Evidence in Education and Building Bridges

In Debates and Polemics, Evidence in Education by Alex Quigley2 Comments


The drive for research evidence being used in education has achieved something quite radical in our time: it has been met with near universal political consensus. You won’t hear Gove or Hunt bickering over this debate. A diverse spread of organisations are also in support – from teaching unions like ATL and the National Association of Head Teachers – to The Sutton Trust, The Education Endowment Foundation, The Wellcome Trust and many more. What could go wrong?

Whilst the political classes are all in relatively happy agreement, it should give us pause about whether there is an equivalent degree of support from frontline teachers. This supportive consensus of institutional support simply isn’t matched by any sort of daily reality where schools across the country use, create and apply research evidence. Consensus is for nought without action.

I think it would be fair to say that pretty much anything endorsed by Michael Gove is treated with a healthy scepticism, shall we say, from the majority of teachers and from teaching unions. The gap between central government, research institutions and the everyday work of schools is still far apart and the fragmenting of our system of ITT and school structures mean closing such a knowledge gap is no mean feat. Educational research is therefore in danger of falling into a category of well meaning policy that may never sees the light of practical implementation.

What we need to do is build bridges.

Not a flimsy Millennium Bridge that swings in the wind of faddish opinion, but robust long-lasting bridges that have deep foundations on either side. We need teachers at the chalk-face linked in school-centred networks on one side, connected to expert research professionals and supporting institutions on the other side. In our fragmenting, market-based system of schools it is difficult to know quite where we place the foundations of such bridges. Do we ask more of Teaching Schools, or do we create a more even spread of best practice by initiating a network of expert Research Schools? I favour the latter, linked to the former.

What is guaranteed to sound the death knell for research evidence driving school improvement is to take a deficit model approach and demand all school leaders and teachers use research because they aren’t good enough and because our school system is failing. International league tables make for good headline fodder, but they don’t ever become a real force for change. Instead, we must build our bridges to develop collaboration and consensus. If research evidence is going to take root then it needs to emerge from the ground up, not as a centralised diktat. Teachers need to also see a need for such evidence to guide their own expert knowledge, whilst being given time and support to become producers of useful educational research themselves.

Lee Elliot Major, Director of Development and Policy at The Sutton Trust, recently wrote an article about the changing epochs in education, with the hope of an age of evidence informed education dawning in 2014 here.
Dylan Wiliam’s reply is just as interesting. He gives sage advice about getting research evidence accepted by the profession:

“As long as our pursuit of teaching as an evidence based profession values the kind of explicit knowledge that researchers create higher than the kinds of implicit knowledge that teachers create every day in their classrooms, I see little prospect of teaching as an evidence-based profession.”

Dylan Wiliam exposes that there is a real divide between policy makers and teachers – between wider research and classroom practice. He heralds the tacit knowledge experienced teachers possess and that we should also attempt to share. It is this very knowledge which contextualises research evidence and makes it meaningful. Conversely, as teachers we should be self-confident and not dismiss the valuable knowledge we can garner from research evidence. Some of it may be difficult or counterintuitive, or even draw into question what we habitually do, but we need to be self-critical and reflective – facing up to comparing evidence with our experience.

Teachers need to be discerning consumers of research as well as teachers producing their own school specific evidence. We need to grow our own research otherwise teachers will, quite rightly, be sceptical about the reported findings from elsewhere. Like our students, we need to see, hear and feel what learning is like, and we need that rich immersive experience with research.

There are clearly barriers to sharing the knowledge of research and helping teachers to becomes researchers. Some prerequisites for moving forward strike me as essential:

– Research information much be easily accessible and stripped of unnecessary jargon.
– Some research titles are laughably impenetrable, never mind reading the rest of it! We need a shared language that isn’t dumbed down, but that is not decorated with superfluous language either.
– Time must be found for teachers to reflect upon, and produce their own, research evidence. Time equals money and support. Support means building robust, sustainable networks.
– Our evidence base and our sharing of that research evidence needs to be rooted in school-to-school networks. These clusters can share expertise and be supported by research experts.
– Engaging with such evidence needs to be established in our initial teacher training model and be continued right through our professional development system. ITT is the foundation of an evidenced based profession and we must demand the best of that training.

Undertaking research evidence could be used as a extraneous stick to beat teachers, or it can be a carrot for deep professional reflection. The deep reflective mode takes time and it takes good school leadership to foster its development.

Building any national network of evidence and knowledge is incredibly difficult and in an age of austerity those bridges we need to build look pretty expensive. But, as F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “Nothing any good isn’t hard.” It isn’t a pipe dream. Read this account from Tom Bennett about how ResearchEd conferences have grown out of nowhere and how ‘Teachers doing it for themselves…‘.

We have the pleasure of hosting one of these great events at Huntington School on the 3rd May. Sign up here and come along!

This is our cost effective bridge-building! By teachers, for teachers and with teachers. No educational research should become a commandment on how we must teach, but we should engage with such research, otherwise we risk teaching with blind trial and error when it needn’t be the case.

I will end with a quote from Graham Nuthall, from his excellent: ‘The Hidden Lives of Learners‘ which isn’t about research evidence as I have presented it in this post, but it sums up how we should approach research and why we need such evidence:

“In my experience, teaching is about sensitivity and adaptation. It is about adjusting to the here-and-now circumstances of particular students. It is about making moment-by moment decisions as a lesson or activity progresses. Things that interest some students do not interest others. Things that work one day may not work the next day. What can be done quickly with one group has to be taken very slowly with another group. What one student finds easy to understand may confuse another student. In order to navigate the complexity of the circumstances in which a teacher works, it is not possible to follow a recipe. As a teacher, you make adaptations. You must. The important question is: what adaptations do you make. You can do it by a kind of blind trial and error, but it would be much better if you knew what kinds of adaptations were needed, and why.”
(P15, Graham Nuthall, ‘The Hidden Lives of learners’)


  1. I have previously commented on the value of Nuthall’s lifetime of research, summarised in THLoL, in which able all huge reminds us that there is no silver bullet. Short of chaos, there is no more system more complex than a school, in which all elements are variable and adapt to an ever changing landscape in their own, often chaotic ways. Those that study education don’t usually come from the background of complexity Science. Evidence suggests that we might need to establish agreement in terms of how to collect evidence and what building blocks look like for building bridges before journeying out as pioneers in this brave new world of EBE. As Socrates would say “True wisdom comes to each of us when we realize how little we understand about life, ourselves, and the world around us.”

  2. Pingback: ORRsome blog posts from the week that was Week 12 | high heels and high notes

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