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It’s the stories that will help sell evidence-based practice

arms-up-1024Anne-Marie-DuguidAnne-Marie Duguid, SSAT Director of Education, writes…

Now that’s over, no doubt the circular debates about education will continue, whatever the ‘winning’ manifesto proclaimed… the buzz words, the clichés, the bandwagons, the current panacea to get quick results…

I’ve seen it all and so have you. But some things remain constant and ride the wave of fads and policy swings. This week’s election results may see a significant change in leadership and educational policy direction, but good teaching and learning, good leadership, happy schools, happy students must always be our aim. How to achieve that?

Day-to-day, as good teachers and school leaders have always done, we modify our approaches based on ongoing experience in the classroom and elsewhere, and by looking at what works in comparable situations elsewhere. But as we have increasingly been made aware recently, evidence-informed practice is vital.

A blog by David Wilkinson, editor-in-chief of the Oxford Review and a leading expert in dealing with uncertainty and developing emotional resilience, takes it further. He offers an entertaining and thought-provoking blog persuading us how to apply evidence-based practice – Why evidence-based practice probably isn’t worth it….

In it he states ‘there is a big problem with… why evidence-based practice (EBP) isn’t worth it for most people… Outside of areas like health care and aviation/ technology, most people in organisations… are just not that interested in using the research to change how they do things – period.’

He notes that in medicine ‘it is impossible to distinguish between the academic side and the practice side.’ The functions of practitioner, researcher and teacher overlap almost totally. As he teaches and conducts research at a number of universities including Oxford, ‘my lectures and sessions are in the operational context. My students are often on duty. They are doing the do, as they say. The teachers and researchers are embedded in the culture of practice, and the practitioners and operational staff are embedded in a culture of evidence and research.’

Then he addresses the sectors where EBP isn’t taking off, in which we might include education in many cases. ‘The majority of people in organisations are getting on with it and to be honest, just don’t need something else to make things harder or more complicated.’ The blog then shows statistical graphs and tables demonstrating that to most people in organisations ‘the weather is a lot more interesting than evidence-based practice. But they do want to know how to do things… practical things.’

The trouble is, while Professor Rob Briner’s ‘hierarchy of evidence’ (see figure) shows that systematic reviews are the most reliable form of evidence – and expert opinion, anecdotes and even case studies are the least – it is the latter that most managers and leaders in organisations use most often in making decisions.

So we need to get buy-in and purpose.

‘People aren’t going to buy evidence based practice until they are convinced it will solve their problems,’ Wilkinson states. Which means practical information and guidance on how to make good decisions. So ‘use stories, case studies and anecdotes to capture people – get their interest first.’

Professor John Hattie, whom I interviewed recently, would insist on the need for meta-analysis and systematic reviews. The evaluations from the Education Endowment Foundation utilise randomised controlled trials which can provide valuable insights – but one could argue that applying such results in schools can be problematic: as we know, schools are not clinical laboratories and it would be impossible to control for all the variables.

We must always be reminded of the true purpose of our role as educators. Arguments about evidence-based, evidence informed, research-led, on the one hand, and simply ‘teacher driven’ on the other: it’s not an either/or. It’s about using every resource available that will help us, remembering why we are here; what we are trying to achieve in our schools and for our students and wider community.

I think that understanding and making best use of the evidence in informing our practice is vital in the process of teacher learning and development. It is not a luxury item but an entitlement. But teachers are busy… SSAT can help here.

We aim to help save you precious time, not waste it, by translating and filtering through the evidence, the research, and converting that into real resources and activities that can be used directly in the classroom. We also recognise pathways to develop teachers as researchers, through the SSAT Lead Practitioner accreditation pathway and schools as research-based organisations, through our partnership with CEBE.

At SSAT, we will continue to stick to our mantra: fresh ideas for ambitious schools. Working with you and the academics and thought leaders, we can get the best of all worlds.

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