Education is quickly maturing beyond evidence-informed practice as a (albeit very powerful) ‘grassroots’ phenomenon. Being evidence-informed is now an aspiration that permeates the whole system. Government education rhetoric is full of ‘research’ and ‘evidence’, and there are numerous institutions dedicated to developing teachers’ and schools’ engagement with research. But how do we make sure that our schools (or MATs, or subject or year group teams) truly embed an evidence-informed culture? How do we prevent the phrase from becoming just another buzzword?
It may seem obvious, but leadership itself being evidence informed is a good place to start. As ever with research evidence, there are some arguments about what this really means ̶ including a long-standing (if perhaps misplaced) debate about the relative importance of ‘domain-specific’ or ‘generic’ leadership skills.
Our approaches to leadership and decision-making are crucial in setting a culture where evidence sits at the heart of what we do. In particular, this includes ensuring that our policies (and how they are implemented and enacted) are informed by the best available evidence; it is very hard to expect our classrooms to be evidence-informed if we have a school policy that requires extensive written marking on every piece of work, for example. In other words, it is vital to practise what we preach.
Crucially though, building an evidence-informed school is not about developing a culture where research is blindly followed. This can lead to unhelpful practices and lethal mutations, such as edicts that every lesson must begin with ten minutes of retrieval practice. Evidence-informed practice is all about the integration of the best available evidence with teachers’ professional judgment and expertise, within their contexts. Promoting evidence use should be about developing teachers’ knowledge of the research base and giving them the trust and autonomy to make informed decisions. A strong evidence culture and a strong professional culture go hand in hand.
Which leads us to CPD, which should be evidence informed on two levels. First, CPD approaches must themselves be evidence informed, drawing on what we know about how teachers best learn and develop their practice. In that regard, the Education Endowment Foundation’s recent guidance report setting out the mechanisms that are associated with effective CPD is particularly useful.
Secondly, the content covered within the CPD (such as a particular approach to reading instruction or to giving feedback) should also be grounded in evidence ̶ and it’s useful if this evidence can be made explicit, as is the case in the ECF and NPQ frameworks.
This all contributes to building teachers’ knowledge of the research base and ensuring they have the opportunity to reflect on and even critique it. To enable this, it may also be appropriate to ensure teachers have access to learning and resources that develop their confidence in appraising and using research. Wellcome recently funded pilots of several such approaches targeted specifically at science teachers.
Enable. Promote. Recognise
Crucially, teachers must feel motivated to engage with research evidence. An NFER survey found that teachers are generally willing to use research to inform their practice, but that this doesn’t necessarily happen widely in reality. Ensuring teachers can easily access relevant research and have time to engage with it can make a real difference. This might include providing a regular research digest, supporting the Chartered College of Teaching and subject association membership, providing a CPD library or journal subscriptions, or covering the cost of attendance at a ResearchEd event, for example.
Staff should also see that research engagement is valued, through performance management discussions and even the creation of roles such as research leads ̶ not only supporting staff with their research engagement, but also providing career progression pathways.
Finally, recognition is an important motivator. The Chartered College recognises this, and that’s why we offer ways for staff and schools alike to gain formal accreditation for research engagement. The certificate in evidence-informed practice and our pathways to chartered status for teachers and leaders are part of that offer, soon to be complemented by the ResearchMark.
By taking these steps together, we can create an evidence-informed virtuous cycle that will quickly take us to system maturity.