research.

As is clear from what teachers have told us so far, the relationship between primary literacy research and practice is complex and research is mediated in a multitude of ways. Schools or MATs, for example, might use resources or interventions underpinned by research or implement policies based on EEF’s guidelines for primary literacy. Sometimes the relationship is minimal or indirect.  One teacher noted “I think in primary schools a lot of research tends to be watered and filtered down through a different scheme that somebody else has taken and interpreted that research, or a different curriculum programme that somebody else has taken that research and watered down and filtered in.” At other times, teachers access research that’s directly linked to their professional interests or needs. They might be concerned for example that some children are not motivated as readers or about how to accommodate the different languages that children speak. This might lead them to refer to books or to social media or to organisations such as  the Chartered College of Teaching, United Kingdom Literacy Association or Centre for Literacy in Primary Education. They may consult teachers or consultants across the country and beyond using social media. They may also be engaged in research or enquiry themselves or belong to a teacher research group.

There certainly isn’t one single conduit for research. What is certain is that despite being stretched in ways that no one could have imagined a couple of years ago, these teachers are going above and beyond to access, exchange, and share research to inform their classroom practice. This is not always easy but can be key to supporting children in classrooms. As one teacher told us: “I suppose, it is ‘challenging’, sometimes research is very challenging to understand.  And the pressures of time, to be able to sit there and go through it thoroughly and there’s so much of it.  But so useful when you do find something that can impact on your practice.”

We’re still in the early stages of the project and are currently looking for teachers who might like to participate in the Autumn term. We’re keen to gather a wide range of experience through this work and to learn from a wide range of teachers. If you think you would like to be involved, please contact us at remple@shu.ac.uk or register through our website.

How do teachers encounter research?

May 05 2022

Cathy Burnett

About project | Policy context | Primary literacy | Research context | Teachers

In the recent Schools White Paper Nadhim Zahawi includes a commitment to ‘placing the generation and mobilisation of evidence at the heart of our education system.’  The mobilisation of research evidence is a key concern of our current ESRC funded project, Research Mobilities in Primary Literacy Education (ES/W000571/1), which is exploring how research moves to and between teachers. The project is a partnership between Sheffield Hallam University, Lancaster University and University of Stirling.  Our starting point is that the mobilisation of research is an increasingly complex business.

We are interested particularly in research that has potential to speak in useful ways to literacy education in primary schools. Literacy is a huge area and there is a wide variety of research available internationally that could be of value and interest to primary teachers. Some of this focuses on pedagogical approaches (such as the use of drama or group discussion) but there is also work that provides useful insights into children’s experiences of literacy at home and at school, as well as that which generates searching questions about the purposes and priorities of literacy education.

Some research, such as that funded by The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) draws on the findings of randomised controlled trials to try to identify approaches that might impact on attainment as measured by standardised tests. Other research draws on qualitative methods to examine children’s experiences in depth and in detail. These different kinds of research all have potential to feed teachers’ professional thinking and decision-making but it may be that some kinds of research travel more widely than others.

In supporting the mobilisation of research the government has pledged to continue its support for EEF. EEF has done a considerable amount of work in recent years to fund and disseminate the results of randomised controlled trials and to synthesise the findings from research more widely. Consequently, for many schools, they are the go-to source of evidence to inform decision making and resource purchase. There are, however, myriad other ways in which teachers encounter research, linked for example to colleagues, universities, professional associations, social media, independent consultants and ‘research-informed’ resources as well as their own investigations and enquiries. And digital technologies play a role too,  for example through platforms such as Mesh Guides and through the work of algorithms in personalising search results. Given this, in order to understand how research mobilises and get better at facilitating connections between research and practice, we need to know more about how the work of different organisations and individuals combine with digital technologies to bring some research evidence to the fore while other potentially useful studies sink without trace. 

Through Research Mobilities in Primary Literacy Education we want to understand more about this complex area. Part of this involves identifying any patterns in the kinds of literacy research that gain attention and exploring what happens to the meanings of research findings as they move between individual and organisations. Are subtleties lost as research is summarised for different audiences? Are methodological caveats acknowledged? Are new meanings added as the findings of different studies combine?  By understanding these processes better we hope to arrive at effective ways to support teachers’ engagement with a wide range of literacy research which will be useful to schools and MATs, to policy makers, educational organisations and associations and to different research communities concerned with the mobilisation of research.

If you would like to know more about the project please get in touch with us via email (remple@shu.ac.uk) . If you are a primary teacher working in England and would like to be involved, you can find out more and register your interest to participate here: https://shusls.eu.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_0ceGu0gIKRinGpo.