Categories of literatures work – what’s “new” about researching now


I’m still researching. Like most of you I’m sure. Research hasn’t so much shut down as taken a peculiar turn.

I’m part of a team looking at school leaders’ work during the pandemic, the support they’ve received, their wellbeing and career plans. Working with the two largest leader organisations in England and Wales, we have already conducted a survey and are now racing to complete interviews before everyone packs up for summer. We’ve been fortunate to be given some institutional funding to support the work – but there’s a clear expectation that we will not only publish from this research but also go on to make a funding bid to continue the project after this year. So our current research can be seen as a pilot for a bigger study.

There are now several reasons why we need to get stuck into some literatures work. Here’s three of the most important: (1) there may be things in the existing literature which help us make sense of the current data: (2) when we write papers about the pilot research we’ll need to situate it in the existing literatures, and (3) when we write our research bid, we need to be clear about the contribution that the new research will make.

However, we also want to see what other research is going on right now. We want to know if others are working on much the same question, or a question that is related. We aren’t worried about being “scooped”. Quite the opposite. We don’t for a moment think that we are the only people interested in and working on this topic. We are not frightened by the thought of company. We think that the more research is done on various aspects of school life during the pandemic, the better picture we will all be able to provide for practitioners, policy advocates and policy makers. So we want to be able to refer to related local research, as well as any international work that speaks to ours. Who knows, we may even find partners for a potential, much larger scale bid.

It would be possible to argue that there was “nothing” relevant written about our research question. After all there’s not been a pandemic like this for a very long time. But no literature is very much not the case.

Let me explain. I hope the way that I am thinking about literatures work for this research may have some relevance for some of you too.

As I start to think about the kind of literatures we need to locate, my first point of reference is work that is like ours, work that addresses the same area. Searching for this literature means more than looking for papers published in established journals – although there are already some studies beginning to appear, particularly in the “papers published ahead” (of allocation to a volume and issue). There is a little more literature in open access publications, because these tend to be quicker and more responsive than mainstream journals in the area. Fortunately I already know most of these publications, as I do keep in touch with research in the school leadership, management and administration field.

But some of the research is too new to be in any academic publications. We need to look for research reports from a variety of institutions and social research organisations. While some of these do show up via google search, I have so far found these through my social media feeds – they appear as headlines and links.

What else? Well, there is also work that is not like ours but is in adjacent areas. So there is other research on schools during the pandemic: looking at, for example, online learning provision, students’ mental health, students missing school, changes in assessment and home schooling. While these aren’t directly on our topic, all of these things are part of school leaders’ work. And if we put our data together with this set of research, we may be able to say more about what is happening and why.

Another potential source of useful results and analysis may come from work that is not like ours but is in a parallel area. Because teachers are public sector professionals who worked throughout the pandemic, there may be parallels with other professions, particularly social workers and community health professionals. We need to check this out too.

But wait, there’s more. In order to put our research in context it is also important that we read the work that analyses the specific context in which our research is located. We will need to explain to readers how the work and experiences of school leaders is/was situated within our particular education, and wider social policy context. We will also need to be able to say what might be specific about our context when we compare our results with other research which is like ours, but set in a different place.

And, probably not finally, but certainly key to our current research is past work which addresses the same question. There is of course a substantive body of writing and research, pre-pandemic, which looked at school leaders’ work, wellbeing and career plans. This corpus is international, so it’s specific to particular places and policy regimes. Fortunately this is a literature that my colleagues and I already know. We do need to update ourselves on what was published just before the pandemic bit deep, but we are already familiar with the basic patterns and debates within the corpus. If we were new to our topic, we would have to do a time-consuming review of this work.

This body of past research is very important to our current project. Knowing what happened pre pandemic may help us to hone in on what has changed over the last eighteen months. Of course, we may only be able to speculate about these changes – although we have asked school leaders about change in our survey and interviews. This earlier research may also point us to things that we need to include in our analysis and in a new research design.

So a bit of hunting and reading for us then. Even if these literatures aren’t all that we need – there are some media and social media that we want too – they are our “academic” starting point. Off we go.

And I do hope that this way of thinking about categories of literatures work in apparently “new research spaces” may be useful to some of you too.