Friday 25 May 2018

Guest Post : Unleashing Great Teaching by David Weston and Bridget Clay

This week's post is a contribution from David Weston and Bridget Clay who are the authors of Unleashing Great Teaching: the secrets to the most effective teacher development, published May 2018 by Routledge. David (@informed_edu) is CEO of the Teacher Development Trust and former Chair of the Department for Education (England) CPD Expert Group. Bridget (@bridge89ec) is Head of Programme for Leading Together at Teach First and formerly Director of School Programmes at the Teacher Development Trust.

Unleashing Great Teaching 

What if we were to put as much effort into developing teachers as we did into developing students? How do we find a way to put the collective expertise of our profession at every teacher’s fingertips? Why can’t we make every school a place where teachers thrive and students succeed? Well, we can, and we wrote Unleashing Great Teaching: the secrets to the most effective teacher development to try and share what we’ve discovered in five years of working with schools to make it happen.  Quality professional learning needs quality ideas underpinning it. But, by default, we are anything but logical in the way that we select the ideas that we use. A number of psychological biases and challenges cause us to reject the unfamiliar.

We all have existing mental models which we use to explain and predict. To challenge one of these models implies that much of what we have thought and done will have been wrong. We all need to guard against this in case it leads us to reject new ideas and approaches. This is nothing new.
In 1846 a young doctor, Ignaz Semmelweis, suspected that the cause of 16% infant mortality in one clinic might be the failure of doctors to wash their hands. When he ran an experiment and insisted that doctors wash hands between each patient, the deaths from fever plummeted. However, his finding ran so against the established practice and norms that his findings were not only rejected but widely mocked despite being obviously valid. This reactionary short-sightedness gave rise to the term The Semmelweis Reflex: ‘the reflex-like tendency to reject new evidence or new knowledge because it contradicts established norms, beliefs or paradigms.’

An idea that contracts what we already think, which comes from a source that we don’t feel aligned to, or which makes us feel uneasy, is highly likely to be rejected for a whole range or reasons , even if there is a huge amount of evidence that it is far better than our current approach.

Reasons for rejection

Confirmation bias is really a description of how our brains work. When we encounter new ideas, we can only make sense of them based on what’s already in our heads, adding or amending existing thinking. This means that anything we encounter that is totally unfamiliar is less likely to stick than something partially familiar. Similarly, an idea that is mostly aligned with our existing thinking is more likely to stick than something completely at odds – the latter is a bit like a weirdly-shaped puzzle-piece: it’s very hard to find a place for it to go.  The effect of all of this is that when we hear an explanation, we remember the ideas that confirm or support our existing thinking and tend to reject or forget the ideas that don’t.

But it’s not just the nature of the ideas that affect our ability to learn. If an existing idea is associated with the memory of lots of effort and hard work, it becomes harder to change. This sunk cost bias means that we excessively value things we’ve worked hard on, no matter whether they’re actually very good or not. This bias is also known as the Ikea Effect – everyone is rather more proud of their flatpack furniture than this cheap and ubiquitous item perhaps deserves, owing to the effort (and anger!) that went into its construction.

We also see a number of social effects that mean that we don’t just listen to other people’s ideas in a neutral way. The Halo Effect is the way we tend to want to believe ideas from people we like and discount ideas from people we don’t. Of course, none of that bears any relation to whether the ideas are good. Public speakers smile a lot and make us laugh in order to make the audience feel good and thus become more likely to believe them. Two politicians of different parties can suggest the exact same idea, but supporters of the red party are much more likely to hate the idea if they hear it from the blue politician, and vice versa. A teacher from a very different type of school is much less likely to be believed than someone you can relate to more – though of course none of this necessarily affects whether their ideas are good.

If someone does present an idea that conflicts with our current thinking and beliefs, they run the risk of Fundamental Attribution Error. When we come into conflict with others, we rush to assume that the other person is of bad character. Any driver who cuts you up is assumed to be a terrible driver and a selfish person, but if you cut someone else up and they hoot then you generally get annoyed with them for not letting you in. A speaker or teacher who tells you something you don’t like is easily dismissed as ignorant, annoying or patronising.

Using evidence to support professional learning 

So how do we ensure that we’re using quality ideas to underpin professional learning? In our book we lay out some tools to help you overcome your inevitable biases.

Firstly, it’s very useful to look out for systematic reviews. These are research papers where academics have carefully scoured all of the world’s literature for anything relevant to a topic, then categorised it by type, size and quality of study, putting more weight on findings from bigger, higher quality studies and less on smaller, poorly-executed research. They bring all of the ideas together, summarising what we appear to know with confidence, what is more tentative, and where there are areas where the evidence is conflicting or simply lacking.

If you are interested in a topic, such as ‘behaviour management’ or ‘reading instruction’ then it’s a really good idea to tap it into a search engine and add the words ‘systematic review’. Look for any reviews conducted in this area to get a much more balanced view of what is known.

Secondly, raise a big red flag when you can feel yourself getting excited and enthusiastic about an idea. That’s your cue to be extra careful about confirmation bias and to actively seek out opposing views. It’s a very helpful idea to take any new idea and tap it into a search engine with the word ‘criticism’ after – e.g. ‘reading recovery criticism’ or ‘knowledge curriculum criticism’.

Thirdly, be a little more cautious when people cite lists of single studies to prove their point. You don’t know what studies they’ve left out or why they’ve only chosen these. Perhaps there are lots of other studies with a different conclusion – only a good systematic review can find this out.

Finally, be cautious of the single study enthusiasm, where newspapers or blogger get over-excited about one single new study which they claim changes everything. It may well be confirmation bias – or indeed if they are criticising it then it could also be confirmation bias causing them to do so.

To conclude

Of course, good quality ideas are only one ingredient. In our book we also explore the design of the professional learning process, offer a new framework to think about the outcomes you need in order to assist in evaluation, and discuss the leadership, culture and processes needed to bring the whole thing together. There are many moving parts, but if schools can pay the same attention to teachers’ learning as they do to students’ learning, we can truly transform our schools and unleash the best in teachers.


Friday 18 May 2018

The school research champion and the evidence-rich school

Teachers, middle and senior leaders interested in bringing about greater use of evidence within their schools are exposed to a wide-range of terminology.  As such,  teachers and school leaders interested in evidence have to be able to distinguish, or at least be aware of the possible differences between: research-based practice; research-informed; evidence-based practice; and, evidence-informed practice.  And now  there a ‘new-kid on the block’ – evidence-rich/enriched practice.  So in this post I am going to look at:  what evidence-rich/enriched practice could mean; research into evidence-enriched practice looks like in a health-care setting; and, consider the implications of preceding discussion for those in interested in the use of evidence within schools. 

Evidence-enriched practice

Stoll (2017) describes evidence enriched practice as involving teachers and school leaders using external research evidence; collecting and analysing data; and, engaging in collaborative enquiry/research and development.  With teachers and school leaders being very much in the driving seat in the use of evidence.

Reflecting on this definition a number of issues need to be considered.

First, existing definitions of evidence-based practice, such as, Barends, Rousseau, et al. (2014), already make great play of different sources of evidence, be it research evidence, organisational data, stake-holder views and practitioner expertise, and if done properly, will be evidence-rich.

Second, definitions of evidence-based medicine, such as Sackett, Rosenberg, et al. (1996) emphasise the role of patients in making decisions.  Indeed, evidence-based medicine is about patients and clinicians making informed decisions about patient care, which are informed by the patients values and preferences.  Stoll’s definition is largely silent on the role of pupils and stakeholders in the decision-making process.

Third, the use of the ‘driving seat’ metaphor is quite interesting, in the driving seat of what: an evidence-informed pedal-powered go-kart or an evidence-based F1 racing car. 

Four, evidence-based practice is about making decisions on the basis of the best available evidence, which for me, is not the same as engaging in collaborative research and development.  R&D may subsequently be used in future evidence-based decisions, but it is a separate process. 

Five, despite the above criticism of Stoll’s notion of evidence-enriched practice, I welcome the emphasis on the collaborative nature of evidence-based practice, which has particular implications for school leadership: see Jones (2018 Forthcoming).

Evidence-enriched practice: lessons from health and social care sector

Regular readers of this blog will be aware that I often argue that there is much to learn from medicine and health-care about evidence-based practice.  Accordingly, it seems sensible to see what research has been published in the medicine and health-care sectors on evidence-enriched practice.  To do this I conducted a search on Google Scholar using the term ‘evidence-enriched practice’ I came across this paper : Developing Evidence Enriched Practice in Health and Social Care with Older People Andrews, Gabbay, et al. (2015).  This is a fascinating paper, which I will explore in more detail in future posts, however for the purposes of this blog I’m just going to highlight the various elements and sub-elements of evidence-enriched practice which were woven and interwoven into the project.

Element 1: Valuing and using a range of evidence

  • research evidence
  • practitioner knowledge and experiences
  • the voice of older people and carers
  • organisational knowledge (policy imperatives, embedded systems and resources).

Element 2: Securing senior management buy-in and valuing and empowering participants

  • Appreciation and respect: valuing people and focusing on their strengths and the things that matter to them
  • Honesty: supporting people to ‘say it as it is’
  • Permission: encouraging people to be creatively humane, not just procedurally compliant
  • Mutual trust: developed through respectful conversations
  • Celebration: recognising and building on success, including the importance of ‘ordinary’, often little, things

Element 3: Capturing and presenting relevant evidence in accessible and engaging formats

  • Stories, quotes, pictures, music and poetry
  • Good practice from elsewhere
  • Normative frameworks
  • Provocative statements

Element 4: Facilitating the exploration and purposeful use of evidence

  • A simple approach to support dialogic learning using evidence as the stimulus
  • Working as a community of practice
  • Facilitating serendipity and weaving in evidence as the project developed

Element 5: Recognising and addressing national and local organisational circumstances and obstacles

  • National social policy and financial investment in social care services
  • National regulatory requirements and local policies and procedures
  • Managing relational risk
  • Managing risks to physical safety
  • Developing and using recording that enhances the provision of good care and support and quality assurance
  • Local organisational management culture
  • The problem of feeling ‘left out’

What should be immediately obvious is that in comparison to Stoll (2017) this is a far more comprehensive framework with which to describe an evidence-enriched environment.  In particular, it emphasises the role of senior leadership in creating the environment in which an evidence-enriched practice can flourish.  It also recognises the need to address national and local circumstances, and not to see them as a hindrance but as something which is an integral part of the ‘evidence environment’.  Finally, the role of older people and carers is fully acknowledged.  

What are the implications for those interested in the creation of evidence-enriched practice with schools?

First, education does not need to reinvent the ‘evidence-enriched  wheel’ as there is much to learn from other sectors.  That does not mean it will not have to be adapted but it does mean we can ‘stand on the shoulders of others.’

Second, school leaders who think they will automatically build an evidence-enriched school culture by appointing a school research lead/champion need to think again.  School leaders need to give real consideration as to whether the leadership and management culture and style of the school is consistent with the conditions necessary to create an evidence-enriched environment.  If it isn’t but want to do something about it, the starting point is your own conduct as a school leader. If you are not interested in deeply reflecting upon your own leadership practice, then you may be better off not trying to become evidence-enriched.

Third, ‘evidence-enriched’ teachers are part of a community of practice.  It’s not about individual teachers conducting teacher-led randomised controlled trials – it’s about deep and profound conversations with colleagues, pupils, parents and other stakeholders based upon a culture or mutual respect.

Fourth, currently much of the research into evidence-informed practice focuses on how teachers and school leaders use research-evidence.  This is a far too narrow a focus and greater emphasis should be place on investigating how teachers and school leaders go about aggregating multiple sources of evidence and incorporating that evidence into the decision-making process. 

Fifth, knowledge brokers – be it research schools or  the individual school research champion  - need to consider different ways knowledge can be shared.  Newsletters are a very basic and safe way of sharing information – though probably not that effective - and we need to find far more of communicating ideas in accessible and interesting formats.

And finally

If you are interested in finding out more about what evidence-rich and evidence-enriched may look like in practice, the RSA will later this year be publishing a report Learning About Culture  which looks at what works in cultural learning, and how  to support schools and cultural organisations to use evidence from their own work and elsewhere to continuously improve their practice. Indeed, one of the intended key outcomes of the work is something the RSA describes as evidence-rich practice. 


Andrews, N., Gabbay, J., Le May, A., Miller, E., O'Neill, M. and Petch, A. (2015). Developing Evidence Enriched Practice in Health and Social Care with Older People.
Barends, E., Rousseau, D. and Briner, R. (2014). Evidence-Based Management : The Basic Principles. Amsterdam. Center for Evidence-Based Management
Bath, N. (2018). Exploring What It Means to Be ‘Evidence-Rich’ in Practice. IOE London Blog.
Jones, G. (2018 Forthcoming). Evidence-Based School Leadership: A Practical Guide. London. SAGE Publishing.
Sackett, D., Rosenberg, W., Gray, J., Haynes, R. and Richardson, W. (1996). Evidence Based Medicine: What It Is and What It Isn't. Bmj. 312. 7023. 71-72.
Stoll, L. (2017). Five Challenges in Moving Towards Evidence-Informed Practice. Impact. Interim issue. Interim issue.
Straus, S., Glasziou, P., Richardson, S. and Haynes, B. (2011). Evidence-Based Medicine: How to Practice and Teach It. (Fourth Edition). Edinburgh. Churchill Livingstone: Elsevier.