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The Knowledge: New avenues for teacher-powered research

Consider a whole-class reading lesson in Key Stage 2. Is it more effective for pupils’ reading comprehension to read a story continuously or to stop periodically for questions and discussion?

Teachers make decisions like this all the time, with a view to improving pupil learning. But often, research to support choosing one approach over another just doesn’t exist.

That’s why we’ve introduced a new approach to evaluation, designed to help us learn more about the impact of teachers’ classroom-level choices.

One of our first Teacher Choices trials tested the aforementioned example. The Story Time research project, evaluated by a team at the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER), compared the impact of continuous reading versus stopping and starting to ask relevant questions on Year 4 and 5 pupils’ literacy outcomes.

The trial found that pupils taught by teachers who paused to ask questions scored higher in reading and listening comprehension on average than pupils taught by teachers who read aloud without stopping.

It’s an interesting finding in and of itself. But the study also demonstrated the feasibility of the wider Teacher Choices model, meaning we could look to apply it to other questions around best practice.

Encouragingly, participants in our early Teacher Choices studies have been really enthusiastic about how it could support evidence-informed practice in their setting, and the contribution they were making to research and innovation in the wider sector.

This is a big step forward in answering the questions that matter to teachers

We also found that the short, simple guides we provided to participants in our first studies were sufficient for teachers to understand the trial and implement the chosen approaches in their classrooms.

Challenges and opportunities

These initial trials underscored the importance of close collaboration with teachers at all stages of the research process, from developing research questions to communicating the eventual results.

So, when we commissioned a new trio of Teacher Choices projects in 2022, all three began with a scoping phase designed to identify relevant, testable practice dilemmas across each subject theme. Teachers were involved throughout, in co-design workshops, interviews, focus groups, piloting work and large-scale surveys. This close engagement was pivotal for each project to progress to an impact evaluation.

Despite some exciting initial findings, we have come up against some methodological challenges in these early trials. For example, running causal evaluations of teacher practices means we have to identify specific outcomes that we would expect the practice to influence and evaluate them with sensitive assessment measures.

Where standardised test measures lack the necessary precision, evaluators like NFER have turned to innovative approaches by creating and validating bespoke assessments or collecting teacher-developed topic tests to evaluate the impact of Teacher Choices.

On top of this, integrating RCTs into real-world practice entails navigating some level of variation. Not all teachers instruct the same topics in the same sequence, and pupils in classrooms may not be grouped in the same way across settings.

Such differing contexts challenge the ability to test pupils across settings and produce a standard impact. However, it also presents a unique opportunity to work with teachers in identifying innovative testing solutions.

To support evaluators with such challenges, each new Teacher Choice project has been guided by a Study Advisory Board comprising methodological, subject and practice experts providing fresh perspectives to help inform the evaluation.

What next for Teacher Choices?

We are currently recruiting for a range of Teacher Choices evaluations, designed to answer questions including:

We’ve also partnered with Hg Foundation to fund a Teacher Choices trial in Key Stage 3 science looking at whether supporting teachers to make effective use of ChatGPT for lesson and resource preparation can help to reduce teacher workload, compared to traditional preparation methods. As EdTech developments are rapidly transforming teaching and learning practices, this evaluation provides the opportunity to generate expedient, robust and timely evidence in this space.

This is an exciting time for education research. Teacher Choices represents a big step forward in answering the questions that matter to teachers, and in partnership with teachers every step of the way. To be part of that journey, just click on the links above to learn more and register your interest.

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