Teachers are being encouraged to use evidence to improve their practice. David Leat looks at three forms of evidence-informed professional enquiry – tinkering, action research and design research

In the last five to 10 years there has been growing ambition in government circles to shift teaching towards being more evidence-informed. The stimulus for this came from comparisons with the medical profession, where doctors have online access to medical research during diagnosis. In medicine the concept was evidence-based practice but there has been recognition that in education, research cannot so readily be related to practice. It is hard to see how, following some poor results in a test for a Year 9 student, a teacher could rush to a computer database and use published research to identify what had gone wrong. The problem in education has been that context is considered so important.

In this edition there is an excellent piece on research lessons, which was based on the Japanese tradition of lesson study. I am struck by both the amount of time and lengthy duration devoted to this collective improvement of practice. In Britain we have an impatient culture which demands instant return.  Research lessons are an important approach to the use of evidence by teachers in improving educational practice. To help round out the picture I want to outline other approaches which can lead in the same direction. These include:

  • tinkering
  • action research
  • design research.

All of the approaches could be also be grouped under the heading of professional enquiry, as it is more of an overarching term. It implies curiosity and actions that are directed to finding out about matters of one’s own professional practice and it draws upon strategic, reflective and analytical thinking. Tinkering is considered as that process that seems to be natural for the curious and motivated teacher, of forever just tweaking things a bit. Evidence suggests that teachers who tinker are more satisfied with their work. Action research is characterised by cycles of activity – identifying an issue, planning and taking action to address the issue, gathering evidence about the impact of that action, evaluating the evidence and then considering the next step. The focus is on one’s own practice with very serious consideration of the values and assumptions underlying practice. Design research is an American concept, where the focus is not on oneself but on developing interventions to make them work effectively. Design research, following in the footsteps of design generally, tries to improve a product. Another premise that underpins design research is that any intervention that has been shown to ‘work’ does not necessarily and easily work in any context, it needs adapting to the circumstances. So, for example, there is evidence that collaborative group work has a strong and positive impact on pupil outcomes. However, this insight does not tell you all that you need to know about implementing effective group work or engineering groups. In a particular school, perhaps with a particular ethnic mix, design research might help you work out what elements of mixing of students might be particularly beneficial, what instructions and guidance will work best and what ideas and concepts still need to be taught through instruction.

Variation in approaches

The list is not presented as a simple rank order of complexity or indeed value. However, there seem to be a number of ways in which one can see variation in these approaches. The first variation is in terms of how private or public they are. Tinkering is a distinctly solo activity, undertaken by the individual and often not shared. Action research may also be individual, perhaps part of doing a Master’s degree, but is often a collective activity, especially where it is supported by the school. Lesson study and design research are clearly collective activities, where teachers are given or agree a focus. The obvious consequence of being more collective is that any one individual has less choice or control over decisions. A criticism that has been made of the recent resurgence in the use of action research is that it can be too tied to school improvement agendas, and by implication the government raising standards agenda. The chance to be critical is diminished. Another way in which we can discern differences in these approaches is in the origin of the stimulus for change or research. At one end of the spectrum lies tinkering where the impetus comes from the teacher musing on their practice and wishing to improve it in some way. At the other is design research where the impetus comes from university researchers seeking to refine a programme or intervention so that it will influence or improve an aspect of teaching. The greater the degree of involvement of outsiders, the greater the access to a wider pool of knowledge and expertise. By contrast, the tinkerer is drawing on their own resources. A collaborative group can, potentially, draw upon a richer array of knowledge and ideas, partly because of the greater likelihood or links to the outside and partly because of the number of people in the group who either have knowledge themselves or have links to others who do. So a third, and related variable, is how systematic the approach is. Tinkering is fairly intuitive and perhaps idiosyncratic, driven by the perceptions and interests of the individual. Action research is more systematic and driven by explicit models. Research lessons have strong guidelines and design research is governed by many of the normal conventions of research. So if I presented the list of possible individual and school approaches to evidence-informed practice as a list earlier on, it should be apparent by now that one can present them in more varied lights. It should be helpful to relate them to a quadrant model.

A simple framework for understanding approaches to evidence-based innovation

Where does research-informed practice in your school sit in the model?

                                     Freedom of choice

              Tinkering                                                 Action research                                                     I                                                     I                                                     I

    Intuitive      ——————————————    Systematic

                                                    I                                                     I                 

                                                    I                        Research lessons


                                                    I                            Design research

                                        Constrained choice The model has two dimensions: the first along a scale from intuitive to systematic and the other representing degree of choice. Tinkering might well be located in the top-left quadrant, being relatively intuitive and unconstrained. Some forms of action research, especially that undertaken by individuals, could be located in the top-right quadrant, with a high degree of individual control and some discipline in the methods. Design research would fit in the bottom-right quadrant (right in the corner) with a high degree of constraint but very focused and systematic. I will take of risk of suggesting that some performance targets can be constrained but intuitive. They are set or agreed within a management framework, but how they are addressed may be somewhat random. Lesson study and research lessons are clearly less systematic than design research but also perhaps with a greater degree of control and choice left to the teachers. Any attempt to map the approaches will result in broad areas being occupied rather than dots being placed. However, the model should help you think about the nature of research-informed practice in your school, where it would sit in this model, whether this achieves an appropriate balance for your context and whether you need to make any changes.

Investing in R&D

However, there is the broader question of what price we are prepared to pay for change. It is now fairly common for schools to want to restrict the number of lessons that teachers are away from their classes. The arguments for this are coherent: good supply teachers are hard to find and poor cover staff may do more harm than good, making it difficult for the normal teacher to pick up the threads. If you have good teachers then a head may argue with some force that they should be in front of their classes. There is of course a very strong counter argument: If teachers are always busy, dealing with the here and now and don’t get time to stand back, think, hear new ideas, plan, take action, evaluate and improve, then how does anything change? One can see this as a tussle between short-term gains and long-term gains. If one sees schools as being in any way comparable to business (and I understand if you reject the analogy) then companies that do not invest in R&D may start to suffer. Schools or groups of schools need to be investing in R&D in order to maintain an edge. I am happy to admit that this parallel does not work perfectly, as the products of most companies and the outputs from schools are so different, but there does seem to be a little whiff of truth in the notion. The new professional standards framework from the Training and Development Agency for Schools reveals an increasing expectation that teachers should be able to use research evidence. For the new designation of excellent teacher there is a standard that requires research and evaluation of innovative curriculum practices (E2). Furthermore, in responsibilities for contributing towards the professional development of colleagues (E14), excellent teachers need to use ‘a broad range of techniques and skills appropriate to their needs so that they demonstrate enhanced and effective practice.’ There is a strong implication here that learning and teaching responsibility in schools should be closely linked to professional development. The two are intertwined. There is strong advantage for leaders with these responsibilities to have models like my diagram in their heads – or on the wall. There is further advantage if you have a working knowledge of these modes of professional learning. You would want everyone within the school to be on the model somewhere; indeed, in some schools you might share a version with your staff. NQTs might operate with constrained choice on issues that have come out of their induction or on important school improvement issues. 

Some staff may be allowed to tinker in their own way, but deciding who falls into this category is fraught. It might be thought that those with senior responsibilities could work in that way. Is it right that senior people in an organisation are excused from systematic learning? That decision has to left to local factors and decisions. The innovative teachers in school will probably benefit from a more systematic approach and, where possible, some choice. However, the advantages of collaborative work, as in research lessons, are very strong – remember the sum of the parts is greater than the whole.