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Addressing the challenges of using evidence in education

7 min read
Lorne Stefanini and Jenny Griffiths, Coalition for Evidence-Based Education (CEBE), UK

In 2013, Ben Goldacre called for a greater use of evidence in education to improve outcomes for children and increase professional independence, and ResearchEd was born. In just a few years, changes to initial teacher education (ITE) have reinforced this message (Carter, 2015; Bennett, 2017; DfE, 2019) and made it clear that there was an important role for leaders (Brown and Greany, 2017) in supporting teacher autonomy through professional development (Worth and Van Den Brande, 2020; DfE, 2016).

At Coalition for Evidence-Based Education (CEBE), we are clear about the potential of evidence-informed approaches to lead to improvement (Coldwell et al., 2017) and committed to supporting teachers and leaders to overcome challenges in accessing the benefits. We also recognise that the evidence base is a shifting one, that understanding research is not straightforward, and that implementing change in classroom practice takes time.

The first challenge is achieving clarity and purpose around what we mean by evidence-based, evidence-informed or research-led education (CEBE, 2017a). The second is to clearly articulate the benefits to teachers, and the third is to enable leaders to build the capacity to integrate it into the wider school system.

At the heart of any discussion about the use of research, evidence and the notion of evidence-informed practice must be a clear understanding of what is meant by those terms in this context. ‘Research’ is considered here as a structured, rigorous programme of investigation, which might encompass both qualitative and quantitative approaches. ‘Evidence’, meanwhile, can be conceptualised more broadly as including evidence from external research, a range of different types of data (for example school or pupil data) and the outcomes of research and evaluation activity (Stoll, 2017).


Venn diagram showing that evidence-informed practice is informed by the best available evidence from research, teacher experience, expertise and professional judgement and context
Adapted from Scutt, 2019


Figure 1 provides one way of supporting staff to overcome terminological barriers, by seeing that evidence-informed practice is about drawing on research, but also considering it in context and balancing it with existing experience, expertise and professional judgement. In this way, it becomes a means of helping teachers to understand some of the problems that they are facing in the classroom and offers testable strategies to improve teaching and learning. At the heart of evidence-informed practice is the effort to reduce the guesswork around ‘what works and why’. At Felsted School, a menu of materials – often from external specialists via inset presentations – was used to support staff in overcoming these terminological barriers. A further example of a school (Little Gonerby CoE Infant School, Lincolnshire) using research evidence to support practice and improve learning involved a deputy headteacher who contacted the Evidence for the Frontline service (EEF, nd) in search of strategies to improve behaviour in the classroom. Based on the suggested evidence and further reading, she then tested the approaches to see which would have the desired impact. Importantly, she then shared her findings with colleagues, who were able to consider implementation of the strategies in their own classrooms (CEBE, 2017b).

The second challenge is how to secure an evidence-informed approach in schools. For leaders seeking to review how engaged their school is in or with research, the NFER has a useful self-review tool as a starting point (NFER, nd). The Education Endowment Foundation also has an implementation guide applicable to school improvement decisions, ‘Putting evidence to work’ (EEF, 2019). Central to success at scale is leadership through role-modelling and active promotion, and careful managing of teacher perceptions of scale and difficulty. The strongest models are where leaders have integrated an evidence-informed approach into the CPD programme and approach to performance management. In this way, they can create the systems and structures that support staff in developing the understanding and capacity to adopt an evidence-informed approach, as well as building their confidence in doing so.

Some schools are moving towards an approach to performance management that encapsulates developing evidence-informed practice at an individual level. One of these, Felsted School, has adopted an approach where teachers are set a development target structured around a professional enquiry. Teachers are asked to identify an aspect of teaching to develop; research a piece of ‘evidence’ or input that will inform their thinking; trial some new strategies based on the evidence or input; and reflect on and share findings with their line manager and department. Another approach was taken by a group of primary schools in association with a university partner, through a collaborative research project that helped to build capacity within the schools. Underpinning the project was the principle that partnership and collaboration enable research to be interpreted, shared and disseminated, thus contributing to a wider knowledge base for the intersection of theory and practice. The project provided training for participating teachers in the features of evidence-based teaching, and support in developing research questions and tools for data collection. They then carried out their own investigations and were supported with analysis, interpretation and dissemination of the findings (CEBE, 2017b).

These whole-school approaches are not without further challenge. At Felsted, they discovered that some staff were over-ambitious in the scale of the projects undertaken or struggled to adequately define the parameters in order to reach a meaningful conclusion. Teachers, like all researchers, are prone to confirmation bias (i.e. the tendency to search for, interpret, favour and recall information that confirms or supports one’s prior beliefs or values) and thus reaching conclusions that simply match what they already ‘know’ or ‘believe’. To tackle this problem, staff were given a menu of broad topics based around school improvement priorities, and middle leaders were asked to ensure ongoing sharing and collaboration in meetings. Critically, staff often need an element of ‘steering’ – such as is given to sixth formers undertaking Extended Project Qualifications – and it is a priority to develop the skills of line managers to support colleagues in pursuing their evidence-informed practice.

To conclude, school research engagement is best seen as a conscious leadership strategy aimed at developing a school over a period of many years, where school leaders can be positive drivers to increase engagement. School leaders must prioritise evidence-informed practice as a whole-school commitment for evidence use to be fully and meaningfully realised (Brown et al., 2018). The ultimate aim must be to create a culture in which evidence-informed practice is the norm and integral to the structure and systems of the organisation of the school (Swaffield and Macbeath, 2006). As the self-improving school agenda requires school leaders to become more skilled at diagnosing their school’s needs at a given point in time, developing people and building capacity are likely to be necessary as part of this. We welcome the changes that have been made to the Ofsted framework to recognise and encourage evidence-informed approaches to school improvement (Ofsted, 2019). As a recognised part of teacher training and the education system’s accountability regime, school leaders are more likely to prioritise and sustain the use of evidence to inform practice (Brown et al., 2018). The most research-engaged leaders will be able to synthesise research evidence with other forms of evidence, including context-specific factors such as school data for school improvement and evidence-informed decision-making. The intention is to ensure that our schools provide the best systems, structures and professional practice for the very highest possible outcomes for our children.


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