Evidence for Learning (E4L) helps evidence come to life. One of the ways we do this is by supporting educators to use evidence in their daily practice. We’re continually learning from our work with Australian educators and researchers, and our partnerships with international organisations, about how to improve this support.
To share some of our lessons, we’ve compiled this set of Questions and Answers about evidence use in practice with Philippa Cordingley, CEO of the Centre for the Use of Research and Evidence in Education (CUREE). Philippa talks about evidence use in England’s research schools including: types of evidence; what good evidence use looks like in classrooms and schools; tools and resources to support evidence use; and the challenges facing teachers and school leaders in using evidence.
The set of Questions and Answers is based on a longer podcast, where Evidence for Learning Associate Director Danielle Toon interviews Philippa Cordingley. Danielle and Philippa are consulting experts on an OECD study on initial teacher preparation and recently attended a symposium in Japan on using evidence to support initial teacher preparation policy, reform and practice. The podcast explores these evidence-use topics in more detail and is available on SoundCloud, with a full transcript available as well.
Duration: 39min 28sec
Download a copy of the transcript.
Q&A with Philippa Cordingley
Philippa Cordingley is the CEO of the Centre for the Use of Research and Evidence in Education (CUREE)
1. Introducing Philippa Cordingley and CUREE
Philippa set up CUREE to address the distance between research and whether it was making a difference in classrooms and to young people’s learning, teachers professional lives, and school leadership. CUREE’s work is split into three areas:
- Research: conducting large scale research and systematic reviews, as well as smaller scale research and evaluation;
- Translation: translating research into tools and resources that help bring research to life so it can be used in teaching and learning in classrooms;
- Professional learning: working with groups of teachers, school leaders and schools to build strong professional learning environments.
2. What is evidence in relation to practice? How do we define it, and what are the types of evidence?
There is a difference between data and evidence. The world is full of data but the thing that turns data into evidence is clarity of purpose. We need powerful questions to turn data into evidence. When we have powerful questions – when we know, for example, what we want to understand about young people’s learning, high-quality teaching practices, and leadership – we can systematically collate and analyse large amounts of different kinds of data to build evidence.
It is important and challenging, to find the right questions. Education research is generally developed to feed the interests of researchers and there isn’t enough focus on practitioners’ questions. CUREE systematically collects the questions of teachers and school leaders to shape the education research agenda in order to develop evidence that makes a difference in practice. Evidence in education would be much better if we were systematic about finding out what teachers and school leaders want to know.
3. What are some examples of research questions generated by teachers and school leaders?
Schools can refine their research questions as part of an inquiry cycle journey, (such as E4L’s Impact Evaluation Cycle) and in light of the evidence surfaced as part of that journey. One research school in England – a school that leads 30 other schools on the systematic use of research and evidence – used a process of collaborative inquiry to refine their research questions over a number of years. The process involved:
- An initial research question of ‘What does it look like when we’re challenging every single student effectively?’ CUREE created a research map to organise the research related to that question and support the school-based inquiry process.
- At the end of the first year of inquiry, a refinement of the research question to‘What does it look like when we help students be resilient in the face of challenge?’ and then a further refinement to be more precise to ‘What does it look like when challenge is focused on depth, not just on doing more?’.
- The school did two more cycles over the years to investigate these questions and decided that they wanted to look at meta-cognition (thinking about thinking). They are embarking on a new wave of work with the deepened research question: ‘What is the role of questioning and the intent behind questioning in making challenge help promote that?’
4. What does good evidence use look like in a classroom?
It is important to recognise that teaching and learning is an evidence rich activity – teachers intuitively read students and plan lessons to suit students’ needs all the time. Evidence-informed teaching is being more systematic and deliberate about that reading and planning.
Good use of evidence in classrooms is exemplified by three things:
- Tools that help teachers to collect and record evidence to subsequently use it for reflection and interrogate it with more depth. Tools make the learning more visible and make it possible to record learning;
- An approach to systematically collect more and richer evidence – which might involve working with a sub-group or sample of students, as it is near impossible to collect rich evidence for a class of 30 students;
- Prior planning about the aspect of the teaching and learning to examine: teachers thinking ahead about the type of evidence that will tell them whether what they’re trying to do is really connecting with their aspirations for their students.
5. What are the challenges or barriers that teachers face in using evidence in the classroom?
The dynamic pace of schools, and thus a lack of time, is a major challenge. Finding ways to make evidence use a regular part of a busy school life is difficult. Schools need to create a rhythm so that evidence use is happening often and in small chunks, rather than as an add-on project. At every kind of staff meeting, for example, there could be a space for surfacing the use of research and evidence.
Another challenge is ‘making the familiar strange enough to think about it hard’, which means exploring assumptions, and reviewing and refining educators’ thinking and beliefs.
Working with research and evidence, and collaborating with others, provides powerful ways to explore internalised beliefs and knowledge about teaching and learning.
Accountability systems, if they’re working well, can make it easier to work with evidence in classrooms, and they can definitely push against it.
6. What does evidence use look like in schools that use evidence well?
School leaders are critical to good evidence use in schools. School leaders need to model the inquiry process: finding the right questions, finding the right evidence, and using evidence-based inquiry to enhance not only their practice as teachers but the way they set up the school. School leaders, for example, might demonstrate how they’re using evidence to inform the design of a new school policy.
School leaders can embed evidence use into their performance review and appraisal process. One school in England, for example, has a policy that everybody, including the Principal, makes one of their performance review goals a research question about teaching and learning.
National standards for teachers and school leaders are also important. Australia has good professional standards that emphasise the use of research and evidence.
7. How do you support more rigorous and consistent use of evidence in schools?
CUREE draws on Vivian Robinson’s Best Evidence Synthesis that talks about the importance of tools for helping teachers manage complexity. Tools can help teachers operationalise important, well-researched ideas. Teachers need tools and resources that make research manageable and accessible in the short amounts of time they have available.
CUREE has ‘route maps’ – online and interactive tools that look like a London underground map – to help teachers use evidence in practice. CUREE works with schools to identify the research questions and priorities that matter to them, and then organises the relevant research and evidence on the ‘route map’ so that teachers can go on a journey along the ‘tube line’ or they can go to the research ‘station’ that excites them in terms of aspirations for their students.
CUREE starts the development of the ‘route maps’ with a systematic review of research evidence – the most rigorous evidence available to identify strategies. CUREE then adds individual research studies, case studies and teacher accounts to bring the strategies alive and add texture. So, the ‘route maps’ contain evidence at different scales and levels of rigor.
The CUREE ‘route maps’ contain:
- Brief research summaries (in PowerPoint) that take two and a half minutes to read and contain reflection questions on what that topic might mean in the classroom and how to work with other teachers on the topic.
- Digests that contains further explanation about the research on the topic. Digests are text-based, longer summaries of the story of the research findings, with links to case studies of classroom practice, ideally written by teachers.
- Accounts of teachers’ own inquiries: four-page summaries that explain the teaching and learning practices and the findings of school-based inquiries on the topic. These are peer-reviewed by teachers, and, in some cases, academics.
- Videos related to the topic, including teacher practice and researchers talking about findings.
- Micro-inquiry tools to help teachers collect their own evidence about how their students experience the phenomena, and questions to help teachers plan and reflect upon the intervention.
- Writing frames (and training) to help teachers to create their own accounts of implementing the research topic in the classroom. Thus, the school’s own learning through evidence becomes part of the ‘route map’.
The route map starts out with evidence from the wider world and then it slowly builds the school’s own local accounts and draws those two things together into a whole bigger than the sum of the parts.
8. What role do teacher educators and teacher mentors / coaches play in helping teachers use evidence in their day-to-day practice?
Good mentors make connections between evidence from literature and evidence from classrooms. They listen well to students and the evidence that their colleagues are bringing them about students in the school, and they listen to what’s out there in the literature, and can spot the connections between these two sources of evidence.
Good mentors are experts at sequencing learning for teachers, and organising how and when to bring evidence into play. They understand their mentees starting point and support them in a cumulative way, without trying to do it all at once. One of the most common mistakes that mentors make is to try to impart their 20 years of learning about teaching to new teachers in one go. Good mentors see both the entire journey and the next step for their mentees.
Mentoring is one of the most powerful forms of professional learning – people who get to learn to be a mentor learn even more than the people who they are supporting.
Mentors get to see learning afresh: new experiments, ideas and energy. Good mentors develop deep meta-cognition skills: they can explain their thinking and use of evidence to their mentees.
Mentoring is a powerful form of school improvement and we need more research on what good mentoring looks like, especially in the context of initial teacher training.
9. If a system only does one to two things, what should it do to help build evidence-enriched practice?
Embedding evidence and research inquiry in professional standards for teachers, school leaders and teacher education institutions is incredibly important. Australia has already done that, but there are two other things that might be considered by a system to build evidence-enriched practice.
Firstly, modelling through champions is important to do at a system level. We had a National Teacher Research Panel in England to organise and systematise the role of teachers in education research. The Panel helped us champion teacher researchers, and ensured teachers had a voice by sitting on research advisory groups. These champions had a formal role, authority, status and they publicly modelled practitioner-led research.
Embedding evidence-use as part of continuing professional development and learning across the system is critical. Not everybody understands that use of evidence is work-based, professional learning for educators, and when you get those two things joined up, you can operationalise and systematise evidence-use at scale.