Effective evidence-based teaching

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Anita Kerwin-Nye discusses five things that education networks and groups of schools can do to enable effective evidence-based teaching.

Last month an event co-hosted by the London Leadership Strategy (LLS) and the Coalition for Evidence-based Education sought to answer the question: “What role do school networks play in effective knowledge mobilisation?”

School networks including Teacher Development Trust (TDT), Challenge Partners and Whole Education considered how best to take research evidence into the system. What was clear from the outset was that schools in these networks have a desire to use research evidence but that this evidence must be useful, applicable to the contemporary school context and easily accessible.

It was equally clear that researchers must not and cannot, “bash” teachers for not using evidence. Too many documents on the use of research in education start from the premise that we need to make teaching evidence-based; that teachers have to be forced into using research evidence. In truth many of them do. 

That is not to say that its use cannot be improved upon and developed, but for years our teacher training and inspection of teachers has focused around the items of most value in Hattie’s meta-analysis of what works in teaching and learning. 

It was clear that school networks – whether national or local, structured or loose, paid-for or free – have a key role to play in sharing evidence (both from research and practice). Schools that join networks tend to be outward-looking, curious and have a stated intention to learn more to improve outcomes. We believe that evidence is better embedded when researchers and teachers have social interaction and when research is developed in response to teacher needs. Networks provide this opportunity. So what five things can networks do to further support teachers’ use evidence?

Evidence needs to be accessible 

Evidence needs to be synthesised and accessible. Researchers should work with school networks to test approaches to report research findings in a way that works for busy teachers and school leaders. Networks have been refining these approaches for some years and while they are not completely there yet, they have honed their messaging to be able to cut through a busy school day.

Examples listed by schools during the event as being accessible sources of research evidence included:

Networks can promote what works

There are multiple messages going into schools. Networks can provide a more co-ordinated route to getting through the school gate with one message rather than 50. The partners involved in this conference have committed to more joint working to share research into schools with some co-ordination.

Respect

Teacher evidence must be accounted for and respected. In some circles there appears to be the misconception that teaching is not already evidence-based. Teachers’ tacit evidence (as quoted by a researcher at a separate event when talking about teacher “knowledge”) is often held up as secondary.

Beyond the work that organisations like Whole Education and the TDT are doing on teacher research and enquiry, teachers work with hundreds of children every day, each of whom has a mountain of data attached to them. This data is teacher-reviewed, their decisions based upon the data are peer-reviewed, these results arising from these decisions are regulator and consumer-reviewed. 

We need to look at how teachers can be additionally supported with academic research evidence. How can researchers add value to the existing teacher expertise? 

Publishing

Teachers should be encourage and supported to publish how they have used research. John Tomsett, headteacher at Huntington School in York, spoke of how he reviewed the website of some Teaching School Alliances and found no reference to evidence – either the research evidence generated by the schools or the evidence that schools use to make decisions. 

Teachers and schools should be explicit on how they use research to inform their practice and decision-making and, where they have done research within schools, consider how they can best share that within their own school and between schools.

The LLS for example, is working with the Greater London Authority (who hosted this event) on how to help schools across London share the learning from the 100-plus projects and 800 schools which received funding from the London Schools Excellence Fund. 

Teacher training

In teacher training, teachers need to be made aware that their methods are based on evidence-based research. Cathy Howe from the NHS spoke about the health sector’s experiences of sharing research. Many nurses for example, make an assumption that what they were taught was probably based on some form of evidence but have no concrete knowledge of what that evidence was or where it came from.

For those networks involved in teacher development, explaining to teachers that what they are being taught is evidence based, and what the evidence is, may make them more likely to carry it out properly and embrace other forms of research evidence in the future (it might also make them ask why they are being taught things that are not evidence-based, but that is another discussion!). 

Ultimately evidence in education is only really useful if it tells us what to do (or what not to do) to improve outcomes for out students. If we can make research evidence useful, accessible and applicable to practice, then what teacher wouldn’t want to use it if it improved the outcomes for their pupils? 

  • Anita Kerwin-Nye is managing director of the London Leadership Strategy and a director, co-founder and advisor across other not-for-profit educational organisations. Follow her @anitakntweets


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