‘We must spot the gaps’

Promoting a culture of research is essential to continuously improving best practice on the ground and often the most exciting research takes place outside the parameters of academia.

Charlotte Baker

It has been well documented in the pages of this magazine that there is often a disconnect between pedagogical research and policy that dictates the way young children are taught.

This makes it all the more essential that practitioners themselves make it their passion to keep abreast of new studies and ways of thinking, and even actively seek to create their own research projects which can directly benefit children.

We also need continued commitment from academics, who are able to divide their time between teaching and researching their chosen specialism. They are charged with the task of informing a new generation about how to conduct research in their own settings – with the aim of being continuously reflective.

While government has a poor track record in understanding and acting on expert research, it is vital that this well of knowledge does not dry up. But what's worrying is that there are particular challenges to the viability of undertaking research in the current climate.

Labour of love

When discussing research, it is easy to forget how broad its scope is. Research can include anything from investigations into indoor/outdoor play, gendering of toys, quality of learning, mindfulness approaches, teaching methodologies, evaluation of policies and professions – or in my case, language acquisition during circle time.

Informal research is often based on trial and error

In its academic context, research encapsulates work from the undergraduate level up to professorship. The result of these studies are often used in further documents to inform and develop early years educators' practice. As a prominent example, the government initiative Every Child Matters, published in 2003, featured many pieces of research which were combined in order to draw specific conclusions with the intention of informing future practice and improving the standards of quality care and teaching for children.

Some research is funded by government, whereas the research undertaken by universities, undergraduates and postgraduates is often complied free of charge and requires high levels of dedication and commitment from the student researcher to ensure they meet all the ethical boundaries required.

The process includes a proposal stage, ethical consent, practical research, as well as a written up document. All of these stages require approval to proceed to the next. The written up document can range from 10,000 words as an undergraduate dissertation, 15-20,000 words as a Masters student, or up to 120,000 words for a PhD student.

These must become labours of love for the people involved in such projects to ensure that their motivation and dedication to upholding the standard of research they are involved in does not falter. The end result of their enquiries helps to maintain this motivation: there is ultimately an academic standard to which this research must meet, resulting in a qualification.

Essentially, practitioners conduct research with the intention of progressing and improving the educational environment in which we work; but the reach of this work often extends far beyond the classroom, as Dr Helen Simmons, senior lecturer at the University of Derby notes: ‘I think that promoting a culture of research engagement is absolutely essential. To remain curious and future focused, it is so important for those who work within early childhood to critically reflect not only on their own practice but also on the wider structures that we work within and the different ways in which we can support and respond to children and families within the sector.

‘We need to keep on moving forward and research engagement is a huge part of this.’

Positive change

Dr Simmons acknowledges the usefulness of promoting research engagement from both the single educator, to the larger teams and structures in which we work. Development of this culture is vital to the improvements in the implementation of support and care.

Without research, the service we provide to children in ensuring their holistic growth cannot be improved upon. Personalisation of learning and the ways in which educators adapt their pedagogies would not be possible without such research into the varied learning styles of our pupils. In line with this, training events that are provided to schools are often structured around pivotal findings in that area.

Again, these courses can be wide ranging, from building emotional resilience, how to manage issues with transitions, improved pedagogical methods, to teaching with compassion.

Dr Simmons has first-hand experience of the positive changes that research makes from an academic and practice perspective: ‘I see the benefits all of the time as I support undergraduate and postgraduate students within different early years professions and disciplines. I see the commitment to supporting young children in so many different ways through research and the outcomes from the different project that students are engaged with.

‘I have seen students use their research to address many issues and implement positive change within their own settings and beyond.’

In so doing, these students are demonstrating a passion for their profession while acting on the ‘real world’ effects that their research has on their workplaces.

Importance of circulating knowledge

While traditional notions of research are regularly discussed in academic contexts, there is a continuous application and reflection of individual work in practice. This operates as a form of research in itself. It moves the boundaries of research beyond those academics, to those working regularly with children, particularly through the process of reflective practice.

One example is by assessing the success of a topic and evaluating how effective this work has been. This is evident with tasks such as the development of role play areas, sensory play, and a wide variety of story sacks.

Catherine Chapman, an academic tutor, notes that: ‘From my experience, informal research is continuous throughout your time as a teacher, as in what you are practising is often achieved through trial and error. Academic research enables teachers to experiment with methods that they know others have used previously. This is not to say that it is going to work, as each class is different, but research enables sharing. Researching and sharing while still in education might mean that there is more opportunity for this research to be circulated.’

‘We made it a rule that the team would create a space with suitable props and see it in action, observing children's use of it. If after a few days it wasn't working, they would try something else.’

This corroborates the importance of different forms of research, both from academics working in higher and further education and those professionals working directly with pupils. The idea that research should be actively circulated is vital to the improvements in education as it is possibly the quickest and easiest way to enact upon the findings.

Another interesting way of ‘circulating’ knowledge is by discussing different approaches to practice through the use of peer observations with other staff. This may be an easy, quick and effective method of gaining advice on teaching as well as a form of reassurance for newer practitioners and a key source of advice.

Catherine supports this idea based on her experience as a teacher: ‘A lot of what we did was observations, so we would go to other schools and observe their methods to take back to our own school, although this was difficult because teachers are often set in their ways,’ she says.

Catherine highlights the importance of reflective research in the educational practitioners' role in order to develop new approaches to teaching. In line with Dr Simmons' ideas, she suggests that those who work in education need to critically examine their own practice and the ‘wider structures’.

By visiting other settings, not only can educators improve their professional practice, they can then take this information back to their place of work, and ‘circulate’ this knowledge, therefore improving quality of education for the children in our care.

Overall, the developments that occur through research are hard to ignore. The range of subjects and topics that can be researched are vast and can dramatically improve the standards of practice in our settings – ‘and beyond’ – as Dr Simmons discussed and as Every Child Matters evidences.

It is not just what research highlights, but what it does not. Often, research can shine a spotlight on those ‘gaps’ of knowledge which need far more investigation in order to protect and fully educate the children. Ultimately, this has an impact on those individual children, but the ‘wider structures’ in which we work.

The article that follows in next month's magazine will address the various challenges to research. These challenges form barriers to the system of research as a whole, and as such, slow this rate of improvement in the development of quality care and education in our settings.

Useful resources

  • Every Child Matters: assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/272064/5860.pdf EPPE (2014):

  • EPPE Project: bit.ly/2UiN3Vi

Key points

  • Research is vital to ensuring excellent practice in educational settings. However, there are many challenges which can hinder its progress
  • Practitioners conduct research with the intention of progressing and improving the educational environment in which they work but the reach of this work often extends far beyond the classroom
  • While traditional notions of research are regularly discussed in academic contexts, there is a continuous application and reflection of individual work in practice in educational settings. This serves a form of research in itself
  • It is vital that this information is shared with others in the setting (and beyond)
  • Often research can shine a spotlight on those ‘gaps’ of knowledge which need investigating far more in order to protect and fully educate the children in our care. Ultimately, this has an impact on those individual children, but also the ‘wider structures’ in which we work

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