What education can learn from others’ evidence-use experience

By Clare O’Beirne

Tuesday 8 April 2014

In a report for the Department for Education (DfE), Dr Ben Goldacre said that ‘…there is a huge prize waiting to be claimed by teachers’ by using research evidence which can have a positive impact on learner outcomes.

There is much talk about the lessons that education could learn from other professions, such as medicine, about being more evidence informed; and recently, we have been doing quite a bit of work around how to strengthen the evidence base within teaching. I co-authored a review of evidence use within the teaching profession; my colleagues produced an NFER Thinks policy paper on the system-level changes that we believe are needed; and NFER co-hosted an event on integrating evidence and classroom practice with the Coalition for Evidence-based Education (CEBE) on 28 January.

Most recently, my colleague Tami McCrone co-presented a session at last weekend’s ResearchEd Midlands conference with Matt Inniss of United Learning Academy on ‘Practical use of evidence: can teachers and researchers shed any light?‘.

We’ve also been looking at some of the literature about practices and approaches to evidence use in other countries and professions – not just medicine (although healthcare tends to dominate). It is important to note that this work is not underpinned by a systematic search process, so we have not captured all the evidence that is available on particular approaches, or their effectiveness. But we have gathered a few illustrations.

Barriers and enablers to evidence use within teaching

Our review identified a number of barriers to a more widespread use of evidence in education (relating to teachers’ values, beliefs and priorities). These included low confidence in research evidence, and practical challenges related to access, time/capacity shortage, or a need for increased skills of interpretation among some teachers. The review also highlighted a variety of factors that have the power to enable a more evidence-informed teaching profession. These include creating scope for professional autonomy (my colleague has blogged on this recently), and developing infrastructures to enable access to high quality evidence. School leaders can also promote the value of evidence and provide appropriate resources.

And in other countries/professions?

It seems that a very similar set of challenges and enablers exist elsewhere. Education in England is not in a unique situation, and other professions do not have all the answers yet (contrary to what some commentators might say). There are challenges associated with the quality of the evidence, the perceived value of research evidence, or a lack of support for it and insufficient time and resources. Similarly, the literature points to the positive role that knowledge intermediaries and stakeholder champions play in enabling research to impact on practice.

Some common messages about principles

It also seems that the principles of good evidence use broadly mirror those identified in the literature on education in England. But (as for education in England) there are few evaluated examples. For example, all of the following factors (which were identified in our review) are commonplace in the literature on other professions and country approaches:

  • Good syntheses are critical. The Cochrane collaboration is one such example and involves a range of stakeholders internationally creating and disseminating reviews based on healthcare interventions.
  • Transformation of knowledge is essential. International literature in health and social care identifies educational meetings (interaction is considered more effective than a lecture-style approach) and educational outreach visits and guidelines (which help reduce variability) as key mechanisms for promoting and facilitating practitioner engagement in/with research.
  • Collaborative approaches make a huge difference. There are examples of researchers sharing learning with others through mentoring; making connections with intermediaries or practitioners who act as champions; and capacity building through practitioner champions becoming knowledge intermediaries. In one social-welfare research study, the principal investigator ran evidence-based workshops, thereby acting as a knowledge intermediary.

Some examples that we can learn from

Collaborative networks can get good results. The Supervision Practitioner Research Network (SuPReNET) in the counselling and psychotherapy field involves a collaborative approach to projects and a practitioner network where, in some cases, participants carry out data collation and produce outputs. We have similar partnerships in education (such as teaching school alliances and a variety of other school networks) but there is currently little documented evidence about the ways in which these work. Similarly, the New Zealand Numeracy Development Project (NDP) and Project FAST (Foundational Approaches to Science Teaching) involves teachers working with researchers/developers to produce an enquiry approach focused on improving student experience and performance (rather than teachers learning how to do their own research).

Opinion leaders (practitioners seen by colleagues as influential) are a key mechanism for promoting and facilitating practitioner engagement in evidence use in the health and social care professions. They champion interventions based on the use of randomised controlled trials because they can feel more confident about whether they work.

So how much can we really learn from other contexts?

The evidence highlights that there is still work to be done to promote the use of evidence in practice, and not just in education. But there are perhaps some differences of approach used across other professions that the education field may wish to consider. These include ensuring buy-in from senior leaders who are influential and can play a key role in facilitating engagement; encouraging collaborative networks as a means of facilitating and promoting active participation and use of research; and focusing not just on the production, but critically on the transformation, of evidence.

Literature relating to other professions suggests that socially interactive approaches supporting the implementation of research evidence can help to achieve evidence-informed practice. However, what’s also clear from the literature is that it’s not an easy task and that no one country or profession has all the answers.