Supporting students to conduct their own research projects

While many schools have a wide range of sporting and arts programs available for students to explore their passions, some students may have interests that fall outside these areas. As a teacher, how do you support students to explore their personal interests?

At Brighton Grammar School, a year 12 student was given the opportunity to conduct his own educational research project with the support of staff from the school’s Crowther Centre, a research-based centre that supports educators to translate research to practice.

Dr Ray Swann is the Deputy Headmaster at Brighton Grammar School and Head of the Crowther Centre. He also has a research background, completing doctoral studies in medical education. ‘They had a particular model for using evidence in patient and clinical care and I was quite familiar with that,’ he tells Teacher.

‘In clinical decision making, you’re looking at research evidence, yes, but then there's institutional knowledge, like what's the practice of the hospital and what do they learn over time? And also what's practitioner knowledge and what constitutes evidence? And as part of that, where does the patient sit in that? And so I guess there's a narrative that you start to understand in a clinical context ... so we started applying some of those research techniques into the school and that's really transformed the school actually.'

Dr Swann explains that the Crowther Centre has an inward and outward focus. Inwardly, the focus is on research translation and, by extension, improving teaching instruction.

‘We’re using an instructional coaching program, so we deliver that content to teachers and then through that, impact curricula and so on. Another example, as an outward focus, we partner with different organisations. So, we had a group called Steplab – which are a really big instructional coaching group from the UK – they came out and co-presented at Brighton Grammar … about 150 people from all over Australia came to the school to do the Steplab combined program.’

Students conducting their own research projects

In the 2022 school year, the work of the Crowther Centre included assisting student Tim Tso to conduct his own research project.

‘Beginning of year 12, I recognised that I'd done 2 year 11 subjects and I’d done pretty well. So I was trying to look for something I wanted to do,’ Tso shares with Teacher. ‘And I'm quite interested in education. I was taking on the challenge to try to apply for the Bachelor of Education at Cambridge [University] and they require a lot of … relevant experience to education.’

Tso spoke with the school’s career counsellor and Crowther Centre about how he could further explore his interest in education. He landed on taking up his own educational research project on the suggestion of Dr Swann.

‘The research project was about parental school choice,’ Tso says. ‘Our focus was to see why they've chosen Brighton Grammar and what they expected from the school.’

The focus of the research was something Brighton Grammar School was already interested in investigating, in response to a significant growth in student enrolments over the last few years.

‘So, what's driving that? And where do we want to put our resources? We had some materials around that, but what we hadn't done is put it all together in a way that you could talk to,’ Dr Swann shares. ‘We had some basic-level report stuff, but Tim's work in putting that narrative around it was also really interesting for us.’

Oliver (Ollie) Lovell is a Mathematics teacher at Brighton Grammar School, Senior Researcher in the Crowther Centre, instructional coach, and Director at Steplab Australia. He also supported Tso with a literature review for his research project, showing him how to look up articles online using sources such as Google Scholar and use referencing software Zotero.

‘I helped him understand how to quickly read through an article and get a sense of whether it was a reliable or valid article to check out, and how to pull out some of the main points,’ Lovell tells Teacher. ‘And then he went on to do a really good job of that literature review and used those skills in a couple of other contexts as well.’

Lovell also gave Tso the opportunity to observe elements of his own PhD work. For example, Tso assisted in collecting and collating some data, and was shown how some of the data were analysed.

‘The way Tim was supported to follow his passion is representative of the kind of approach that we try to take at Brighton Grammar more broadly in terms of supporting boys, irrespective of what their interests might be,’ Lovell explains.

‘Now for some boys that might be getting better at AFL or rowing and we’ve got some great programs that are … well set out for that. But for those students that don’t feel like their passion lies in an offering that isn’t already a part of the school, we do our best to kind of craft something that really hits the mark for them.’

As a teacher, think about a student in your school who has interests that lay outside the typical programs on offer at your school. In what ways could you support them to pursue these interests?

How could you involve students as researchers in your next action research project, to help them develop their own skills?