Evidence-based school improvement – from vision to implementation

Implementation is a process not an event (Sharples et al., 2019). This is a phrase that became the cornerstone for Liam Stakelum as he led change within Marist College Canberra. Here, Liam and co-authors Dr Tanya Vaughan and Susannah Schoeffel discuss the initial vision for change, the move from evidence to practice and the implementation process.

Having recently taken up the role as Head of Teaching and Learning at Marist College Canberra – a large Year 4 to Year 12 school for boys – Liam attended the Evidence into Action professional learning series in 2019. The workshops were co-designed by the Association of Independent Schools of the ACT and Evidence for Learning, where Dr Tanya Vaughan had worked with the leaders to develop an Education Action Plan providing a process to facilitate implementation. ‘Having that process right at the beginning… to look at impetus for change, metrics, support mechanisms…helped me develop the strategy moving forward,’ Liam recalls.

Liam’s vision for change was twofold: firstly, to see that it was meaningfully embedded into the school culture so that it would be sustainable, even if staff moved to another school; and secondly, that the vision of learning and teaching would be evidence-informed so that every student would have the best chance of success. The work of Viviane Robinson and colleagues (2008) identified the importance of school leaders in establishing vision, mission and goals related to academic focus. This can impact students’ learning by up to five months of learning progress (effect size = 0.42).

Successful professional learning lasts at least two terms, is strongly tied to academic outcomes and involves external facilitators (Cordingley et al., 2015). The yearlong professional learning program series supported this change process and Liam says this enabled a ‘drip feeding’ of evidence and the importance of the discussion with like-minded peers:

[Being] in that room with people of like-minded needs and brainstorming ideas… I think dialogue is most important aspect of improving teaching because, you know, if you don’t talk to someone about this, if you don’t listen to other people and how they do things you’ve just got your own opinion… but you’ve got to be able to change that.

Planning for implementation

In order to plan for implementation Liam developed an Education Action Plan (Evidence for Learning, 2020; Ho et al., 2018) that outlined:

  • Where are you going?
  • How will you get there?
  • What will tell you that you have arrived?

This stepped out chronologically and logically all the parts within the implementation process, providing a road map for his improvement journey. Initially the emphasis was on the development of staff feedback, although through gathering data from the school Liam refocused his plan to be the development of the Marist Learning Principles.

Evidence into practice

For the first six months, Liam used the Victorian Department of Education’s High Impact Teaching Strategies (Victorian State Government: Education and Training, 2019) and the underpinning evidence from the Teaching & Learning Toolkit (Education Endowment Foundation, 2020) as a stimulus. He worked closely with the staff asking key questions of ‘What is good practice to us?’, ‘What does it mean to you as a Science teacher, in comparison to an English teacher?’, or ‘What does this mean at different year levels?’. Collaboratively, they developed the Marist Learning Principles of:

  • Clarifying success
  • Explicit instruction/lesson structure
  • Feedback
  • Responsive teaching and questioning (check for understanding)
  • Self-regulation

One learning principle is the focus for professional learning for each semester. Staff began with ‘Clarifying success’, which focuses on the different ways you can demonstrate what success looks like to students – be that through learning intentions, worked examples or exemplar tasks.

Implementation teams

The implementation started with heads of departments, and then worked through to involve the whole staff. Optional meetings were held for people who were interested, in addition to five whole staff meetings dedicated solely to different activities around the design of the Marist Learning Principles. This period of bringing people on board occurred before staff even began to delve into what any of these pedagogies looked like.

The second semester of 2019 was spent building key relationships and setting up an expectation of how staff at Marist would work moving forward. Now that is established, the focus is on ensuring the momentum is maintained, making sure staff continuingly engage and receive further support around the schools’ priorities.

Helping good practice become common practice

Active ingredients are the behaviours and actions you will see occurring at a school and/or classroom level in response to effective implementation of the program or intervention, that will lead to improvements in students’ learning (Sharples et al., 2019; Vaughan 2019). The active ingredients that Liam prioritised were effective professional development, which involved teachers discussing what good evidence-informed teaching looks like, and coaching to support the changes that teachers want to make in the classroom.

The prioritisation of effective professional learning focused on the Marist Learning Principles meant there were other areas of learning that needed to be reconsidered, including use of data and a new learning management system, Canvas, to ensure that there was a clear focus and that each strategic priority worked with instead of against each other.

Coaching is one of the few known crucial elements of effective implementation in education (Albers et al., 2017; Artman-Meeker et al., 2014; Sharples et al., 2019; Vaughan & Albers, 2017). Now in their fourth semester of using coaches, far more teachers at Marist that are being coached are choosing what they are interested in improving further in. This indicates an increased interest in changing their practice and improving student’s learning, in line with the Marist Learning Principles.

Classroom visits are now more regular, with teachers willing to share and deprivatise their practice (Wahlstrom & Louis, 2008) to help good practice become common practice at Marist College.

Outcomes and reflection

The process of implementation has not been linear, it has responded to the needs of the school and adapted in response to data gathered from the teachers. The Education Action Plan has helped to guide this ongoing process of driving evidence-informed practice.


Albers, B., Pattuwage, L. & Vaughan, T. (2017). Summary of key findings of a scoping review of Implementation in Education. Evidence for Learning. http://www.evidenceforlearning.org.au/evidence-informed-educators/implementation-in-education

Artman-Meeker, K., Hemmeter, M. L., & Snyder, P. (2014). Effects of distance coaching on teachers' use of pyramid model practices: A pilot study. Infants & Young Children, 27(4), 325-344.

Cordingley, P., Higgins, S., Greany, T., Buckler, N., Coles-Jordan, D., Crisp, B., Saunders, L. & Coe, R. (2015). Developing great teaching: lessons from the international reviews into effective professional development. Teacher Development Trust.

Education Endowment Foundation. (2020a). Evidence for Learning Teaching & Learning Toolkit: Education Endowment Foundation. https://www.evidenceforlearning.org.au/the-toolkits/the-teaching-and-learning-toolkit/full-toolkit/

Evidence for Learning. (2020). Impact Evaluation Cycle. http://evidenceforlearning.org.au/evidence-informed-educators/impact-evaluation-cycle/

Ho, P., Cleary, J., & Vaughan, T. (2018, August 8). Change leading to improvement. Teacher magazine. https://www.teachermagazine.com/articles/change-leading-to-improvement

Robinson, V. M., Lloyd, C. A., & Rowe, K. J. (2008). The impact of leadership on student outcomes: An analysis of the differential effects of leadership types. Educational administration quarterly, 44(5), 635-674.

Sharples, J., Albers, B., Fraser, S., Deeble, M., & Vaughan, T. (2019). Putting Evidence to Work: A school's Guide to Implementation. https://evidenceforlearning.org.au/guidance-reports/putting-evidence-to-work-a-schools-guide-to-implementation

Vaughan, T. (2019). Crucial aspects of Implementing Evidence-informed Practice. Resources in Action: Management in Action #2. Australian Council for Educational Leaders. https://www.acel.org.au/ACEL/ACELWEB/Publications/Resources_In_Action/Past_Issues.aspx

Vaughan, T., & Albers, B. (2017, June 20). Research to practice – implementation in education. Teacher magazine. https://www.teachermagazine.com/articles/research-to-practice-implementation-in-education

Victorian State Government: Education and Training. (2019). High Impact Teaching Strategies: Excellence in Teaching and Learning. https://www.education.vic.gov.au/Documents/school/teachers/support/high-impact-teaching-strategies.pdf (828KB)

Wahlstrom, K. L., & Louis, K. S. (2008). How teachers experience principal leadership: The roles of professional community, trust, efficacy, and shared responsibility. Educational Administration Quarterly, 44(4), 458-495. https://doi.org/10.1177/0013161x08321502

When implementing programs, interventions, or new ways of working at your school, what scaffolds do you use?

The implementation process at Marist College was adapted in response to data gathered from teachers. How often do you reflect on and review progress? Do you adapt your approach accordingly?