Friday 16 September 2016

The school research lead and conscientious, explicit and judicious evidence-based practice

One of the major misconceptions about evidence-based practice is all that practitioners have to do to be evidence-based  is to read, interpret and apply relevant academic research to their practice.  However, being an evidence-based practitioner is so much more than that  and involves practitioners making decisions through the conscientious, explicit and judicious use of evidence (Sackett et al, 1996).  In this post I will seek to explore what is meant by these terms and the implications for practice.

The three key-terms - conscientious, explicit and judicious


One way of thinking about being a conscientious evidence-based practitioner is to examine the difference between 'doing things right and doing  the right thing.'  'Doing the right thing' can be viewed as being about what are you doing and why we are doing it.  On the other hand. 'doing things right' should be viewed as being about how things are done, and as such is about the process of being an evidence-based practitioner.

A useful starting point in helping us think about what is meant by 'doing things right' is the notion of disciplined inquiry (Cronbach and Suppes, 1969).  Evidence-based practice - as defined by Barends et al is clearly a disciplined process as there are six-steps or actions to undertake before make a decision.

However, merely going through these six steps is itself not enough to sure of 'doing things right'.   Conscientious evidence-based practitioners will also need to ensure that they
  • Focus on the things that matter to their pupils, colleagues, school and local community.  
  • Explore a range of plausible alternative courses of action are considered
  • Acknowledge that to become an expert evidence-based practitioner will require constant deliberate practice, and it will take time to move from being  novice to expert 
  • Consider the ethical implications of their actions
  • Display deferred judgment as to the most appropriate decision


Cronbach and Suppes (1969)  notion of disciplined inquiry is also helpful in trying to unpack the term 'explicit'.  As Cronbach and Suppes state: Disciplined inquiry has a quality that distinguishes it from other sources of opinion and belief. The disciplined inquiry is conducted and reported in such a way that the argument can be painstakingly examined. The report does not depend for its appeal on the eloquence of the writer or on any surface plausibility, (p. 15).

So how can we ensure the underpinning argument of the evidence-based practitioner is painstakingly examined.  Ross and Roberts (2016), helpfully suggest a number of actions which the evidence-based practitioner should take:
  • State their assumptions and describe data that led to them
  • Explain their assumptions
  • Make sure their reasoning is explicit
  • Explain the context and their point of view, who will be affected by what is proposed, and how they will be affected and why?
  • Give examples of what is being proposed, even if they are hypothetical or metaphorical
  • Try and picture other people's perspective on  what they are saying
  • Encourage others to explore their model, assumptions and data
  • Refrain from defensiveness when their ideas are challenged
  • Reveal where they are least clear in their thinking 
  • Stay open and encourage others to express their views.
Most importantly, a disciplined/evidence-based inquiry needs to be communicated in such a way that it is both understandable and useful for its intended audience.  The 'explicit' evidence-based practitioner communicates in such as to the minimise  the unnecessary use of terminology and seeks to explain things in way is that both simple but not simplistic.


If being conscientious involves 'doing things right' then being judicious means that the evidence-based practitioner should be committed to 'doing the right thing' and displaying what could be described as phronesis i.e sound wisdom judgement. (Flyvberg, 2001)

To assist the  evidence-based practitioner display phronesis the work of  Badaraco (2016) is extremely helpful, in that it suggests five practical questions which, if used, will increase the odds of  evidence-based practitioners  making wise and judicious decisions.  These questions are particularly valuable when the evidence - from whatever source or sources -  is unclear, contradictory or at best partial.  As such, evidence-based practitioners need to work through the following five questions before coming to a decision as to who to proceed:
  • What are the net, net consequences of all my options - what will be the impact on people's lives
  • What are my core obligations - to my pupils, colleagues, peers, and other stakeholders
  • What will work in the world as it is - rather than in the world that you would like it to be
  • Who are we? - what are our core values and norms, what do we stand for
  • What can I live with? - can you explain your decision with comfort to a close colleague or mentor (ameneded from  Badaraco, 2016) 
And some final words 

What should be clear from the above argument is the need to recognise that evidence-based practice is more than just looking at the latest research evidence before making a decision.  Evidence-based practice is a conscientious, explicit and judicious process, which has at its very core the notion of phronesis, practical wisdom and sound judgment.


BADARACO, J. (2016) How to tackle your toughest decisions, Harvard Business Review, September

BARENDS, E., ROUSSEAU, D. M. & BRINER, R. B. 2014. Evidence-Based Management : The Basic Principles. In: MANAGEMENT, C. F. E.-B. (ed.). Amsterdam

Cronbach, L. J., & Suppes, P. (Eds.). (1969). Research for tomorrow’s schools: Disciplined inquiry for education. New York: MacMillan. This is a report of a special committee of the National Academy of Education. It includes a detailed discussion of disciplined inquiry, a number of historical case studies of educational research programs and a set of policy recommendations.

* cited in Shulman, L.  (1997) Disciplines of Inquiry in Education: An Overview in Jaeger, R. (ed) (1997) Complementary Methods in Complementary Methods for Researchers in Education, American Education Research Association, (pp 3-19)

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, 5, 1.

FLYVBJERG, B. 2001. Making social science matter: Why social inquiry fails and how it can succeed again, Cambridge university press.

ROSS, R. & ROBERTS, C. Balancing Inquiry and Advocacy

DAVID L SACKETT, W. M. C. R., J A MUIR GRAY, R BRIAN HAYNES, W SCOTT & RICHARDSON 1996. Evidence based medicine: what it is and what it isn't. British Medical Journal, 312, 71-72.


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