Sir Kevan Collins, CEO of the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) says, “If you’re not using evidence, you must be using prejudice…”
An evidence-based profession makes sense. You need to know what works and what doesn’t. Yet schools and colleges don’t always do what works best with many jumping on bandwagons and falling for the hype of a ‘revolutionary’ new strategy or idea. Many just ignore the evidence but that’s little surprise as for many years education has been an evidence free zone.
Teachers and lecturers haven’t always have access to the latest educational research and all too often they have decided how to teach using only their own judgement, experience and ideas picked up informally.
Best-Evidence Education (BEE) isn’t new but it has certainly taken a while to reach classrooms. It has been called the ‘quiet revolution’. The good news is that things are changing, a movement is unfurling and professionals are embracing a mindset of “know thy impact”. We are getting noisier and understanding that some evidence is better than other evidence.
BEE is now part of educational conversations and more and more professionals are pressing pause and asking questions. We are all getting better at rigorously evaluating specific strategies and policies and it is becoming second-nature to say “Where’s the evidence? What are the benefits? What are the costs?”
One of the most exciting achievements of BEE has been the growth of systematic reviews and meta-analyses, methods by which researchers identify multiple studies on a topic and separate the best ones and then critically scrutinise them to come up with a summary of the best available evidence. They are exciting for another reason too - they are now accessible and we are more aware of them. So much has been hidden away and published out of sight. They give us the means to judge the substantive significance of findings.
Teaching professionals must have up-to-date evidence and they must interact and collect feedback continuously. Research literacy is vital for education to function effectively and without intelligent insights we might as well turn the lights off, spin on the spot, teach in the dark and hope for the best.
But colleges need to be better plugged in and as Ali Hadawi Principal and Chief Executive of Central Bedordshire College says, “we need to take the initiative and embed research within our colleges.”
For far too long educators have relied on fiction rather than facts, spent too much time in their own bubbles and relied on poorly executed research. BEE is about making sure that when decisions are made they are made on the basis of the most up-to-date, solid, reliable, ‘scientific’ evidence.
Thanks to trusted organisations like the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), the Research Schools Network, Evidence Based Education, the Institute for Effective Education and the Chartered College of Teaching, we now have data warehouses we can walk into and touch the research first-hand. ResearchED is another exciting development as it has been set up to bridge the gap between research and practice in education, share information and debunk some edu-myths.
But we all know the limitations too. Research evidence isn’t something that we can just adopt and plonk into our ecosystems and expect great results unless it has been tried and tested; our contexts contain subtle and slight differences that make all the difference to something working or flopping. As Professor Rob Coe says in his Manifesto for Evidence-Based Education,
“Evidence, like Motherhood and Apple Pie, is in danger of being all things to all people.”
BEE is not ‘cookbook’ education with recipes to follow as education is not an exact science and evidence is messy. But what it can do is inform decisions far more reliably than simply buying into what is fashionable or what might be imposed on us.
This is a bottom up approach that integrates the best external evidence with individual college expertise and local knowledge. EBE demands better evidence than has traditionally been used or mindlessly accepted and used intelligently it can impact positively.
A Culture of BEE
BEE is an enquiry movement that aims to increase the use of high-quality research in whole-organisation decision making. This involves the conscientious, cautious and intelligent use of best evidence in making decisions about what works for students and staff.
BEE integrates teaching experience with the best available research information and requires teachers and lecturers to have their finger on the pulse and engage with problem-based learning, be efficient and canny in their literature searches and be cognisant.
Best-evidence helps us spend our money wisely and target scarce resources where they can have the most impact.
Kate Bailey, Director of Policy, at the Centre for Evaluation & Monitoring argues that with a vast array of educational resources available, we should use evidence to inform our procurement decisions.
She also argues that we shouldn’t just be critical consumers of evidence but also concern ourselves with the production of evidence and recommends that we use the EEF’s DIY evaluation guide to support us in evaluating how to evaluate our own interventions or use of resources.
Ultimately, BEE is about displaying sound judgement and practical wisdom (phronesis).
Effective leaders demonstrate that they know what the issues are and they look far and wide for solutions. This means no guesswork but looking for robust current best evidence.
Colleges won’t be evidence-based learning organisations unless their leaders have a sound understanding of research and create the conditions for BEE to flourish and where teaching staff feel encouraged and safe to modify their change their practice in the light of the evidence that works.
Being up-front, open, clear and transparent, being careful and through in what we do, and asking for evidence is central to making sure that we don’t take students and staff down cul-de-sacs. It’s not rocket science: understand research evidence, promote research based pedagogy and make decisions based on a solid and secure evidence base.
The alternative to evidence-based education is “let’s hope for the best” but this is reckless and old-school. Best-evidence is best.
There are many organisations that are involved in research including:
- The Association for Research in Post-Compulsory Education
- The Centre for the use of Research and Evidence in Education
- The British Education Research Association
- The Learning and Skills Research network
- Teacher Education in Lifelong Learning
- The British Educational Leadership and Educational Research Society
- The Education and Training Foundation
- The Further Education Trust for Leadership
About the author
John is an ex-primary school teacher and Ofsted inspector who has spent the last 20 years working in the education industry as a teacher, writer and editor. John’s specialist area is primary maths but he also loves teaching science and English. John has written a number of educational and children’s books, and contributed over 1,000 articles and features to various educational bodies. John is eTeach’s school leadership and Ofsted advice guru, sharing insights on best practice for motivating and enriching a school team, as well as sharing savvy career steps for headteachers and SLT.