Just what is ‘evidence-based’ teaching? Or ‘research-informed’ teaching? Or ‘inquiry-led’ teaching?

Lesley Saunders

It is by virtue of being an artist that the teacher is a researcher’ (Lawrence Stenhouse): deepening the connections between research and teaching

I’ve long campaigned for teaching to be a research-engaged profession, on the grounds that, as the brilliant scholar Jean Rudduck put it: ‘research leads teachers back to the things that lie at the heart of their professionalism: pupils, teaching and learning’. John Elliott, an equally distinguished thinker, provides a convincing rationale: ‘the structures of knowledge into which students are to be inducted are intrinsically problematic and contestable, and therefore objects of speculation’ – and consequently teachers have a responsibility to “model” how to treat knowledge as an object of inquiry.’

With the launch of the independent Chartered College of Teaching last month – an organisation by and for teachers to support ‘evidence informed practice’ – this seems a good time to examine what all this means.

Perhaps, though, I ought to start by doing a bit of ground-clearing around definitions. I think the notions of ‘evidence-based’, ‘research-informed’ or ‘inquiry-led’ teaching – which are often used interchangeably – might be more usefully thought of as forming a kind of continuum or spectrum of meanings. Each one of the three ideas carries its own freight of assumptions with regard to:

  • the balance between academic and professional knowledge – for example, ‘inquiry-led’ teaching emphasises the importance of professional knowledge created in the teacher’s own context, whilst ‘evidence-based’ teaching implies the application of exogenous knowledge created elsewhere;
  • the agency of teachers in critiquing and creating knowledge – again, ‘inquiry-led’ teaching emphasises the importance of the teacher’s role in co-creating new knowledge based on professional experience and expertise.

For me, each of the three ideas has its own strengths and benefits: thus, where the evidence is secure, sufficiently generalisable and yet able to be actively interpreted and shaped by teachers, it makes sense to talk about ‘evidence-based’ teaching. I’m thinking here, for example, of Carol Dweck’s extensive research on ‘fixed’ and ‘growth’ ‘mindsets’ and the need for repertoires of learning approaches, which has been confirmed by independent neuroscientific research on the human brain’s plasticity. There’s no recipe that teachers have to follow (in fact quite the reverse), but rather a set of principles and concepts for teachers to engage with as they try to help their students learn.

‘Research-informed’ teaching makes good use of what research as a discipline can offer: especially conceptual frameworks for thinking about a problem and tools for critical-reflective practice. Engaging with research provides teachers with exposure to ideas and concepts they might not ordinarily come across and this enhances their breadth and depth of understanding. Bob Lingard, an influential educational leader and brilliant scholar, said teachers should cultivate a ‘researchly disposition’. He explicitly rejected ‘a model of teachers as simply translators or interpreters of educational research done elsewhere’. And Donald McIntyre – one of our most highly-regarded teacher educators – proposed that teachers need to be actively involved in critically trialling what he called ‘research-based suggestions’ [my emphasis].

‘Inquiry-led teaching’ seems to be particularly relevant to the many short- and long-term challenges that teachers have to address, the knotty problem that keeps them awake at night. Knowledge concerned with pedagogical practice requires continual testing, questioning and refining, and even re-defining, in different contexts, and by the teachers themselves. The metaphors teachers use to talk about the significance of such research for their practice are remarkably evocative – for example: ‘an island waiting to be discovered’, ‘a beehive pollinating the whole countryside’, ‘a beacon lighting up the landscape’.

And this surely brings us to the question of what we mean by ‘teaching’ on the one hand and ‘research’ on the other; for me, since they are in themselves complex and nuanced activities, the relationship between them must be at least as complex and nuanced.

First, then – despite what we are sometimes told about the need to make teaching more like medical practice – teaching is not an intervention, not a pill to be swallowed, a daily dosage downloaded from some big pharma of Ed Res. Teaching is one side of the coin of which the other is learning; and so teaching is primarily the practice and development of relationships, with ethical and affective as well as cognitive dimensions and responsibilities.

Second, both teachers and researchers need to negotiate the cognitive space, as it were. Teachers often have to struggle not just with unfamiliar language but with the inconclusiveness of much of the evidence; and researchers have to yield their expert and specialist ‘ownership’ of the research in order to allow teachers to articulate and develop their rather different meanings out of it. All of us working in this border country know how intense, messy and demanding a process this is, and how it needs to be understood, not in terms of the ‘application’ or ‘impact’ of research, but as personal and professional change through deepening our mutual understanding.

Third, the kinds of decisions that teachers have to make in the course of an ordinary day are very often intuitive, reflexive responses to what pupils are doing and saying in the moment, so teaching is as much an art as it is a science. This gives rise to a paradox, which you could put like this: the further along the path from ‘novice’ to ‘expert’ a teacher travels, the less explicit and more second nature his/her practice becomes. That is why it is often a challenge for expert teachers to explain why they do what they do, and to articulate the precise reasons – ethical, emotional, intellectual – for the decisions they have made during any given lesson.

All this means that we need to get much better at developing innovative research methodologies that can turn the fluent, tacit knowledge of expert teachers into more explicit and codifiable knowledge that can be shared with and interrogated by other teachers, teacher educators and educational researchers. My sense is that this is being accomplished through structured and scholarly collaborations, of the kind you get in professional doctorate courses and other university-school partnerships. These kinds of programmes are designed to make the implicit explicit, to render more propositionally knowable, the complex, nuanced art of practice: perhaps analogous to choreographing the flux and flow of dance. I’d say that this vital – in the dual sense of important and living – process of knowledge creation is what underlies the expertise of authentic ‘professionals’.

Lesley Saunders is Visiting Professor, UCL Institute of Education and Newman University, Birmingham

This blog is based on a talk given at the launch of the IOE’s new Centre for Knowledge Exchange and Impact in Education

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Posted in Research matters, Teaching, learning, curriculum & assessment
17 comments on “Just what is ‘evidence-based’ teaching? Or ‘research-informed’ teaching? Or ‘inquiry-led’ teaching?
  1. Emeritus Professor Rosemary Davis says:

    Excellent analysis. Is’nt it always thecase that, otherwise, the practice would be based on folk knowledge or assertion?

  2. Brendan says:

    I think it was Bruner who suggested that pedagogy was never innocent, but carried along with it a host of beliefs about the purposes of life, education and society. Although one may agree with much of the analysis, and with the essence of the vision of research and practice engaged in a mutually beneficial, co- creative dance, I would suggest that for this to happen both parties would need to be dancing to the same music. In these days of constant reference to “effectiveness” and “good outcomes”, as though what was meant by these terms was agreed by all, is this often possible? Especially when he who pays the piper calls the tune, in universities and schools alike?

  3. Rachel Lofthouse says:

    Hi Lesley
    Thank you for this – I am currently sitting with my Newcastle Uni Masters group (of teachers and educators) who are undertaking practitioner enquiry this year. We have used your blog post as a source for discussion and it has been particularly helpful to stimulate thinking. I anticipate that it helped them immediately as they moved on to conducting triad interviews with each other regarding their plans for enquiry. They haven’t stopped talking yet – so we are doing something right.

    • That’s so good to hear, Rachel – thinking aloud with colleagues, constructively challenging oneself and others, pausing for thought, sitting a while with uncertainty: I’m picturing the context you’ve created for embarking on practitioner inquiry, and wishing you all success…

  4. Gary Jones says:

    On the other hand, I’m of the view that the definition offered of evidence-based teaching completely misrepresents the nature of evidence-based practice as originally put forward by David Sackett and which is explained in this article

    Alternatively, you may wish to look at Gambrill’s article on evidence-based practice and social work http://socialwelfare.berkeley.edu/sites/default/files/docs/Evidence-basedpracticeandtheethicsofdiscretion.pdf

    Finally you may wish to look at http://evidencebasededucationalleadership.blogspot.co.uk/2015/12/evidence-based-practice-and-some-common.html

    • Thank you for these references, Gary – it’s always helpful to have a very different perspective set out with such care; I’m sure other colleagues will appreciate the deepening of the discussion that results from your bringing these articles to our attention.

    • Brendan says:

      If Lesley’s blogpost has achieved nothing else, it has introduced me, through Gary’s response, to certain articles and authors with whom I was not familiar, and who I believe far better communicate the complexity of the role of evidence-based practice than does the original blog post. The Gambrill (2010), in particular, is a revelation, which will now be required reading for my students, alongside the conventional literature on EBP. The conclusion that “the systemic approach described in original sources has been ignored or rejected in favour of a view of EBP likely to promote continuation of the very style of decision making EBP was designed to avoid”, is as true of the current situation with regard to education as it is of social work. Thank you, Gary

  5. educationstate says:

    The thing about relationships is that they concern individuals. Making the tacit experience of relationships explicit as ‘evidence’ means making a relationship between individuals explicit as ‘evidence’.

    That should concern us. Firstly, its personal, intimate experience. Revealing all about a relationship isn’t something we normally do without great care.

    Secondly, it’s particular. The evidence is specific to persons. It should then also be handled with great care otherwise the specifics of relationships will be applied generally, and so not relationally, to others.

    (Perhaps the actual problem here is trying to make research work in a context, schools, where it isn’t suitable?)

  6. educationstate says:

    “it’s personal”

  7. Terry Pearson says:

    Thank you for the post Lesley.There are a number of themes in this blog which I find particularly helpful. The first is the idea of a continuum of meanings which is related to the way research findings are both generated and implemented by individuals.

    I wonder to what extent these two facets could be illustrated in a two-dimensional format. Is it possible say to produce a continuum relating to the origin of the findings, ranging perhaps from endogenous to exogenous, on the y-axis and add a continuum on the x-axis relating to the degree of freedom a teacher has in interpreting/implementing the findings? If individuals may be expected to interpret findings from an externally generated source of evidence in a specific way, as is the case when implementation fidelity is of the primary concern, it is not too difficult to see where this piece of research would be placed on the illustration.

    Would that work for other types of evidence too?

    • Dear Terry, I think your idea of an x and y axis formulation of research engagement is potentially a very interesting one, and I wonder if you are in a position to apply it to some real-life contexts to see whether and how far it works as an explanatory (or even predictive) device; it would be worth developing, I’m sure. I used something not dissimilar a while back when I was writing about how different teachers made use of so-called value-added measures of performance; the x axis related to the teacher’s affective response to numerical data and the y axis to his/her intellectual response; I called the four quadrants ‘unengaged’, ‘technicist’, ‘sceptical’ and ‘heuristic’ respectively (the reference, if you were interested, is ‘Understanding schools’ use of “value added” data: the psychology and sociology of numbers’, Research Papers in Education, 15, 3, 241-58). Thank you for sharing the idea with me and I apologise for the delay in responding.

  8. Terry Pearson says:

    Thank you for finding time to respond Lesley, your comments are encouraging. I have located a copy of your paper and I look forward to reading it in due course.

    In the meantime allow me to share some of my initial thoughts about developing and using an x and y axis representation. The endogenous to exogenous axis could be taken quite literally to mean research which originates from personal experience contrasted with research that originates elsewhere. However it is also possible to view this more dynamically whereby the axis could also represent research which originates within a discipline, within an organisation, within a sector and so forth. Similarly, as in this context we are concerned with what teachers do with research findings, the degree of teacher freedom could be used to illustrate a range of response to the research say from an expectation that teachers will use the research findings to replicate practice through to an anticipation that the findings will be translated into local practice and onto a point where maybe the research will used as a springboard for innovative practice. A flexible approach such as this will lead to a range of nomenclatures not always four quadrants.

    I have some early thoughts about how such a representation may be applied but I am still not yet clear about where further work on it may lead, nonetheless the opportunity to work on it does intrigue me. Is it something that is of interest to you too?

  9. Terry Pearson says:

    Thank you for sharing the links to your blogs Gary. I am sure the models/frameworks to which you refer and your interpretation of them will be useful in providing aspects of a research base to the development of the x/y representation I have proposed and more generally to readers of this blog.

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