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Using research evidence about practice

‘Engaging critically with research and using evidence to critique practice.’

DfE Frameworks for ITT and ECTs, 2019

Topics on this page:

Using the available research evidence | Why and how to use research evidence | Action research in your classroom | Reading 

Introduction

The ITT Core Content Framework (DfE, 2019) and the Early Career Framework (DfE, 2019) both require new teachers to be informed by the best available educational research and learn how to use this in their teaching. You are expected to engage critically with research and discuss evidence with colleagues, which means that you should be able to analyse and interrogate education research and arguments and draw on this to make informed decisions that influence your practice.

In the last decade research evidence is seen to be at the centre of good teaching. This is described as ‘evidence-based’, ‘research-led’, ‘research-based’, and ‘classroom-focused’. All indicate the connection between educational research and practice. It is sometimes called the ‘what works’ approach, on the grounds that research can provide teachers with proven methods that are likely ‘to work’.

Using the available research evidence

As the opening quote from the DfE Frameworks indicates, you should take the opportunity during initial training and induction to develop an understanding of how to apply evidence from educational research to improve your practice. The most successful teachers realise they must continue to explore new ideas throughout their careers because education practice is always evolving.

The government supports The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) with funding to generate summaries of ‘the best available evidence’. It is recognised that teachers do not have all the time to carry out trawls through academic research papers and the summaries which include Teaching and Learning Toolkit, Evidence Reviews and Guidance Reports, are made easily accessible for teachers. These can help you to keep in touch with the latest research ideas and indicate strategies to try in your own practice.

The government also provided some initial funding to establish and promote the Chartered College of Teaching as a professional body. One of their missions is to ‘be the conduit to a more evidence-informed profession’ and it has established a peer-reviewed British education journal, Impact, to facilitate this. Membership of the Chartered College of Teaching gives access to this termly publication, which contains a range of articles about evidence-based practice.

Your training provider or university library service can give you access to research information.

However you should be aware that educational research cannot provide comprehensive answers to many issues that you will face on a daily basis in your teaching. One reason for this is the lack of coverage of many aspects of pedagogy. Also education research is often not in a form that enables techniques that work in one school in one country to be easily transferred to another context, as Robin Alexander (2010) points out.

Bear in mind this comment by Dylan Wiliam (2015):

Politicians and educators want to find ‘what works’. But the simple truth is that, in education, everything works somewhere and nothing works everywhere.

Also you should be aware that research to identify effective pedagogy barely exists in subjects such as geography because it attracts little research attention or funding. Therefore for most aspects of pedagogy it is simply not possible for a secondary geography teacher to look up research and obtain detailed guidance in relation to their subject. This is common for most curriculum subjects outside of mathematics, English and science. Therefore, the ‘evidence-based’ research you read about will have been carried out in other subject contexts.

  • Refer to Lambert (2015) and Firth and Brooks (2017) to find out about research in geography education.
  • Read Lambert (2018) who discusses the question: what counts as ‘research into subject specialist teaching?’ and argues the importance of ‘conceptual work focused on the development of subject-specialist teaching and its educational significance for students’.

The Education Development Trust (McAleavy, 2016) recently concluded – ‘It is probably both unrealistic and undesirable to think that teaching can be entirely based on findings from academic research’. That is not to say that research evidence is valueless for a geography teacher, but it does mean that research evidence needs to be thought about and applied carefully.

Why and how to use research evidence

Firstly, you should recognise a distinction between research and evidence. Research is only one form of evidence, and it needs to be set alongside case studies of practice and actual teaching experiences in the classroom.

Reading about research can give you more understanding of how and why something works in the classroom. This can help you to refine your teaching. It can also sharpen your focus because it can prevent you pouring your energies into strategies that are less likely to be effective for learning.

However, you cannot just apply pedagogy simplistically because it has been shown to work in another context. You continually need to ask questions such as: What was the context of the research? What evidence is there? How reliable and valid is this? How does this apply to me and to teaching geography? 

Be prepared to be critical in your own evaluation of research that you are looking to apply to your context. How did the researchers gather information about the impact of what they were looking at for different age groups and subjects? Consider who funded the research and the report and why it might have been undertaken.

Roberts (2023) refers to research evidence from a range of sources in her text Geography Through Enquiry. Study these carefully to understand how teachers should consider research findings critically when they are considering the best practice to adopt. Some examples to reflect on are:

  • connections between everyday and disciplinary knowledge (see pp. 29-30)
  • stereotyping (see pp. 61-4)
  • teacher talk (see chapter 10)
  • and classroom discussion (see chapter 11).

The EEF offers five points of good advice about using research evidence to inform your classroom practice and suggest teachers should:

  1. Use your professional judgement to apply the evidence: always explore the basis and context for the impact claimed from research evidence and consider the needs of your students in your school before adopting any approach based on research from elsewhere.
  2. Consider security, cost and impact together: some approaches may not be cost effective in terms of time and resources. The EEF suggests that sometimes other approaches with a lower overall impact may have a more well-established evidence base and are easier to implement.
  3. Read past the headline figure and think about what is ‘behind the average’. Research findings can hide a range of different impacts and you need to read about why effects vary especially between subjects and phase. Always consider applicability to geography.
  4. Think about principles of good implementation: Careful planning and implementation are key. The EEF recommends that the “active ingredient” for implementation is considered.  
  5. Consider one particular approach alongside others. Find out as much as you can about different alternatives from a range of sources. In particular, try to establish if the approach has been used in English schools (not only the US) and by geography teachers.

Rogers (2020) in his article argues that you must critically engage with research if it is to have a meaningful impact on practice. You must also remain open-minded and prepared to continually learn and reflect, as you begin to understand what works and what does not. Read Stubbs (2020) for the views of an early career teacher on the value of engaging with cognitive and educational research to focus on what works best for their students

Action research in your classroom

You have probably been carrying out some form of action research in your classroom already without even realising it. It does not have to be very formal but can provide very helpful insights on your curriculum and practice.

Some form of action-research can be really useful as a focus for collaborative work with colleagues in your school and some schools have set up action research groups. This form of classroom-based research can give you a sense of autonomy over your practice and play an important part of your development as a new teacher.

Manion (2018) discusses the value of evidence-informed practice and practitioner research for the new teacher. These will help you become a better teacher. Manion explains how teachers can work out what works for them and seek ways to get better at what they do. Look at the case studies in this article which show how such practitioner research can be very small-scale, yet still be very worthwhile.

Begin with a topic of particular interest to you that stems from your classroom. Use any research evidence available, alongside advice from your colleagues, mentors and tutors, to inform and reflect on the strategies you use in your teaching.

One approach you could follow is the evidence-based professional learning cycle. This starts with the question: ‘What do I need to know and do differently in my teaching practice to progress the learning of my students?’ Refer to the download The Evidence-Based Professional Learning Cycle for a step-by step guide.

Another approach is lesson study which is a form of collaborative teacher enquiry. It involves a group of teachers agreeing a specific element of geographical learning to focus on. They design a ‘research’ lesson collaboratively that is taught by one teacher while the rest observe the learning of selected students. Refer to the download for geography educators that describes Lesson study.

Important matters to consider carefully before you embark on your own action research are research ethics and data protection. There are very clear legal obligations (General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in the Data Protection Act (2018))that you must comply with when processing personal data in educational research. Read the article by Hammond and Rawlings Smith (2023) which explores what should inform the decisions you make when undertaking research in, and about, geography education.

Discuss your ideas for action research with your mentor and they will guide you to sources of research evidence that are relevant for you to read. You could browse these articles in Teaching Geography for inspiration. There are many more available!

  • Duffy, M. (2013) ‘Home learning: How can we make this more meaningful?’, Teaching Geography, Summer.
  • Kennedy, C. (2011) ‘Imagining distant places: changing representations of Egypt’, Teaching Geography, Summer.
  • Minton, M. (2014) ‘Challenging student misconceptions of immigration in the UK’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.
  • Picton, O. (201) ‘Shrinking world? Globalisation at key stage 3’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Puttick, S. (2013) ‘GCSE geography revision: an action research project’ Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Sullivan, K., Thompson, H. and Willis, H. (2021) ‘Note making: it’s just writing stuff down…isn’t it?’, Teaching Geography, Summer.
  • Walshe, N. (2007) ‘Year 8 Students’ Conceptions of Sustainability’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.
  • Ward, R. (2004) ‘Mind friendly learning in geography’ Teaching Geography, Autumn.
The GA has two GA Research Engagement Leads for primary and secondary who support teachers to think about education research in regard to school geography and to explore ways to incorporate education research into their own professional development. From time to time they hold seminars and online courses about research which you should look out for on the GA website. There are also sessions about teachers as researchers at the GA annual conference
 

You should also explore on-line the publications of the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF). The EEF makes research easily accessible for teacher through the summaries which includes the Teaching and Learning Toolkit, Evidence Reviews and the EEF Guidance Reports.

Reading