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18 June 2019

Experimental education research: Five tips for field trials in schools

Eliza Kozman and Michael Sanders

ELIZA KOZMAN AND MICHAEL SANDERS: So you want to run a field trial in education? Here are five top tips to help you.

Running field trials in schools
So you want to run a field trial in education? Here are five top tips to help you get there.

The UK has become a world leader in experimental education research over the last decade or so. While there have been major breakthroughs emerging from this research, there are important lessons to learn about how we design and execute experiments in this complicated space. In this short series of blogs, we’re hoping to share our lessons from the last few years of conducting research in this area, in the hope that other researchers may share the joy of experiments, and avoid some of the traps that we’ve fallen into. 

So you want to run a field trial in education? Great! What next? The most important ingredient for any school-based research is, well, schools. But how do you get them to participate in your project?

Recruiting and managing schools can be one of the most challenging aspects of education research. Here are our top tips for getting, and keeping, schools on board.

1: Your mountain is someone else’s molehill.

Once you have your foot in the door, remember the cardinal rule of education research: your project is probably the least important thing going on in a school. Between exams, handling pupil sickness, safeguarding issues, pushy parents, absent parents, building maintenance, behaviour management, marking, and the all important task of actually teaching young people, there’s so much going on in a school that you were lucky to get invited in in the first place.

Your research project might be your life’s work, the culmination of a dozen or more years of thinking, but it’s one of a hundred things a school will be doing to try and support the education of their pupils. You need to act accordingly. They can’t be expected to make a priority of you, which means you need to make a priority of them. If the head can only meet with you at 8 am on Monday morning, and the school’s in Chard, Somerset, be prepared to start driving at 5 o’clock and for a McDonalds breakfast in a motorway service station. If you get there and find out there’s an Ofsted inspection and they’re too busy, smile, wish them the best of luck, and get back in the car.

2: Talk is cheap

A good chunk of schools will say that they are willing to participate in your project and then drop out. A lack of staff time, headspace or a whole host of other issues can rapidly derail a school’s involvement so don’t be disheartened if you lose more than 20% of your sample prior to implementation. Building this assumption into your research design is vital to avoid running an experiment that’s too small to really learn anything from.

Do everything you can to work out who is engaged and who isn’t as early as possible. It can be tempting to try and avoid breaking the bad news about data sharing, or some other piece of admin, until later down the road, but this is a mistake. Be clear about expectations, and what’s needed of your partners, before you go too far - this will quickly sort the really engaged from those that were going to drop out later anyway, and minimises wasted effort on both sides.

3: Understand your point of contact

Even if a teacher is champing at the bit to run your project, it is almost certain they will need sign-off from more senior colleagues, so early contact with Heads or Deputy Heads is vital. We find that if you’re working in a particular geographical area, or with an academy trust, it helps to present to as many of the head teachers at the same time as you can. Make sure you’re available to answer any questions they have, and make sure you’re speaking to their concerns - as we’ve said above, your research question is less important to them than it is to you - they want to know how it helps their students, how it’s good for their school, and how much work it is for their staff. Make sure you can answer those questions before you go in. 

4: Give of yourself, and people will tend to pay you back

Field research in an area is personal, and depends a lot on human connections between the researcher and the schools they’re working with. If you make your passion for the project obvious, if you get to know and to like the people you’re working with, this is contagious and can make a big difference.

When you go to speak at conferences for head teachers, don’t just give your talk and then leave to head back to the office. If there’s a conference dinner, or another evening event, make sure to attend.

During projects we try to make sure that everyone involved at the school either has, or can easily access, our personal mobile phone numbers, and that they know they can call us at any time if they have a concern about the trial. People hardly ever call at 2 am, but knowing that they can is helpful in easing people’s concerns. If people see how much you’re doing for them, that’ll stoke their enthusiasm for the project.

5: When in doubt, bring cake

One important lesson we learned from our colleague Raj Chande was to always bring cake or other sweet treats when you visit a school to talk about your research or to see how things are going. If you get known as the one who always brings cake, people will be happier to see you than if you’re known as the person with the data collection forms. Plus, even if the trial doesn’t go to plan, you’ll have cake.


This blog is part of a new series on experimental education research from Eliza Kozman and Michael Sanders. Read the previous blog in the series: Experimental education research: navigating a researcher's minefield


Eliza Kozman is Research Manager at the Centre for Transforming Access and Student Outcomes (TASO), the What Works Centre for Higher Education, which is hosted at the Policy Institute at King’s and a doctoral student at UCL’s School of Management.  

Michael Sanders is Executive Director of the What Works Centre for Children’s Social Care, Academic Lead at TASO, and a Reader in Public Policy in the Policy Institute at King’s.  

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