Using education evidence

It’s harder than people think to use educational research in the classroom. One pan-European project looked at the problems, and at the rewards of success when it works.

Woman giving presentationEvidence-based approaches are all the rage in the public services. It started with NICE, now rarely out of the news when there’s a health scare. Then came SCIE, to help social workers make sense of the evidence behind their practices. In education too, a new 'What Works Centre' focusing on pupil attainment in schools has just been announced.

Efforts such as these make high-quality research evidence readily accessible. They are essential first steps in the path to evidence-informed practice. However, experience in many fields has shown that access alone does not ensure improvements based on evidence. It is essential to support people facing the challenge of using evidence in practice. Studies at the Research Unit for Research Utilisation at the University of St Andrews have shown that this is not as straightforward as terms like 'dissemination' and 'implementation' might suggest. It is a complex process and, where effective – whether in nursing, policing or public health – is often a social one, involving sustained interaction between several parties.

In education, this kind of exchange sometimes occurs when schools, pre-schools or colleges collaborate with universities. In the best examples, some kind of exchange takes place in which experiential knowledge acquired by practitioners interacts with theoretical and empirical knowledge developed by academics. To understand more about this kind of knowledge exchange, a small team from four European countries recently undertook a preliminary survey in six countries of existing schemes that do this, as the first step in an ongoing collaboration.

The survey confirmed that such schemes exist in several European countries. It also found that they are enormously varied in their nature and purpose. In Baden-Württemberg, in Germany, innovative forms of cooperation are being developed between kindergartens and primary schools where children of both institutions can learn and play together on a regular basis. The ZNL Transfer Center of Neurosciences and Learning at the University of Ulm is providing scientific advice for this interaction, analysing change processes and evaluating possible benefits for the children and staff. In Essungen, in Sweden, special needs students have been included in mainstream settings, in a process in which research evidence was used as a force to change culture. As a result, the municipality has risen from being the weakest in Sweden in terms of pupil attainment to one of the top three. In Rotterdam, the Talent Network brings together Erasmus University, the municipality and schools in the city to help young people realise their talent. It links 'evidence for practice' with 'practice-based evidence' via activities that involve researchers, practitioners and policy makers.

Central to each scheme was the way in which knowledge was deliberately derived from each of the parties – schools, the universities and, in some cases, local authorities and other intermediary bodies. University partners usually contributed by summarising and presenting findings from the research literature, in a form suitable for practitioners. Schools mostly engaged in implementing evidence-informed strategies and in monitoring their progress and impact, but many also carried out small-scale action research. The schemes involved broadly similar types of activity - workshops, training and coaching sessions, presentations and email discussions - and frequently resulted in the production of evidence-based materials for practitioners.

Success depended mainly on human factors: relationship building, empathic researchers, and working with a spirit of cooperation rather than competition. The sustained commitment of schools and a willingness to embed or adopt evidence-based approaches was also seen as important. Schools needed to accept that things could be better and resources used differently, whilst researchers needed to be willing to start from the state the school is actually in, rather than some other, more ideal one.

There were also some difficulties in common between the schemes we examined. Researchers’ poor understanding of the processes of change in a live school is often matched by teachers’ tendency to work from intuition or hunch rather than evidence. There may be tension between the wish to adapt an evidence-based method to local circumstances and the need for fidelity to the original evidence. For many problems in real classrooms, robust evidence about effectiveness (and value for money) may not exist.

Overall, people who reported on the fourteen schemes in this study were confident of their impact. Teachers felt positive about the experience and were glad to be equipped with messages for their schools. And although they varied from school to school, the positive effects for students included: 

  • improvements in memory, self regulation, attitudes and motivation
  • improvements in mathematics and language
  • reduction in transition problems from kindergarten to primary
  • changes in brain organisation in multilingual pupils.

The study is part of the European EIPPEE project and is expected to be followed by further work on school-university collaboration.  

Andrew Morris is chair of the Educational Evidence Portal, a partner in the EIPPEE project.

Share this page