Evidence-based practice in education is getting more and more attention recently. Projects like #SciTeachJC have been part of this, but I think there’s a general movement towards wanting to base what we do on facts rather than wishful thinking. The problem is that it’s actually quite hard, for several reasons, to be an evidence-based-practitioner.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t.
I Want To… But I’m Lazy
There’s a lot of evidence to keep up with. A lot of teachers are still being told that learning styles are useful despite a lack of supporting data, and a recent Guardian article shows this also applies to the infamous Myers-Briggs ‘test’. This means that we as teachers aren’t accessing old research, let alone new material. This is hardly surprising when you consider the cost; joining the British Educational Research Association costs £89, for which you get 6 issues of the BJER each year, and four issues a year of the Curriculum Journal will set you back £135. There’s also the lack of time teachers have when constantly rewriting schemes of work to suit the latest national qualification change, of course!
I do my best to keep up, but I’ve only so much time and money. I pay for my own membership of the ASE. I buy my own books. I spend my own time developing what I know and what I can do. I make it to TeachMeets when I can, join in with #asechat and #SciTeachJC, read and try out in school and reflect afterwards. But the situation we’re in makes it difficult.
Of course, what makes it even more frustrating is when individual teachers know the research and want to make decisions about teaching based on evidence, but aren’t allowed to. It’s important to recognise that schools may have perfectly valid reasons for not following suggestions from research, and cost is obviously often high on the list! But we need to accept that sometimes we are not getting it right on an institutional level, and this needs to change. If it doesn’t change from the bottom up, it will inevitably – and probably slowly and painfully – happen from the top down.
What’s Already Available And Where From
Every school should have well-thumbed copies of Petty’s book Evidence-Based Teaching and Hattie’s Visible Learning. In my opinion – as a classroom teacher, not a manager – schools could do a lot worse than spending half of every inset day applying just one of the ‘best-value’ concepts in every relevant department. The constantly updated research by Marzano in the States examines a wide variety of teaching methods in terms of their success against measured criteria. The database is freely available and there are materials to explain effect size.
The British Educational Research Association (BERA) and the Specialist Schools Attainment Trust (SSAT) spend time and money looking into the effectiveness of eduication policies and methods; the latter works primarily with schools. The Evidence for Policy and Practice Information (EPPI) unit based out of the Institute of Education looks interesting, but not exactly accessible for those of us in the classroom. The GTC produced some research summaries with the title Research for Teachers (RfT) but I don’t know how well they were accessed; the group behind the summaries, the Centre for the Use of Research and Evidence in Education (CUREE) is still active. There’s the National Education Trust. And of course the Times Ed now has a weekly article bridging the gap between research and classroom practice, but I can’t find it online. There’s lots around, some free and some not so much. Some is purely academic while other groups attempt to translate it for classroom use.
The Education Endowment Foundation looks particularly at techniques to support those from disadvantaged background but their EEF Toolkit is generally useful, ranking interventions in terms of ‘value for money’. The difficulty with this approach is that it ignores the cost in terms of time and pressure on teachers, something I am sure they are aware of. It is the limited time of individual teachers which means centralised research is so necessary. As of 22nd March they have a vacancy for a Senior Analyst, if you’re interested…
There are some smaller groups in the UK; the Evidence-Based Teachers’ Network grew out of training sessions and has some useful summaries. There are many practitioners active online, for example @teachitso on Twitter (Dr Mark Evans IRL) who has some useful summaries on his site. There’s also several (competing?) groups such as the Guild of Teaching and the Teacher Development Trust with a small impact so far.
What We Need To Do Better
Much – but not all – of the current evidence is based on action research. This means a practitioner decides to try an intervention, does so and records any measurable change in results. This could be exam scores, recruitment rates for post-16 courses (I did that) or something else. It tends to be small samples and a snapshot in time. Think of them as case studies. Useful because they’re a step up from staffroom anecdotes, but more a starting point than gold-standard data.
Ben Goldacre, following the paper he wrote on RCTs for social issues that we discussed in #SciTeachJC, was asked to consider the use of RCTs specifically in education. The report has now been published and has stirred up a lot of debate. He wrote an article about it for the Guardian, and it’s noticeable how conscientiously he’s engaged with those commenting. I’d recommend reading the paper itself, of course – unlike some of those commenting. I like the idea of getting more teachers involved in research, obviously, but many seem sceptical. From a teacher’s point of view, the main issue is getting hold of the information afterwards. But it’s okay, the government has a cunning plan…
From this announcement, the EEF will be one of six centres, alongside NICE, tasked with gathering and disseminating evidence on social issues. It deliberately follows the NICE model where the evidence is analysed independantly of government, which would then (hopefully) consider the results and implications. A big issue I see here, of course, is that we seem to be moving away from a centralised education system where new knowledge would result in new systems for all. But we’ll see how it works.
What I Would Like
I’ve said before – like many others on Twitter, and I’m sure I wasn’t the first – that we need a National Institure of Education Excellence. An organisation committed to performing more meta-analyses of research, like the Cochrane Collaboration, and then making sure everyone else knows. For this to work effectively, there are several things the system needs.
Information needs to be effectively free at the point of use. Schools won’t pay for what they think they can get for free elsewhere (even if they’re wrong) and if we say all teachers need the information, it seems odd to expect them to pay for it when they’re cutting our pay in real terms.
The research cannot be politically driven. Some of the answers will go against current government policy. Some of the research will show MPs or Ministers to be wrong. That’s how evidence works and they’re going to have to be prepared to accept the consequences. But we can’t expect Gove to follow the evidence if we don’t do what we can to (a)collect it and (b)use it as soon as we know.
Interventions will have different relevance to different people and institutions. I tend to think of strategic choices at national level (such as exam specifications), tactical choices at a school level (such as behaviour and homework policies, setting and ICT provision) and choices of technique in a classroom (such as how to make group work most effective). I’m sure it’s more complicated than that, but you get the idea. We need to get the right information to the right people.
We need a wish-list, as Ben puts it, of questions we want answered. Set up a Google form and let any of us suggest something to investigate; shortlist and vote every six months. Personally, I’d love to see a comparison between students taught to use Blooms’ and those who are exposed to SOLO. Is there a difference? Does it depend on the students? If so, which method should we teach to which kids?
Teachers should have the opportunity to build up their skills as researchers. If they are needed to do more than send a copy of the results their class got following intervention A/B/C (delete as applicable) then the chance to get involved in data analysis will make it more likely they put the results into practice.
Get current researchers involved in designing the interventions. Of course this might be difficult if they feel the Secretary of State for Education is dismissive of their views or their motivations. We need better links between academics and full-time practitioners (or more people who do both, like the wonderful @MaryUYSEG). Maybe BERA could offer discounted memberships to the data-collectors?
Share the results widely in a format that means it can be used immediately. Imagine a magazine format, published electronically every month in three sections; strategic, tactical and techniques. The summaries link to journal articles, which are made open-access for the month so we can all see how well the synopsis matches the evidence. And each month three case studies show how the evidence from six months was put into practice at all three levels.
There’s lots of groups talking about doing the same thing – linking research to practice. And despite having been in post for nine years, with a strong interest in science and evidence, I found half of the links in this post today for the first time.
Surely we can do better than this?
EDIT/UPDATE: It looks like something is happening rather quicker than we might have expected, thanks to the efforts of Tom Bennett. Check out the new blog for this September’s suddenly planned conference, ResearchED2013.