Many different subjects are taught in primary and secondary schools but how these subjects and disciplines relate to each other is rarely discussed in classrooms. While subject boundaries can allow for focused and deep engagement with individual subjects, students are rarely encouraged to be curious about how we know what we know, or how various forms of knowledge can come together to enrich our questioning, reasoning, and learning.
The Big Questions in Classrooms initiative, funded by Templeton World Charity Foundation (TWCF) is hoping to change this by funding research that explores how to develop primary and secondary teachers’ and students’ understanding and insight about ‘How Knowledge Works’ (HKW) in science and religious education. NPC has been working alongside TWCF over the past year to support shared learning between grantees and to think about how to get the most impact out of the research they are doing.
It’s become increasingly common for research funders to ask their applicants to outline how they think the work will have a wider impact, for example the UK research funders ask for pathways to impact statements. For this it is not just about one project but a whole funding cohort. We spoke to a wide array of education researchers, researched past programmes of curriculum change, tested out ideas with sector professionals, reviewed academic and grey literature and, surveyed classroom teachers to learn from their experience working on the frontline.
What we learned through this research was the adoption of a new approach to teaching in England was not going to be a simple task. England’s education system is highly complex, with power and influence distributed across multiple institutions. This complexity also means there are multiple routes to translate research into practice and many opportunities to build support and partner with a wide community of stakeholders.
Three key areas were identified for TWCF to increase the impact of the Big Questions in Classrooms initiative:
Developing a compelling shared narrative
While the teachers, policy professionals and researchers we spoke to weren’t familiar with the concept of How Knowledge Works, they were very positive about its ambitions. Developing a compelling narrative that clearly sets out its benefits would, of course, help to better communicate its value to decision makers. But there’s a bigger opportunity here. By building a narrative in collaboration with stakeholders from across the sector, TWCF could start to build a broader coalition behind its adoption and link up with related initiatives like Philosophy for Children.
The importance of managing the research pipeline
The Big Questions in Classrooms programme is already developing an emergent evidence base and a range of approaches to teaching HKW, but this won’t be enough to convince all stakeholders.
Promising early-stage projects will need to move along the research pipeline to produce more robust evidence of their efficacy and effectiveness. This might mean moving away from traditional research funding at different stages in the pipeline. For example, swapping open calls for applications for a more targeted approach that’s proactive in selecting and scaling initiatives. Narrowing later rounds to fewer, higher value research programmes, or commissioning rather than grant-funding evaluations of specific teaching approaches.
Working across the education ecosystem:
There’s been a long history of multiple reforms to national education policy, with successive governments greatly modifying, or even reversing, the changes of their predecessors. This has led to past initiatives failing to create sustained change. But this is where the complexity and density of the education system in England can become an asset. By working at multiple levels across the system— for example encouraging uptake by national government at the same time as subject professional bodies and in local teaching practice—resilient change can be embedded that outlasts changes in political direction.
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