Bringing evidence into the classroom

A new coalition of organisations from across the education sector aims to bring researchers, policy makers and practitioners closer together, writes Jonathan Haslam

DON, THE HEADTEACHER of an inner-city primary school, was stuck. He had just held a meeting with his senior management team to discuss how they could do more for their struggling readers. On the positive side, everyone had contributed really well and come up with some great ideas. Maria had suggested that they should provide one-to-one tutoring, but Don could not be sure that the expense would be worth it. Steve was certain that he had heard of a scheme that recruited volunteers from the community to do the same thing. He was positive he had read about it in a magazine somewhere. Laura thought that it might be a problem with the way they were teaching all children to read, and maybe they should look for something that was more effective across the whole school. Now, to add to the confusion, Don’s school improvement partner was on the phone, telling him about a really exciting pilot project running across the authority, which was using a new computer program to help those who were struggling.

If only, thought Don, there was some way of knowing which of these was likely to work best for the children in his school…

These are the kind of questions that are faced by every school. Fortunately, there is a lot of research on what works with struggling readers. In fact there is a lot of research on what works in most subjects and year levels. Unfortunately, this research is not widely known or used by educators. While some teaching professionals are comfortable finding research evidence to inform their decisions, many find the task of sifting through research to find what is relevant both daunting and time consuming.

The same is true for policy makers, at both local and national level. The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee recently produced an “evidence check” on early literacy interventions. It reviewed the government’s approach and found that the focus on early interventions and phonics-based teaching “is based on the best available evidence”. The use of Reading Recovery “is based on evidence, but a lower quality of evidence than [the committee] are comfortable with”. And the decision “to roll out Reading Recovery nationally to the exclusion of other kinds of literacy interventions was… not evidence-based, and we have suggested that the government should commission some high quality research, such as randomised controlled trials, in this area.”

This lack of clarity about where to find reliable evidence means that both policy makers and practitioners can fall for the smooth presentations of new programmes and approaches. Neither group necessarily has the skill or time to search behind the slick marketing claims to find the impartial research that supports these programmes (or not). The consequence is that schools, local and national government have wasted valuable time and money on programmes and practices that do not work, and missed out on those that do. How can this situation be improved?

A successful relationship with research often relies upon a social interaction – hearing a colleague praise a particular approach, meeting someone at a conference. This can lead to a worthwhile and constructive relationship, where the fruits of research are used in the classroom. Policy makers will often depend on trusted advisers. While this is a way of sharing information that most people feel comfortable with, the ad hoc way in which these contacts develop is hardly ideal. It still does not prevent you falling for a convincing sales pitch, for example, and it also doesn’t address the needs of different situations. What works in the enthusiast’s school may not necessarily work in yours.

It must be possible to do better than this, to bring together the fruits of educational research (on which considerable amounts of money are spent) and present it to policy makers and practitioners in a way that can be understood and useful. And, similarly, to take the questions that concern policy makers and practitioners and commission the research community to provide sensible answers.

We think there is. Over the last year, the Institute for Effective Education at the University of York has brought together a wide variety of individuals to discuss how knowledge and expertise is exchanged across the sector. The Coalition for Evidence-based Education (CEBE) includes education researchers, politicians, think-tanks, funders, government departments, local authorities, education organisations, teachers and head teachers. The aim has been to consider what an evidence-using education system might look like, and what we might need to get us there. The coalition is developing proposals for ways of closing the gap between research that shows what works, and what happens in classrooms. The proposals focus on different aspects of this problem – communication, research, politics, etc – and reflect the importance of developing solutions that will be practical for all those involved.

So, for example, if Don wanted to know how to help his struggling readers, what if there were an organisation he could call to get authoritative, objective advice on the latest evidence? Or if you were developing a superb new reading programme, what if there were an organisation that could support its development and prove that it was as wonderful as you thought? Or if you were a politician wanting to introduce effective programmes for behaviour management, what if you knew who to contact for the latest evidence, and who to commission to find out whether these programmes worked?

The coalition is developing proposals to address these scenarios and others, both on a small and large scale. Importantly, these are being developed by individuals across the whole education community – policy makers, practitioners, researchers and more – so that they reflect what is needed and will be useful.

If you would be interested in finding out more about the coalition, and perhaps getting involved, then please get in touch. We are particularly keen for more practitioners to join the coalition. The more input there is from teachers and headteachers the more realistic the coalition’s proposals will be. In addition, there may be opportunities to be involved in pilot projects if you are interested in making practice at your school more evidence-based.

For more information on the coalition please contact Jonathan Sharples at the IEE (jonathan.sharples@york.ac.uk), or visit www.cebenetwork.org.

About the author

Jonathan Haslam is Manager of Dissemination for the Institute for Effective Education at the University of York.

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Published

February 2010