After six fabulous weeks in the Australia we are finally back in the UK. On the day before we flew back I was chatting to a guy surfing over in WA. We were sitting ‘out back’ waiting for the next set to roll in and ended up chatting about what I’d been doing for the last few weeks.
‘Geez’ he said, ‘You’re leaving now? It’s just about to get bloody gorgeous!’
Writing this on a freezing, damp, December morning in London that sums it up pretty well.
So now we are back, apart from a longing to jump on the next plane to Sydney, what impressions have I been left with?
The overriding impression is that it feels like an exciting time to be involved in evidence-based policy and practice in Australia, as it emerges as a more central feature of the education landscape. The developments remind me of one of the key shifts we have seen in the UK over the last ten years, where the momentum for evidence-based reform has been increasingly carried by a broad alliance of people – policy makers, practitioners, intermediaries – rather than being a predominately research-driven agenda.
This provides a fantastic opportunity. Whether in Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne or Adelaide, I was struck by the sophisticated research knowledge of the teachers and headteachers I met, and their skills in interpreting and applying evidence to practice. Most impressive was the clarity of purpose in terms of using research, in combination with their professional expertise, to improve students’ learning and make education more equitable. Whilst this sounds obvious it is not always the case. Although well intentioned, sometimes we get so focused on the means – generating and using research – that we can lose track of the end, which is, of course, to improve the quality of teaching and learning in schools.
Related to this I was struck by the sharp focus on implementation. I really like the phrase ‘the practitioner is the intervention’. It emphasises that no matter how good evidence-based practices and programs are on paper, what really matters is how they manifest themselves in the day-to-day work of teachers in the classroom. Again this sounds obvious, but too often we focus on encouraging an engagement with evidence at the expense of providing the necessary time, commitment and support to translate a conceptual understanding into practical behaviours. In this respect I was lucky to see some great examples of disciplined and skilled implementation: schools picking a key priority area, say formative assessment or mastery learning, and setting out a long-term commitment to applying research in a way that works for their context, sometimes at the expense of other potential priorities.
One of the most exciting aspects of the Education Endowment Foundation, where I am based in the UK, is how it is emerging as a genuine partnership between research and practice, with research producers and users collaborating to establish ‘what works’, and applying that knowledge in complex school environments. My advice to Evidence for Learning would be to make these leading schools as central as possible to your endeavour, as those individuals that are able to bridge the research-practice divide are, I believe, our greatest asset.
The final thing I’ve taken away is an awareness of the unique political context in Australia, particularly the relationship between federal and state governments, and between different states. I doubt it takes me to point out that the level of division and competition does seem a bit odd at times. Inevitably, an emerging evidence system is going to have to be complementary with that political context, and whilst this presents challenges there are also opportunities.
Compared to the UK, it feels as though there is a more coherent school improvement system in place, which can provide a natural infrastructure to take evidence to scale. Again, working out the coordinated but differentiated roles of state and federal policy makers is going to be key.
Dr Jonathan Sharples is a Senior Researcher at the Education Endowment Foundation, seconded from the Institute for Education at University College London, where he is exploring schools’ use of research evidence. Jonathan works with schools and policy makers across the sector to promote evidence-informed practice, and spread knowledge of ‘what works’ in teaching and learning. This includes writing guidance on effective practices and working with practitioners to scale up knowledge.
Jonathan previously worked at The Institute for the Future of the Mind at the University of Oxford, where he was looking at how insights from brain-science research can support teachers’ expertise and professional development. Prior to this he worked as a secondary school science teacher in Sydney. He is the author of Evidence for the Frontline, a report published by the Alliance for Useful Evidence that outlines the elements of a functioning evidence system.