Follow the evidence: Adapting and adopting research-informed teaching practices

Written by: Paula Delaney | Published:
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Supporting and developing our teachers is more important than ever if we are to adapt and adopt evidence-informed practices that work in our school context. Paula Delaney advises

With coronavirus dominating headlines and teachers focused on adapting lessons for remote learning, personal development might be low on the priority list – but I believe it is more important than ever right now.

We know that the closure of schools will mean that we will be facing some big challenges down the line – the most pressing one being the widening of the attainment gap between poorer pupils and their more affluent peers. As teachers and leaders working in challenging contexts, closing the gap is not just a job, but a moral imperative.

We need to ensure both teachers and school leaders are ready to tackle this when school is back in session, whenever that might be – but we also need to support them now, so we limit how wide that gap gets.

Teaching in the time of coronavirus has reminded a lot of us what it was like when we first became teachers. I remember that much of my early teaching career was based on trial and error. I would watch what others were doing, identify what was successful, and then use it in my own practice.

These practices were often influenced by the trends and I copied them without interrogating what made them work or adapting them to my pupils – I used to be flummoxed when they inevitably did not work for me.

By rooting our profession in evidence, we are moving away from being subject to the latest fads and towards developing sustainable practices. But this focus on evidence-informed practice is not as widespread as we would hope and we might lose sight of it when we try and work quickly.

Too many teachers, particularly those in their early stages of their career, do not have access to the research, either first-hand, or through the professional development available to them.

I was one of those educators, which is why I decided, after 14 years, to move away from the classroom and instead focus on teacher development at Ambition Institute.

So, below are my top three tips for how we can support and develop teachers in this regard.

Don’t rely on fads – look and follow the evidence

Fads are easy to identify by the lack of research and peer-reviewed papers on the subject. They often emerge as a response to a new government or Ofsted policy and are often counterintuitive to what experienced teachers would see as good practice.

They also usually cost a lot of money and are marketed as quick fixes, despite the fact we know that most of the challenges teachers and leaders face take time and effort to overcome.

Fads are not just likely to result in little to no impact, but often have a detrimental impact. They overload staff – who are already very busy – and can be demotivating, making staff reluctant in taking on future interventions or practices.

Ensure staff know how and why certain strategies work

To solve persistent problems – those problems that every educator faces which are important and never go away like helping pupils remember what they have learned – we should begin by ensuring teachers are aware of how and why certain strategies work. We do this by supporting teachers to understand the active ingredients.

Active ingredients are based on the evidence and theory that underpin a strategy. Knowing the active ingredients helps us to structure, communicate and monitor the implementation effectively and ensure we avoid “lethal mutations”.

To quote Nick Rose’s Ambition Institute blog (2018), good ideas – even when they are well-rooted in evidence-based research – can be implemented in ways which render them no longer effective, or even counter-productive; becoming examples of what Professor Dylan Wiliam (2011) and others have dubbed “lethal mutations”.

One instance where I have come across a lethal mutation was around retrieval practice while working with a group of middle leaders. For retrieval practice to be effective, it should be:

  • Tightly focused around the core knowledge that we want pupils to recall and be fluent in.
  • Designed to identify misconceptions and gaps in knowledge, with time planned to respond.
  • Repeated over time, to improve long-term learning and create durable, fluent knowledge in long-term memory (meaning we should revisit the same knowledge and concepts multiple times).

The middle leaders I was working with were quite confident they knew what retrieval practice was and that they were already doing it in their school. But, when I asked them about how it had been implemented, I was told rather vaguely: “It’s quizzes based on the content of the previous lesson.”

These middle leaders were from different schools but they were similarly unable to explain how and why this strategy supported pupils’ learning – and I stress that this is not their fault but more indicative of how teachers are introduced to new strategies and practices in school.

The guidance they had been given had led them to believe that retrieval practice was quizzes that must use pen and paper, at the start of every lesson, based on the content of the previous lesson. However, pen and paper quizzes are not the only form of retrieval practice and are also not practical in some subjects. For example, in a PE lesson pupils might benefit less from a quiz and more by practising techniques that they have previously been taught.

Think about how we plan and deliver CPD

We would not countenance reading from slides when we teach pupils. Yet, we have all sat through CPD sessions where we are doing just this for hours. These sessions rarely inspire or give us a sustainable way to improve our practice. We need to think: could that information be communicated in a different way?

Furthermore, are we allowing our teachers the curriculum planning time to go away and adapt new practices for their context?

We need to begin the planning process for our professional development with the end goal in mind. What is it that we want to achieve over the course of this academic year and beyond? Our goals should be linked to the persistent problems we are currently facing within our school context.

We should think about how we deliver this professional development: is it a better use of our time to deliver content over the course of a single day or should we consider breaking it down into smaller bite-sized chunks delivered throughout the year.

Part of this process means we also need to rethink high-stakes observations and consider what purpose they serve and how they can become a learning and supportive process for teacher development.

If we breakdown CPD content, we can focus on deliberate practice where evidence-informed practices are gradually implemented and developed in the classroom, allowing our teachers to build expertise.

We can then utilise instructional coaching, where the classroom teacher is given feedback on specific elements of their teaching practice and supported to perfect and embed this before moving on to another area of development.

If we consider our approach through the lens of Deci and Ryan’s Self-Determination Theory (2000), we want educators to:

  • Gain competence (developing the knowledge to apply strategies properly).
  • Feel a sense of relatedness (understanding the purpose and value why they’re doing it).
  • Feel able to utilise strategies with autonomy (make decisions knowing what they can and can’t adapt).

Although the evidence-base is not robust, yet, there is an increasing body of research showing that local adaptations can potentially be beneficial to implementation. There is no one-size-fits-all and we need to be able to understand the active ingredients of interventions so that we can best apply them in our context.

As someone coming from the background that I do – I came from a disadvantaged background and I got to university through a scholarship – I know the impact a good education can have on an individual’s life and its power to provide opportunities for social mobility.

It is a moral duty that we invest this time and effort in thinking about and planning how we can make teaching an evidence-informed profession and support and empower our teachers to develop their practice. If the evidence is telling us this is how we can support our pupils to learn, then we have a duty to make sure that all our pupils get that opportunity.

A lot of children will miss out on learning over the few next weeks and it is more important than ever that every teacher and school leader feels empowered and supported to do their best work in the interest of the children we serve.

  • Paula Delaney is design manager at Ambition Institute. Ambition Institute is a graduate school for teachers, school leaders and system leaders, serving children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Visit www.ambition.org.uk

Further information & resources

  • Rose: Avoiding ‘lethal mutations’, Ambition Institute, December 2018: www.ambition.org.uk/blog/avoiding-lethal-mutations/
  • Ryan & Deci: Self-Determination Theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and wellbeing, American Psychologist (55), January 2000: https://bit.ly/3ex7R3w
  • Wiliam: Embedded formative assessment, Solution Tree Press, 2011.


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