Sunday, 20 December 2015

Evidence-based practice and some common misconceptions

Over the last 12 months I have been lucky enough to have the opportunity to read, reflect and write about evidence-based practice and education.  The more and more I have read about the application of evidence-based practice to education, the more it has become clear that there are a number of common misconceptions about evidence-informed practice in circulation.   In my view it’s important to eliminate these misconceptions for three reasons; first, these misconceptions prevent practitioners making the most of the potential of evidence-based practice to improve outcomes for pupils; second, by conflating evidence-based practice with research, teachers are being mistakenly encouraged to be ‘researchers’ rather than ‘evidence-based practitioners seeking to improve their practice; third, not making good use of evidence-based practice can lead to increasingly scare resources being wasted.
But before looking in more detail at the most common misconceptions associated with evidence-based practice it seems appropriate to define the term ‘evidence-based practice.   To help with this task I will used the definition of evidence-based practice put forward by Barends, Rousseau and Briner[1] (2014).

So what are some of the most common misconceptions associated with evidence-based practice within education?

Misconception 1 – Evidence-based practice ignores the expertise and knowledge of teachers and head-teachers.

As Barends et al (2104) clearly state this misconception is contradicted by the definition of evidence-based practice.  Evidence-based practice is about practitioners combining their experience with other sources of evidence in order to make decisions which they hope will bring about better outcomes.  This does not mean that research evidence of ‘what-works’ automatically overrides the practitioner’s experience, although that expertise needs to be both reliable and valid.  In other words, practitioners need to be aware of the limitations of their own experience in the decision-making process, particularly if that experience is not relevant to the task at hand.

Misconception 2 Evidence-based practice is the same as research-informed practice.

As can be seen from the definition, research-informed practice is a subset of evidence-based practice.  Evidence-based practice involves drawing upon evidence from a range of sources be it ‘academic research’, practitioner experience, organisational/school data and the views of stakeholders.  Indeed, there are real risks associated with the term research-informed practice as it creates the impression that research evidence is more valuable than other forms of evidence.  In doing so, it also helps creates the conditions whereby critics of EBP can argue that research is being used to tell practitioners what to do. 

Misconception 3 Evidence-based practice involves teachers undertaking research

Evidence-based practice is not about attempting to create new and generalizable knowledge through the conduct of research.  Rather EBP is about making using the best available current evidence to make decisions in order to improve pupil outcomes.  That does not mean that teachers do not engage in some form of inquiry or evaluation of their impact on pupil outcomes, but the emphasis is on the improvement of both the teacher’s capacity and capability and pupil outcomes.  In other words, EBP is here to help teachers improve, rather than prove.   That said, if teachers are to improve as evidence-based practitioners then a necessary but not sufficient condition will be for teachers to become research literate.

So what are the implications of this analysis for the educational academy

This discussion suggests a number of implications for HEIs.  First, there’s a significant body of academic literature and research on evidence-based practice which appears not to be known to many members of the ‘educational academy’ and is resulting in ill-informed discussion and debate about the merits of evidence-based practice.  Second, one of the roles HEIs should to help provide teachers with both conceptual clarity and accurate, accessible and relevant summaries of the relevant literature.  Third, a major role for HEIs should be about helping teachers acquire the knowledge and skills to be both research literate and critical consumers of research, and that is not the same as training teachers to be researchers. And finally, if HEIS want to help teachers become better evidence-informed practitioners – please open your libraries to local teachers, and let them access the research evidence.

Barends, E., Rousseau, D. M., & Briner, R. B. (2014). Evidence-Based Management, The Basic Principles. In Search of Evidence, Center for Evidence-Based Management

[1] This definition is partly adapted from the Sicily statement of evidence-based practice: Dawes, M., Summerskill, W., Glasziou, P., Cartabellotta, A., Martin, J., Hopayian, K., Porzsolt, F., Burls, A., Osborne, J. (2005). Sicily statement on evidence-based practice. BMC Medical Education, Vol. 5 (1).

This post first appeared on the BERA website in December 2015 

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