Wednesday 10 September 2014

researchED14 and evidence based educational leadership and management - is there a missing synthesis?

At the weekend I had the privilege of attending researchED14 and taking part in some of the most inspirational CPD that I have experienced in my thirty years in the education profession.   The experience reminded me of the famous Jean Luc Goddard saying that a story should have a beginning, middle and an end but not necessarily in that order.  For many colleagues this was their first experience of the teacher as researcher movement, whereas for others, it was another rich experience in a long developmental journey as a research-led practitioner. 

So going back to the beginning - researchED14 prompted me to revisit the seminal contribution to evidence based medicine of Sackett, Rosenberg, Gray, Haynes, & Richardson (1996) and consider the implications for education, and particularly educational leadership and management.

Sackett at al define evidence-based medicine as  ... the conscientious, explicit, and judicious use of current best evidence in making decisions about the care of individual patients. (p71)  They go onto describe what good doctors do, which I have amended for teachers and educators. Good teachers use both individual teaching expertise and the best available external evidence, and neither alone is enough. Without teaching expertise, practice risks becoming tyrannised by evidence, for even excellent external evidence may be inapplicable to or inappropriate for an individual pupil or school. Without current best evidence, practice risks becoming rapidly out of date, to the detriment of pupils. (Amended from Sackett p71)

However, Sackett et al go on to argue what evidence-based medicine is NOT and using that as a starting point I have sought to make comparisons with the research-led/evidence based education movement.

Evidence based medicine is NOT(Sackett et al) 

Evidence based education is NOT

Old-hat and is something everyone is doing.

Something all teachers are doing.

Conducted only by researchers in ‘ivory-towers.

Just conducted in university education departments but also takes place in school.

Cook-book or recipe led practice.

Attempting to replace teaching craft and skill with a check-list of pre-determined approaches.

Restricted to randomized trials and meta analyses.

Just about  EEF sponsored randomized trials  and requires individual teachers to reflect on how to improve their practice in their own particular school or college.

A method for reducing the cost of health-care.

About reducing the cost of education by making all teachers more effective but will require significant investment in teacher CPD in order to increase basic research literacy.

However, for me there is something missing in that research informed/ evidence based education needs to be more than about pedagogy, policy and practice, it also needs to be about educational leadership and management.  Most leadership and management decisions made by head-teachers and heads of department are not based on the best available evidence.  Often they are either based solely on prior experience or possibly the latest bestselling 'airport' business guru .   However, both are potentially hugely flawed in that personal experience is subject to a number of systematic errors and business best-sellers are often little more than anecdotes or when they do refer to evidence are neither reliable or valid (see Phil Rosenzweig's book The Halo Effect .... and the eight other business delusions that deceive managers  and my post of 29 April 2014)

So what does this mean for the research informed education movement.  
First, the reach of this movement needs to extend to educational leadership and management practice, encouraging headteachers to ask the question ' what is the best available evidence' before making leadership and management decisions, and avoiding over-reliance on personal experience and judgement.  Second, the research informed education movement needs to  develop a synthesis with the field of evidence based management and draw upon the work of scholars such as Eric Barends, Denise Rousseau, Rob Briner and David Denyer.  
This potential of this work is enormous in that it will contribute to better informed decisions leading to better educational experiences for students and improved working lives for teachers.


Sackett, D. L., Rosenberg, W., Gray, J., Haynes, R. B., & Richardson, W. S. 1996. Evidence based medicine: what it is and what it isn't. BMJ, 312(7023): 71-72.


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