In this fortnightly series, Teacher takes a closer look at some of the Gonski recommendations and what they might look like in practice. Today's instalment explores the role of education research and evidence in driving practice and innovation to improve student outcomes, and the review panel's recommendation to establish a national research and evidence institute in Australia.
School leaders and teachers are constantly making judgements and decisions about how best to support their students. Rather than simply relying on a ‘hunch', a growing body of international education research makes it possible to identify the programs, policies and teaching practices that have been shown to be effective.
Recommendation 23: Establish an independent institution to coordinate the strategic development of a national research and evidence base through the sourcing and generating of research, and the synthesising and promotion of educational evidence that can be easily accessed and implemented to improve student outcomes.
The Gonski report says ‘reliable data on bottom-up innovations is critical to support schools and teachers to improve student outcomes' and outlines four key functions of a national research and evidence institute.
- generating and sourcing relevant research and evidence: collaborating with those who will be using the research; focusing on actionable, evidence-based knowledge; giving practical steps for implementation.
- synthesising evidence: appraising its quality, merit, worth and significance; developing standards for quality research in education; assessing the scalability and transferability of practices, programs and interventions.
- transferring, brokering and managing knowledge: overcoming barriers to effective sharing and dissemination of knowledge such as limited time, opportunity and access; working with other institutions, researchers, and educators on the ground to produce resources.
- accelerating and mediating the practical utilisation of knowledge: tailoring content to individual users; incorporating a feedback loop for users to share their own knowledge, experience and suggestions on the content and research; publishing content in a timely fashion.
As for the ‘what', the review panel notes the scope of the research and evidence should reach beyond classroom practice to ‘the full breadth of issues that impact education outcomes'. This includes how students learn, their transitions to work, further study or training, and the role of technology.
In this Q&A, Professor Geoff Masters AO, Chief Executive of the Australian Council for Educational Research, says there has been a growing interest in ‘evidence-based' practice in recent years. ‘This idea originated in medicine, where it is important that treatments and interventions are backed by dependable evidence of their efficacy.'
However, Masters is the first to point out that there is more to evidence-based practice than using research proven treatments. He tells Teacher: ‘In addition to evidence from external research studies, medical practitioners gather and use evidence relating to patients' presenting conditions and symptoms – for example, by taking patient histories and ordering diagnostic tests. Evidence of this kind is essential to informed decision making. So, too, is evidence about the subsequent effectiveness of a practitioner's decisions.'
Matt Deeble is Director of Evidence for Learning, incubated by Social Ventures Australia. He tells Teacher there are four main challenges for leaders and teachers here in Australia around the use of research and evidence to inform practice:
- There is a lot of research, making it difficult for busy teachers and leaders to stay on top of;
- Research papers are not fit for purpose. They are usually written for academic audiences and don't answer the key question of ‘so what does this mean I should differently in my classroom?';
- With one of the highest teaching loads in the OECD (OECD, 2014), Australian teachers have too little time to engage with research; and,
- Teachers and leaders receive inconsistent training and support (both initially and through their career) to engage with external evidence and to create and evaluate their own evidence.
He says the schools that do well are those with a strong culture of continuous improvement. They know their students and their needs based on the data; engage with reliable sources of evidence to select approaches with a high likelihood of success; faithfully adopt and intelligently adapt approaches for their context; and actively evaluate and adjust their work based on their findings.
‘Whilst there is a lot of global education research, there is not enough Australian research. Less than two per cent of Australian Research Council grants go to education (Cutter-Mackenzie, 2018). And, of that, almost none of it is causal, empirical research on programs and practices in schools – the kind that asks “does this program or practice cause more learning than what we are doing now”? It is important to acknowledge that this kind of research also needs to consider context and conditions. The phrase should not be “what works” but rather “what works, for whom, under what conditions”.'
To this end, Evidence for Learning also runs a Learning Impact Fund. Launched two years ago, it funds and manages mixed method, randomised control trials during a school year. Promising programs are paired with an independent evaluator from an expert panel. ‘At the end of the trial we work with the evaluators to produce a plain English, teacher and leader relevant report and commentary on the trial. This includes simple ratings of: months' of extra learning from the program; security or confidence in the trials; and, cost to implement,' Deeble explains.
The first ‘teacher friendly' reports will be free to access on the Evidence for Learning website in September. When it comes to translating research into practice, Deeble says the key challenge is finding the ‘goldilocks zone' – making recommendations that are supported by trial evidence but also relevant to a range of classrooms and contexts.
An international example
One of the founding partners of Evidence for Learning is the UK's Education Endowment Foundation (EEF). The Gonski report includes a case study on EEF's work as an international example of a national research and evidence institution.
James Turner is Deputy CEO of EEF. ‘The EEF provides both evidence based-content and also practical tools and advice for schools on how to make the most of the research and implement it well in the classroom,' he tells Teacher. ‘This includes our teaching and learning Toolkit – an accessible summary of over 10 000 pieces of research which is also available free to Australian educators – which provides the best gateway into the research. The Toolkit is backed up with practitioner-facing guidance reports, which bring together key evidence-based recommendations on themes such as literacy, maths and metacognition, and allow teachers to take the next step on the evidence journey with more detailed advice. We also evaluate individual programmes (160 so far) to help schools identify the best bets in terms of where they invest their marginal dollars.
‘All of this sits within a simple framework for school improvement, which is about using data and professional judgement to be clear and specific on the challenge you face; using evidence to identify the solutions most likely to work; ensuring it is implemented well; having processes in place to evaluate whether or not the solution was effective; and then thinking about whether to continue, refine or stop what you are doing. Evidence is a powerful but also a potentially blunt tool – it needs to be used intelligently and in concert with educators' professional knowledge.'
Turner says a key challenge for his organisation is scalability. ‘Taking an approach that has worked in, say, 50 schools with close involvement from the development team, and scaling it so that it benefits more schools. So we work a lot with delivery teams to find a sustainable model built on the core components of an intervention and then testing that model at scale. We are also evaluating different ways of getting research used in schools – through regional campaigns, financial incentives, a network of research schools and engagement with policy. It is a considerable challenge in a system as fragmented and diverse as the one in England.'
Explaining the independent foundation's role in generating evidence, Turner says the focus is on evaluating both the most promising ideas and those that are widespread in the system. ‘This is to help schools make informed choices of where to devote time and money, but also to fill evidence gaps – there's still plenty we don't know. Even those projects that are not found to be cost effective produce crucial new evidence which our system needs.'
Reflecting on the first six years of EEF, Turner says it's clear there's a huge appetite amongst the teaching profession for evidence on how best to support students, when the research is presented clearly and practically. And it's been a collaborative process, with over 1 in 3 English schools involved in EEF trials to date.
The Gonski review panel's findings and recommendations on education research and evidence-based practice, and references to supporting research, can be found in Chapter Five (5.5) of the report. A copy of the full report is available to download by clicking on the link.
Australian Government Department of Education and Training (2018). Through Growth to Achievement: Report of the Review to Achieve Educational Excellence in Australian Schools. Commonwealth of Australia: Canberra.
Cutter-Mackenzie, A. (2018, March 19). Educational researchers, show us your evidence but don't expect us to fund it. Retrieved from www.theconversation.com
OECD (2014), “Indicator D4: How much time do teachers spend teaching?”, in Education at a Glance 2014: OECD Indicators, OECD Publishing. http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/888933120005
All articles in this series:
- Part 1 – Sharing good practice: Gonski and school partnerships
- Part 2 – Sharing good practice: Gonski and effective induction processes
- Part 3 – Sharing good practice: Gonski and encouraging student voice
- Part 4 – Sharing good practice: Gonski and quality assurance processes
- Part 5 – Sharing good practice: Gonski and individual student achievement
- Part 7 – Sharing good practice: Gonski and professional collaboration
- Part 8 – Sharing good practice: Gonski and assessment of student learning