Reflections on the GA Conference 2022

Over the last few days, I’ve been delighted to join in the Geographical Association’s Annual Conference focused on ‘Everyday Geographies’.

While the return to face to face conferences has been welcomed by many, it wasn’t quite the right time for me with other work commitments, so I’ve been really grateful to have the hybrid option available.  It has been nice to work as an ‘every day’ return to the subject space, and spend time thinking about Geography amongst some of the other discussions and conversations that my professional life now contains.

As the Conference comes to an end, here are five quick reflections on what I’ve learned from spending time in this space.

(1) Hybrid Spaces – well done to the Geographical Association!

While other conferences have felt like everyone was Zoom-ing in, this felt like joining a professional conference in a real space. The schedule was really well put together, and while there was always the issue of “too many things to see!”, the quality of recording and filming was outstanding. Speakers being filmed and tracked, great microphones, and brilliant presentation of the slides while we could see the speakers – this was, hands down, the best virtual attendance that I’ve ever been part of. Great job, team!

(2) Depth, diversity and quality of speakers

I really appreciated the wide range of speakers, from all sorts of worlds. We had professional Geographers, world-class experts, and people sharing their school-based perspectives or ideas about technical resources. They shared the same lecture theatre, the same status, and have the discussions together to learn from each other. That’s been hugely exciting and powerfully inspiring.

We’ve also had a huge range of speakers in terms of participation, vision and experience – lots of first-time speakers, as well as experienced GA and RGS faces and people.

(3) Plural pathways

For whoever and whatever you are, this Conference had a lot on offer. There were sessions for new teachers, Heads of Department, teacher educators, and Geographers just wishing to expand their subject knowledge. I loved hearing from Professor Ilan Kelman, for example, masterfully exploring themes of disasters as a process not an event, but I equally benefitted from Dr John Murton’s perspective on COP26, Elena Lengthorn’s education in the climate emergency session, and experienced Geographers like Mike Simmonds and Jo Payne about subject development and support. Colleagues from different professional perspectives would all have been welcomed and found something to support, extend and challenge them.

(4) Diversity on the agenda

The theme of this year’s Conference was the ‘everyday’ of Geography, and it felt like one of the everyday realities this year was the higher profile of diversity and the deliberate challenges to racism, inequality and intolerance.

As you’d expect, the Geography community are thoughtfully engaged in these challenging spaces, and lots of the curriculum conversations, personal conversations, and storytelling have all reflected the challenges of diversity and inclusion. We saw powerful representation and stories being shared, and worked examples of how people were applying the work in their classrooms. It’s not a complete solution, and the work is nowhere near finished – but it’s great to see it visibly being done, and part of the everyday conversation on

(5) How lucky we are to have this subject community.

I now work in a professional space where I can see subjects working in very different ways – and I keep coming back to the concept that the Geography subject community is one of the very best out there.

Whether it’s the relatively collegiate approach on Twitter (most of the time), the kindness and sharing of the experts in our community, or the incredible work of the Geographical Association and the Royal Geographical Society, we’re really lucky to have the community that we do. It makes a huge difference to supporting teachers, and the work of the subject.

It’s been a real pleasure to be part of this kind of discussion and professional space again – and to be part of this wonderful community. I look forward to catching up to a number of other sessions that I couldn’t see live, and I’m hoping that we can build a library of these excellent sessions for future use for training and development of teachers and trainee teachers alike!

Perhaps I’ll see you at next year’s Conference, and have the courage to have proposed a session!

A Textbook Problem

The Japanese word for ‘business suit’ is sebiro. A truncated version of “Savile Row”, the word itself is a nod to the London area famous for tailoring, and the ability to have a garment made bespoke to your precise measurements, tastes and style for a considerable fee. We know that bespoke, made to measure (which apparently are not the same) and perfectly tailored are the aspirational standard. We also know that that standard takes quality, craftsmanship, materials and money. Many of us – sadly, me included – will never own a Savile Row suit.

So what?

A similar approach can be described when it comes to making and providing resources for our lessons in teaching – with the idealised bespoke, made to measure or personally tailored to our context, class and settings held up as the gold standard – and “off the peg” resources somehow considered to be lesser and certainly holding some implicit comment on our worth as a teacher, or our commitment to our class.

In particular, and in particular subjects, it seems like bespoke booklets are increasingly used, while the humble textbook is declining.

I’d like to think about why.

I believe that the way to sniff out a Geographer of a certain vintage is to ask them how they pronounce the word “Waugh”, and see how their eyes light up. David Waugh’s “Geography: An Integrated Approach” was the textbook that I had for my A level. When I taught in classrooms, over twenty years later, a bank of them were still in the bookcase at the back of my room, and certain topics could still definitively be looked up in Waugh’s classic book. It wasn’t bespoke – it didn’t get designed for a particular specification, or for a certain style of exam – it was good Geography, and that’s all that mattered.

We want our textbooks to be:

  • Based on good Geography
  • Clear in their use of technical language, diagrams and explanation, so that
  • Processes, theories and models can be crystal clear for students
  • Exemplified through case studies or place examples
  • Offer reflection and questions which can check for student understanding
  • Pragmatically, as a HoD or a SBM, they need to offer value for money. Either this means that they are cheap enough to buy for multiple class sets (you realistically need 2.5 x your cohort size at any given time if you want students to have one each, because you’re going to have one year group, a second year group at KS4 or KS5 and then some spares for class work or to cover wastage), *or* they need to be imbued with longevity that a one off purchase order will definitively last you for ten years or more.

Waugh’s book hit all of these boxes. They were never cheap to buy, but they lasted the test of time. They were really well written, expertly designed, and beautifully illustrated – even now, the diagrams are some of the best I’ve ever used. I can’t imagine teaching desert landforms without that page from Waugh of the various forms of sand dune, for instance.

Perhaps the only complaint – and indeed, this reflects the nature of a number of subjects (Geography, Economics, Business among many) was that the case studies could rapidly become out of date at best, and really grotesquely out of date at worst.

So you’d have to update the case studies. And then we get into the slippery slope of the modern textbook versus booklet debate, and some of the challenges that face the use of textbooks by schools today. 

  • Textbooks get out of date so quickly. If you are going to have to update case studies, then you’re going to have to produce material. Wouldn’t it be easier to write your own, and print it? It might be. It depends on your Department’s expertise, capacity and specific skill sets, I guess. I think this is much more of a problem for fast moving, or case study-based subjects. A Maths textbook doesn’t date anywhere near as quickly as a Geography one can: an old colleague of mine had a bunch of resources from the 1950s in his classroom, that still offered value to some particular problems and themes.
  • “Textbook case studies” are also an interesting problem from an examiners’ mindset, too. Teachers are aware of this. Where the case study in the textbook is excellent, and well-used, it is very likely that an examiner will see a lot of answers based upon it. To stand out, you’re either going to need to go beyond the textbook (in which case, someone’s going to have to work on detail), or you’ll need to write better than the majority of other candidates. You also have to get the details absolutely spot-on – it’s far more likely that an examiner will know them. It’s simpler to “stand out” by choosing a different case study: it’ll be novel for the examiner to read, and less likely to be one of twenty seven essays on the Haiti earthquake that they’ve read that day.
  • Wouldn’t it be cheaper to make a booklet?” In many cases, it’s possible that the answer is not clearly value-driven in the same way. We don’t have a metric for recording teacher time, and assigning it a value, so we don’t see the very hidden costs of the hours and labour. Doing it once is highly expensive, in teacher time. If we use the same booklets across multiple years, schools or a Trust, it could be worth it. But it’s a very different calculation, and a far harder one to see.
  • Look, we don’t even use half of these chapters. Isn’t that a waste?” Specifications offer much choice – usually at school level, rather than for students in the exam. If Section A is 2 from 3, Section B is 2 from 3, and Section C is 1 from 3 – that’s lovely as an experience for teachers and schools, but it does mean you’ve only used 5/9 chapters of the textbook. What are you paying for the other four for? What’s the point? Wouldn’t you be better just printing your own booklets for those units only? It’s a fair point. Either specs need to increase their compulsory content (not popular) or textbooks need to become modular (not likely from printing perspectives).
  • We’ve only just bought these ones for a new specification, and they’re already out of date”. This is a combination of “bespoke” to a specification or a syllabus, and the change that the exam boards make in response to requirements and wider context. If you write good Geography, like Waugh did, you’re not sensitive to the market change – but you are equally making content that might not fit some syllabuses, and we’ll see the same waste issues as before.

A series of these points all speak to ‘value for money’ for syllabus-related textbooks, and the eternal challenge of the balance between visible costs (textbooks) versus invisible costs (production of booklet, printing, time and energy etc. of teachers which is all unquantified) with some very real issues. For many publishers, the key response has been to drive down the cost of textbooks by cutting some corners – and this has created a number of other issues. When we started teaching a newly-refreshed specification, the first print run of textbooks contained over fifty errors within the first few chapters we looked at. I’m not talking minor things: but diagrams labelled wrong (constructive/destructive waves), or key concepts not accurately explained. The publishers and board were superb, and accepted the return, and published a new book fairly speedily – but that kind of error wouldn’t have happened to Waugh, I reckon.

Fast specification changes, the desire for bespoke to syllabus, and a rapidly changing market mean that it’s almost impossible to produce a long-lasting textbook which is simultaneously cheap enough to appeal to all. At high quality. With really nice examples. And good exam questions.

Of course, there’s an unaddressed market for textbooks here – which is their use for Key Stage 3. A number of excellent books operate for KS3 – the Progress in Geography series, or the Geography 11-14 series offer progression, development and well thought out models. An ‘off the peg’ curriculum could be really well delivered, and superbly resourced – but I’d be really curious to see how OFSTED would reflect on intent and implementation if they were asked to comment on it.

Some people, instead, might build their own modular approach – and again, we see a number of examples of specific topic books, which resource a topic, lessons and activities, and you can choose your way through the different topics in favour of your own curriculum design. We do, also, increasingly, see a range of ‘ebooks’ and downloadable PDFs for significantly lower cost (e.g. a browse through the GA’s shop) which address some of these issues and approaches.

I think people still struggle to justify the value-for-money element as Heads of Geography Department, given how frequently our content changes – and I can imagine that the pressure in disadvantaged schools is even higher to produce “your own” resources connected to a desire to absorb those hidden costs. Every Department will have to have their own discussion and evaluation of what constitutes good value and the right choice for them, and even in the same school and faculty, I think the subject variance will be significant. While the Geographical Association offers more publication and support than perhaps other subject associations do, we as a subject have far more rapidly changing content than others may – and that balance will depend not just on the discipline, but also the individual topic you’ve chosen. I could still teach the vast majority of an Arid Environments topic from Waugh’s classic work, even if it’s the 1990 or 2000 version, for example – I’d want to add some management examples at the end, but the core of desert formation, landforms and landscapes would stand the test of time. I couldn’t approach a human topic – least of all the rapidly changing globalisation, or economic world themes – in the same way.

All of these things have combined to create a perception of textbooks, and the use of textbooks, in a number of spaces. Undoubtedly, there are some reduced quality textbooks, or problems with their uncritical use in the classroom. I don’t think anyone would claim that one textbook can replace a thoughtful and adaptive teacher.

But I feel that there’s still a perception (or indeed, even a stigma) about the “bespoke” versus “off the peg” resource that is really interesting in terms of what it says about the teacher that uses the textbooks. Using someone else’s resources still can hold a faintly uncertain feeling for teachers – and there’s a culture shift needed around the streamlining of effort, and the recognition of where the ‘best bets’ and ‘best value’ approach lies. Are we better off spending enormous amounts of time rewriting a textbook, or being able to give really meaningful feedback to our students? Are we better off re-presenting an excellent piece of work, or resting, so that we’re able to engage, think and enjoy the classroom questioning and discussion the next day? Are we afraid of an external judgement (e.g. OFSTED) about the use of a non-bespoke curriculum resource? Or are we our own worst enemies – constantly demanding bespoke perfection? If and where good resources exist, why shouldn’t we encourage their development and use?

We may all want the bespoke Savile Row suit. Bespoke, precise, exactly for needs – it’s a wonderful aspiration, and it’s also the gold standard of what tailoring can be, if you can afford it.

But I don’t think anyone would look down on, or be snobby about a teacher who decided that off the rack in M&S or Charles Tyrwhitt was the way to go. We don’t have an infinite amount of time; we don’t have the luxury of multiple fittings and the disposable hours and unseen income that it would take to have everything bespoke.

Think about it, for a moment – if a teacher rocked up in a Savile Row suit, or a bespoke handmade dress to work – how would you react?

Now compare that with how you’d feel about a teacher using a textbook rather than their own handmade booklets. Same reaction? Different?

Sometimes, we need more sebiro than Savile Row – a recognition that our best version might be less bespoke, and more utilitarian. We should embrace that – allow people to choose their best versions for their context, and understand that supporting sustainability in teaching might be about more than bespoke.

One Geography to Rule them All?

I happened across the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA)’s consultation documents this week. That’s not a promising start for a story, but I hope it gets more interesting at some stage!

I think the QAA offers universities a combination of exam board specification and OFSTED role for secondary schools – though I’m happy to be corrected on this. While I think they are potentially less prescriptive than an exam spec, allowing universities more flexibility to design a course reflecting their interests, values and experience of their teaching staff, they nonetheless seem to want to explore and identify a sense of what does it mean to “do a Geography degree” with all the potential routes that offers. Hence, the QAA quality codes, and the documents that are drafted for review. I’ve also looked at the one for Environmental/Earth Sciences, just out of mild curiosity.

The key thing that struck me, reading some of these sections, is the practical and philosophical variance between this outlined approach, and the recent OFSTED Research Review Series for Secondary Geography. There are some really interesting contrasts, and lovely things to share – and I wanted to pull out some key thoughts and highlights to share with a wider secondary audience, centred around:

  1. The purpose of Geography
  2. The legacy of colonialism in the discipline of Geography
  3. The graduated approach and wider sense of progression model thinking

What is the purpose of Geography?

A major intellectual task within the subject is to encompass the diversity of contexts and the different types of knowledge that inform the study of environments and societies, and the interactions between the two, at a range of scales. Consequently, Geography programmes encourage holistic thinking across social and natural sciences, arts and humanities. They provide the intellectual foundations, tools and practical experience to enable graduates to integrate and apply a variety of fields of knowledge and forms of enquiry and to gather and evaluate evidence in the creation of innovative, inclusive and equitable solutions. Geography courses also develop a range of personal attributes, geocapabilities and skills with applied, real-world relevance beyond higher education. Geography is a STEM subject, and its courses produce graduates who use their geospatial awareness and data science, mapping and modelling skills to lead the response to the UK’s emerging economic and strategic priorities. As such, Geography courses produce graduates who are well placed to help identify and address environmental and social challenges at a range of scales. The specialist research skills provided by Geography courses also make geographers adept at assessing risks, considering ethics and participating in civic engagement. This leads to a rewarding, self-determined professional life.

QAA Consultation Document: (2021: 3)

I really like the wide range and ambitious statement of some of these disciplinary statements – there are plenty of schools who could draw inspiration from this in terms of forming their Department vision for Geography, and recognise the complexity and range.

But there’s an interesting and contestable statement about Geography as a STEM subject – wonder if this is funding related? – and it feels like a number of the more qualitative and experiential Geographies might be a little miffed at this characterization!

Legacies of Colonialism in Geography:

There are two really powerful paragraphs here, which I’d like to reproduce in full.

Contemporary geography draws from knowledge traditions formed through colonial enlightenment science. Geographical concepts and techniques contributed to the overseas expansion of British and European empires, which was justified using narratives of white, able and heteronormative superiority. Colonial and imperial geographies, and their contemporary legacies of systemic disadvantage, for example, racism, classism, disablism, homophobia and patriarchy, must therefore be acknowledged and countered by fostering an inclusive learning community encompassing a range of participants, such as students, academics, technicians, professional staff, visitors and external partners.

QAA Consultation Document (2021: 4)

What a powerful statement this is! How different to our tacit understanding of it at secondary level, but without the same head on confrontation of disciplinary legacy. In part, I think that reflects a university-level “community of practice” approach that is founded on disciplinary context and understanding. I remember studying (and writing about) my own studies of the “philosophy, nature and practice of Geography” at university, and how I had come to appreciate that disciplinary induction much more with distance and immersion.

Indeed, the QAA go on to note that:

Geographers have a critical understanding of the history of the subject, the social, cultural, economic and political context of past and present knowledge production; and the people and forms of knowledge excluded under conditions of coloniality. Central to this is a critical awareness of the discipline’s place within wider histories of colonialism and imperialism, meaning that Geographers possess a critical understanding of knowledge practices formed through colonial enlightenment science; the distinctive contributions the discipline made to this; related contemporary legacies of systemic disadvantage and injustice and the lived experience of this; and how the discipline can address these legacies. A geographical education requires that learners examine their own place in the world and the responsibilities this entails, recognising injustices and reflecting on ways to build inclusive, transformative practices of solidarity and justice. Decolonial approaches and practice provide a way to support this learning and reflection and foster anti-racist praxis within the learning community when integrated across the entire curricula.

QAA Consultation Document (2021: 11)

I really appreciate the ambition and coherence of this as a philosophical approach – to assess and understand the discipline as a constructed subject, with epistemic and ontologic positionalities that need to be explored. I wonder what a similar statement might look like for A Level Geography specifications, and hence, an ambition for secondary Geography?

What is excellent Geography?

Unlike the OFSTED report, which focuses on the discipline, the “exam board” bit of the QAA report also offers some standardisation language, and gives a sense of what good Geography graduates may go on to do. There’s an awful lot of excellent thinking about skills, attributes, teaching & learning approaches (and fieldwork) to be recommended.

I’ve shown some examples of their benchmark standards here, but I strongly recommend you read the full report for fuller thinking.

Geography graduates that achieve excellence beyond the typical standard are distinguished primarily by superior intellectual skills, which are deployed in the context of wide-ranging knowledge of the various aspects of the subject. The strength of Geography’s methodological breadth is most clearly demonstrated in its best graduates, who bring originality, insight and superior critical and reflective abilities to bear upon this knowledge, and have the capacity to link theory and practice in identifying and tackling research problems. This quality is evident across the spectrum of assessed work, but is perhaps most clearly demonstrated in independent work, especially dissertations, which may produce outcomes that are at or close to the levels of publishable research, and which represent an advance within subject knowledge.

QAA Consultation Document (2021: 18)

I really like the aspirations and synoptic approach here, and I think there’s a lot that both ITE providers and secondary colleagues alike could learn from this and apply to their own contexts.


I think one of the key differences in the QAA document is the sophisticated and nuanced way in which they recognise the plurality of pathways that specialist expertise will want to follow in developing a Geography curriculum at university level with 100% volunteer participants, smaller numbers, and fulltime specialist staff to deliver it. A lot of the “best bets” and pragmatic advice from the OFSTED guidance is neither present, nor needed.

I really liked the collaborative and pluralistic views from the QAA compared to the OFSTED approach – something I know others have already written on. It feels very much more advanced in scholarship and decolonialism, and the sense of there being many Geographies available to study and explore. There are some strong statements about the utilization of colonial enlightenment science which are really not echoed at secondary level – and I think this is a big part of the conversation that we should be having at the connective layers.

This, I think, is perhaps my biggest query, and one that requires much greater analysis and understanding of the process. I am left with two powerful questions:

  1. To what extent do the QAA and OFSTED approaches join up?
  2. To what extent should they? Recognising the very different contexts, and how they work, should we have “cradle to grave” ambition for the disciplinary coherence, or is that unnecessarily complex (or over simplification) for something that is fundamentally very different in place and study.

This has been a really powerful document to read – both in terms of my thinking as a former secondary HoD, but also in terms of starting to think about the ITE and Geography Education spaces – about what our subject offers. Restricting the view only to secondary level OFSTED reviews offers one perspective, and I’d strongly recommend that Geographers at all levels have a look at this document, and see what they might learn or how it might shape their thinking.

Mothers & Sons

A tweeted reply to someone’s bad day, where I shared a story from my past experience, got quite a sympathetic response, so I thought I’d share the full story.

Let’s start with some context. I was in my early thirties, and had only just started as a new Head of Geography at a new school. It was my first middle leadership job, and early in the term – perhaps the third weekend in September? – the Open Morning season began. Like a number of schools in the area, we held ours on a Saturday morning, and I was going in with the aim of being impressive. Obviously.

My parents were visiting London that weekend, too. And, over dinner on Friday night, my Mum raised the idea of whether they could come in too. It’d be nice if she could see the school, she said, because then she’d have a good idea of what I was talking about when we spoke on the phone.

Mums, as we know, never want to stop looking after their little babies.  

However, I knew that I’d be working a lot. The Open Morning was advertised from 9-12, but realistically we’d need to be in classrooms from about 8.45, so that we were ready.

We made a plan. I’d go in *very* early – which is what I was going to do anyway, for set up – and Mum & Dad could come with me. I’d show them round, while no-one was in, and then they would head off to the nearby Horniman Museum, where there was a world-famous walrus, and a café, and all would be well. They should come back by about 12.30, when we’d be all packing up, and we could come home together.

So it went. I showed them the Department, the classrooms, talked about what we were doing, we looked at Open Day resources. They saw the shared office, met some of the early bird team mates, and we were on our way out towards the main exit, when we saw the Head coming down the corridor. Also fairly new in post, he was checking that all was as it should be.

Not wanting to appear rude, I introduced my parents to him “up in London for the weekend, thought they’d like to see” etc.

“Hello”, said my Mum. “I’m David’s Mum. How’s he settling in? Has he made friends, and done well?”

Mums, as we know, never want to stop looking after their little babies.  

The Head was amused and wonderfully kind. I was mentally drafting a resignation. Mortified, we moved away, and I gently escorted them out to start their plans.

Were it to end there, my day would have been a fairly strange tale. Reader, it does not.

My parents are, it seems, incapable of a number of things, but prime amongst them is rudeness. That also, naturally, includes being late for anything. Ever.

The school was running a system on Open Days where visiting parents, children (and often, extended family, who’d turned it in to an outing) were paired with a Sixth Form student and a Year 7 student, who’d give them a tour of the school. If you went anticlockwise, you’d start in the Geography Department, before going to the hall. If you went clockwise, that’s where you’d finish. When someone walked through the door, they were paired up and the tour began fairly quickly – a pretty slick system was in place, particularly by about 11.15 when we were in full flow.

Ah yes. Noticed the time, did you?

We’d agreed a return of about 12.30 pm, so that my parents could miss the rush of incoming guests.

My parents didn’t get that memo. They arrived at about 11.15, walked through the front door – as you do – and were immediately swept up in the machine. They were allocated to a tour with a Sixth Former that I taught, and a Year 7 that I taught, and a random family with a child. I’m assuming that they thought my parents were the grandparents, and I’m guessing that everyone was being terribly polite and not saying “so, who are you?” and so on.

And, like I said. Incapable of being rude. So my Mum will have gone along with it, brightly and cheerfully, and no doubt nudged my Dad to keep quiet as the tour progressed in a clockwise direction.

But, by about the three-quarters point of the tour, the penny’s starting to drop for the guides. The child isn’t talking to the grandparents? The parents aren’t talking to the grandparents? Do these guys even know each other?

And so it turns out that, as they were walking from History towards Geography, the Sixth Former in charge of the tour plucks up the courage to start asking a little bit more about these random people in their 60s.

“So, you guys are not a family?”

No, they agreed. They were not.

“Do you have a child who’s interested in coming to the school?”

No, they said. They did not. They did, however, have a child already at the school.

Now, my Department is fairly popular at the best of times, and we’d got some interactive games going on, and it was a busy room and place. In addition, a bunch of my Sixth Form tutor group – many prefects, or involved in running things, had decided to come and congregate in the rooms as the morning was coming to a close.

The tour group arrive into this Department scene, right at the denouement of a quite frankly Sorkin-esque walk and talk.

“Oh, you have a child at the school already? What year are they in?”

“Oh no”, says my Mum. “He’s the Head of Geography, over there”

The Sixth Form guide actually squealed. A gentle hush fell across the room. She ran over to the rest of the Sixth Form group, and whispered excitedly and with great animation.

“No way! Sir’s parents?”

“Sir, you have parents?”



There were Sixth Formers on their phones, texting, requesting selfies with my parents. There were people coming in from other Departments to say hi.

For weeks: “I met your Mum, sir”. For years afterwards: “Are your parents coming to Open Day, sir?”

Mums, as we know, never want to stop looking after their little babies.

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.

MA Investigations: Establishing the Role of Intrinsic Motivators

This post is the fifth 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 the final analysis blog post, I want to look at how this varies depending on your school’s culture, and explore how intrinsic motivators change the attitudes people have.

By comparison to the extrinsic motivators of Ofsted and exams results, the “culture” of the school was described as the key intrinsic motivator for why research was adopted and used in different settings. It is therefore the key proxy to be used in this section as part of the “intrinsic” motivations analysis; however, it is also inextricably linked to the external drivers as we have just shown in the previous discussion.

In this post, I will outline the relationships that we find, and explore some of internally driven reasons that might help to explain why schools use educational research to build their cultures.

Chart to show the relationship between description of culture, and the participation ratio

First, it’s important to demonstrate the relationship between participation and the school’s teaching & learning culture. This is shown here: with 84% of respondents in a ‘positive culture’ having majority (i.e. greater than 50%) participation from their staff team.

By contrast, negative school cultures only had 23% participation by the majority: and 72% of those schools had less than a quarter of staff involved. Clearly, setting an appropriate culture of professional learning in a school – which was identified as a relatively low factor in the original analysis – has fairly substantial effects within the school itself, endorsing Kraft & Papay (2014)’s analysis of teacher professional development.

Chart to show the relationship between the use of educational research and school culture

In terms of the research question focus on education research, this shows some sharp differences in the extent to which people use educational research in their context.

For the ‘negative’ cultures, it’s only 9% of responses in the two positive categories; with 39% disagreeing, and 42% strongly disagreeing. The ratios are not quite reversed in the ‘positive’ culture, but 17% of this category strongly agree, with a further 41% agreeing. Only 21% had a low use of educational research with strong/disagreement.

Chart to show the relationship between confidence in the use of educational research, and the school culture

A similar trend can be observed in the confidence rating by staff here. 48% of staff in positive school cultures have confidence in their school’s use of educational research, where only 6% of negative school cultures feel the same. 81% of staff in negative school cultures are not confident in their school’s use of research; this figure is only 22% in the positive cultures.

Investigating what drives that confidence, particularly in light of the previously discussed training and experience analysis, and understanding how to derive that dynamic would be a fascinating area for further investigation, and a deeply interesting case study to explore.

Chart to show the relationship between staff interests and the school culture

The wider intrinsic-motivation trend of change is shown again here. One of the potential drivers of the culture ‘fit’ is the extent to which staff feel their personal values and aspirations are aligned with the schools.

Here, we see that there is some evidence that ‘positive’ cultures are more aligned with their staff: 68% of staff think that it’s important to be aligned and cohered between staff interest in research and utility; while that’s only 34% in the negative schools. The mixed cultures sit approximately in between these two extremes, echoing the interesting potential trend that has started to emerge from the other cultural analysis.

Chart to show the relationship between the interests of SLT, and the culture

By contrast, the ‘mixed’ culture is dominated by the feeling that Senior Leaders’ interests are the driving force behind the use of educational research: perhaps reflecting why the culture is described in mixed terms! This shows that in ‘positive’ cultures, this is still fairly high, at 73%, and lowest in the ‘negative’ cultures at 67%. The importance of leadership, both in terms of setting a research agenda, and in terms of building the culture, is echoed in these responses.

Figure 36: Chart to show the relationship between education research and workload, sorted by school culture

The use of educational research to generate better workload for staff (Figure 36) appears to be an important motivator: the positive responses are significantly higher (68%) in the ‘positive cultures’, compared to 45% in the mixed and 42% in the negative culture. Nearly 45% of staff in a ‘negative’ culture feel that this is unimportant; and it seems likely that staff being asked to do more, may well begin to describe their culture in negative terms.

Figure 37: Chart to show the relationship between educational research and teacher development, sorted by school culture

However, perhaps surprisingly, the link connecting education research to other intrinsic factor of “teacher development” is less decisively connected to culture (Figure 37).

Here, for example, we can see that there isn’t much variance between the extent to which people believe in the use of research for personal development; and in fact it’s the ‘negative’ cultures which have the highest proportion of positive responses to this prompt (90%), rather than the 83% of the ‘positive’ cultures. It may well be, as described earlier, that these schools are directing their access to research more significantly, and teachers feel confident in this cultural steer.

Figure 38: Chart to show the relationship between educational research and the intent to improve results for students, sorted by school culture

The relatively tangled motivations and attitudes are demonstrated again by the link between intrinsic and extrinsic factors in Figure 38.

95% of ‘positive’ cultures describe student outcomes as fairly or very important reasons to use education research, a figure that is closely matched by the mixed (79%) and negative cultures (80%). The lack of any negative responses in the mixed culture is suggestive of external pressures as the key driver, but this is only speculative. Similarly, the mixed culture (figure not shown) shows most importance given to external inspectors (64%), closely followed by the negative cultures (62%). While there is slightly less importance given to the inspectorate (56%) by the positive cultures, its’ influence is undeniable even here.

MA Investigations: Establishing the Role of Extrinsic Motivators

This post is the fourth 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 this post, I look at how that attitude changes depending on the extrinsic situation you’re in!

It’s a brief discussion – and I welcome all thoughts & ideas from it! It’s highly tentative, and comes with disclaimers and context as described.

Extrinsic Motivator: Examination Results

Having identified “better results” as the most important motivator in the use of educational results from my sample, further analysis is now conducted to explore the dimensions of that experience in creating T&L cultures. All respondents are split according to their self-described results, with the table showing the distribution of these groups. Any respondents who did not answer this question are removed from further analysis in this section.

Description of ResultsRespondents% of Respondents
Significantly better than local schools7224.9
A bit better than local schools8629.8
About the same as local schools7525.9
A bit worse than local schools3913.5
Significantly worse than local schools175.9

Table 1: Distribution of responses by self-described categorisation of examination results

Responses are standardised by category, and presented as percentage of the responses in an individual category: while this potentially skews analysis to a greater percentage for the lower categories, it enables easier comparisons to be made between schools with different results.

With the collective response showing the importance of results, the original hypothesis was for the general trends to reflect grading differences; in other words, schools with better results would have better teaching and learning cultures and feel more positively about them, and perhaps by association, their use of educational research.

Figure 19: Chart to show the importance of examination results, sorted by category of exam results

As the primary motivator of collective responses using educational research, the categorical response to the same question is interesting. All responses in the “significantly worse” category, and all but 13% of the “a bit worse” group rate the use of educational research as very or fairly important in driving their school teaching & learning culture.  However, there is no significant disparity between the attitudes: almost all categories show consistently higher than 85% positive relationship with the use of research to generate results.

Figure 20: Chart to show the belief in educational research as a driver of exam results, sorted by category of exam results

However, when we look at the impact of that process – rather than the motivation – there is more of a shift. Figure 20 shows that schools who have better/significantly better results appear to have fewer positive associations with education research: perhaps they can identify other factors to which they can attribute their exams success, whereas schools who identify as “same” or “a bit worse” are dominated by the positive responses. It is interesting that the schools who describe themselves as “significantly worse” do not seem to have full confidence in the impact: 25% of respondents are neutral or disagree that educational research is effective.

Figure 21: Chart to show the importance of using educational research to satisfy inspectors, sorted by exam categories

If we look at the Bernhard et al. (2020) hypothesis which suggests schools use evidence as an anchor (or shield) against inspection judgements, it is interesting to note that there is no single response that says “not at all” in any category. Figure 21 shows the inspection process clearly has some weight, even if exam results are uppermost in responses, and judgements of importance. The highest proportion of responses “for Ofsted” appear to be done in the areas doing a little worse than local schools (75% positive), just ahead of those doing significantly better (68% positive). These two groups are notably above the other three categories; and indeed, the lowest ranked category of exams results appears to be least likely to use educational research to satisfy external inspectors.  A similar result is shown in the relationship between educational research and parental/Governor satisfaction, with the analysis not shown here for brevity. Schools where exam results are significantly worse appear to have limited interest in the utility of research to satisfy external stakeholders; with a majority neutral opinion, and no regard for it as very important. As school exam results improve, the trend is for the views of stakeholders to be more positively regarded in the use of educational research.

Figure 22: Chart to show the relationship between descriptions of teaching and learning culture, sorted by exam categories

It is important to consider whether the extrinsic and intrinsic motivations for utilising educational research overlap. In this section, some of these intrinsic elements are unpicked further.

First, Figure 22 explores the relationship between the description of teaching & learning culture and the exam results. In general, it seems that the culture is described more positively where the exam results are better – potentially through either causal mechanisms of validating the efforts made by staff, or by creating a positive culture leading to good outcomes. There is no evidence to suggest either of these is more likely than the other!

The least positive relationship appears to be in places where the results are described as “a bit worse than local schools” which may well reflect changes and local challenges, or the imposition of a “turn around” culture and the potential tensions therein.

Figure 23: Chart to show attitudes towards educational research and teacher development, sorted by exam category

Figure 23  shows that the reflection of utility of research for personal development similarly shows an unexpected relationship. The highest confidence in personal development through the use of educational research comes in schools whose results are comparable to local counterparts (93% positive), and then there is a decline away from that down to 79% positive in those significantly better, and 77% positive in those significantly worse.

Figure 24: Chart to show attitudes towards educational research and workload, sorted by exam category

Similarly, when comparing an extrinsic factor to an intrinsic one, we see differences between schools, though this time at a different level. Figure 24 suggests that workload appears to be consistent between the top three categories of exam results, and there is little appreciable difference in the responses. However, the schools with worse exam results seem to split considerably, with a larger range of responses. For the “bit worse” category, the workload utility of research is the lowest of all sectors: only 54% positive rated, and the highest “not very important” at 23%. By contrast, the schools describing as “significantly worse” than local schools show the highest positivity for workload impacts: up to 74%, and the smallest neutral and not important ratings of all categories.

It seems that workload and processes are variable, and the pressures of schools in “turn around” status can often be significantly varied. It is beyond the scope and method of this enquiry to explore the experience of these examples; the originally intended method of triangulation interviews might have given further insight to the nature of work in these schools, but it offers a departure from this enquiry.

Figure 25: Chart to show the relationship between exam results and inspection results

Finally, Figure 25 shows the challenge of attempting to disentangle the motivations of extrinsic factors as identified in the limitations section.

There is a clear relationship demonstrated between exam results and inspection outcomes: 89% of the schools with significantly better results are graded as outstanding or good; while only 29% of the schools with significantly worse grades are graded so. Overwhelmingly, those schools are rated as RI (30%) or inadequate (41%). The challenge of correlation vs causality, and the inability of the quantitative data to unpick rationales is demonstrated quite clearly here: we can’t interrogate each enquiry to understand the motivations, and have a triangulation conversation to explore how and why each of these relationships are linked to their context.

This leaves the potential conclusion that the extrinsic motivation of examination results is important, and that schools in the edges of the median position seem to feel this pressure most significantly. They have the most positive attitudes towards the ability of education research, the impact on outcomes and seem to accept the workload consequences!

Extrinsic Motivations: Inspection Judgement

Accepting this co-variability and the potential limitations of the extrinsic factors overlapping, all respondents were split and analysed by their self-described inspection grades, to explore whether there were more obvious trends apparent.

RatingNumber% of Schools
Outstanding (OFSTED)/Excellent (ISI)8128.8%
Good (OFSTED, ISI)15053.3%
Requires Improvement (OFSTED)/Sound (ISI)3512.5%
Inadequate (OFSTED)/Unsatisfactory (ISI)155.3%
Prefer not to say23

Table 2: Distribution of Responses by Inspection Category

For the purpose of simplicity, the OFSTED terminology will be used hereafter to describe both categories of school inspection.

The majority (53.3%) of schools self-described as “good”, with about a third as “outstanding” and the rest split between RI and Inadequate status. 23 respondents preferred not to disclose the information, and were discounted from further analysis as a result.

As before, these varying categories are scaled to show standardised comparisons, noting and accepting the potential distortion of oversampling the lower categories.

Figure 26: Chart to show the attitude towards results in creating teaching and learning culture, sorted by inspection category

Building on the previous relationship between results and inspection category, Figure 26 shows that inadequate and RI category schools rate the use of education research as almost entirely to drive better results. While there is minor difference in the positive ratio for good/outstanding schools, there is less criticality: more define it as “fairly important” rather than very important as a reason to engage with education research.

Further analysis (graph not shown) suggests that there is a relatively consistent belief in the efficacy of the utility of educational research, where 65-75% of respondents in all categories describe a positive belief that research drives results. Only a small fraction (less than 5%) believe that there are no impacts on student results. The consistency of purpose, rather than intrinsic belief in the implementation of educational research, tends to suggest that the extrinsic motivation for using it is more significant than the intrinsic judgement of whether it yields the right outcome.

Figure 27: Chart to show the confidence in the use of educational research, sorted by inspection category

This trend appears to be continued through the confidence in research analysis in Figure 27.

While not as stark, there does appear to be a small trend in the confidence in the use of research as employed by the school as an inverse relationship with inspection outcomes. While only 36% of outstanding schools are confident, nearly 54% of the inadequate schools describe their confidence in the school’s use of research positively.

Further evidence (not shown) shows a consistent perception across all categories in the efficacy of research in personal development; suggesting that the use, and the teachers’ role in the process is less important than some of the contextual elements (results, judgement status).

This may well link to the appointments and structural themes identified earlier, including the designation of Research or Evidence Leads, and might be reflected in further study and analysis.

Figure 28: Chart to show the extent of educational research utility, sorted by inspection category

This perhaps connects to the perceived utility of educational research (Figure 28), with inadequate schools again showing a much greater positive response (73%) compared to RI (57%) and outstanding (47%) or good (41%).

The response rate for negatives (disagree/strongly disagree) remains reasonably consistent across all four categories; what changes appears to primarily be the extent to which people have “neutral” opinions on this question: from 24% neutral in a good category, through to none in the inadequate.

This may be an interesting result to explore further; but could also be a limit of the comparatively small sample size of the inadequate category.

Figure 29: Chart to show the relationship between teaching and learning culture and the satisfaction of external inspectors, sorted by inspection category

The previous link between exam results and external stakeholders is reinforced through further analysis of Figure 29, and a similar pattern found. Again, not a single respondent believed that there was no impact of external inspectors on the use of research.

There is little difference between the outstanding/good schools in their rationale relative to external inspectors, and they are fairly close to the inadequate schools, too (55% important in the outstanding/good vs 40% important in the inadequate category).

However, the schools ‘on the margin’ of requires improvement appear to be most driven by the OFSTED rationale: with 77% of respondents believing that the extrinsic inspection rational was fairly or very important.  A similar trend to the exam results is shown in the satisfaction of parents and governors (data not shown here). All but the ‘inadequate’ category showed relatively consistent attitudes to the use of research to satisfy parents. Inadequate schools regard the use of research to satisfy parents as relatively unimportant: 42% as “not very important” and 50% as neutral.

In terms of extrinsic motivators, then, it seems that Ofsted and results are inextricably linked, and are the key external drivers of the use of educational research in schools.

Figure 30: Chart to show the extent to which participants believe in the impact of education research on workload, sorted by inspection category.

Of the potential variables, the most significantly demonstrated intrinsic motivation for schools is the efficacy of education research in the ability to improve workload for teachers.

Although some observable disparities exist (Figure 30), there is some consensus across the three top categories. Inadequate schools stand out again, as the exception to the wider trend: with a very divided response (no neutral opinions), and a 70:30 split in terms of in favour vs disagreement.

The interpretations of the data sorted by external judgement and exam results would appear to support the conclusion that educational research is used to satisfy extrinsic motivation, and agree with Bernhard et al. (2020)’s hypothesis of research being used as a “shield” for judgements by schools in the two lower categories. We see similar levels of confidence and understanding about the efficacy of research and how it translates in to impact, but a greater utilisation of educational research as a mechanism to build teaching and learning cultures in schools.

It would be interesting to explore the extent to which these schools also have a strong leadership team, or an appointed “Teaching and Learning Lead”, because the relatively high confidence in how educational research is being interpreted and applied to setting does not relate to the prior training and experiential questions. This might generate a proxy of a research-informed culture, in which participants are presented with research through the prism of someone else’s leadership or experience. They are confident in the selection of material they are being presented with, and have all read the same papers/attended the same sessions, but may perhaps be unaware of the wider limitations, complexities and debates in the field – which

However, it could also be argued that in situations of high extrinsic need (poor exam results, low inspection status), the need to prioritise and focus on a specific outcome or target addressing one (or both) of these needs might well over-ride the wider cultural development of schools. It is possible that schools with a single focus use the research as a lever to move that focus, and this reduces other extraneous and plural perspectives in the day to day teaching. This is an equally plausible explanation of the analysis; which, without further triangulation research is uncertain.

The extrinsic motivations show real drivers of the use of educational research, and of the creation of teaching and learning cultures. However, to address the final research question, it is also important to consider intrinsic motivational factors.

MA Investigations: Overview of Attitudes to Educational Research

This post is the third in a series of outcomes from my MA in Education work. It’s a brief discussion – and I welcome all thoughts & ideas from it! It’s highly tentative, and comes with disclaimers and context as described.

Having shown some analysis of how teaching and learning cultures are created, and explored some of the different structural components, this section of analysis now turns to focus on the relative attitudes to the use of educational research.

Reflecting on the research questions, some of this analysis will be further broken down by intrinsic and extrinsic variables: focusing on the self-described Ofsted/ISI judgement, the perception of school’s exam results, and the self-described teaching & learning culture of the school. While all of these are potential insights into the motivations and processes, there is the caveat that they are all self-described, and without triangulation, the significance and veracity of these results are potentially limited to inferences only.

First, respondents were asked their relative opinions on different statements about the nature of educational research, and able to offer choices within a Likert scale. A summary is shown here. The highest positive responses are associated with intrinsic judgements of self: I am confident in using research; I enjoy engagement with education research, I would like to do more, and it makes me a better teacher, which are the top four positive responses overall. The context of the study – self-selected via networks – is very likely to cause a skew towards this kind of teacher in the first instance; but it is also likely that a modified version of halo effect (presenting oneself in the best light) is part of the explanation of this particularly high intrinsic response. This is, perhaps, in direct contrast to the experience and training of participants; most of whom have not had post-graduate contact with research approaches outside of their subject (only 11.25% have postgraduate qualifications in education research), show a considerable range of confidences in their research training, and the majority of whom will have trained via a PGCE route way. Further statements (e.g. we use research a lot) may indicate the role of SLE/ELE in schools as the mediator of this research in to teaching practice.

In terms of the purpose of research, the highest response is the extrinsic motivator of student results, with a dominant positive outcome, and small deviation. Whilst workload generates some positive responses, it also has perhaps the highest spread of outcomes, with a significant disagreement and neutrality compared to other factors.

Chart to show opinions on education research, aggregated across all responses

By contrast, the relative importance of various components in the construction of teaching and learning culture are specifically interrogated. The dominant response is to get better results for students (extrinsic), with high positive response, and almost no neutral/negative. The next responses are the interests of Senior Leaders, closely followed by the use of educational research, the experience levels and interests of staff (intrinsic), and the need to satisfy external inspectors (extrinsic). Other external motivators (e.g. parents and governors) show little positive response, but a relatively clustered distribution, while the greatest range of response appears to be over the complex issue of workload (intrinsic).

Chart to show opinions on the relative importance of different factors in the construction of teaching and learning culture, aggregated across all responses

On reflection, I think the “interest of Senior Leaders” is awkwardly worded: and could well encompass their motivation/drive to create a culture, as well as their personal preferences on the other hand. These have clearly different connotations, but cannot now be easily disentangled from the data that is presented here. Given the high importance of “school culture” in the drivers of positive engagement, it seems likely that at least some respondents have answered this question in this way, too.

Having given an initial indicator of the relative importance of education research by comparison to other factors, it seems to be engaging with a range of cultural contexts. It’s interesting to explore how research is used differently in different types of school, by either intrinsic motivation factors (e.g. the culture of the school, intent to develop staff or retain staff through workload management) or extrinsic motivation factors (results, external judgement by inspectors, responses to stakeholder perceptions).

In the next section of analysis, I explore some of these questions broken down by category of motivation, to investigate the extent to which we can see this in the data.

MA Investigations: Establishing the Nature of Teaching & Learning Cultures

This post is one in a series of outcomes from my MA in Education work. It’s a brief discussion – and I welcome all thoughts & ideas from it! It’s highly tentative, and comes with disclaimers and context as described.


Teacher professional development is one of the key factors in generating the best outcomes for students (Sutton Trust, 2011) and has shown to be critical in retention of quality teachers (Worth & Van Den Brande, 2020) and well being and motivation (Howard, 2020). Creating the right culture for teachers to develop is known to be effective (Kraft & Papay, 2014; 2016), and there has been significant interest in this as an area for investigation. The rise in research-informed practice has been one of the methods by which UK schools have attempted to raise standards, though it has not been universally accepted.

For my MA, I used a remotely-gathered random sample of 320 teachers to explore the attitudes towards the relationship between teaching and learning cultures, and the use of research informed practice in the secondary sector, in a relatively under-studied area of existing literature. There are lots of limits to the nature and sample of my work, so I’m sharing these things only for interest – rather than making any claims about What It All Means more widely!

Overall, the study shows that teaching and learning cultures tend to be dominated by purpose: and the extrinsic motivations of OFSTED judgement and exam outcomes are uppermost in the factors which create the culture of a school. Exploring the responses by differentiating categories based on this data enables an insight into how research, wider factors and the cultures vary in response to different contextual needs. The implementation of these methods is key to how positively staff regard their culture: and an investigation into different types of school cultures shows further insight into the role of senior leadership, and structural mechanisms to build confidence and clarity of approach to research, teaching and learning, and unite around intrinsic purpose for their school. Further research is recommended into the implementation of the broad trends identified here, as it has potential to be useful for those looking to develop their teaching and learning culture, or their use of research informed practice alike.

In this post, I’m looking at what I found out about the nature and attitudes towards people’s descriptions of their teaching and learning cultures in schools.

Establishing the Nature of Teaching & Learning Cultures:

Respondents were asked to describe their school culture (focused on staff teaching and professional development; versus the student-focused culture that was being created) in three words, which were then codified and grouped by textual analysis. A large majority (69.2%) of responses were “positive” in nature:

“Aspirational, supportive, reflective”

“Consistent”, “Student-focused”

“Respectful, caring, student driven”

19% of responses were mostly negative, including some relatively critical comments (e.g. “distrustful, archaic, centralised”, “Behind. The. Times”, “sporadic, box-ticking, ignored”, and “limited: Ofsted-driven”).  11.8% of responses showed some mixed feelings: e.g. “inclusive and emerging” or “reasonable, but slow-moving”. Some of these responses seemed to hint at issues in terms of implementation or effectiveness, rather than the aspiration or ambition of the culture.

Distribution of School Culture, according to Ofsted Grading

Having explored attitudes to culture across the whole sample, they were then split according to the self-reported inspection grade of the school. This shows relatively consistent perceptions across the different categories. The biggest difference was between the outstanding/excellent category (75% positive) and the inadequate/unsatisfactory category at 57%, but this was perhaps not quite as significant as expected.

Staff were asked to explore the culture of development further, and were asked about participation ratios. The majority of responses suggested that the majority of staff participated in professional development cultures, but there was not a significant margin here. A substantial number of responses (21.5%) believed that less than a quarter of their staff were involved, while a further 16.25% believed that only 25-50% of the staff were involved. The link between participation in development and performance management was explored by direct question; with only 14.6% of respondents suggesting that there was no link at all. 32% of responses suggested there was a reasonable amount of correlation; and 21% of people believed that it was a major part of their performance management.

Distribution of Staff who Participate in Professional Development Culture

Distribution of the extent to which professional development was integrated in to performance management

Distribution of Drivers of Positive Engagement with Professional Culture

With unclear connections to formal performance management, the drivers of positive and negative engagement in culture were explored further. The responses were open-ended, and codified in to different blocks of response. By far, the most significant driver of positive engagement with was the culture of the school and staff, where it was valued and made to feel important and part of how the school operated. Further drivers suggested the importance and impact of their professional development on students, and reflected positively on where time had been created for them to develop.

Distribution of Drivers of Negative Engagement with Professional Culture

By contrast, very few respondents cited financial incentives or career progression as a reason for engaging within professional development; though this is self-reported, and therefore potentially subject to perceptions and bias in the respondent’s self-image. However, the intrinsic motivations and wider school culture support the original analysis of Kraft & Papay (2014) in terms of creating the wider structures for engagement, rather than individual incentivisation.

A similar distribution of factors was found by specifically asking about what prevented people from participating in the culture of the school: the structural and systematic features of wider school culture and lack of time/workload dominated the responses. A number of responses spoke to the limited impact or poor quality of CPD they had experienced as a reason not to participate further; and very few (4) mentioned lack of financial support as a factor in the teaching and learning culture.

As part of the analysis of the use of education research in creating cultures, participants were asked to identify features of their teaching & learning culture.  

By some margin, the dominant responses to this were structural: 86.25% with specific INSET trg on T&L, 66.25% with named T&L roles in school, and 63% with support for staff wishing to attend external INSET. These stood out significantly more than the other responses, which varied in 25-50% response. The least common features included timetabled allocation (20.6%), journal/book clubs (19.6%) and financial support (17.8%).

Chart showing the frequency of key features of professional development cultures in responses

Similar judgements are made by respondents when asked to explore their perception of the usefulness of these components of creating culture, suggesting coherence between how often they appear, and the perceived utility of them. The structural features identified in previous figure are well represented here, but there is increasing importance for the use of subject networks, associations and professional organisations, together with coaching and mentoring to support staff development. Some structural features (work spaces, libraries, journal clubs and newsletters) appear relatively unimportant to creating cultures, and are reflected in the distributions of opinion.  It is interesting to identify how many of the ‘checklist’ of development features appear on this list, and to contrast the perception of their usefulness, with their utilisation as part of school’s teaching and learning cultures.

Distribution of Opinions on the Importance of Features of Teaching & Learning Culture

First, it is clear that there are a wide range of professional cultures being sampled here. The distribution of features, attitudes and descriptions of the culture all show significant variance in the day to day experience of teachers and their professional development. This is good for the study, though perhaps not the schools! While the literature shows consensus that professional development for teachers is critical, and may be starting to develop some coherence around what helps to generate good teaching, it is clear that the implementation on the ground is variable at best. It is interesting to see how the intrinsic cultural expectations of a school – as well as being important for their development in general (Kraft & Papay, 2014) – appears to be the dominant factor in how teachers engage (or not) with their own professional development. While workload and time, and to a lesser extent, poor experience with previous CPD, contribute to the disaffectation of staff, the teaching and learning culture is by far the most dominant feature of disengagement.

Second, the analysis shows that in the best teaching and learning cultures, there is clearly a lot to be positive about. Large numbers of staff are engaged, a range of provisions are being structurally and collegially implemented, and there are plenty of schools who appear to have a strong ethos of professional development. However, the difficult experience of a number of colleagues in this survey (even if a minority) show that this is not consistent across all schools. This has potential impact on teaching, learning and outcomes, together with retention (Worth & Van Den Brande, 2020) and the development of teachers themselves (Kraft & Papay, 2014). It will be important to try and work out the relationship between the drivers of these cultural differences, and potentially how that links to the use of education research in schools, particularly given that the external inspection judgement does not appear to be the key driver.

Finally, the results show an interesting mixture of structural and school-driven features (staff support for courses, named teaching and learning leads, specific training) and informal teacher-led factors (e.g. informal discussion groups, subject networks). The combination of extrinsic and intrinsic (to the teacher) attitudes will be an important parallel to draw when exploring the purpose and value of educational research.

MA Investigations: Why might schools use research?

This post is one in a series of outcomes from my MA in Education work. It’s a brief discussion – and I welcome all thoughts & ideas from it!


Teacher professional development is one of the key factors in generating the best outcomes for students (Sutton Trust, 2011) and has shown to be critical in retention of quality teachers (Worth & Van Den Brande, 2020) and well being and motivation (Howard, 2020). Creating the right culture for teachers to develop is known to be effective (Kraft & Papay, 2014; 2016), and there has been significant interest in this as an area for investigation. The rise in research-informed practice has been one of the methods by which UK schools have attempted to raise standards, though it has not been universally accepted.

For my MA, I used a remotely-gathered random sample of 320 teachers to explore the attitudes towards the relationship between teaching and learning cultures, and the use of research informed practice in the secondary sector, in a relatively under-studied area of existing literature. There are lots of limits to the nature and sample of my work, so I’m sharing these things only for interest – rather than making any claims about What It All Means more widely!

Overall, the study shows that teaching and learning cultures tend to be dominated by purpose: and the extrinsic motivations of OFSTED judgement and exam outcomes are uppermost in the factors which create the culture of a school. Exploring the responses by differentiating categories based on this data enables an insight into how research, wider factors and the cultures vary in response to different contextual needs. The implementation of these methods is key to how positively staff regard their culture: and an investigation into different types of school cultures shows further insight into the role of senior leadership, and structural mechanisms to build confidence and clarity of approach to research, teaching and learning, and unite around intrinsic purpose for their school. Further research is recommended into the implementation of the broad trends identified here, as it has potential to be useful for those looking to develop their teaching and learning culture, or their use of research informed practice alike.

In this post, I want to have a look at what I’ve found in the literature about research, and how & why schools might choose to use it.

What might motivate the adoption of research in schools?

Although academic research into philosophies and the nature of education have been long-established, the idea that teaching should be or become an evidence-based profession has only gradually become the consensus in a number of countries (Biesta, 2007). In the UK context, the Tooley Report was commissioned by OFSTED. It called for a transformation of educational research at academic and university level, so that educational practice could be transformed into an evidence-based practice. However, the structural practice of creating this evidence informed profession was not immediately implemented across the board. It took the appointment of a new UK Government to accept Goldacre (2013)’s influential argument for the incorporation of ‘evidence in education’ to align with the randomised control test methodology from medicine. Implementation mechanisms were required to disseminate the ideas from the research to practice.

The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) was founded in 2011 by a lead charity, The Sutton Trust, with a £125m grant from the Department for Education (Edovald and Nevill, 2020). In March 2013, the EEF and the Sutton Trust were jointly designated by the Government as the ‘What Works Centre (WWC) for Education’. This was one example of the new Government’s approach to policy implementation, based on the ‘what works’ movement from the USA.  It is founded on the principles of impact evaluations, randomised controlled trials, and the increased production of systematic reviews over the last 10 years (Edovald & Nevil, 2020). Within a short timescale, changes to initial teacher education have reinforced this message (Bennett, 2017) and made it clear that leaders should be critically involved (Greany, 2018; Greany and Brown, 2017) in supporting teacher autonomy through professional development (Lynch, 2016; Worth and van den Brande, 2020). These large-scale structural approaches have created a wider extrinsic contextual motivation, where policy and implementation take a particular ideological and philosophical approach to teacher design.

First, the publication of the Teaching White Paper in 2010 by the Department for Education set out a new set of approaches which would build on the interventions which provided the impetus for improvement in the highly successful London Challenge. The analysis highlighted the potential influence of the Teaching School concept (Kennedy, 1991) on improvement in schools (Department for Education, 2010). Schools worked with local authorities and Universities, including the SUPER project with Cambridge University,  partnerships with the Institute of Education through the Research Learning Communities; and the RISE Programme within the Research Schools Network (Burn et al., 2020). Similarly driven by the requirement of the Research Excellence Framework to account for their “impact”, Universities had been keen to work widely with school environments (Bernhard et al., 2020; Burn et al., 2020; Weston and Clay, 2018). Becoming a ‘teaching school’ was a way to maximise income for schools at a time when budgets were thin, and this extrinsic driver saw the creation of a large number of research or teaching hubs, many of whom also ran their own internal teacher training programmes (Burn et al., 2020).

Second, following the creation of Multi-Academy Trusts, Greany et al. (2018) highlights the role of wider collaboration in building teacher quality. It became important, and valuable, to work together and align in approach. A range of Teaching School Alliances have developed since 2011. They are designated and funded further by Government, and are led by between one and three higher performing schools. By 2017, there were more than 800 Teaching Schools designated nationally, but with significant variation between them. Gu et al. (2015)’s evaluation highlights the range of organisational forms apparent across different teaching schools: showing significant variance in their voluntary status, regional disparities and their demographic context. The approach has been criticised for overly focusing on secondary schools, and schools in deprived areas (Finch et al., 2016; Gu et al., 2015), but I think that this is likely to be an extension of the “London Challenge philosophy”, or a reflection of the types of provider nd funding that are required. With the outsourcing of many of the functions of these original projects now in the hands of tutoring companies or charitable enterprises, the original motivation to adopt research as a lever to release more schools funding is perhaps less significant than before, but it is nonetheless a powerful extrinsic motivator for schools in recent memory.

The philosophical and ideological ripples have resonated through the Department for Education out towards regulatory inspectors OFSTED, who have recently produced a series of Subject Research Reviews. This creates a third extrinsic motivator: the adoption of a ‘research culture’ to satisfy the inspectors. In an insightful study on this theme, Bernhard et al. (2020) qualitatively explored the attitudes of headteachers of highly effective schools in London and the opportunity areas. They found that Heads consistently describe their institutions as “professional learning communities” (Bernhard et al., 2020). However, Bernhard et al. (2020) suggested that Heads identified the central focus of CPD as being on improving student engagement with “teaching and learning”, spreading the idea of collective responsibility for students’ learning and not admitting excuses. Their study suggests that research engagement is associated with the“highly effective schools”, while the headteachers that specialised in school turn-around did not use research to underpin their decisions. Bernhard et al. suggested this could be linked to the centralised policy of a Trust; or simply recognising that research engagement is a secondary priority to the core mission of “turning around a failing school” (Bernhard et al., 2020: 6) and focusing on examination results, or other measures of student outcome.

This apparent dichotomy between a research informed practice, and a focus on outcomes is explored by Malin et al. (2020), who review the use of evidence in a number of international contexts. They argue that the higher accountability context of the UK system creates a structural requirement to engage in research informed education: putting the responsibility to learn and improve on the schools and create quasi-market pressures balanced with regulation and control via OFSTED (Godfrey, 2016). It is argued that:

“this framework focuses the minds of – and places pressure on – school leaders to concentrate on specific forms of school improvement and research”

(Malin et al., 2020: 6).

Instead of being open to judgement externally, a school leader can adopt a deliberate process of researching and enquiring. This means not only the potential for Research School funding, but also a school can create its own criteria by which to judge success. It might be argued that schools compensate for the pressures of external accountability by becoming more ‘internally accountable’. Seen in this way, the drive to become a research engaged school is highly empowering not only to school leaders but staff, students, parents and other stakeholders (Godfrey, 2016; Malin et al., 2020).

This extrinsic motivation is critically important to understand at the heart of my second and third research questions: do school cultures adopt and implement educational research as a highly effective lever to improve student results, respond to external judgements and inspections, or as a psychological “best bets” defence mechanism against those extrinsic factors?

However, there is an increasing appetite for research informed practice from teachers themselves (Stefanini and Griffiths, 2020). There are three potential reasons why teachers might want to drive their own professional growth through the adoption of research-influenced practice. In part, this could be just a personal trait, but it also shows how teachers are finding a sense of professional value and satisfaction in their ability to have agency about some aspect of their work. As a school, therefore, the intrinsic motivation around adopting research-informed practice may be deeply connected to the wellbeing and retention of staff. Worth & Van Den Brande (2020) produced an analysis of the conditions of teachers in the UK context. They report that 38 per cent of teachers say that they have ‘a little’ or ‘no’ influence over their professional development goals, echoing wider concerns about their influence over other structures of their professional life:

Teachers also report relatively low autonomy over assessment and feedback, pupil data collection and curriculum content in their phase or subject. Teachers report relatively high autonomy in areas associated with classroom management and practice, such as classroom layout, teaching methods, planning and preparing lessons, use of classroom time and rules for behaviour.

(Worth & Van Den Brande, 2020)

The size of the autonomy gap between teachers and other professionals is a long-standing one, and is often linked to the size of school and the potential for them to be part of a Multi Academy Trust (Finch et al., 2016; Greany, 2018).

Together with autonomy, workload is consistently the most-cited reason ex-teachers give for why they left the profession (Lynch et al., 2016; Howard, 2020). Workload is often conceptualised simply as the number of hours teachers work, but “it is also about teachers feeling in control of their work” (DfE, 2019). Research by Sims (2017) found a relationship between the extent to which a teacher regards their workload as manageable and job satisfaction, but no relationship between working hours and job satisfaction. Job satisfaction is an important factor associated with teachers’ intentions and decisions to stay in the profession (Lynch et al., 2016; Worth et al., 2018). In direct contrast to the work of Kraft & Papay (2014), and Hobbiss et al (2020), it seems that while effectiveness may plateau, teachers who stay in the classroom after their first five years do not experience increased autonomy as their careers progress (Kraft & Papay, 2016). Howard (2020) shows that teachers perceived influence over their professional development (even if only moving from ‘some influence’ to ‘a lot of influence’) is associated with a nine‑percentage‑point increase in intention to stay in teaching. Lynch et al. (2016)’s NFER Analysis of Teacher retention found no evidence of any influence of a school’s proportion of free school meal pupils, academy status, or region on intent to leave the profession: but that there is a strong interaction between teacher engagement and retention, with 90% of engaged teachers intending to stay. As an intrinsic motivator (for a school culture), there is a significant opportunity to be embraced by a thoughtful leader (Strickland, 2020;  Tomsett & Uttley, 2020). Effective and well-targeted professional development cultures are likely to be associated with a positive work culture, which will lead to higher job satisfaction, and retention of quality teachers (Howard, 2020). 

If research can offer this, as part of a wider school culture, then it seems to be a high intrinsic motivation factor for adopting it. However, while there exists a wide range of studies in to the wellbeing and attitude of the profession in general, the interplay between the use of research, and attitudes and cultures does not appear to have been explored in depth at the time of writing.