The Problem with Research Evidence in Education

In Debates and Polemics, Evidence in Education by Alex Quigley18 Comments

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Today I have the opportunity to discuss with policy makers about the role of research evidence in education, in a CEBE (Coalition for a Evidence-based Education) event at the Department of Education. The question being explored is: “Should Government have a role in choreographing an evidence system in education?”

There is undoubtedly a unique impetus from all political parties, and many school leaders, to see research evidence have a positive impact on the outcomes of our students in schools in England.

Unfortunately, research evidence has an image problem. Prejudice abounds.

The current drive for research evidence is associated with right wing political ideologies. It is associated with Michael Gove – which in many schools confers the kiss of death, the embrace of doom, or whatever other hyperbolic descriptions I care to labour.

Not only that, research evidence is associated with researchers who, sitting in comfortable ivory towers, are distanced from the complex practice of the classroom and the realities of the ink blotted whiteboard.

Research evidence is also associated with scrutiny of teachers and uniquely data driven accountability. At the mere mention of ‘evidence’ hackles can be raised amongst teachers.

In short – research is tainted by association with many of the most reviled aspects of our contemporary education landscape.

These are all caricatures – but they carry tremendous power.

We need to change the paradigm. Research evidence can be about teacher empowerment. It can be about teacher expertise. It can be about networking with fellow professionals and challenging flawed political policies. It can be, most importantly, about making the best decisions for our students.

We are happy to engage in the craft of teaching with colleagues, but, instinctively, the science of teaching draws suspicion. Perhaps this is due to such expertise often existing outside of schools, those who are aliens to the coarse realities and craft knowledge of the classroom.

If you were to cite John Hattie in most staffrooms in a debate about a student I doubt it would be welcomed. Collective frowns and worse would be the order of the day. There needs to be a significant culture shift to change the image of research evidence in the eyes of teachers.

When Ben Goldacre is brought in to herald research evidence, teachers suspect there is an agenda. Teachers, fairly, critique any attempt to pathologise teaching, teachers and students. Ben Goldacre, well-meaning though he undoubtedly is, knows little about the pressures and politics that attend our education system. But, at least Goldacre has sparked an important, and potentially drawn out, debate.

Of course, without time (this is the life-blood of teacher improvement, and such transfusions are in ever-decreasing supply) and training, the fruits of research evidence driving school improvement will certainly wither on the vine. Organisations, well funded from government, like the Teaching and Learning Research Programme (TLRP), have failed to make research evidence a normative behaviour in schools. They have barely touched teacher consciousness. The government-funded National Education Research Forum (NERF); the ESRC funded Teacher Education Research Network (TERN) the Applied Education Research Scheme (AERS); the Teacher Training Resource Bank (TTRB) and The Research-Informed Practice Site (TRIPS)…the list goes on…and they have made little impact on the front line of schools.

There is a problem with getting the knowledge about research evidence into schools and used effectively. ‘Knowledge mobilisation‘ is the buzzword. Teachers aren’t trained in research methods and there is no time to really reflect upon research evidence. When we have those excuses to fall back on, we revert to our strongly held biases and intuitions. It is the path of least resistance. We all do it – it is simply human nature. Thinking is hard. Changing our thinking is even harder. We stick to our habits and research evidence is paid little more than paltry lip-service by every teacher and school leader.

There needs to be coherent structures created from the top, alongside networks being connected from the bottom up. It is a tricky business that I don’t pretend to have all the answers to. In my position as teacher with a role leading research in a school, I think I am decently placed as someone who can and should enter the debate. If teachers are not involved then any change will likely miss its mark.

In my humble opinion, the Department for Education does have a role in choreographing an evidence led school system.

National and local schools networks need to be established. As research is tainted ideologically for most teachers, the DfE needs some appropriate distance from creating a system to mobilise research evidence. We need an independent body – like the much mooted College of Teachers. They could have a chief remit to become evidence mobilisers. They could accredit teacher qualifications that embed a responsibility for research engagement as part of ongoing CPD, as well as making curriculum and assessment recommendations.

We have a solidifying network of Teaching Schools that we can exploit to help choreograph the dissemination and use of evidence. This would appear to be the model to share and drive research evidence in the current landscape. I think though that there is a problem with that supposition. In reality, research evidence is not a priority for most Teaching Schools. Getting to grips with managing ITT and SLE roles and school to school training is a massive undertaking. Research and development is number 6, numerically on the remit of Teaching a Schools, and I am in no doubt this is the case in real terms.

To meet their designation Teaching Schools should do the following:

“To meet this responsibility, we expect you to:

– build on existing research and contribute to alliance and wider priorities
– base new initiatives within your alliance on existing evidence and ensure you can measure them
– work with other teaching schools in your area, or nationally, where appropriate
ensure that your staff use existing evidence
– allow your staff the time and support they need take part in research and development activities
– share learning from research and development work with the wider school system.” The Department for Education

There is still little to no evidence that they do it well yet. The Teaching School Impact report (2014), published recently on the DfE website, cites one school as an exemplar of impact. One school. This evidence base is paltry by any measure.

My view is that research evidence should be priority one for Teaching Schools. High quality research evidence underpins ITT training, continuing professional development, school-to-school training and even the role of the SLE. A Teaching School should have research evidence as a key priority, but the reality is that it is a highly specialist area. We are left scratching around for bottom up models of effective practice. For many schools research becomes a drive for ‘action research‘ by teachers, with little or no knowledge of proper research methods. Enthusiasm for research evidence is high, evidence of the impact of such ‘action research‘ is low.

I propose that there becomes a Research School specialism, perhaps even wholly separate from Teaching Schools. The Teaching School hub model can be replicated for such schools.

We, at Huntington School in York, are currently undertaking a large scale RCT, funded by the Education Endowment Fund, to test the hypothesis that using research evidence to drive a school improvement model can improve student outcomes. In effect it is a Research School hub model . We are leading an intervention that trains Research-leads in schools to help drive research-led school improvement, in collaboration with the brilliant Professor Rob Coe and Durham University and its Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring (CEM). See the EEF website information here and contact me on my email – aj.quigley@huntington-ed.org.uk – if you are interested in hearing more about our exciting project.

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With structure from a national body, such as a College of Teaching, with a national network of Research Schools, with accredited Research-leads, we could bring a semblance of coherence to using research evidence all the way from the university to the classroom. We would have a body of professionals who could translate, produce, adapt and apply high quality research evidence to the school context. There is another blog needed to explain how we can, and must, adapt research evidence – moving it from esoteric to essential in the eyes of teachers.

We know all to well that centralised initiatives can flounder. We need to also make an argument for research that convinces teachers beyond DfE dictums. Using accountability measures to drive behaviour won’t sustainably change habits in the classroom. We need to provide time, support and training to ensure teachers can interpret and apply the best of research evidence, with a critical eye, and without eschewing the wisdom of our educated intuitions.

I don’t think it is viable, or even desirable, for every teacher to be undertaking research. That being said, we could raise the professional bar by expecting all teachers to engage with research evidence. This can be led by school leaders, and Research-leads, who are made accountable for spending public money with the expectation they are using the best research that exists for us at this particular moment. Engagement with research evidence should be at the heart of the Teacher Standards, not as a performance related pay lever, but as a basic expectation of an esteemed profession.

A high profile school role, like a Research-lead, should have great value for a Head teacher and they should be tasked with helping to build networks within schools that ensure all teachers are well supported, and not beaten with a rod of accountability and unrealistic expectation. Each school should encourage a thousand nudges and support mechanisms for teachers who live the difficult dance of a full timetable, whilst all the time retaining realistic expectations of how much evidence can be read or applied in the maelstrom of the working week.

There are no quick fixes. If OFSTED were to become tasked with the demand to ‘enforce’ research, it will surely kill this nascent spring of interest in research evidence. Human nature, and the habits of our teaching, are forged in the hard-worn fire of experience. We need many a thousand nudges, and much support, to change habits of a teaching lifetime.

Embedding research evidence into the culture of school will take a generation. It will take an image changing charm offensive and it will take national, local networks and networks within schools to be choreographed with deft skill. It isn’t going to be easy work, but it could mean we see the essential improvement in our whole education system – better outcomes for our students. Therefore we need to make a start. Now. Today.

Comments

  1. Time – like you say – is key (and I guess this equate to money!). As an enthusiastic proponent of evidenced based teaching (teaching science!) I truly agree – I’ve been looking at it for years now. But when do I ever get enough time to really get deeply involved and committed? Life is hard enough as it is…

    Maybe if university education departments had evidence based outreach centres, with theorists in education coming out to help me, and gaining an understanding of the day-to-day issues I face? Schools working in close partnership with those who know how to do the research but aren’t in classrooms to do it? But this, obviously, requires both side having the time to engage meaningfully. Until money is put into this I believe it will remain a dream.

    1. Author

      The divide between the worlds, in terms of time and knowledge, is a huge barrier. Time is indeed money.

  2. Alex, are you really ‘currently undertaking a large scale RCT, funded by the Education Endowment Fund, to prove the efficacy of this research hub model.’? Surely RCTs should ‘test a hypothesis’ or ‘explore the impact’ rather than set out to ‘prove the efficacy’ of something?

    1. Author

      Well, yes – we test the hypothesis of research evidence being used for systematic school improvement. It is an efficacy study in these conditions. I was playing fast and loose with terms and descriptions given a hastily written blog on the train!

      1. And yet that slip-up says so much. The resistance many teachers have to educational research is that it is designed to prove a pre-determined belief rather than find answers,- and the results often reflect that bias. Teachers have seen all too many “evidence-based practice” initiatives based on manipulated and misinterpreted data that were collected to prove the efficacy of a researchers pet project (or a product being tested for sale to the educational market.)

  3. I agree with much of what you say Alex. Our profession can no longer ignore the evidence that is out there regarding, amongst other things, what works best. To do so is, I believe, negligent on the part of teachers and leaders. I doubt that most teachers leave their holiday destinations to chance when taking a well-earned break. The use of Hattie’s work regarding the research should be akin to using Trip Advisor when considering where to spend leisure time. It is part of a teacher’s evaluation toolbox and shows where we should focus our attentions. Reducing class size, for example, has a positive impact on learning but as it is at number 113 in a list of 150 research areas (regarding student attainment) then there are other things to be considering first.

    As such, I don’t recognise the sentiment in your comment: “If you were to cite John Hattie in most staffrooms in a debate about a student I doubt it would be welcomed. Collective frowns and worse would be the order of the day. There needs to be a significant culture shift to change the image of research evidence in the eyes of teachers.” The schools that have engaged with Hattie’s official Visible Learning programme certainly see his works in a more enlightened way. The problem, as always, is one of interpretation. Not of the research findings but of the rationale behind Hattie’s work.

    Teachers need to see research as something that is their slave and not their master. I would rather our profession had a large majority of teachers who were amateur researchers, than a small minority of teachers who were research experts. As you say ” Engagement with research evidence should be at the heart of the Teacher Standards, not as a performance related pay lever, but as a basic expectation of an esteemed profession.”

    The work that you are leading at Huntington School is a great project, done with the support of the home-grown EEF. I believe that their work builds on the mega-database that is Hattie’s Visible Learning work. Hopefully our profession can embrace the work of ALL who hope to improve the outcomes of our pupils. There is a real opportunity for teachers if they move away from the “not invented here” position to a “proudly found elsewhere” attitude ( http://hbswk.hbs.edu/archive/5258.html )

    Let’s use the existing research database to be aware that most things in education “work” but some things have greater impact than others. Then let’s update the database. This could be done locally or, as you are doing, as an RCT. Hattie’s work is constantly being updated. For example, the impact of primary homework has moved from an effect size of 0.01 (research to 2009) to 0.15 (research to 2013). Practice is changing and the data needs to reflect this.

    Only then will our profession be in charge of the research. At the moment I imagine that a majority of teachers are suspicious of the work of “academics” because they are being asked to step out of their comfort zone. This fear is caused by an institutional accountability agenda. We ask our pupils to take a chance and not fear failure. We must model the same behaviour using all intelligent means at our disposal.

    http://dilbert.com/strips/comic/2013-03-31/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed: DilbertDailyStrip (Dilbert Daily Strip)

    1. Author

      I was using Hattie just as a proxy for any ‘researcher’ really. Of course, I recognise the role of his research. I was aiming to show the cynicism shown commonly towards research. Many schools combat this and have a much better culture towards research, but I would say the norm is something like hostility. It will take time to shift, but it can be done.

  4. Hi Alex
    At the recent launch of the education select committee endorsed Education Fpundation Technology in education – a system view interim paper, I met with the new CEO of the much respected College of Teachers. Professor Angela McFarlane. Formerly the College of Preceptors, they are leading the running to unite the profession under the Royal College banner.

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