Saturday 16 January 2016

New - Why certain practices reach the classroom and others don't

If you are interested in how educational research and ideas reach the classroom, then this post is for you.  Based on Jack Schneider's 2014 book From the  ivory tower to the school house this post see to explain why some educational research and ideas become common practice in schools, and why others do not.  Schneider identifies four attributes - perceived significance, philosophical compatibility, occupational realism, and transportability-  that educational research must have ... if teachers are to notice, accept, use and share (Schneider, p7).  Finally, I will consider the implications of Schneider's analysis for the implementation of evidence-informed practice.

However, before I look into these four attributes in more detail, I will quickly recount Schneider's summary of the arguments as to why much educational scholarship has little impact on the practices of teachers and pupil learning.  First, Schneider argues  there is little or no 'practice ready scholarship' with academic writing being for each other academics and researchers rather than teachers.  Second, teachers are antagonistic to new ideas: teachers have worked to make the profession comfortable for themselves and are determined to protect the status quo.   However, Schneider argues that the real reason why the is a separation between academic scholarship and teaching practice is the separation of capacities and influence required to shift research into the classroom.  Teachers may be able to influence what goes on in the classroom, they normally lack the capacity and capability to engages with academic research.  Whereas policymakers may be well positioned to connect with the 'educational HE academy' they are not best positioned to directly influence the classroom.

Nevertheless, Schneider argues that educational research, ideas and scholarship can move from the ivory tower/academy to the classroom if the research/idea possesses a set of specific attributes.  So what are these attributes:
  1. Perceived significance - the research or idea is relevant to an issue that matters to teachers and there would appear to be some evidence to support the idea.  On the one hand, the research is signalling that it matters to the profession and schools, and on the other the research would appear to have an evidential justification and/or is backed by an educational authority.
  2. Philosophical compatibility - is the research compatible the with common values, interests and concerns of teachers and headteachers 
  3. Occupational realism - is the idea practical and can be easily put into immediate use in the classroom the very next day or does it require a significant physical investment in the school 
  4. Transportability - how easily can the idea move from research into practice and from teacher to teacher.  Is it an idea that does not require some form of extensive training or  it can be picked up in a 30 minute CPD session.  Alternatively can the idea be transmitted by social media, and for exampe, Twitter and the Twitterati.
Schneider argues that the possession of these four attributes is a necessary but not sufficient condition for research or an idea to move from the ivory tower to the classroom and illustrates this with reference to a a number of other innovations, for -  the taxonomy for the affective domain, Sternberg's triarchic theory, Wittrock's generative learning model; and finally, the behaviour analysis model - which have not made the jump from the academy to the classroom.   Furthermore, just because an educational idea/research has these four attributes does not in itself guarantee that it has merit or worth, examples of this being the popularity of Brain Gym and Learning Styles.

Applying the four attributes to the development of evidence-informed practice within schools.

If we use these four attributes as a check-list to help us identify the chances of 'success' for the evidence-informed practice movement with schools, then it could be argues that evidence-informed practice still has a long way to go to before it can be said to have all of four attributes.  Indeed, it could be argued that at best the evidence-informed practice currently has only one of the attributes necessary for success i.e transportability - witness the success of researchED which has used Twitter as a main form of communication.  On the other hand, evidence-informed practice - which for some means research-informed practice - is be seen by many as occupationally unrealistic - due to a lack of access to research journals.  For others, an evidence-informed approach is philosophically incompatible with both teacher autonomy and relationship between evidence and practices.  Finally, given that much research is seemed irrelevant to schools and not addressing real school-based problems, research is perceived to be insignificant to the immediate needs of pupils, teachers and schools.   

The above analysis would suggest that the success of the evidence-informed practice movement is by no means certain, and if anything the movement is more likely to fail than succeed.  

If you believe in evidence-informed practice in schools - what is to be done?

In some ways the answer is quite simple : supporters of evidence-informed practice within schools need to improve the extent to which evidence-informed practice exhibits these characteristics.  This could be done by the following :
  • Philosophical Compatibility - ensure absolute conceptual clarity, so as not to confuse evidence-informed practice with research-based practice.  This is can be done by proponents of evidence-informed practice continually articulating the role of practitioner expertise just as this was done in evidence based medicine with Sackett et al defining evidence-based evidence as is the conscientious, explicit, and judicious use of current best evidence in making decisions about the care of individual patients. The practice of evidence based medicine means integrating individual clinical expertise withthe best available external clinical evidence from systematic research.
  • Occupational Realism - emphasising that evidence-informed practice can be put into immediate effect within schools bye supporting colleagues develop well-formulated and answerable questions.  It's not just about accessing journals and research, it also involves teachers accessing and using school data or even just talking to pupils about their perceptions of their learning experience.  Stakeholder views and values are an essential component of evidence-informed practice.  
As for perceived significance - this is where advocates of evidence-informed practice will need to be both patient and open-minded as the 'jury' is still out as to impact of evidence-informed practice on pupil outcomes.  In the specific context of schools, although not comprehensively or systematically established, there are numerous reported benefits to practitioners engaging in evidence informed practice.   However, to help address this lack of academic evidence there are a number of EEF funded studies, for example – The Rise Project: Evidence – Informed School Improvement; Research into Practice : Evidence Informed CPD; Research Learning Communities; and Evidence for the Frontline – which considering the impact of evidence-informed practices on teacher development and pupil outcomes.  These projects will begin to report from 2016 onwards.

To conclude:

This is a 'very quick and dirty analysis' of the evidence-informed practice movement.  However, what it does make abundantly clear is that there is still much to be done to ensure evidence informed practice is perceived to be significant, is philosophically compatible with teacher values and beliefs, and occupationally realistic.  Even if this is done, school leaders will need to ensure that teachers have the capacity and capability to implement evidence-informed practice within their schools.


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