Professor Toby Greany is based the UCL Institute of Education [true at time of first publication] as Professor of Leadership and Innovation. He has previously worked as Director of Research and Policy and the National College for School Leadership and has worked for the Design Council as well as Special Advisor to the Education and Skills Select Committee between 2005-6. He has written numerous renowned publications exploring curriculum innovation, collaboration and partnerships across schools and leading innovation and evidence-informed leadership.
What first sparked your passion for educational research?
After university I taught abroad for 4 years and then did a Masters in adult literacy. My plan at the time was to work in international development, but I took a job in London for a year working for a charity called the Campaign for Learning. I ended up working there for 9 years! I stayed because I loved it, in particular a 5-year action research project that I ran with schools across the country looking at the impact of teaching pupils how to learn. I worked with Professor Steve Higgins, who was then at Newcastle but is now at Durham University, and it really sparked my interest in research and the links between evidence, policy and practice.
What does your role at the IOE entail? Which is your favourite aspect of your job?
My main role as a professor is to undertake research, which is really the aspect of the role I enjoy most. Over the past 4 years my main research has focussed on trying to understand how schools and school leaders are responding to the government’s ‘self-improving school system’ agenda – the report is due out next spring.
In addition to undertaking research, I do a lot of work with schools and other stakeholders here and abroad which is broadly aimed at trying to ensure that our research makes a difference to policy and practice. The nature of that work can vary quite widely, but one example is the work I have led over the past couple of years to develop and run leadership programmes for CEOs and senior leaders in MATs, including the Trust:ED MAT Team Leadership Programme that we run with Deloitte.
Your research looks into the way in which networks and collaboration can influence leadership and professional development in schools. As a MAT and Teaching School Alliance, what might this look like for us?
Networks have become a lot more significant for schools in England in recent years, because they can offer access to the information, skills and expertise that can help them to respond effectively to policy change and to develop the capacity of their staff. I’ve seen some really powerful examples of how school to school networks and support can move knowledge around and help staff to grow – and in the process that collaborative work can also help to build trust and shared values. But I’ve also seen examples where the networks are less strong – either because one school tries to dominate or is seen to be benefitting at the expense of others, or because the leaders involved aren’t able to get beyond their personal differences and articulate the wider benefits for staff and children from deep collaboration.
At root I think it comes down to how leaders understand what makes a school successful. If you see the heart of a great school as being the quality of teachers and teaching, and if you think the best way to improve the quality of teaching is to expect teachers to engage in a continuous process of sharing and reflecting on their practice, via structured collaborative processes but also drawing on rigorous evidence and external expertise, then you are likely to understand why networks are important!
For some teachers using research to inform their practice feels like another ‘job’ to do when they are already feeling overworked. How can teachers engage with research without feeling as though it is an added extra to their ‘to-do’ list?
I think the main thing to appreciate is that being evidence-informed is about a way of thinking, rather than about knowing the answers or ‘what works’. Being evidence-informed means that you are constantly asking questions about your own practice and then looking for and critically evaluating a range of sources of evidence that can help you to improve.
Given that, being evidence-informed is not simply about sitting and reading lots of research articles! It’s about seeking out and really trying to understand the implications of research, but also putting that understanding alongside other forms of evidence (for example the assessment data you have in school) and your professional judgement and knowledge of the context.
In some schools that process of professional reflection and learning sits at the heart of everything – so the time comes via dedicated INSET sessions as well as the ways in which evidence informs wider conversations about change, learning and improvement. Making that part of the culture comes down to leadership. There’s no doubt that time is under huge pressure in schools and that teachers are extremely busy, but I think that even in schools where the culture is less well established individual teachers and teams can commit to making it part of how they work.
You have recently undertaken research looking at evidence informed teaching, ‘Evidence-informed teaching: an evaluation of progress in England’ and found that many teachers do not feel confident engaging with research. What advice would you give to the teachers reading this who want to become more confident in their ability to use research?
As the Chinese poet and philosopher Lao-Tzu wrote, ‘A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step’. For me that means there is no alternative to giving it a go! A good place to start would be to attend a Research-ED conference or TeachMeet, because I think it will feel a lot less scary when you see that everyone else is in the same boat and that there are no easy answers.
Alongside that I would suggesting looking at the EEF’s excellent Teaching and Learning Toolkit (https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/evidence-summaries/teaching-learning-toolkit). It provides an overview of the research behind a range of interventions, with lots of detail to follow up in the areas that you are most interested. Critically, it also gives you an idea of how secure the evidence is in any particular area, so you can start to see that there are different forms of evidence and that any research needs to be critically interrogated in terms of its methods and warrant.
How can middle and senior leaders encourage the use of educational research such as yours in school?
Leadership is partly about modelling the practices you want to see – so the starting point is for middle and senior leaders to attend the Research-ED and TeachMeet type events I refer to above, and to read and talk about research in their daily work.
Beyond that, there are clearly steps to take around making research accessible and part of the professional learning culture. One way to get started is to sign your school up to the UCL IOE Research and Development network: http://www.ioe-rdnetwork.com/ - the network website has a range of practical resources and gives you access to our professional learning programmes and quality marks.
You have worked all over the world, in places such as China and Brazil. What lessons did you learn there and are there any wider lessons for the education profession in the UK?
There is a long and a short answer to that question! What strikes me most at the moment is the fact that many school systems around the world are seriously engaged with the question of how to develop much deeper forms of learning for children, including through new technology. Meanwhile, the focus of the National Curriculum in England has been on traditional academic subjects and content. I am a firm believer that we do need academic disciplines and that teachers need more opportunities to develop their subject-specific pedagogic expertise, so I am not arguing for a complete change of direction, but I do think that we have lost sight of questions around how education and pedagogy needs to evolve to develop higher-order thinking skills and dispositions as well as non-cognitive skills and qualities in the light of a fast changing world.