GUEST POST: Evidence For the Frontline -- Teachers and Researchers Working Together
By: Caroline Creaby and Jonathan Haslam
With the Learning Scientists project, we’re trying various ways of connecting researchers with teachers – social media, blogging, and online discussion forums. When we happened upon @EvidenceFTFrontline, we were instantly impressed by their model, and asked leaders Caroline Creaby @CarolineCreaby and Jonathan Haslam @jonathan_haslam to write a blog post describing how the project came about, how it was made possible, and what they hoped to achieve.
Evidence for the Frontline is a new service developed by teachers and researchers in the UK. It aims to connect teachers and researchers in order to support evidence-informed practice in schools. The premise is a simple one: if a teacher is seeking to develop their practice or wants to know the strength of evidence behind an approach they’re taking, they can submit a question to the Evidence for the Frontline website. Behind the scenes, a team of ‘brokers’ – comprised of teachers and researchers based at the University of York – consider the research already available and any researchers who have expertise in the area that the teacher is asking about. Questions are then directed to relevant researchers who provide answers and links to research and resources for further reading. A 90-second animation illustrating how the service works is here (Editor’s note from Yana who normally doesn’t like watching videos: this one is really good.)
What types of questions do teachers ask?
An example of question we have had on the site recently came from a teacher in a London secondary school:
‘What strategies are there for early identification of possible disengaged pupils and potential NEETs for alternative provision?’ (In the UK, NEET stands for students not in education, employment or training – see our English educational jargon dictionary for more info).
The question was answered using existing research from a review from the University of Bristol, a practitioners’ guide from the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) and one from the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Northwest – see here for the NFER guide. After the question was answered, we also received a really helpful comment from a colleague in another school explaining the way in which his school identified disengaged students. This was followed by comments from other users, including a newly published report from NFER.
What can we offer – and what can’t we?
In case you didn’t know already, this process isn’t easy. If you want research to answer your question now and provide you with a neatly packaged solution that you can implement freely and easily tomorrow, the chances are that you won’t find it. If you are looking for more understanding about the issue you are dealing with, objective research that has studied the issue in a range of contexts and suggests the most likely way forward, then we can probably help. We can help with organising the information, making it more accessible and highlighting the reviews or overviews of research that are understandable and applicable, and then discussing the conclusions and options with others. But this process seems to be contingent upon the notion that schools and teachers have to understand, and take responsibility for, the processes and activities that take place in their schools.
What are our guiding principles?
There are two important principles that underpin the design of the service. Firstly, it is designed to encourage dialogue. Knowledge mobilisation has been found to be more successful when it is constructed as a social process (1). So, we wanted our service to have a social dimension that can be found in the question and answer and comment functions. Furthermore, the brokers play a role in connecting teachers with researchers and research, which in itself builds relationships. The website has been designed to enable teachers and researchers to connect via email or phone should they want to find out more detail or work more closely on projects. So far, these functions haven’t been used extensively. Presently, we are working to encourage teachers to respond to researchers when they receive answers – to provide comments, critique or ask more questions.
A second principle behind the service is its accessibility and convenience. Teachers who took a leading role designing the service expressed how time-poor teachers were, and would need a web-based service that they could access in the evenings or at weekends when they had time to reflect on their practice. Hence our service is web-based and although we have capacity to take calls, the main mode of enquiry has been through the site. Related to this, teachers participating in the project have expressed the importance of clarifying expectations around the time it will take to receive an answer. We have found that some questions are answered within days, whereas others have taken months. This is due to a number of factors such as the availability of research and researchers. Behind the scenes, the brokerage team have been working on their systems of question management including a network of researchers that have been contributing to the project. One challenge is that we are asking researchers across the UK to provide answers out of good will – we don’t pay researchers for their answers, and likewise we are not paying schools to be involved. We have been overwhelmingly impressed by the generosity of the research community in terms of the answers they have provided already; however, there are limits to the extent one can reasonably ask people to help for free.
How are we funded?
The service is being funded by the Education Endowment Foundation – a grantmaking charity in the UK. They believe that better use of evidence can make a real difference by helping schools spend money more effectively to improve the teaching and learning of children from low-income families. Their work involves summarising existing research, funding new research, and communicating outcomes to schools and the education sector. In addition, they have recently focused on knowledge mobilisation – how best to support teachers and schools to engage with the findings of research so that more effective approaches to teaching become embedded in schools. Evidence for the Frontline connects teachers and researchers in order to answer teachers’ questions, and the Education Endowment Foundation has funded this project from April 2015-July 2016. The grant has funded time for teachers and researchers to design the service, the building of the site and the team of brokers who respond to the questions and connect with researchers. The funding also covers an evaluation being carried out by the National Foundation for Educational Research that will examine the extent to which teachers in participating schools are more evidence-informed than they were prior to the project.
What does the future hold for us?
To date we have been really pleased with success of the service. We launched it in September 2015 with 32 schools across the UK.
Eight months in we have over 500 users on the site, over 200 questions have been asked and so far, 150 have been answered. Already the site contains so many fascinating answers on themes from feedback to motivation to memory. Our trial with the 32 original schools will continue until July 2016, after which point we are exploring how to expand. If you are interested in becoming involved, whether you are a teacher or a researcher, we would encourage you to get in touch by emailing email@example.com.
(1) Nutley, S., Walter, I. and Davies, H.T.O. (2007) Using evidence: how research can inform the public services. Bristol: Policy Press.