Step 3 – Review what is known

Once you have defined your research question, it is time to move on to discover what is already known in this area. Research comes more naturally to teachers in their early careers as they return to practice learnt while at university. For many school staff, however, this may not be a natural step, and some may need guidance in how to review relevant literature and information about their issue. If your research question is to have meaning and purpose in your organisation then you need to find out how your research question, or issues relating to it, has been raised by others. This will help you to deepen your understanding of the issues that orbit your research question and will help you to refine your question. During this step of the Research Cycle, you may learn about difficulties others had in researching in this area or you may confirm that there has been limited research around your issue. This step is really important but it is one that the researcher in school often omits as they are keen to get going on their research methodology. It is important to slow down and reach out to as many sources of information relating to your research question as possible.

As a researcher, you need patience, time and talk. Patience, as you don’t want to rush headlong into planning your research methodology before you know what you are doing. Time, as you will need to fit your review into your busy working week. Talk, as you will need to talk to your research coach about the issues that arise from your review of what is known. All this builds what Dimmock (2019) refers to as a ‘professional learning community’ where a school creates the space where patience, time and talk rests.

Here are my top tips for reviewing what is known about your field of research:

• Finding out what is known about an issue is not research, but rather one of eight important steps in the Research Cycle.
• In order to build a purposeful and helpful research question, you need to find out what is already known about your issue.
• Professional learning communities and research buddies can be really helpful in connecting with other researchers with similar research questions to share knowledge about what is known about the research question.
• Speaking to colleagues who have key knowledge and skills relating to the research question can provide a wealth of helpful context to the research, but be sure to plan the conversation carefully in order to ensure it helps you learn more about the context of your research question.
• Consider speaking to colleagues beyond your organisation in order to gain insight into the context of your research question • Books are a helpful resource to the researcher, but be alert to author bias.
• Approach journals that are relevant to your research question, read the abstract, read the conclusion, read the article and follow relevant references to broaden your knowledge of what is known.
• Use websites and social media to learn more of what is known about your research question, but be aware of the limitations as some published material will not have been subject to deep scrutiny.
• Consider joining relevant professional associations, particularly if they provide access to journals as a resource.
• Think critically when approaching what is known about your field of study. Remember to beware – think fair – take care or to think FIRST.
• Strive to understand the influence of conscious or unconscious cognitive bias in both yourself and the work of others.

For a wider explanation of these points, read my book Irresistible Learning -embedding a culture of research in schools.


Dimmock, C. (2019). Leading Research-Informed Practice in Schools. In D. A. Godfrey,
An Ecosystem for Research-Engaged Schools. Routledge pp. 56-72.

Back to the Research Cycle

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