The rhetoric of ‘evidence-informed practice’ – or ‘what works’ as it is sometimes known for short – now pervades the school system in England, as it does in many other places. Through our latest IOE debate ‘What if… we really wanted evidence-informed practice in the classroom’, we wanted to look behind the advocacy: where is this agenda taking our education system and the teaching profession in practice? How do we realise the prize and avoid the pitfalls?
We kicked off the debate with an individual at the centre of the what works movement in education, Sir Kevan Collins of the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF). Sir Kevan set out what was on offer if we truly moved beyond the rhetoric: transparency in place of black boxes; collaboration in place of competition; empowerment over compliance; professional curiosity in place of ritualised behaviours – oh, and an end to labour-intensive, multi-coloured triple marking.
Our second panellist, Daniel Muijs, Head of Research at Ofsted, noted the moral imperative to work out what works best and the social justice case for developing and deploying that evidence when the most disadvantaged pupils have the most to gain.
With Ann Mroz, editor of TES, they offered practical suggestions for better supporting evidence-based practice in practice: more evidence that is of relevance to the classroom; easier access to it (be that through the removal of paywalls or having more intermediaries to help reveal the wood for the trees); and greater local expertise and capacity to deploy it. Teachers’ lack of time to engage with research in the current context was identified as a major sticking point. Few of us spend what is left of our evenings reading research articles; why should we expect teachers to put aside the latest dodgy thriller in favour of the findings of a randomised controlled trial (RCT) accompanied by 200 footnotes?
From there the debate got a little more complicated. And in many ways it was a microcosm of how ‘what works’ has played out in the system at large – with a certain lack of clarity on what is actually being argued for by its advocates. On the one hand there are exhortations to overcome the variation and fragmentation of the status quo (in turn raising concerns that narratives of “research informed = professional” risk de-professionalising teachers by negating their practical knowledge and expertise). On the other, there is recognition that evidence is never absolute, that research is about reducing uncertainty not providing certainty – that teachers meld research findings with their own knowledge and local context in a process of co-creation (and that poor implementation of ‘well-evidenced’ approaches can be as problematic as ‘making it up as you go along’).
On this reading, and contrary to some of the more ambitious rhetoric, what works is simply about developing a reflective mind-set, loosely supported by research that addresses classroom issues. If that’s genuinely what’s being aimed for, then the apparent disconnect with those who take a more sceptical view of the what works agenda seems less absolute. But it is a slippery debate.
On the face of it, our fourth panellist, Professor Gert Biesta of Brunel University, was arguing for the same thing – ensuring that teachers can be thoughtful in their actions. But in the process he posed some more searching questions – about the possibility of ever knowing ‘what works’, and about what education is for. Education, he argued, is complex: it has porous borders with what goes on outside; it is semiotic, discursive; it is recursive. It is not a closed, deterministic, linear system amenable to quasi-causal analysis and control. And we must pay attention to the costs of taking the what works agenda to its logical conclusion – losing sight of the very idea of education as a life-enhancing democratic process.
As the cause of evidence-informed practice matures we are perhaps edging towards a more nuanced understanding of what it can realistically offer in practice. Although it’s rarely explicitly stated (with the exception of Whitty 2016), this invites recognition of the value of maintaining a broad church of education research – not just RCTs and not just research on classroom practice. It also has implications for teachers’ professional learning: teachers can benefit from high quality empirical evidence on classroom practice, but they also need to be able to situate that in historical understanding, theoretical analysis, political awareness – to ask what (has) work(ed), but also why and whether it’s a worthwhile endeavour in the first place.
And that returns us to the elephant in the room in the ongoing debate about what works: the place of values.
You can watch the debate here.