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Go on a trip to the research informed classroom

March 11, 2020, 12:49 GMT+1
Read in 8 minutes
  • Mike Fairclough takes us on a voyage of discovery...
Go on a trip to the research informed classroom

One of the things that I love about education is that it is immersed in discovery and the learning of new things. To capture a student’s interest and imagination with fresh skills and knowledge is always incredibly rewarding.

However, new learning is not just the domain of the students in our care. It is just as applicable and of value to the adults within our schools. To capture this broad concept, I will use the phrase “the research informed classroom” and will focus on three different ways of looking at this.

Teaching as a product of research

One of the UK’s most prolific and impactful researchers is Professor Bill Lucas. He has written numerous books and developed concepts which have influenced research informed learning within many schools.

An example of this is his “Creative Habits of Mind” which was trialled with teachers in England by the Centre of Real-World Learning at the University of Winchester.

The research found that when teachers understand what creativity is, they are more effective in cultivating it in their learners. Hundreds of schools, including my own, have drawn on the work of Professor Lucas and put his findings into action.

The list of educational thinkers who regularly inspire teachers through their research is extensive.

Personally, I have found that the Twitter and Facebook community of educators, such as those linked to the hashtag “Edutwitter” and #primaryrocks, among others, have signposted me to easily digestible educational research, which I have then used within my school.

If I am inspired by a particular approach, which I find on social media, I then explore Ted Talks and carry out internet searches for more information on the subject. Social media also offers the opportunity for discussion around ideas between peers.

Action research

The research informed classroom can also take the form of action research. This is where the teaching and learning within a school explores a hypothesis, tries out new ideas and records the findings.

Until the conclusion of the project, the impact of the action research will be largely unknown. Depending on the success of the initiative, the research will either be adopted by the teacher and their organisation, or not.

This approach embraces an element of calculated risk, within which “failures” and challenges are accepted as being part of the process.

At my own school, we have engaged in several action research projects over the years. A significant one was our Positive Psychology action research project.

This had a focus on Positive Psychology traits, such as resilience, kindness and gratitude and how we might integrate and promote these qualities throughout the school.

We were particularly interested in the expression of gratitude and its effects on our students. There has been extensive research into the emotional, physical and mental impact that the expression of gratitude has on an individual.

This has been tested out within various contexts, but little has been explored within the school environment.

Some of the positive effects that the regular expression of gratitude can have on a person include:

  • Increased self-esteem
  • Greater optimism
  • Heightened energy levels
  • Strengthened heart
  • Stronger immune system
  • A decrease in blood pressure
  • Improved emotional intelligence
  • Improved academic intelligence
  • An expanded capacity for forgiveness
  • A decrease in anxiety and depression

In light of these findings, I implemented a gratitude action research project at my school and worked closely with our Educational Psychologist to ensure that the research was conducted with rigour and in line with academic protocols. The study has now been rolled out to other schools, due to its huge success

Inquiry based learning

A different interpretation of the research informed classroom is when the curriculum itself is driven by inquiry.

“Teaching can be research-based in that sense that the curriculum is largely designed around inquiry-based activities, rather than on the acquisition of subject content; the experiences of staff in processes of inquiry are highly integrated into the student learning activities; the division of roles between teacher and student is minimised; the scope for two-way interactions between research and teaching is deliberately exploited.” Jenkins and Healey (2005)

I believe that this is a particularly powerful way of engaging in research for the benefit of learners and teachers. For the past two years, my school has been involved in a project called “Spirals of Inquiry” created by Professor Judy Halbert and Professor Linda Kasar, based in British Columbia.

Learners play a key role in the Spirals of Inquiry concept, with a focus on talking with students and listening to their thoughts about how they learn and what they want to learn.

The teachers then focus on key questions inspired by the feedback from their students. The discussions then inform the direction of the curriculum.

In light of the discussions between the teachers and their students, the teachers explore various ideas and ask themselves questions such as “Is this information genuinely coming from the children or is it being influenced by the adults within the school?” and “What would happen if we did X differently?”

This process, which is rooted in fostering curiosity in the children and the adults, then moves into action and implementation of the idea being explored. As the name suggests, the Spiral of Inquiry then returns in a cyclical manner to further discussions between the teachers and their students

Collaboration across all three approaches

At the root of the research informed classroom is collaboration. In his book “An Education Manifesto for Change”, the author and speaker, Richard Gerver, encourages teachers to improve the education system from within.

Gerver suggests a broad range of actions and personal qualities that he invites us to endorse. For example, a constant theme running throughout the book is Gerver’s belief in the power of collaboration between individuals to effect change.

He suggests that educators should be having more conversations with one another, with business people and with scientists and artists. He says that this will broaden our perspectives and deepen our practice. The idea being that through connecting and collaborating with others, we can enhance our own craft as educators.

For me, the ideal research informed classroom and school involves all three of the approaches outlined above. Teaching informed by research, engaging in action research projects, and embedding the curriculum in inquiry.

Woven into, and across, all of these approaches are interactions and discussions between teachers and learners, as well as connections between teachers and other professionals.

These three approaches combined have the potential to create powerful learning environments. Places which delight in discovery, learning and new knowledge.

A stellar imagination

Carl Sagan (1934-1996) was an American astronomer, cosmologist, astrophysicist, astrobiologist and author. His research revealed much of what we now know about our solar system and he helped NASA with their space missions to Mars, Venus and Jupiter.

Professor Sagan was also a teacher and taught a range of courses at Harvard University and Cornell. He particularly enjoyed teaching children and young people about the universe and inspired many individuals to become scientists within his field.

He famously said: “Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were. But without it, we go nowhere.”

Mike Fairclough is headteacher at West Rise Junior School.

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