How can school leaders establish evidence-informed schools?
One of the constant challenges in advocating evidence-based practice and the strategies necessary to promote it, is to ensure that you have robust evidence to support your proposed strategies. With that in mind, this post will examine Brown and Zhang’s (2016) research on potential policy levers available to school leaders who wish to facilitate evidence-informed changes with their schools, as well as increase the use of evidence-informed practice by teachers. I will then go onto explore the implications for the continuing professional development of both current and future school leaders.
Brown and Zhang undertook a survey of 696 primary school practitioners in forty schools to examine four factors which school leaders need to consider when seeking to promote evidence-informed practice within their schools. These factors are: first, the existence of teacher capacity to engage in and with research and data; second, school cultures that are attuned to evidence use; third, schools promoting the use of research as part of an effective learning environment (professional learning communities); fourth, the existence of effective structures, system and and resource that facilitate research-use and the sharing of best practice. The data was subsequently analysed to identify potentially successful strategies which school leaders could use to promote evidence use within their schools
Brown and Zhang go onto identify a set of relatively inexpensive and relatively simple policy drivers that both support evidence-informed change and the frequency of use of evidence-informed practice by teachers. As Brown and Zhang state:
What is key is, however, is that these solutions do not appear to be either resources intense or complex to implements, relating as they do to school leaders to : 1) promote the vision for evidence-use (that is, encourage its use); 2) engage in actions such as ‘modelling’ , ‘monitoring’ and ‘mentoring and coaching’ in order to demonstrate how evidence can be employed to improve issues of teaching and learning; 3) establish effective learning environments in which learning conversations around the use of evidence can flourish. (p15)
Furthermore, Brown and Zhang argue that trust is and important factor in determining the potential success of such strategies. Trust will be required of those colleagues who are research literate by other colleagues who do not have such capacity, particularly if evidence-informed practices are to be widely adopted. Second, Brown and Zhang argue that in high trust schools, practitioners undertaking new and innovative projects feel supported and sense that they are operating in a ‘safe-environment’. With school leaders facilitating increasing levels of trust by engaging in reciprocal efforts, be it joint-problem solving or shared-decision making, with colleagues.
Implications for the development of current and future school leaders.
There would appear to be at least three key implications of Brown and Zhang’s work for the development of current and future school leaders wishing to support the development of evidence-informed practice within their current or future school. First, it’s extremely difficult to promote a vision of evidence-informed practice unless there is a clear understanding of what is meant by evidence-informed practice. In particular, it will be necessary for school leaders to have a clear understanding of the complex relationship between evidence-informed change different conceptions of the very nature of teaching practice (Hargreaves and Stone Johnson, 2009) as this will influence how the vision for evidence-informed practice will be articulated.
Second, Brown and Zhang acknowledge that their study has focused a particular phase of education i.e the primary phase- , with fifty per cent of the schools involved either being part of teaching school alliance or similar partnership. As such, research is required to see whether the three relatively simple and inexpensive strategies identified, have the same potential within different phases of education, be it secondary or post-compulsory. My own hunch is that secondary school leaders may - due to the larger size of their schools - need to give greater attention to structure, systems and resources. As for the CEOS for Multi-Academy Trusts, it is possible that a different toolkit will be required to support the development and use of evidence-informed practice.
Third, for school leaders to develop trust with colleagues through the use of reciprocal, a necessary condition would suggest that these efforts would need to be underpinned by genuineness. Unfortunately, recent research by Le Fevre, Robinson and Sinnema (2014) would suggest that school leaders have limited capacity to engage in what they term ‘genuine’ inquiry. With this lack of capacity being a function of cognitive biases, perceptions and inter-personal skill levels. As such, school leaders may require a significant disruption to their current practice and ways of working. In the first instance, this may best be achieved by some form of 'private' intrapersonal inquiry. Having challenged their own assumptions in private, this may lead to a willingness to do so in public interpersonal inquiry.
Some final words
On the one hand, Brown and Zhang’s research is encouraging in that the development of both evidence-informed change and practice may not be as resource intensive as first thought. On the other hand, school leaders are going to need to be individually rich in the skills necessary to engage in disciplined and genuine inquiry. Unfortunately, the evidence suggests this may well not be the case.
Brown, C and Zhang, D (2016) How can school leaders establish evidence-informed schools: An analysis of potential school policy levers, Educational Management Administration and Leadership 1 – 20
Hargreaves, A., and Stone-Johnson, C. (2009). Evidence-informed change and the practice of teaching. The role of research in educational improvement, 89-109.
Le Fevre, D. M., Robinson, V. M., & Sinnema, C. E. (2014). Genuine Inquiry Widely Espoused Yet Rarely Enacted. Educational Management Administration & Leadership, 1741143214543204.