Saturday 16 April 2016

The role of research evidence in educational improvement

If you are a teacher, school research lead or headteacher interested in the role of research evidence in  educational improvement, then this post is for you.  The recent White Paper places great store on the role of evidence in improving teaching and learning and this post, drawing upon the work of Hargreaves and Stone-Johnson (2009) will: first,  dentify some of the complexities associated with the relationship between research/evidence-based practice and educational improvement; second, consider the implications for evidence-based change of the different conceptions of the practice of teaching; third, explore the implications for you in your role - teacher, school research lead or head-teacher as you seek to bring about evidence-based educational improvement.

Complexities in evidence-based practice in educational improvement

Hargreaves and Stone Johnson argue that the debate about the use of research evidence* in educational improvement is particularly complex for two reasons.  First, the extent to which stronger and better evidence might advance the quality of teaching and its impact depends upon the nature of the evidence itself - on how it is defined, used, interpreted, and made legitimate.  Second, the relevance and impact of evidence-based practice in teaching also depends on what conceptions of teaching and learning are being employed, how evidences applies to each of them, and how these conceptions shape the conditions under which evidence itself will be used or misused. (p90)

Brown (2015) goes onto expand upon these areas of controversy and debate:
  • the epistemological differences between academic researchers and policy-makers in terms of what counts as evidence, the quality of evidence and what evidence can or can't tell us;
  • whether the evidence-informed movement serves to work agains the practitioners' professional judgement;
  • issues in relations to how formal academic knowledge and professional or tacit knowledge might be effectively combined;
  • differentials in power that can affect or limit interactions between teachers or policy-makers and research/ers;
  • controversies in relation to to some of the methods commonly associated with enhancing evidence uses;
  • how the capacity to engage with academic research might be enhanced;
  • issues such as the inaccessibility of research to teachers and policy-makers, both in terms of where it is published and the language that is typically used in such publications. (adapted from p1)
In addition, Hargreaves and Fullan (2012) also provide a number of reasons why the case for the use of research-based evidence in decision-making can be overstated:
  • evidence-based decisions can be tainted with self-interest;
  • cast-iron evidence can get rusty later on;
  • evidence-based principles are used very selectively;
  • evidence isn't always self-evident;
  • evidence on what to changes isn't the same as how to change;
  • positive initiatives based on evidence in one area can inflict collateral damage;
  • people can cook the data; 
  • evidence-based teaching is only somewhat like evidence-based medicine;
  • evidence comes from experience as well as research. (adapted from p47)

The Practices of Teaching 

Hargreaves and Stone Johnson state : Teaching - like medicine, law, or dentistry - is a professional practice.  It consists of systematically organised and thoughtfully as we as ethically grounded activities among a community of professional that is dedicated to the service of others.  

The practice of teaching is complex, It is not mechanical or predictable. Nor does it follow simple rules. Indeed teaching is an assemblage of many practices, each affecting, drawing on, or intersecting with the others.  Each of these practice relates to evidence in its own distinctive way. (p91)

Table 1 seeks to summarise - as identified by Harris and Stone-Johnson -  the relationship between the different practices of teaching and the role of research evidence in evidence-informed change.

Practice of teaching
Role of evidence in evidence-informed change
Teaching involves the mastery and employment of a technical skill
Evidence could show how differing teacher behaviours effect on student outcomes, though perspective underplays the complexity and challenge of teachers’ work.  Approach needs to reflect deep understanding of evidence-based medicine and practice and role of practitioner expertise and patient values.
Teaching involves increasingly complex work that is highly cognitive and intellectual
Evidence provides a source for improving student learning through enhanced teacher learning about effects of their teaching; strengths and needs of their students; and alternative strategies that have externally validated record of success.
Teaching understandings of their problems deeper than offered by theorist, teachers can provide common-sense insight
Evidence provides legitimate but imperfect basis for professional judgment and knowledge.  Practical experience is as important as research-driven knowledge. Validity of teacher knowledge depends upon the conditions in which it is produced as well as the processes by which it is validated.  Teachers need to become adaptive experts who actively seek to check existing practices and have a disposition towards career-long professional lean
Teaching is an embedded practice that produces emotional alteration in the stream of experience – giving emotional culmination to thoughts, feelings and actions (amended from Denzin)
Evidence-based changes need to include emotional goals and processes of learning (empathy, resilience, self-esteem) as well as emotional conditions for learning (safety and security).  Evidence-based education must go through process which strengthens the relationships of the groups and communities that produce it.  
Moral and Ethical
Teaching is never amoral – it always involved ethical and moral practices, either in a good or bade Teachers promote and produce virtues such as justice, fairness, respect and responsibility
Requires judgment about how evidence is produced, used and interpreted.  Colleagues to hold others to account within professional learning communities for the integrity of their practice and the evidence supporting their work.
Teaching always in some measures involves a relationship of power
Given selective use of evidence by government essential that teachers have the professional capacity to review, critique, make informed decisions, and adapt the evidence accordingly.
Teaching varies in what is taught, who is taught, and how learning is assessed
For evidence-based improvement to be effective contextual contingencies need to be embraced, with realistic timelines for change
As teaching practices become ingrained and accepted – they form part of the professional culture of teaching ie the attitudes, beliefs, values and the patterns of relationship between teachers
Evidence-based educational initiatives require significant investment in the culture building process. They can also push collaborative teachers cultures to focus more persistently on the student learning needs, especially when this might create professional discomfort for teachers themselves.  A systemmatic connection between culture and evidence-based inquiry in caring and trusting relationships of ethical integrity is at the heart of the one of the most powerful principles of implementing evidence-based improvement: professional learning communities (Summarised and amended from Hargreaves and Stone-Johnson p91 - p103)

What are the implications of for your role as a leader of research evidence-informed change?

First, given the various of practices of teaching it is important to reflect on which of practices most closely mirrors your own view of teaching - and reflect on how that view will impact upon on your approach to developing research/evidence-informed practice within your school.  In particular, it is essential that you challenge your own 'practice of teaching' and its relationship with evidence and acknowledge the inherent weaknesses of your approach

Second, given that within your school there will be a diverse range of views on the practice of teaching, it may be necessary to do the following.  Identify which model or models colleagues are using to describe their practice and then adapt your use of 'evidence' to one which is consistent to that paradigm.  In doing so, this may provide you with the opportunity to engage in on-going dialogue rather than engage in the 'dialogue of the deaf.' If you do this, you will keep the conversation going and hopefully each of you will learn from one another.

Third, leading evidence-based or evidence-informed change is clearly a complex and challenging space and is will require a significant personal investment of time, no little skill, and large dollops of patience.  As such, given the challenges and complexities of evidence-based/informed change it would be wrong to expect evidence-based/informed practices to provide 'wonder-cures' for a school's 'ailments.'  (If it did, I'd like to see the evidence).

And finally*

This post has focused on the use of research evidence in evidence-based change, so remember evidence-based practitioners draw upon four sources of evidence - research, school data, stakeholder views and practitioner expertise. Research evidence is not the only evidential fruit.


Brown, C (2015) Evidence-Informed Policy and Practice in Education : A sociological grounding.  Bloomsbury. London

Hargreaves, A., & Stone-Johnson, C. (2009). Evidence-informed change and the practice of teaching. The role of research in educational improvement, 89-109.

Hargreaves, A and Fullan, M. (2012) Professional Capital: Transforming, teaching in every school. Routledge, Abingdon


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