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Researching the curriculum: The value of published research

Tim Cain

This article is part of the BERA Blog special issue ‘Researching the Curriculum in schools and colleges: Practice, Professionalism and Innovation’ (read more).

How do teachers use published research? How does research change their thoughts and actions? These questions have been addressed through two empirical research studies. Working with two teacher research groups over a 12-month period, I have discovered how published research has influenced teachers’ thoughts and actions. The studies were identical in their aims and methods; their research question was, How can educational research impact on teachers and teaching?


The research took place in two secondary schools in England. Both schools wanted to improve provision for their ‘gifted’ and ‘talented’ (G&T) students, many of whom were not achieving the expected academic standards. Headteachers appointed a co-ordinator and recruited volunteers to join the project, which involved reading research articles and using these articles to inform their own practitioner enquiry. I gave them three journal articles about teaching G&T students: two literature reviews and an empirical study (for details, see Cain 2015a and 2015b). During an early meeting, the teachers presented their understandings of the research papers to each other. Thereafter, I supported their practitioner enquiries through monthly meetings at which I prompted discussion, chiefly by asking questions about their projects and their use of research evidence.

‘These studies imply that teachers can develop their practice through reading educational research and relating it to their experience; discussing educational research with colleagues; and using this research to investigate their own practice.’

With their consent, I interviewed the teachers, once at around the mid-point of the project and once towards the end. Interviews were semi-structured, and were audio-recorded and transcribed; data were split into meaningful units for coding. The teachers also wrote brief descriptions of their projects: these were published internally by the schools and also formed part of the research data, together with my field notes from monthly meetings. By comparing what the teachers said against the research papers, I investigated how they understood the papers, and how this affected their thinking and action.


The teachers incorporated information from the research papers into their thinking by bringing research-generated knowledge into relationship with other, experiential, knowledge. This involved asking, possibly subconsciously, Does a particular claim in the research paper match my previous experiences? The answer to this question seemed to determine their further engagement with the research – whether they dismissed the claim as implausible or obvious, or whether they continued to include the research in their thinking and discussion. On those occasions when they decided, individually or collectively, to give the research more thought, they brought research-generated knowledge into relationship with their experiential knowledge. They did this in three ways.

  1. Using concepts from research to develop their own understandings of concepts they had gained practically.
  2. Relating research findings to specific instances of teaching and being taught.
  3. Imaginatively diffusing implications from research into areas beyond those in the original research.

Long, focussed discussions and the ‘third voice’

In each school, the whole project – including the research texts and the teachers’ practitioner research – can be thought of as one, long, focussed discussion, addressing the question, How can we better teach our G&T students? In discussion, the teachers offered thoughts and opinions, supporting them with evidence from their values and knowledge. Sometimes agreeing with each other, sometimes disagreeing, they supported and encouraged, tested and challenged each other. Effectively, the research acted as a voice in this discussion. In discussion, each teacher accessed three ‘voices’:

  • their own, articulating their values and ways of thinking and acting (the ‘first voice’)
  • their colleagues’, who shared some of these but not others (the ‘second voice’)
  • the research, which provided an external view (the ‘third voice’).

This ‘third voice’ was never strong; it was always subordinate to the ‘first’ and ‘second’ voices. It could be ignored at times, and the teachers joyfully criticised it. But sometimes, the research voice was thought about and acted upon because it made sense.

In order to be admitted to the discussion, at least one teacher in the discussion had to find a research-generated claim neither implausible nor obvious. Once admitted to the discussion, the claim influenced both the content of teachers’ thinking and their ways of thinking. The research texts gave the teachers material to think about, including:

  • focusses for inquiry
  • challenges to existing thinking and practice
  • developing concepts
  • ideas for action.

The research papers influenced how the teachers thought, including in the following ways.

  1. Becoming more willing to experiment.
  2. Becoming more critical.
  3. Developing their understanding of evidence.
  4. Developing ethical awareness.

Such influence came not only from research findings but the papers as a whole, including literature reviews and discussions of findings.


These studies imply that teachers can develop their practice through reading educational research and relating it to their experience; discussing educational research with colleagues; and using this research to investigate their own practice. This leads to what is called ‘conceptual’ use of research (see for example Cain 2015a and 2015b). This differs from the ‘instrumental use’ currently prioritised in policy. If the benefits that are claimed for evidence-based teaching are to be realised, it will be important for teachers to develop their practice through conceptual use of research, not instrumental use.

This paper was presented at the British Curriculum Forum event, ‘Researching the Curriculum in schools and colleges: Practice, Professionalism and Innovation‘, held on 24 February 2018.


Cain T (2015a) ‘Teachers’ engagement with published research: Addressing the knowledge problem’, Curriculum Journal 26(3): 488–509

Cain T (2015b) ‘Teachers’ engagement with research texts: Beyond instrumental, conceptual or strategic use’, Journal of education for teaching 41(5): 478–492

This blog is the first article in a ‘special issue’ of the BERA Blog – a series of nine pieces arising from the British Curriculum Forum event for teachers, academics, policymakers and leaders in education entitled ‘Researching the Curriculum in schools and colleges: Practice, Professionalism and Innovation’, held at the University of Birmingham School on 24 February 2018. This collection of blogs will explore, from a diverse set of perspectives, what precisely we mean by ‘curriculum research’, and what practical, ethical and theoretical issues need to be considered when carrying out innovative research.

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