Updated: Jan 7
Continuous improvement decisions should not be made in isolation. Education decision makers should engage a variety of stakeholders as they seek to make informed decisions to remedy long-lasting problems of practice. Unfortunately, the task of reviewing research for decision making is often left to a single leader who performs their review on the couch on a Saturday morning or in the bleachers at their kids soccer game. We can do better! Research use in continuous improvement must become intentional and systematic in our schools. It must become the way we make decisions. It must become part of the school culture.
Here are five steps you can take to start creating a healthy culture that promotes research use in your school.
Create an Expectation
The first step in building a culture that prioritizes research use for decision making is to create a clear expectation. Just like you would for any other new initiative in your school, the leaders in a building or system must clearly state a consistent expectation for research use in decision making. Once that expectation has been set, the leadership team must establish the expectation through their own practice and modeling. Remember, we should never ask anyone to do something that we ourselves are not willing to do.
Consider how you might hold yourself and other accountable to meeting this expectation. It can be beneficial, for example, to include a research item on every faculty or team meeting agenda. You could include links or citations to research when giving presentations to your colleagues. Perhaps you align your professional learning agenda with an action research agenda to help your staff see the connections between research and practice. Regardless of which steps you take, every member of your team must know and be able to explain the expectations for research use in your school.
Establish Protected Time
Listen – educators are busy people! If we don’t establish protected time for research activities, they simply won’t happen. Research will give way to the other required daily tasks of an educator. By establishing protected time for research use activities, education leaders are sending the message that research use is important and valued in the school.
One way that you can build protected time into your schedule is by adding a research day into your professional learning community (PLC) rotation. Many effective PLC groups follow an established routine of planning, collecting data, and discussing outcomes. By adding a research use day into the routine, the PLC group will have protected time to talk about research that can inform their teaching.
Another method is to dedicate one faculty meeting per month to the cause of research use. Select two to three teachers each month to find an interesting article and present it to the faculty. Ask them to summarize the study, discuss the findings, and explain how the findings of that article may impact their professional practice. This method ensures that the work of research use is evenly distributed across the faculty and that no single faculty member consistently bares the burden of searching for and reviewing new studies.
Whichever method you choose, please do not ask your educators to use their own time to perform research use tasks to benefit the school. There are enough hours in the day – you just have find them.
Provide Necessary Training
Training is a key element of any new program implementation. Clear expectations and protected time won’t get you where you want to be if the people on your team don’t have the skills necessary to perform the tasks. Most educators receive very little formal training in research use and interpretation during their formal preparation. We must supplement with high quality professional learning designed to get them where they need to be.
When designing training for your team there are a few topics you should consider. First, review basic research methodologies and concepts. Your team will have a hard time making good use of research if they don’t understand the difference between a randomized control trial and an interview-based case study. Next, you want to empower your team by giving them some light training in education statistics. I’m a big believer in prioritizing interpretation over theory when it comes to this topic. In my view, it doesn’t matter if your team understands the underlying theory of a t-test or even how to perform one. Rather, they should be able to read and interpret the results of a t-test and describe how the results may impact their instruction. Finally, consider sending members of your team to actual research conferences so that they can learn how to communicate about research effectively. Research use isn’t helpful if you cannot adequately explain the research in front of you. Give them exposure to actual researchers so that they can listen and learn about how to communicate about research.
Give Access to Resources
Your team will not be able to use research effectively if they cannot get their hands on it. You need to take steps to ensure that they have adequate access to research resources. Consider purchasing school level subscriptions to academic journals that publish on topics relevant to your school. Are you focusing on school improvement? Check out School Effectiveness and Improvement. Do you have a highly diverse school with children from around the world? Check out the Journal for Multicultural Education.
You should also make sure that your team has ready access to academic databases. Talk with your school’s library media specialist about what kinds of academic databases they may be able to subscribe to. Of course, there is always the ERIC Database. It’s free and easy to use. Here’s another perk – if your library subscribes to a couple of databases, then your students can use them to!
Finally, consider creating your own internal research archive. As your team pulls interesting articles for discussion in various meeting, archive those in a digital storehouse so that other folks in the building can access them too. These articles are rich for future consumption because they were likely selected to address existing problems of practice in your building. Curate your own internal database of articles that drives instruction and improvement in your school.
Focus on Improvement over Accountability
Finally, when building a culture for research use, focus on improvement over accountability. This rings true for data analysis work too. We never want anyone in our building to feel like they are “in trouble” based on this work. It is likely that, at some point in your research use journey, you will find an article that says that something you are doing in your school is bad. Try not to internalize that discovery with an emotional response. Instead, consider it an opportunity to engage with your team in a meaningful conversation about a practice. Maybe you need to do more research on that practice so that you can fully understand the issues at hand. Maybe you need to perform an action research project to understand how that issue is playing out in your school in real time?
The key here is to make sure that we never place blame or point fingers as a result of our research use activities. We want to be informed and we want to drive continuous improvement. Don’t use research to bonk somebody on the head.
As you begin to build your culture of research use, make sure you check out the resources housed in The Repository. I have worked hard to build a series of tools, training material, and instructional videos to help guide your way. One resources you may find particularly helpful is my eBook, Writing a Great Literature Review. It will walk you through a systematic process for searching the literature and using research to inform your decisions. Good luck on your journey friends, and let me know how I can help.