MA Investigations: What conclusions can we draw?

This post is the final one in a series of outcomes from my MA in Education work. In the first post, I looked at why might schools use research? In the second post, I looked at what makes up a teaching and learning culture, and in Part 3, I looked at how people generally view education research in comparison to other factors that shape it. In my fourth post, I looked at how that attitude changes depending on the extrinsic situation you’re in! In post five, I looked at how the intrinsic attitudes to school culture shaped people’s use of educational research.

If you’ve read all of that – thanks so much for coming on this journey with me (PS: I can recommend a great therapist or sleep doctor for the situation you’re in, I think!)

So, for the final post, what can I conclude?

This study has presented an investigation into the factors which create teaching and learning cultures in schools, and the extent to which education research is important to this aim. While studies into the nature of teaching and learning cultures, and into the nature and implementation of educational research have been conducted separately, few studies offer a deliberate look at the interaction between the two in school contexts. With a sample size of 320, this study offers a non-trivial overview of a topic which is of importance in terms of professional development (Kraft & Papay, 2014), workload and wellbeing of staff (Worth & Van Den Brande, 2020) and is also one of the most powerful levers we can pull in terms of inequalities and student outcomes (Sutton Trust, 2011).

Three research questions were asked: and the key conclusions for each of them shall be presented in turn, together with overall recommendations from this work.  

Q1. How important is the use of educational research in the creation of teaching and learning cultures?

The use of educational research is of some significance in the creation of teaching and learning cultures. It is not as highly regarded as a motivation by itself at the macro-scale, but becomes more powerful within certain cultural and contextual groups. Schools who are on the borders of achieving external validation (through either exam results, or through inspection judgements) tend to rate it highly as a part of their staff development culture, and the staff in those schools are confident in its’ use, confident in the link to student outcomes, and describe their culture in positive terms. This supports Bernhard et al. (2020)’s interpretation that research is often used in direct motivation to improve specific student cultures and outcomes, and tends to assert that the staff in these schools respond to the extrinsic motivation positively. There are multiple schools who have a clearly defined teaching and learning culture, but perhaps do not rate research as highly as their own experience and context. This suggests that they have other, intrinsic motivations for the decisions they take to create their culture, and are confident in their approach to success.

A number of schools have mixed or negative cultures for teacher development and professional learning. Here, staff report that research can be under-utilised leading to frustration, or can be used in an ineffectual way that creates higher workload for staff. The specific details of structures, context and characteristics of culture are not easily transferable, and it seems that the contextual factors of understanding are critical to the implementation of teaching and learning cultures, and research informed practice alike.

Q2. How do intrinsic motivations support the use of educational research in the creation of teaching and learning cultures?

Intrinsic motivations were defined as those which were done in response to something within the school context. This may include the attitude of leadership, the features and structures of support created, and the aspirations, interests and preferences of staff and senior leaders. Participants were asked to describe their teaching and learning culture, and this data was codified and used as a method to explore the variance of intrinsic motivation across schools.

Positive school cultures were over three times more likely to have majority staff participation, two times more likely to use education research, and nearly eight times more likely to value their school’s leadership and use of education research as part of creating success

The dichotomy between participant’s prior research training and confidence in research use needs further investigation, to evaluate whether some schools (or structures) have particularly effective methods of disseminating and embedding research informed practice in to their culture. There was little difference, in general, between the confidence in the use, and efficacy of education research attitudes amongst participants, and it is important to investigate and contextualise this in a sampling technique that perhaps better represents the breadth of teacher experience, as well as school contexts.

Most teachers who responded seemed to be positive about their use of research, and about the wider motivations behind education research, which forms an interesting conclusion about the nature of the profession and the recent changes.

Q3. How do extrinsic motivations support the use of educational research in the creation of teaching and learning cultures?

Irrespective of context, experience and existing external judgements, it seems that most respondents thought that their teaching and learning cultures were more extrinsically motivated than intrinsically. As Malin et al. (2020) have observed, the UK’s relatively high stakes accountability process for school leaders means that keeping the inspectors and the exam results positive appear to be embedded in to the vast majority of cultures reported. Even where this was not successful (i.e. in schools with poorer exam results, or with lower inspection judgements), the rating of this as a factor in the motivation of the school was high. Other potential extrinsic motivators (e.g. stakeholders, parents or Governors) barely had an impact on the responses: suggesting the focus is on those judgements which are externally accountable.

Educational research is perceived to be a powerful lever to pull in this circumstance, and although there is some support for the thesis of Bernhard et al. (2020) about the focus on student outcome, and the potential ‘shield’ that research offers, it seems that for many schools, there is a genuine belief in the utility and effectiveness of education research as a method of making a difference towards their external outcomes.

There is limited evidence to suggest that the best cultures are created when these external factors are clearly identified, and there is a mechanism by which the staff team unifies around a purpose. Structurally embedded features that disseminate, build confidence with, and clarify the use of educational research generally tend to lead to positive descriptions of culture, and there is a potential implication here for school leaders and decision makers.

In presenting this study of the relationship between the use of research, and the perceptions of culture, it has been shown conclusively that the context of an individual school (as a snapshot through time) is the most significant factor of all. Understanding these relationships at the synoptic scale is a useful starting point for further research, which I hope will be able to give far more direction to the way in which these trends can be interpreted and implemented for best outcomes for staff, and students, alike.

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