DR LOUISE STOLL FAcSS, Professor of Professional Learning, UCL Institute of Education, London

How do you create a culture throughout a school or district where there’s lively talk about academic research findings and people regularly draw on them to inform their practice? As an applied educational researcher, my research tries to find answers to complex school improvement and leadership challenges. But I’m equally passionate about finding ways to help educators use my research findings to help them improve their practice and their students’ learning experiences and outcomes. Promoting research-informed learning conversations is a good place to start.

When teachers and school leaders engage seriously with research findings, they’re involved in a process of learning. Like other powerful professional learning, if it’s going to lead to deep and meaningful change, ideas need to challenge people’s assumptions about the way they normally do things. Through what I call knowledge animation, teachers and school leaders make learning connections as they engage with research findings and then they create their own useful knowledge that will help enhance their practice.

Why choose the word ‘animation’?

KNAER is an important broker for knowledge mobilisation (KM). Sandra Nutley and Huw Davies (2016) describe KM as ‘a wide range of approaches aimed at encouraging the creation, sharing and application of knowledge’ and, referring to education, Julie Nelson and Clare O’Beirne define it as: ‘The process by which evidence is implemented in practice, through synthesis, transformation into useful materials or guidance for schools, and/or mediation’. Many other words like ‘dissemination’, ‘knowledge transfer’ and ‘knowledge utilization’ are used either as alternatives or to define parts of the process. I’m particularly interested in what lights a spark to connect people with research findings and the role they play themselves in transforming research knowledge. For me, ‘animation’ captures this. The word ‘animate’ comes from the Latin word ‘anima’ which means breath, life, or soul. Animate means to bring to life or put in motion. It suggests movement, action, dynamism, and innovation. Ideas truly come to life when they are shared and explored with others. It’s the teachers and school leaders, not the researchers, who ultimately bring the research to life as they make sense of it, then apply or adapt the ideas to their context.

Designing processes for knowledge animation means bringing the research to people in ways that help them encounter it in manageable units and in accessible, varied formats to capture their interest, deepen their engagement with the ideas, and make meaning. They need to locate the ideas, consider them seriously, and explore topics and issues. Powerful processes bring out unstated beliefs and assumptions, which can be challenged by research findings. Conversation protocols (frameworks or guidelines) can help a group of people combine their knowledge and experiences with research and together, come up with something new to solve intractable problems. Knowledge animation materials and processes need to:

  • pay as much attention to learners and the learning process as to the research itself;
  • bring people together as collaborative learners and critical friends;
  • be tailored to situations and contexts; and
  • be linked with opportunities to put ideas into practice and refine new learnings.
Evidence-informed teaching: school tool
teaching: school tool

Resources for knowledge animation learning conversations

Here are two tools I’ve recently created with colleagues:

1.  Teacher and school evidence-engagement: self-assessment toolkits

These toolkits were published by our Chartered College of Teaching in early 2018 and are freely downloadable. They result from another of our national studies to assess England’s progress towards being an evidence-informed teaching system. These two self-assessment tools are designed to help educators evaluate and consider their own levels of interaction with evidence in terms of awareness, engagement, and use. Based on real examples and quotes, they also illustrate what different levels of interaction look like in more or less evidence-informed schools. We invite people to note their examples alongside their self-assessments, specifically stating that we hope people will use them to stimulate conversations and joint decision-making – they are meant to be collaborative tools – and we provide a summary sheet at the end of the tools with questions to stimulate further conversation.

2. Catalyst : an evidence-informed, collaborative professional learning resource for teacher leaders and other leaders working within and across schools is our latest venture.

Catalyst resource
Catalyst resource

It’s two sets of cards based on findings of a collaborative knowledge exchange Research & Development project between our Centre and Challenge Partners, a national, voluntary collaborative partnership of 350+ schools. Catalyst is designed to help school leaders ‘bring to life’ and contextualise the findings of the project which explored four research questions about:

  • the effectiveness of teacher/middle leaders within schools and across school partnerships;
  • tracking their impact on colleagues’ practice;
  • sharing their knowledge; and
  • senior leadership support for them by creating cultures of shared practice.
Example of front of first set of cards
Example of front of
first set of cards
Example of back of first set of cards
Example of back of
first set of cards

The cards draw on the knowledge we gained in the project, and further research on effective professional learning, knowledge mobilisation, and animation. The first set of cards contains answers to the research questions, each card focusing on one finding, summarised in two or three sentences. We have deliberately kept this short, finding that it helps draw in people who are initially reluctant to engage with longer pieces of writing, and that two focused sentences can easily stimulate deep conversation if aligned with strong professional learning tasks and powerful questions. Fuller research references are available for those who wish to dig deeper.

The second set of cards contains nine professional learning and other development processes for self- or external facilitation to help leaders think through the research findings together and apply them in developing their and colleagues’ practice. Participants have the opportunity to speak, listen, ask questions, reflect, offer critical friendship, and build trust so that they become more comfortable with challenging each other. The cards also provide opportunities for problem-based collaborative learning as people come up with new ways of dealing with challenges, and prompt them towards action that’s focused on leading for improved practice.

Professional Learning Communities: Source Materials for School Leaders and Other Leaders of Professional Learning
facilitator guide

There’s a facilitator guide too, and users can access associated resources at https://www.ioe-rdnetwork.com/catalyst.html.

You can also still freely download Professional Learning Communities: Source Materials for School Leaders and Other Leaders of Professional Learning http://www.lcll.org.uk/professional-learning-communities.html which were based on our findings from a national research project in England studying PLCs.


Where next?


I’m working on other ways of helping educators connect with research findings, and am particularly interested in exploring further how the different professional learning processes work as people connect with the research findings. We’re hoping to develop a network of Catalyst users. If you use any of the resources, do send me any feedback.


Nonaka, I. and Takeuchi, H. (1995) The Knowledge-Creating Company: How Japanese Companies Create the Dynamics of Innovation . New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Nelson, J. and O’Beirne, C. (2014) Using Evidence in the Classroom: What Works and Why? National Foundation for Educational Research. https://www.nfer.ac.uk/publications/IMPA01/IMPA01.pdf

Nutley, S. and Davies, H. (2016) Knowledge mobilisation: creating, sharing and using knowledge, in K. Orr, S. Nutley, S. Russell, R. Bain, B. Hacking and C. Moran (eds) Knowledge and Practice in Business and Organisations, London: Routledge

Stoll, L. (2012) Stimulating learning conversations, Professional Development Today, 14 (4): 6-12.

Stoll, L. (2010) Connecting learning communities: capacity building for systemic change, in A. Hargreaves, A. Lieberman, M. Fullan and D. Hopkins (eds) Second International Handbook of Educational Change. Netherlands: Springer.

Stoll, L. (2009) Knowledge Animation in Policy and Practice: Making Connections. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, San Diego, April.

Timperley, H., Wilson, A., Barrar, H. and Fung, I. (2008) Teacher Professional Learning and Development: Best Evidence Synthesis Iteration. Wellington: New Zealand Ministry of Education.


Louise StollLouise is Professor of Professional Learning at the UCL Institute of Education, London (part-time) and a freelance researcher and international consultant. Her research and R&D activity focuses on how schools, local and national systems create capacity for learning, with an emphasis on professional learning communities and learning networks, creative leadership, leadership development and connecting research and practice through enquiry and formative evaluation practices. Louise has led several evaluations for national agencies in England, is an expert to the OECD on its Transforming Schools into Learning Organisations, Innovative Learning Environments, Improving School Leadership , and Evaluation and Assessment initiatives, former President of the International Congress for School Effectiveness and Improvement, and Fellow of the Academy for the Social Sciences. Louise spent six years in Ontario as Director of Research for the Halton Board of Education. She is author of many publications translated into several languages, and has developed professional learning and leadership resources based on her research. Louise is a regular international keynote and workshop presenter and facilitator.