How to improve LEARNING in the education system? Applying research in classrooms

Communicating research on learning allows teachers to make reasoned and informed decisions about classroom practices and how best to support children’s learning.  Dr.Sarah McGeown, Lecturer in the School of Education at the University of Edinburgh, says that evidence generated through rigorous research is a tool that allows teachers to make effective decisions about what is likely to work best for their students. Sarah McGeown shared her ideas on how to improve learning outcomes in schools and in the education system with The Essayist.


Sarah McGeown photo


SM = Sarah McGeown; TE = The Essayist



TE: Could you tell us about your work in the area of learning and education?


SM: Most of my research has focused on children’s reading development – I am specifically interested in identifying the most effective ways to support and develop children’s reading skills. Reading is a crucial skill; one that is important for educational success but is also necessary in a literate society. As most school based subjects rely on children’s ability to read and understand what they have read, my research focuses on reading, in the hope that it will support children’s learning across the whole school curriculum.


My other research interest concerns children’s motivation and engagement at school. Within the UK, particularly in reading research, there is a strong focus on supporting and developing aspects of children’s cognition. However, fostering positive attitudes towards learning and motivation to learn is crucial. This is an area where I hope to carry out more research in the future.



TE: So has the education system or school system adopted the lessons you have learned through your research?


SM: Within the UK, research by my former PhD supervisor and now collaborator had a significant impact on the teaching of reading in schools: the UK Government recommended an approach to reading known as synthetic phonics, on the basis, primarily, of this research. This government recommendation has had a considerable impact for all children learning to read in England.




TE: Do you find that the use of research to inform and improve school education is widely practiced?


SM: I have genuinely been surprised by the emphasis on ideology over research evidence to guide educational policy and curriculum based decisions. I have been attending a number of education/education policy conferences recently and am struck by lack of engagement with research to guide decision making processes.


To me, the use of research to inform and improve school education should be widely appealing. However, there is clearly a debate within education regarding the value of research to inform educational policy and practice. This debate perhaps reflects the obstacles and challenges in place which prevent research from being used optimally within education. Alternatively, it may also reflect the belief, among some, that research serves no purpose in improving children’s educational outcomes. Of course, teachers are often champions of using research evidence themselves and so I am optimistic that there is support for it.



TE: So what are some of the obstacles and challenges involved in using research within education?


SM: I would say that there are, at present, poor structures to initiate and support communication between researchers and those with responsibility and power to change educational policy and practice (e.g., teachers, policy makers). Indeed, systems or structures aimed at accruing research evidence on topics of importance to teachers and policy makers are lacking. For example, most applications for research grant funding in education originate from researchers, often with little or no communication with teachers or policy makers from the outset. Therefore there is very little truly collaborative research work among researchers, teachers and policy makers. By involving all parties from the beginning, researchers will be in a better position to study topics that matter most to teachers and policy makers.



TE: Do you think researchers have a responsibility to ensure their work is understood by teachers?


SM: Absolutely. It is our responsibility, as researchers, to ensure that research evidence is shared in an unbiased, informative and accessible manner to those who wish to use it. Researchers certainly need to identify ways to better communicate good quality research to those working in education. However there are a number of obstacles in place that need to be overcome to do this.


First, there is an overwhelming volume of research that exists already. Collating that, improving teacher’s access to it and providing them with the time and support necessary to identify research that is directly relevant to their needs is crucial. Lack of time is an issue consistently cited by teachers, who may be keen to use evidence to inform their practices, but do not have the time to spend navigating and studying the literature. In addition, access is problematic – academic research papers published in journals are not available to all, although notably there is a move towards more open access. John Hattie has done an incredible job of collating research evidence on children’s learning and presenting it in a useful and accessible manner (I’d recommend his book called Visible Learning).



Access issues aside however, there is still a skill or capability issue. We need to train teachers to be able to identify relevant research suited to their needs and context, and appreciate difference in research quality. I think Universities have a responsibility within their initial teacher education programmes to support and develop this skill among new teachers.


In addition, as researchers, we need to consider how best to communicate the educational implications of our research. Research papers are typically written for academic peers and are not written in the most accessible manner for teachers. We need to consider a broader audience when writing for academic journals and also start considering alternative routes to share our research. Social media provides an excellent platform to do this, a platform which has not been available until relatively recently, but which can provide more immediate and up-to-date information for teachers.


In terms of my own research, I have recently written a minibook for teachers, which was designed to share the results from ~60 peer reviewed papers on the area of children’s motivation to read. I wrote this to be informative and useful to teachers, rich in research content but easily accessible to those working in the classroom. I’ve also recently started a Blog (entitled ‘Using Research in Education’) where I plan to share academic research and have also created Summaries for Teachers (1 page posters designed to summarise my academic papers).



TE: Is there any resistance from the teacher in the classroom – the end user of the research?


SM: There can be. I know that some teachers believe that research removes their autonomy and/or professional judgement. However, I think this is symptomatic of the way that research is often presented to teachers. Research shouldn’t be perceived this way; teachers with greater knowledge and understanding of research evidence in a specific area should be more able, and confident, to exercise their professional judgement.


Communicating research well allows teachers to make reasoned and informed decisions about their practices and how best to support children’s learning. Therefore it is not a prescriptive approach to education that is promoted; instead it is the use of research evidence to allow teachers to make effective decisions about what is likely to work best for their students.


TE: Thank you for your time. We look forward to more discussions with you in the future on the topic of education and learning.



© Sarah McGeown, 2014



Dr. Sarah McGeown is a Lecturer in the School of Education at the University of Edinburgh. For more information, see:


Please see her academia page for access to Summaries for Teachers (1 page documents for each research paper):  Her blog is available here:




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