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02 September 2019

Experimental education research: Getting in the teacher's good books

Eliza Kozman and Michael Sanders

ELIZA KOZMAN AND MICHAEL SANDERS: Your interactions with school staff can make or break the field trials you run in the classroom. Here are five tips to get the relationship right.

Experimental education research: Getting in the teacher's good book
School teacher

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. 

In the last post we looked at running field trials in school to conduct experimental education research and how you recruit the right schools to host your work. Today we're looking at how you broker the right relationships with the key-players you'll be working alongside: teachers.

Once you have a list of participating schools, your project is ready to swing, Tarzan-like into action. First things first, you’ve probably been linked with a key member of staff at each school whose job it is to help with your research. Getting this relationship right can be make or break so here are our tips for working with school staff.

1. It’s good to talk

The ideal option for briefing school staff is a face-to-face meeting. However, depending on the geographical scope and scale of your research, this isn’t always going to be possible. As a minimum, it’s vital to have at least one kick-off phone call with your key contact so you can address their concerns and questions head-on. Perhaps unsurprisingly, teachers spend a lot of their time, well, teaching. This can make it tricky to schedule calls so be prepared to chat to teachers in the car on their way home via speakerphone or in snatched moments between lessons.

2. Win hearts and minds

Remember, you might have convinced senior leadership that your project is the best thing since sliced bread but others could know relatively little about your plans, even if they’ve been put in charge of them. Whenever you speak to school staff, remember to discuss the why as well as the what and the how. If your project requires a whole school-approach, find a way of reaching out more broadly - for example via flyers for the staffroom or presentations. Staff buy-in is likely to be the thing which saves your project if you run into difficulties.

3. A stitch in time saves nine

You’ll want to follow-up any verbal contact with project materials which provide clear instructions for staff involved. When producing these materials, it’s vital to think like a teacher. Imagine you’ve just finished teaching Year 9 Maths and you have 10 minutes before you have to go and supervise the lunch queue - if your info document can’t be read and understood in that scenario, you’re likely to run into implementation issues down the line. Spending time producing good materials early on - and checking that they’ve been understood - can save you a world of pain correcting mistakes later on.

4. Develop a thick skin

Sometimes you’ll get lucky and your school contact will be engaged with your project from the word go. Other times, your contact may be non-responsive for weeks, months or indefinitely (yes, really). In this situation, always refer back to the cardinal rule of education research - your project is probably the least important thing going on in a school (see blog 2 in our series). Be persistent, be helpful and be polite but if all else fails, write it off to experience and don’t take it personally. You built the assumption of school dropout into your power calculations, remember? 

5. It goes both ways

Finally, remember that people who work in schools eat, sleep and breathe education. School staff can be a fantastic source of advice on what works best in the classroom and you should harness that expertise to help shape your research. If you can, always schedule a debrief with your main contact in a school so you can gain insights into what worked and what didn’t. Listen carefully, ask smart questions and you might just find the inspiration for your next project.


This blog is part of a series on experimental education research from Eliza Kozman and Michael Sanders. Read the previous blog posts in the series: 

Experimental education research: navigating a researcher's minefield

Experimental education research: Five tips for field trials in schools

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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