Thursday 16 November 2017

The school research lead, improvement research and implementation science

This week saw the welcome announcement of the appointment of Dr Becky Allen as the director of the UCLIOE’s Centre for Education Improvement Science.  On appointment, Dr Allen wishes to help develop “a firmer scientific basis for education policy and practice” and drawing on methods such as laboratory experiments and classroom observation.

Now regular readers of this blog will know that I have often expressed a concern over how educational researchers often misuse terms associated with evidence-based practice.  So, given this new initiative in improvement science it seems sensible look at a definition of improvement science/research and to do this, I’ll use the work of (LeMahieu et al., 2017)

Improvement Research : a definition (LeMahieu et al., 2017)

Improvement research is … about making social systems work better. Improvement research closely inspects what is already in place in social organizations – how people, roles, materials, norms and processes interact. It looks for places where performance is less than desired and brings tools of empirical inquiry to bear and to produce new knowledge about how to remediate the undesirable performance. Put simply, improvement research is not principally about developing more “new parts” such as add-on programs, innovative instructional artifacts or technology; rather, it about making the many different parts that comprise an educational organization mesh better to produce quality outcomes more reliably, day in and day out, for every child and across the diverse contexts in which they are educated.

Examples of Improvement Research/Science

  1. Networked Improvement Communities;
  2. Design-Based Implementation Research;
  3. Deliverology;
  4. Implementation Science;
  5. Lean for Education;
  6. Six Sigma;
  7. Positive Deviance
As such, (LeMahieu et al., 2017) state that All seven of the approaches  ……. share a strong “common core”. All are in a fundamental sense “scientific” in their orientation. All involve explicating hypotheses about change and testing these improvement hypotheses against empirical evidence. Each subsumes a specific set of inquiry methods and each aspires transparency through the application of carefully articulated and commonly understood methods – allowing others to examine, critique and even replicate these inquiry processes and improvement learning. In the best of cases, these improvement approaches are genuinely scientific undertakings

In other words, improvement research is a form of ‘disciplined inquiry’ (Cronbach and Suppes, 1969)

What Improvement Science Is Not?

However,  as (LeMahieu et al., 2017) note a major distinguishing feature of  improvement research, is what it does not attempt to do.  Improvement research is not about creating new theories or research and development.  Nor is about seeking to evaluate existing teacher strategies, interventions of field-based trials.   Rather improvement science is about doing more of what works, stopping what doesn’t and making sure everything is joined up in ways which bring about improvements in a particular setting

Given this stance, then statements about the Centre for Education Improvement Science (CEISbeing about ‘laboratory experiments and classroom observations’ seem a little incongruent with the existing work in the field.

My confusion about the work of the CEIS is further compounded by mention in Schools Week where it describes Improvement Science London, which is also based at UCL, improvement science involves the recognition of “the gap between what we know and what we put into practice” and using the “practical application of scientific knowledge” to identify what needs to be done differently.   However, that could probably more accurately be described as ‘implementation science’ (a subset of improvement science admittedly).  So, let’s delve into a little more detail about what is meant by the ‘implementation science.

What is implementation science?

(Barwick, 2017) defines Implementation science (as) the scientific study of methods that support the adoption of evidence based interventions into a particular setting (e.g., health, mental health, community, education, global development).  Implementation methods take the form of strategies and processes that are designed to facilitate the uptake, use, and ultimately the sustainability – or what I like to call the ‘evolvability’ – of empirically-supported interventions, services, and policies into a practice setting (Palinkas & Soydan, 2012 ; Proctor et al., 2009); referred to herein as evidence-based practices (EBPs).

Barwick goes onto state that Implementation focuses on taking interventions that have been found to be effective using methodologically rigorous designs (e.g., randomized controlled trials, quasi-experimental designs, hybrid designs) under real-world conditions, and integrating them into practice settings (not only in the health sector) using deliberate strategies and processes (Powell et al., 2012 ; Proctor et al., 2009; Cabassa, 2016).  Hybrid designs have emerged relatively recently to help us explore implementation effectiveness alongside intervention effectiveness to different degrees (Curran et al,  2012).

As a consequence – implementation science sits on the right hand side of the following figure (taken from (Barwick, 2017))

So where does this leave us?

Well on the one hand, I am really excited that educational researchers are beginning to pay attention being done in field such as improvement and implementation science.  On the other hand, I’m a bit disappointed that we are likely to make the same mistakes as we have with evidence-based practice, and not fully understand the terms we have borrowed. 

Finally – this post may be completely wrong as I have relied on press releases and press reports to capture the views of the major protagonists – as such I may be relying on ‘fake news.’


BARWICK, M. 2017. Fundamental Considerations for the Implementation of Evidence in Practice. MelanieBarwickJourneysInImplementation [Online]. Available from: [Accessed 15 November 2017].

LEMAHIEU, P., BRYK, A., GRUNOW, A. & GOMEZ, L. 2017. Working to improve: seven approaches to improvement science in education. Quality Assurance in Education, 25, 2-4.


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