Evidence use: what’s the evidence?

By Julie Nelson

Wednesday 11 December 2013

Anyone with an interest in the application of research in educational practice would be hard pressed not to have encountered recent debates promoting the case for a greater use of evidence within the teaching profession.

A number of lively discussions have ensued about the value and importance of evidence within the educational sphere, and also around the question of what constitutes ‘good’ evidence. But there is an additional angle that has perhaps been overlooked. This is the question of how much we really know about how to bring evidence to bear in educational practice. In slightly circular fashion, we can ask the question: What does the evidence tell us about the most effective approaches to integrating evidence into teaching practice?

We’ve just undertaken a literature review to explore this very issue, which we’ll be publishing in January. It describes factors that enable the effective use of evidence within schools; discusses ways in which research is currently applied; and identifies findings relating to the relative effectiveness of different approaches to integrating evidence and practice. For researchers keen to support schools to use evidence to assist their practice, and for teachers who use the results of their own research or enquiry to inform their teaching, the findings make for interesting reading.

The nature of the evidence base

With the exception of a handful of very small-scale qualitative explorations, evidence relating to the relative effectiveness of different approaches to research integration in teaching practice is scant. Ironically enough (for a research community), we really don’t know all that much about how best to integrate research and practice for the benefit of teachers or learners.

With this in mind, I would argue for a little more time spent understanding the processes by which evidence is created, accessed, interpreted and used, before continuing to focus an enormous amount of effort on research dissemination.  As well as understanding the processes underpinning the use and application of research, we also need to explore the extent to which teachers ‘believe’ in the value of evidence. We need to establish that there is a genuine ‘pull’ for evidence from the teaching profession. And we need to understand the types of questions that teachers are seeking answers to.

Some critical ingredients

In spite of the paucity of evidence regarding the impact of different approaches to integrating research and practice, we do know a few things. We know, for example, that effective production and use of research is not a linear process. It is a dynamic social process that requires teachers and researchers to think differently about their traditional respective roles.

We also know that when research organisations focus on a ‘dissemination’ or ‘research push’ approach, uptake of their evidence in schools is limited. The HEFCE-funded Teaching and Learning Research Programme, which attracted over £40 million in funding between 1999 and 2012, is a costly example of this.

But we still have no robust impact evidence that allows us to make comparative assessments of the benefits of one type of approach over another. What are the relative benefits of Becheikh et al’s (2009) ‘problem solving’ approach (where teachers use researchers as ‘technicians’ who can help to answer their questions) over their ‘social-interaction’ model (where teachers and researchers work collaboratively to co-create research questions and research design) for example? Or how effective is their ‘linkage’ model, where evidence is transformed for application in practice and ‘brokered’ by intermediary organisations? At present, we simply don’t know.

A collaborative investigation

Working in partnership, NFER and United Learning are undertaking primary research to begin to answer some of these questions. Collaboratively, NFER researchers and United Learning teaching/research staff are exploring a variety of approaches that teachers are currently using to access research and apply the evidence to their practice.

As a result of this exploration, we will be able to ‘map’ a number of different approaches currently in use, and to identify those with particular promise. Down the line, there is scope for a more formal evaluation of these promising approaches – possibly even a trial to ascertain relative effectiveness…and by effectiveness, we mean approaches that make some kind of difference to teaching and learning, or to learner outcomes.

Interim results will be available in early 2014 and we will provide an update on what we have found then. The results will help us to go some way towards answering the critical question: ‘What does the evidence tell us about the most effective approaches to integrating evidence into teaching practice?’