The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Jack Procter-Blain

Every teacher is a researcher of SEND

As teachers, there's no better way to find and apply what works than investing time in research. Exploring research into SEND deserves to be high on your agenda.

With so much to sift through, and so little time to do it, research is too often a ‘would-have’ instead of a ‘must-have’ for teachers. Keeping abreast of the latest SEND research can significantly improve a teacher's understanding of their own practice, and shed light on new ways to improve outcomes for learners.

As SEND leaders are increasingly encouraged to move away from labels and focus on individual needs, taking to the level of educational neuroscience in an effort to understand the complex workings of the brain, it's important that they have open spaces to share knowledge and discuss ideas.

You could argue that @ResearchSEND arrived on the edu-scene at precisely the right time. I caught up with its co-founder, Michelle Haywood (@michhayw) to discuss the momentum behind the project and the obstacles ahead.

How would you describe ResearchSEND to someone who has never heard of it?

Michelle: ‘ResearchSEND is a project set up by myself and Professor Michelle Lowe at the Institute of Education, University of Wolverhampton. The aim is to promote the importance of research in meeting the needs of learners with SEND, be it through conferences, publications or social media.’

You launched the initiative in February 2017. What have been your highlights over the last year?

‘For a grassroots movement that started on Twitter, it’s great that we’ve not only established a bigger presence online but also successfully held our first events last year (and more in the pipeline!) This goes to show that a demand for research-informed practice does exist, particularly if it helps improve outcomes for pupils with SEND.

‘Along the way, we’ve been fortunate enough to work with a range of specialists and – most importantly – several new voices. All share our enthusiasm for making SEND research more accessible and bringing the sectors together.’

You quite often hear that ‘every teacher is a teacher of SEND’. Why have we not seen an even greater interest in using research to enrich teaching practice?

‘The problem is twofold, I think.

  • SEND is still viewed as a “bolt-on” whenever we discuss research in the context of education.
  • Teachers aren’t always encouraged to use research to their advantage after they qualify.

‘At one or two research-themed conferences I’ve attended in the past, the marginalisation has been clear enough from a quick glance at the event programme. There simply isn’t enough on SEND – paradoxically, when you consider that for many mainstream schools, providing for more complex needs has never been so difficult.

‘Sharing expertise within the sector (and indeed between the mainstream and specialist sectors) is one way to address this capacity problem, so why is SEND research still so underutilised?’

Could it be that we overcomplicate what it means to research as a teacher?

‘Absolutely. There’s a tendency to assume that research is always done in preparation of a paper for publication or peer-reviewed journal – an academic enclave, not something that has much application once teachers actually start teaching. In reality, research can be short, simple but effective, even if in improving a teacher’s understanding of a subject or gathering ideas from colleagues.

‘We need to make the case that teaching practice can be informed by research evidence, not squarely based on (or circumscribed by) it. For example, if you take an intervention scheme “off the shelf” and test it again and again until it works, you stand to gain very little in terms of professional development or better practice. It’s a simple rinse and repeat action.

Teachers aren’t always encouraged to use research to their advantage after they qualify

‘Conversely, the evidence-informed SEND practitioner will set better learning outcomes as their starting points but won’t necessarily use the same methods each time. Action research, for example, is often touted as something that good teachers do, but how many ask why they actually do it?

‘Successful research projects may spring just as easily from our individual priorities as teachers – pupils’ needs that could be better met, areas of professional knowledge that could be enhanced – as from decisions made at a higher level. In this way research can be as immediate as a Google search or as structured as a self-initiated research project, where the aims are to:

  • define a research question (What would we like to find out?)
  • gather your baseline information (What do we know already?)
  • identify ways to gather new information (How can we find out more?)
  • evaluate what you’ve learned and what the next steps might be.’

Going forward, what needs to be done?

‘First, schools have to establish a professional development model for teachers where research is seen as a valuable means of improving practice, not cast aside as a luxury or something we only do when working towards qualifications. Secondly, we need to make sure that SEND has pride of place in this research-led approach.

‘If you picture a line where the starting point represents a debate over the merits of researching as teachers, and the end point represents the establishing of those aforementioned research models in schools, then I think we’re somewhere in the middle of the line nationally.

'There may be a growing consensus that teachers should be researching, but we’re a long way off all teachers using research to enrich their practice and meet their responsibilities as teachers of SEND.

‘We should also be appealing to SENCOs. The wealth of specialist knowledge and expertise a SENCO can acquire in the process of researching for the National SENCO Award, for example, is something that would bring events like ours to life.

'There are so many missing pieces of research that we need to connect, and surely there’s no better example of a whole-school approach to SEND than SENCOs and teacher colleagues collaborating on research projects.

‘We need new voices, practitioners who are eager to share their research for the benefit of their teaching colleagues. If ResearchSEND is to set a precedent or be remembered for something, it’s providing the space for new researchers of SEND to come forward, share their ideas and ask, “What next?”’

The next ResearchSEND event is taking place on Saturday 23 June at the University of Wolverhampton, and tickets are still available.

Use research to inform practice

It's time to focus our attention on what the latest evidence-based research tells us works to support learners in the classroom.

Optimus Education's Annual SEND Update conference will give you the skills to translate the latest research into effective practice. It's taking place in London on 22 May 2018.

Find out more

More from Optimus

Transition for pupils with autism: what does research tell us?

Visual ethnography: bringing a child-centred approach into focus

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder: in need of our understanding

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