This was the question being posed at the Talking Science Education debate, an event held annually by the Royal Society, the Wellcome Trust and the Science Learning Centres at the Assochemistry teacher 2ciation for Science Education conference. The debate aimed to generate discussion on the use of evidence to better inform science education practice. Carole Willis, Chief Executive of the National Foundation for Education Research (NFER), chaired the debate. She was joined by a panel of experts: Alison Peacock, Wroxham School, Dr Hilary Leevers, Wellcome Trust, Professor Mary James, University of Cambridge and Alison Hodgson, Cambourne Village College.  The panel members contributed their own points of view to the debate and guided the discussion with the audience with questions such as ‘how does action research fit with the drive to make education more based upon scientifically robust evidence?’ and ‘who is the intended audience of education research?’

So what was the take of the participants on this subject?  Perhaps unsurprisingly as it featured in the news recently, there was a lot of discussion about the use of Randomised Control Trials (RCT- studies where a number of similar people are randomly assigned to two or more groups- one of which is a control group- to test a specific drug or treatment[1]) in education and how this type of research can fit with teacher-led action research. Attendees seemed to agree that these two kinds of research needed to complement each other, as they can help teachers to find the answers to different types of questions, for example what works and why it works. There was some discussion as to whether RCTs are applicable at all to education, since children and children’s learning are very complex issues. An interesting point that came out of this strand of discussion was the need to understand who it is that teachers trust. It is not always clear to teachers what research will be relevant for them and what constitutes sound research. Is there a need for some research ‘advocates’ that teachers can trust?

Attendees were also keen to discuss how research findings can be better communicated to teachers. It was widely agreed that currently, the intended audience of education research is not teachers. There seemed to be a general consensus that there was a lot of work to be done to ensure that findings were shared in a way that would be understandable to teachers and school leaders. Both teachers and researchers would benefit from working more closely together in this area. The development of a shared language was suggested as a way to encourage collaboration.

The role of continued professional development as a tool and a space to allow teachers to learn more about education research and to reflect on how they can apply it to their own practice was highlighted. Some attendees were concerned that the increase in schools-based teacher training, such as Schools Direct, would result in a wider divide between teachers and researchers. Attendees also discussed the role of subject associations in this debate, and their potential contribution as the missing link between broad findings and how they can be applied to a specific subject in the classroom.

In the end the chair left us with three key questions:

  • What are the incentives for science teachers to engage in broad research?
  • Who do teachers listen to?
  • What are other countries doing in terms of education research?

There is much food for thoughts here and clearly this is a topic which is bound to continue to generate discussion in the future.

If you would like more information about this event, please contact us at education@royalsociety.org.


[1] NICE – National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, http://www.nice.org.uk/website/glossary/glossary.jsp?alpha=R

  • Nick von Behr

    Thanks this sounded like a very timely debate given the large number of education research projects (many which are RCTs) currently being funded by the Education Endowment Fund and now the NCTL. I agree with the use of what I would called knowledge brokers, in fact I’m one, in facilitating the transition from research to practice. There is quite a community of us out there looking at our own practice and trying to link it up with comparable sectors such as health, welfare and development.