A school pupil examines a globe.

Achieving impact in education innovation

Lessons from Big Questions in Classrooms

How can you make sure innovation projects in education achieve maximum impact?

The Templeton World Charity Foundation funded an initiative called Big Questions in Classrooms (BQiC). BQiC aimed to help pupils and teachers better understand ‘how knowledge works’– the way subjects relate to each other and how we learn.

NPC evaluated the impact and effectiveness of the Big Questions in Classrooms (BQiC) initiative. This report includes details of the specific projects BQiC supported and NPC’s evaluation.

This report also sets out the lessons learnt from that evaluation which are more widely applicable to other innovation projects in education.

This includes crucial insights into how change happens and what the key barriers and enablers of change are.

Whatever your role in the education system, the lessons learnt from this project can help you achieve lasting influence with your work. Below you’ll find learnings for:

You can also find more more detail on our evaluation findings by downloading the full report.

Join us on 26 June for a free online event to hear key learnings and celebrate the programme’s successes. Reigster now.


Learning for primary and secondary school teachers

We know it’s hard right now, but don’t lose hope. The evaluation confirmed many of the well-documented challenges teachers face:

  • a lack of time and headspace due to a range of pressures including catching up after Covid
  • a lack of autonomy in their work
  • the effect of 14 years of falling spend-per-pupil.

All of these limit teachers’ ability to make improvements or experiment with practices.

However, Big Questions in Classrooms (BQiC) projects prove that adopting education practices that centre teachers and prioritise their skills, time and expertise can lessen these challenges and improve teaching outcomes.

You can benefit significantly from interdisciplinary teaching.  We found that by participating in cross-disciplinary approaches, teachers gain skills and confidence to experiment with syllabi. Cross-disciplinary collaboration between teachers can inspire new lesson plans and materials whilst sharing the burden across subjects.

Introducing interdisciplinary approaches can feel daunting. The teaching resources created through Big Questions in Classrooms can help. The most valuable tools were those that were easily accessible, clear and adaptable. Many teachers found high-quality interdisciplinary teaching aids saved time and provided effective stepping stones to explore interdisciplinary practices in teaching.

Remember to consider your audience. Use interdisciplinary resources and materials that are age and ability appropriate for your pupils.

Thinking across disciplines and appreciating how new knowledge is formed can be relatively advanced concepts. They need to be carefully approached for different age groups. The most successful BQiC materials made abstract concepts relatable and lessons interactive. Lessons that were inclusive and judgement free worked well as spaces to explore new approaches for pupils.

Speak up and reach out to academics. Throughout the BQiC initiative teachers and academics largely expressed the desire to work with one another more and in deeper ways. Teachers are the experts in their practice, with so much lived experience to bring to curricula-setting and policymaking. Teachers should feel confident to seek out academics to collaborate on new curricula, learning materials, and resources. If academic syllabus development is demand-led, i.e. led by teachers, it can better deliver what teachers need.

You are not alonethere is appetite across the system to break down subject silos. TWCF is not at all alone in championing interdisciplinary teaching and using ‘big questions’ as a vessel for education and skills development. Most importantly teachers value the opportunity and see the benefit of combining subjects and approaches, but there is also a coalition including national academies, teacher training and school networks seeking the same thing.

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Learning for schools and school leadership​

Consider adopting interdisciplinary approaches to learning. Many teachers and researchers are calling for a less siloed education system. Big Questions in Classrooms (BQiC) demonstrated the multiple benefits of interdisciplinary teaching not only for pupils, but for teachers too.

In order to embed interdisciplinary learning, our evaluation found that buy-in, drive and support from school leaders is essential.

To make interdisciplinary learning work, prioritise fostering a positive school culture. We found that the culture which school leadership sets is one of the most influential drivers of positive attitudes to learning and pupil engagement. It was also crucial in determining teachers’ uptake of new teaching practices, including whether teachers have the time, space, and confidence to explore interdisciplinary approaches to teaching. School leaders should therefore strive to create a positive culture to promote teacher and pupil engagement.

Give teachers and pupils the autonomy they need. A key aspect of fostering positive attitudes to learning and engagement is enabling both teachers and pupils to take a level of ownership over their teaching or learning.

BQiC grants that put an emphasis on teacher-led practices, gave teachers creative control and empowered them to adopt new approaches, achieved positive outcomes on teacher confidence, enjoyment, and motivation–increasing cross-disciplinary collaboration. Similarly, those that centred pupil creativity, freedom of thought and exploration saw increased engagement and enjoyment in learning among pupils. School leaders hold significant power over the degree of autonomy teachers and pupils are given. Autonomy is crucial in establishing school learning cultures that welcome exploration, challenge and discussion.

Welcome the desire for change. Our qualitative research indicated that headteachers and school management often act as key gatekeepers for adopting new approaches in the curriculum. The evidence from BQiC has shown that there is appetite for change to the education system among teachers across the country. Teachers found the adoption of BQiC approaches rewarding.

Teachers are asking for a less siloed education system—more holistic, interdisciplinary teaching practices which encourage pupils to be curious about the wider world they live in and to develop as individuals.

Small changes can make a big difference. Start there. Implementing innovation must not create unmanageable burdens for teachers. Incorporating interdisciplinary approaches may require only small adjustments, or can even reduce pressure on teachers by providing high quality off-the-shelf lesson ideas and plans.

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Learning for academics and higher education​

The Big Questions in Classrooms grants have strengthened the evidence base about best practice in interdisciplinary teaching and learning in science and religious education.

The majority of Big Questions in Classrooms (BQiC) grants also engaged and aimed to influence the wider ecosystem by contributing to practice and policy conversations. Academics undertaking future work in the field should learn from the BQiC research and influencing work to optimise chances of success.

To change classroom practice, involve teachers and educators in research. Teachers are more likely to adapt their classroom practice or try new resources when they have been meaningfully involved in the research process.

Recognise the equal, but complementary, value of teachers’ and academics’ expertise. It’s important for teachers to have permission to ‘not be an academic’ but to contribute to research on their own terms. Teachers should be compensated fairly for time spent on research activities, to demonstrate the value of their expertise.

The RExChange conference, held as part of this programme, contributed to the development of teacher-academic partnerships by showcasing examples of successful joint learning design between schools and higher education bodies.

Create an impact strategy and involve teachers in research dissemination activities, including conferences. Peer-to-peer sharing among teachers has more credibility among teachers and is more likely to influence other teachers to consider BQiC approaches compared to an academic sharing their insights.

The BQiC programme shows how research can be aligned with classroom practice to create social impact. By funding research activities alongside classroom delivery, the BQiC programme created social value at both the school and ecosystem level. Stakeholders found the combination of research and delivery funding unique and very much valued having both.

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Learning for decision-makers and policymakers

While there is no quantifiable evidence of education outcomes the BQiC initiative has displayed there are clear benefits of interdisciplinary teaching and ‘how knowledge works’ concepts. Pupils made links between subjects and brought different knowledge to ‘Big Questions’.

Interdisciplinary lessons, open learning environments, and new media created enduring and engaging lessons, inspiring conversations that continue outside the classroom. Some pupils felt encouraged to consider their A-Level choices, apply to university, or even become researchers.

Interdisciplinary lessons are powerful vessels to develop ‘soft’ or ‘employability skills’. These include critical thinking, creative skills communication, problem solving, and digital skills.

The teaching workforce, and their skills, is a key leverage point in creating change in education. Targeting ‘upstream’ initial teacher training can lead to enduring change. To best support interdisciplinary learning in schools teachers need to be trained and recruited on a more interdisciplinary basis, such as through multi-discipline job adverts.

Innovations in curricula are best achieved by combining academia and teaching. Academics need to work with teachers and in schools to ensure that the latest pedagogical theory is applied and that up-to-date academic subject matter is rooted in the experience of teaching children in the UK in the 21st Century.

The BQiC initiative highlighted there are many challenges in the UK education system post-Covid. These include pressure on teacher time, insufficient funding, narrowness of education and lack of RE strategy.  These present barriers to adopting new approaches, and need to be overcome.

Embrace the diversity in the education system. Different subjects and different schools have different levels of flexibility for change, and opportunities to pilot new approaches such as Open Learning. BQiC was successful in applying a ‘portfolio approach’ to test ideas in different contexts.

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Learning for charities aiming to influence education

To change a system, apply a system-change approach. Driving interdisciplinary teaching is a multi-causal, dynamic issue. Innovation funders must map and engage with stakeholders and leverage points to change this system. A systems change approach reveals how change happens.

Being right isn’t enough. You need an influencing strategy to target the key organisations and individuals as part of the systems change approach. This requires analysing aligned organisations, gatekeepers and movements, behaviour change, and messaging.

In education, school leadership and Multi Academy Trusts matter. School leadership and Multi-Academy Trusts are key decision-makers and gatekeepers in education. Particularly for subjects outside the national curriculum such as RE, worldviews, citizenship, and life skills.

To be influential, work through influential people. Big Questions in Classrooms (BQiC) recruited grantees and academics with authority and strong links in the system. This is key in attracting stakeholders to a common cause and generating momentum. Testimony from influential people was effective too.

Carefully consider branding. There are pros and cons to central terminology depending on the system you are trying to influence. BQiC benefited from applying diverse terms by not putting ‘all their eggs in one basket’ and allowing a wider range of projects to take place, but it meant the grants were a loose collective, and could not capitalise on ‘brand awareness’.

Understanding translation is essential. Innovation is not the end. Becoming common practice can take years and every sector has unique mechanisms driving best practice into standard practice, and different challenges for dissemination and workforce development. Funders must understand how ideas spread.

Further principles for education innovation grant-giving include:

  • define tangible learning outcomes
  • prescribe what high quality means for the programme
  • let teachers drive change
  • use a portfolio approach to target multiple levers points
  • use broad dissemination methods including informal learning environments and social media.
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Learning for Evaluation programmes

In education, generally a long-term and relatively large-scale approach to evaluation and evidence gathering is required. Bottom up changes to education, and seeing the results of those changes, can take a long time.

The purpose of education is multifaceted. To allow for robust evaluation, education innovation programmes need to have a strong and clearly defined purpose and ideally a strong theory for how change is expected to happen. The evaluation team ideally needs to be included early on in the programme design stages to help build this clarity and capitalise on opportunities to directly measure benefits (often pupil outcomes).

To fully evaluate the benefits of education requires a direct measurement of education outcomes. This should flow from the defined purpose of the intervention and aim to measure a tangible change of knowledge or skill. In the BQiC programme, measuring understanding of ‘how knowledge works’ as an education outcome was a challenge because there isn’t a universally accepted definition or standardised measure of this complex concept.

While a gold standard for evaluation programmes is to employ a control group which may allow for statistical testing against quantitative outcome measures, it’s worth keeping in mind that not everything that matters can be easily counted, and not everything that you can quantify matters. For this reason, it’s important to triangulate multiple data sources (both quantitative and qualitative) to understand how change happens, particularly when dealing with complex constructs.

Funders should make sure that grantees are made aware of any monitoring, evaluation and reporting requirements before they apply for funding, so applicants can factor in the time fulfilling these requirements will take and plan accordingly. Monitoring and evaluation requirements should be baked into contracting with grantees to ensure grantees are clear about the expectations. In turn, this will maximise the chances of collecting good quality data and improve programme learning.

It is important to embed flexibility in the evaluation design and plan for change. In BQiC projects, changes to the priorities in a school (at times a result of external factors such as curriculum or examination requirements, turnover among school staff, and factors outside of a school – like the Covid-19 pandemic) disrupted the delivery of the planned programme. TWCF gave BQiC grantees flexibility to adjust the timing and delivery of data collection activities. In turn, this helps to mitigate the impact on the evaluation.

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Supported by

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