Exploring what it means to be ‘evidence-rich’ in practice

Naomi Bath. 

The RSA’s Learning About Culture programme aims to develop more evidence of what works in cultural learning and to help practitioners to use evidence from their own work and elsewhere to improve their practice. At the centre of the programme is a partnership with the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) who are undertaking five randomised control trials that are being evaluated by IOE and the Behavioural Insights Team. Alongside this, the RSA aims to support schools and cultural organisations on their journey towards what we are terming ‘evidence-rich practice’. In this blog, we want to explore the origin of the term and what we mean by it.

Questions of terminology

‘Evidence-based practice’ or ‘evidence-informed practice’? ‘Evidence-engaged’ or ‘research-engaged’? One could be forgiven for avoiding these terms for fear of getting lost in the finer intricacies of their definitions, or indeed for using them interchangeably. However, at the RSA we think it is imperative that we engage with these terms thoughtfully and inquisitively because simply saying them isn’t enough; we need to think more deeply about the meanings and approaches that lay behind them.

Originally coined in the field of medicine nearly 30 years ago, ‘evidence-based’ practice meant the judicious use of the best available evidence in caring for patients. The term has since spread to other sectors, including international development, charity, and education. The concept has proliferated somewhat, spawning a number of nuanced versions across different fields.

‘Evidence-informed’ practice

The term ‘evidence-informed practice’, particularly prevalent in the education sector, is worth unpicking, largely because the definitions given vary so greatly. On the one hand, we have Matt Walker’s report for the NFER stating that evidence-informed practice is defined as:

“the process of teachers accessing, evaluating and applying the findings of academic research in order to improve their teaching practice.”

This suggests an outward looking focus, prioritising external academic research that teachers should evaluate and apply to their own practice.

On the other hand, we have Professor Louise Stoll’s article in the Chartered College of Teaching’s journal, Impact, which defines evidence-informed practice as:

“Using and promoting a thoughtful blend of three forms of evidence gathering: external research, different kinds of data (from within the classroom), and collaborative enquiry and research and development (R&D).”

The latter definition seems to build on the former in order to expand our thinking on what counts as ‘evidence’. Stoll alludes to this expanded approach by coining the term ‘evidence-enriched’ to represent “put[ting] teachers in the driving seat” and helping colleagues to build on their own strengths.

The education sector is currently a hotbed of discussion about the use of evidence, as I observed recently at the UCL IOE debate ‘What if… we really wanted evidence-informed practice in the classroom?’ In his explanation of the term ‘evidence-informed’, Professor Daniel Muijs (Head of Research at Ofsted) reminded us firstly, that being ‘evidence-informed’ is about basing what we do on what we already know, but secondly, that just because we are using evidence, it does not mean that we know everything. In warning us against hubris, he urged us to be “realistic” in our collective endeavour to be ‘evidence-informed’.

Evidence-rich practice

Through the work of Learning About Culture, we, echoing Stoll, want to put artists and practitioners ‘in the driving seat’ when it comes to using evidence in their practice – something we refer to as ‘evidence-rich practice’. With this purpose in mind, we have come up with a list of factors to describe what we think it means for practitioners’ practice to be ‘evidence-rich’:

  • Sourcing appropriate evidence to design projects for impact
  • Taking ownership of project evaluation, even if working with an external partner
  • Collecting evidence from your work that can tell you accurately what you have done, the difference you have made and how you might improve for the future
  • Sharing learning in ways that support colleagues and peers to improve their work and more participants to benefit from effective practice.

Evidence-rich graphic_NB_RSA

This combination of taking into account existing research, monitoring and evaluating one’s own practice, and sharing the findings – whether they were positive, negative or neutral – will all lead to practitioner empowerment, and ultimately, better outcomes for children.

Improve not prove

Cultural learning combines learning about or through a wide range of arts and cultural practice, to support understanding of art forms, other subjects, ourselves and the world around us. In music, for example, ‘cultural learning’ would not only involve instrumental tuition (learning in the art-form) but might include visiting an orchestra and learning about its make-up and function.

Our hope with the Learning about Culture programme is to encourage and empower practitioners of cultural learning to improve their practice by embedding the use of evidence and evaluation within it. All too often, evaluation and communication of results is oriented towards demonstrating or ‘proving’ success, rather than analysing it and identifying opportunities for ongoing improvement. We are mindful that becoming more transparent about standards of evidence and evidence hierarchies can be both intimidating and counterproductive.

Therefore, we are taking steps to identify emerging good practice in this area and support its proliferation; for example, we are currently in the process of creating regional networks of arts practitioners and educators committed to extending their own use of evidence in their work and to championing the role of evidence in their organisations.

Dr Naomi Bath, Research Assistant at the RSA.

Please feel free to comment below or email me directly at naomi.bath@rsa.org.uk

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Posted in Arts in education, Research matters, Teaching, learning, curriculum & assessment

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