Researchful practice: a “breath of fresh air” for early educators in challenging times

Guest blog by Frances Giampapa and Claire Lee


A wealth of evidence demonstrates the fundamental role played by early years (EY) education in shaping a thriving and equitable society. The importance of valuing and nurturing skilled professionals in this sector is more evident than ever before. Years of underfunding, the devaluing of skills and qualifications and the post-pandemic recruitment and retention crisis have left their mark.

As researchers working with EY educators in England (and more recently across the UK), we understand the challenges they face in underfunded and understaffed educational settings. We also recognise the frustration experienced by some of our EY colleagues in coping with directives, initiatives and assessment practices which sometimes seem to have little relevance to their settings or the children within them and do little more than undervalue their professional judgement.

To address these issues, and to foster a culture of collaborative learning and professional growth, we initiated the Researchful Practice Toolkit in Early Years Settings. In this project we developed an online self-study toolkit and workshops, and we supported small communities of EY educators to access and evaluate research, to develop and conduct projects that addressed their interests and needs in their own settings, and to embed research within their everyday practice. We drew on ample evidence that practitioner inquiry energises teachers, building confidence and allowing them to gain insight into matters of importance to them and to continually develop their practices to ensure the best possible outcomes and experiences for their learners.

In this blog post, we share some findings from the project and suggest the potential of “researchful practice” to empower teachers, enhance their skills, confidence and shape their professional identities.

Gaining insight into their own settings

One of the benefits of the Researchful Practice Toolkit project was the insight the teachers gained through small-scale research projects in their own settings. Whether they were investigating how children used their outdoor area, how learners responded to certain prompts in problem-solving activities, or what practitioners thought about a new assessment system that had been put in place, the teachers’ small-scale inquiries provided unexpectedly rich understanding of matters that were relevant to them and the children in their care. They used the evidence they had generated to prompt discussion with colleagues and adapt their practices.

“I interviewed six I think members of staff in the end and I know them all really well – or I thought I knew  them really well. And they all said different things.”

“I definitely feel a lot more confident to trial things in different ways, and then go and say, … ‘Here’s the evidence I can produce [for] you. Can we have a discussion?’ And I definitely feel a lot more confident at that side of it, and using the skills to help me get the evidence.”

From seeing research as something massive and complicated, conducted elsewhere by “scholars”, the teachers talked about research becoming embedded into their everyday life. They also described increased confidence to step back and critically reflect upon their practice before implementing new initiatives.

“Just to think, ‘Actually, no, we need to we need to have a look at this further and research this and see why this is happening or what we can do more and really look at particular aspects of it, in like a systematic way’.”

Transforming teachers’ relationship with data

Some of the teachers talked of experiencing a “sea change” in their relationship with data. They had previously seen data as “a scary outcome that you’re too afraid to look at”, a tool beyond their control that was used mainly to evaluate their performance. Through the Researchful Practice Toolkit project, they began to see data as a valuable resource that they could generate in simple, interesting and varied ways, allowing them to address questions they had devised themselves. Data transformed from being a trigger for anxiety to a source of interesting and valuable insight.

“Now it’s like, ‘Oh, let’s have a look at the data. Let’s see it. What does it show us?’ So it’s much kinder… much nicer to come and reflect on that data rather than looking at percentages.”

Teachers also described their frustration with the “blunt tools” they previously had at their disposal which, they said, failed to give them usable information. Already highly experienced at gathering qualitative data on children, they began to see how they could apply observation and other qualitative methods as an alternative to quantitative data-crunching to address questions relevant to their work.

“I often find it very difficult to extrapolate meaningful trends… from school assessment data with its relatively small cohort size… The big question is: Who is this for? If it’s not for the people who are working on the ground, at the coalface with the children… it becomes inconsequential…. Qualitative research is the way to go for me!”

Cultivating renewed professionalism

Our findings also suggest that the ability to use their own robust evidence to inform their judgement and speak from a position of evidence-informed authority provided some of the teachers with a renewed confidence and even enhanced their professional identity.

“I didn’t feel… that I was able to have a say. I was just a, a worker, if you like. Whereas now I am a lot more confident and just become more confident in my role.”

Some of the teachers were taking up new leadership roles and described ways in which they would use researchful practice to improve the quality of teaching and learning.

“I plan to share the findings I make with my setting to share and open discussions regarding the importance of questioning and how we ensure the most impact on the children’s learning.”

Addressing challenges in difficult circumstances

“Over 10 years of cuts and the impact of Covid has created a re-active culture which at worst becomes fire-fighting on a daily basis. This is extremely demoralising and leaves little head-space.”

As described by one of the teachers, morale among early years educators in England is extremely low, with few opportunities for reflection, let alone professional development. Years of underfunding and an absence of a clear career progression framework, compounded by low pay, challenging working conditions and long hours (Social Mobility Commission, 2020), have resulted in a recruitment and retention crisis. We do not suggest that researchful practice is a solution to these entrenched problems, which require political will, a coherent strategy and long-term financial commitment. However, our project provides evidence of the positive impact on teachers when provided with the conditions, autonomy, time and support to develop their researchful practice.


Researchful practice represents a valuable way of working for EY professionals, enabling them to drive positive change in their own settings through accessing and evaluating research, developing and conducting their own projects, and embedding research into their everyday life. Early years teachers participating in our Researchful Practice Toolkit project reported gaining important and setting-relevant insights, which allowed them to enhance their practice and that of their colleagues. More than that, however, they spoke of increased confidence, authority and a renewed sense of professionalism. In the words of one of our participant teachers, researchful practice offers a much-needed “breath of fresh air”.

Dr Frances Giampapa is a Senior Lecturer in education at the School of Education, University of Bristol.  Dr Claire Lee is a Research Fellow in the Centre for Psychological Research, Oxford Brookes University.

Find out more via the Researchful Practice Toolkit blog.

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