Moving Beyond Being ‘Evidence-Informed’

Accessing Educational Research

The claim that an educational practice or policy is “evidence informed” or “evidence-based” is becoming widespread in the discourse of educational management and is used by many practitioners. Yet this can often be little more that an attempt to legitimatize current practices, by drawing of the evidence of everyday procedures. What is accepted as “evidence” is not unrelated to one’s own ideological persuasion and perspective on teaching and learning. Accepting as evidence that which conflicts with one’s own beliefs or experience becomes very difficult.

Take as an example, the overwhelming international evidence on attainment grouping in mathematics (see my pages on pupil grouping) which has shown it has few advantages, but it does depress academic attainment, and discriminates against learners from lower social class backgrounds. However, that evidence is not sufficient to eradicate the practice, far from it. Rather than letting the evidence inform the practice (“evidence informed practice“), what we see is the evidence rejected because “it won’t/can’t work” (practice rejected evidence“).

Why is this? I believe there are two fundamental reasons – one political and one pragmatic.

Politically, when a widespread educational practice discriminates against pupils from disadvantaged communities this is not necessarily recognised nor seen as relevant to the conservative right currently in government in the UK. Social segregation is embedded within a Conservative discourse and even the architecture of schools. It is “how it is“and it portrayed as “it could hardly be otherwise“. Of course individual teachers can do little to shift this infrastructure apart from subvert, and to offer local alternatives – some of which can be seen here. The bottom line is, education is political – schools are a mechanism for inculcating the dominant political culture to future generations.

Pragmatically, ability grouping (or social class segregation) is so deeply embedded in the history, curriculum and pedagogy of schools, that shifting it is a herculean task – or rather a Sisyphean endeavour, where small advances become undone by the boulder of conservatism rolling us back down the hill.

This raises two questions for the teaching professional. The first question is what counts as quality evidence that is robust, valid, and reliable, and where can this be found. The second question is how is the profession to use and implement this evidence?

This first question is not a trivial matter of merely using Google Scholar. Given that most published research appears in peer reviewed academic journals (one of the criteria for quality), it is often hidden behind publishers’ paywalls and thereby inaccessible to teachers. The result is teachers are forced to rely on often dubious ill-informed summaries in the TES, or just reading the all too brief published abstracts.

Many academic researchers are qualified to masters level in the use of research methodology (a condition for funding from the Economic and Social Research Council), and in the same way teachers are trained in pedagogy, most researchers will have followed research methodology courses at doctoral level for a PhD. The audience for research in journals is usual other researchers and consequently it has a language and theoretical underpinnings befitting that audience. It is not written for a practitioner audience. This is a major shortcoming of the dissemination strategy of much (though not all) research.

It is very easy therefore for teachers to rubbish research which they might not understand and which challenges their preconceptions. For example, recently an article on by Dr Ian Cushing that had been published in the British Educational Research Journal, the UKs foremost research journal (and had therefore been peer reviewed), was circulated on Twitter. The paper is on language use and discipline and surveillance in schools – and is available as an open access article here. Now, Ian has a BA in Linguistics, an MA in Phonetics (I have no idea what that is!), a PhD in Applied Linguistics, as well as a PGCE in English Teaching. He studied research methodology at masters level, and now works as an academic at Brunel University. He knows what he is writing about.

One teacher (with a blue tick and 16,000 followers) responded to the article on Twitter describing it as follows:

“a load of self-indulgent impenetrable academic bollocks and has nothing useful to say to teachers.”

Now there will be of course many reasons hiding behind that comment, not least a sense of challenge and threat since Ian’s research was questioning a teaching strategy that this teacher was using – and in particular Ian was critiquing the oppressive surveillance culture promoted by the “Teaching Like a Champion” industry. But the teacher’s reaction raises a real issue – something which for years I taught to Masters and Doctoral students at the University of Nottingham – the impact (or lack of) of educational research on educational practice. This could have been a very short module: “not much” and that remans an intractable problem, for both pragmatic and political reasons.

Using Educational Research

However, all might not be lost. A team at Monash University in Australia are working on a project on theQuality Use” of educational research. This is a five year project seeking to improve the use of evidence in Australian schools. What the project does is provide a structure and a framework around which we can frame ‘thoughtful engagement with and implementation of appropriate research evidence‘. This is reported in an article in the British Education Research Association magazine Research Intelligence No 144, Autumn 2020.

Their framework has several components, and Figure 1 below shows the components of their framework.

Research Intelligence 144, Autumn 2020, p. 27

Their Core Components are:

Appropriate research evidence. This requires the research itself to be rigorous, well designed, valid and reliable, all of which are technical criteria well described (but sadly not always well implemented) in the educational research field. Also the focus of the research needs to be appropriate for the context where it might be used. However, not all educational research is intended for implementation by a practitioner audience. Some will be theoretical or focusing on systemic issues.

Thoughtful engagement and implementation. This requires some intellectual critique and collaboration between the researchers and teachers. Meaning needs to be explored, and the implications of any implementation examined.

In operationalising these two components there are three individual components, and three organisational components that all need to be put in place.

Individually, practitioners need to have the necessary skillsets to enable them to understand, critique and interpret education research. They need to have a mindset to want to engage thoughtfully and critically with the evidence, and lastly there needs to be constructive and positive relationships between researchers, academics and practitioners.

Another article in the same issue of Research Intelligence comes from Nadia Siddiqui and Lindsey Wardle from Durham University, titled “Can users judge what is ‘promising’ evidence in education?“. In it the say:

Many teacher training courses, even those led by university academic departments, do not currently provide sufficient skills for teachers in understanding and being able to judge research that can enhance their teaching practice and have direct benefits for pupils’ learning outcomes. There is surely a need for embedding high-quality research capacity-building in initial and advanced teacher training programmes

Research Intelligence 144, Autumn 2020, p. 21

This seems to be so true, yet the practice of having “research leads” in schools but providing these teachers with little in the way of research training, experience or expertise seems to me to be diverting attention away from schools engaging robustly in research.

Organizationally, schools and universities need to establish the infrastructures to allow collaboration and provide sufficient resources especially in terms of time. The schools and University departments need to have a leadership that will champion engagement between research and practitioners, and lastly, this needs to be embedded within the culture of schools and universities.

However, schools and universities do not exist as islands forging their own way through the minefield that is school improvement. They depend upon system-level influences, both within schools and higher education. This is the stage where individuals lose much influence. Political interference in both sectors is now considerable and policy and decision making at the system level is more likely to infuriate and frustrate both teachers and academics, than to inspire them.

All this is a far cry from a teacher reading a research article on sociolinguistics in a research journal and describing it as “self-indulgent impenetrable academic bollocks“. That gets us nowhere.

The next question is how we implement an implementation strategy. Feel free to comment below, but leave the “load of self-indulgent impenetrable academic bollocks” for now eh?


Author: Peter Gates

Socialist, mathematics educator, statistician, teacher, partner, father ....

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