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How research can inform teachers and teaching in schools

Tim Cain, Research Centre for Schools, Colleges and Teacher Education (SCaTE), Edge Hill University

Despite renewed efforts in many countries to align educational practice more closely with findings from educational research, there is little clarity about how teachers can, in principle, use research. We have proposed a conceptualisation based on how research can contribute to teachers’ thinking: we propose that research can inform bounded decision‐making, teachers’ reflection and organisational learning.

We start by considering the nature of educational practice in schools (‘schooling’ – see Hordern, 2018). Drawing on Biesta (2015), we understand schooling as necessarily open, because it interacts with societal contexts and environments; semiotic, because it involves interpretations and meaning‐making; and discursive, because reflections on previous educational encounters inform future encounters.

Schooling fulfils at least three functions: contributing to the development of each student as an individual; socialising students into ways of thinking and acting, vis‐à‐vis educational disciplines and in terms of developing prosocial attitudes; and teaching subject‐specific bodies of knowledge, skills and values that qualify students to take on active roles in society. These functions are realised through activities, including timetabled lessons, and are managed by staff with diverse responsibilities. Decisions are taken (How long should lunch breaks be? How much time should be spent on science ‘practical’ lessons? When is it necessary to halt a lesson, to deal with disruptive behaviour?), and almost all such decisions involve the exercise of professional judgement to navigate between competing tensions and interests.

‘Research, broadly defined, generates “new insights” that are generally more firmly grounded than insights from either the personal experience of individual practitioners or the cumulative assumptions and practices of a profession, both of which tend to be untested.’

We argue that research, broadly defined, generates ‘new insights’ (HEFCE, 2011) that are generally more firmly grounded than insights from either the personal experience of individual practitioners or the cumulative assumptions and practices of a profession, both of which tend to be untested. This is because research aspires to standards including originality, significance and rigour, which are formed, debated and defended by researchers, ethics committees, peer review systems and learned societies.

First, research can contribute to ‘bounded’ decision‐making – that is, to decisions that lead to specific outcomes about, for instance, planning, resourcing and school policy. In such decisions, multiple sources of evidence –possibly including evidence from research – are understood in the light of assumptions, and brought into discussions from which emerge decisions and actions. ‘Bounded’ decisions involve what Kahneman (2011) calls ‘System 2’ or ‘slow’ thinking. These are often made by school leaders as part of their leadership and management function and might impact on both colleagues and students.

Second, research can inform teachers’ reflection, including the fast, intuitive ‘reflection in action’ that occurs during interactive teaching, which Kahneman (2011) refers to as ‘System 1’ thinking. It can do this by influencing the conceptual frameworks that teachers bring to their teaching, and which are formed by reflection on previous experiences of teaching and being taught, and by the discourses and ideas they engage with in their professional lives. These frameworks include teachers’ knowledge of students, beliefs and values, and a sense of identity and mission (Korthagen & Vasalos, 2005). Research can influence teachers’ conceptual frameworks by suggesting focusses for their reflection and encouraging them to challenge their established ways of thinking and acting. Engagement with research can encourage teachers to take a research orientation to their own practice, and to experiment with new ideas. It can encourage a search for evidence of students’ learning and a critical orientation towards that evidence. It can also encourage teachers to consider their ethical orientation to students (Cain, 2018). The outcome is not a matter of making better, individual decisions, but of being a better teacher (clearer, more empathic, etc.).

Finally, research can raise the quality of debate within a school and thereby improve the school as a learning organisation. Organisational learning occurs when teachers share, examine and critique their practice, and the norms and values that underpin that practice. Through working and talking together, school teachers can establish, maintain, critique and alter their aims and purposes, their formal and informal rules, and their shared understandings of activities and ideas. Research can provide a platform for teachers to engage in constructive and critical conversations. Unlike public educational policy, which aims to shape schools’ actions in particular ways, educational research can be used to provide alternative perspectives and open up debate.

Some of the discourse around educational research use suggests that school leaders should use research to implement ‘what works’ in their schools. Our conceptualisation admits of this possibility, but we argue that other uses are more truly educational.

This blog post is based on the article ‘Bounded decision‐making, teachers’ reflection and organisational learning: How research can inform teachers and teaching’, by Tim Cain, Sue Brindley, Chris Brown, Gary Jones, & Fran Riga.

It is newly published in the British Educational Research Journal, and is temporarily free-to-view online courtesy of our publisher, Wiley.


Biesta, G. (2015). On the two cultures of educational research, and how we might move ahead: Reconsidering the ontology, axiology and praxeology of education. European Educational Research Journal, 14(1), 11–22.

Cain, T. (2018, April 16). Researching the curriculum: The value of published research. BERA Blog. Retrieved from

Higher Education Funding Council for England [HEFCE] (2011). Assessment framework and guidance on submissions. Bristol.

Hordern, J. (2018, December 14). The neglect of practice. BERA Blog. Retrieved from

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. London: Allen Lane

Korthagen, F. & Vasalos, A. (2005). Levels in reflection: Core reflection as a means to enhance professional growth. Teachers and Teaching, 11(1), 47–71.