Applying research to practice – A secondary school’s journey with research informed teaching and learning

James Heneghan, Deputy Principal, Long Bay College

A critical part of teaching and learning is being able to articulate what good teaching is and what that looks like in the classroom. There is a wealth of local and international educational research available to support that. But every school is different, so it’s vital to apply the research to a school’s unique context. At Long Bay College we have made considering and applying educational research a fundamental part of our collective practice.

In 2018, I was asked by my Principal to lead an initiative to develop a whole school, research informed model of practice. The thinking being that if we identified and clarified our beliefs, values, and understandings of what “good” teaching and learning were, we’d be better able to support ourselves to be the best teachers we could be, and support our learners to reach their potential, in a manner guided by research.

After reflecting on what we were already doing at our school (which could be a blog post of its own), a small group of staff committed to review research literature that described what effective teaching might look like in a range of classroom contexts. We were mindful that there are many different models of “good” available. The intent was to weave these threads together, contextualise them for Long Bay College, and build a collective understanding of what good teaching and learning could look like at our kura and in our classrooms.

What research resonated with our context?

Maintaining an Aotearoa-centred lens was foundational in our thinking. Graeme Aitken’s “Effective Learning Time” model considering what “good” teaching is, the work of John Hattie in his extensive  meta study outlining the efficacy of approaches and interventions in schools, and Russell Bishop’s consideration of what works for Māori learners and the value of “north east” pedagogies provided our starting point. These authors described high-quality approaches to pedagogy, and informed our understanding that, rather than being anchored at the poles of “traditional” or “progressive” teaching, there is value in sliding across that continuum and understanding that different ways of teaching are differently suited to a range of situations. This integrated model resonated with our staff, students and community.

Research supporting culturally responsive practice

We were committed to developing not just our cultural competence, but our capability and capacity to be culturally responsive. The work of Mere Berryman, framing the multiple ways in which culturally responsive practice is described and its value to learners, Melanie Riwai-Couch, providing grounded approaches to consider cultural competency and its implications for kura, and Melinda Webber, considering intersectionality, directly informed our understanding of “cultural competency” and “culturally responsive practice”.

In addition to having a lead group deeply engaging with research, visiting experts were able to share their learning directly with our wider staff. We invited Graeme Aitken, Mere Berryman, and Melinda Webber to present to our staff during professional learning sessions. As a result, we were able to foster a wider and shared understanding of what “good” teaching and learning was. In considering the voices of leading researchers and making sense of their work, in and for our setting, we were building collective capability.

Our lead team considered a wide range of literature from overseas, and this was often incredibly useful when applied to learning from closer to home. Overseas research can be culturally neutral, therefore its connection and relevance to the ākonga of Aotearoa must be considered and interrogated. It was through a bi-cultural lens that we considered work from overseas. John Sweller’s “Cognitive load theory” describes the relationship between attention, working memory and long-term memory. Daniel Willingham’s unpacking of that model and considering its implications for the classroom is highly relevant when seeking to apply that theory. Zaretta Hammond’s consideration of the relationship between “teaching for memory” and valuing a student’s ethnic and social identity really resonated and supported understanding of the application of culturally responsive pedagogy.

How did we apply the research?

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The connections across the research supported the development of three exceptional learning principles, our goal was to develop principles that could be applied across all of the subject specialisations, without being defined by those specialisations. Instead of being defined by difference, our teaching and teachers would consistently consider the learning of the ākonga. You can read more about our three principles here: Long Bay College’s principles of exceptional learning. The principles of exceptional learning that suit our context are: tikanga, ako and mahara. While tikanga and ako are established ideas in New Zealand schools, mahara is not.

In te reo Māori, mahara means “to think, thinking, thought”. It reinforces an overt focus on the need to secure a change in memory as a fundamental part of the learning process. Mahara – teaching for memory is grounded in developing an understanding of cognitive load theory and its implications and application in our classrooms. Cognitive load theory is important because of the understanding it provides to teachers in considering the attention and learning of their ākonga.

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How are we continuing to improve?

Communicating, integrating and embedding our principles with our wider staff is an ongoing focus. It is not simply the work of one or two staff meetings – change takes time, space, support and kindness to take root. Resourcing by our Board of Trustees and a commitment to regular weekly whole staff professional learning have supported us in sharing understanding and developing sustainable approaches to professional learning for our setting. Our approach involves discussing ideas relating to teaching and learning and encouraging our teachers to trial, investigate and take chances as they apply research to practice. A shared mantra that our learning is about “improving not proving” has been a consistent part of the way we do things at Long Bay College.

We have worked to keep our principles cognitively portable and accessible to all teachers. We have built in supportive resources, synthesis graphics and ongoing time and space to unpack. We have also sought to ensure that new staff to the kura are supported to join our research to practice approach. Our next focus is to move our principles beyond individual classroom approaches into shared schemes of work. This will ensure that teachers are supported with strong sequences of learning and considered curriculum design, through which they can adapt and respond to the learners in front of them.

In 2022, a regular feature of professional learning were showcases of practice. These presentations are sources of rich learning, collegiality, questions, sense making, and inquiry. They contextualise research and approaches for our setting through the sharing of practice and the development of resources relating to:

  • Learning intentions and success criteria
  • High quality group work: The jigsaw method
  • Student generated questions: Question formulation technique
  • Effective questioning
  • Effective feedback
  • Drivers of whanaungatanga in the classroom

Where we once started with four staff unpacking educational theory and wider reading through the lens of our own hunches and biases, we now have a whole staff with a shared vision of what “good” can look like, grounded in local and international research. We’re keen to share what we’ve learned with other schools too. Some of our learning related to Teaching to the North-East, culturally-responsive practices, our three exceptional learning principles, Tikanga, Ako and Mahara, and other supportive files and resources that we have developed at our school can be found here.


James Heneghan is a Deputy Principal, with oversight for Curriculum development and innovation, at Long Bay College on Auckland’s North Shore. He has been teaching since 2002 and has called New Zealand home since moving here in 2008. If you would like to know more about our journey, please contact jheneghan@lbc.school.nz

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