Why is an evidence-informed culture important?
There has been an explosion of interest in evidence-informed education in recent years, and with good reason. Evidence helps us to identify those ‘best bets’ that are more likely to have a positive impact on pupil learning and so outcomes. With each pupil only having one opportunity at school we have a moral imperative to make sure that we use these best bets.
However, this is not the norm – research suggests that evidence continues to play a relatively small role in influencing teachers’ decision-making. The NFER report on evidence-informed teaching showed that teachers are much more likely to draw on their own experiences, or the experiences of other teachers when making decisions about leadership or classroom practice, than they are to use research.
So, how can leader start to make a change to an evidence informed culture? I believe there are three key enablers that are crucial in helping an evidence-informed culture to develop. Once these enablers are in place, leaders can then then increase the understanding and use of evidence-informed practice at their schools, ultimately developing an evidence-informed culture.
The three enablers
- Establishing effective relationships with high levels of relational trust so that colleagues talk about their problems of practice and value learning with and from their colleagues.
- Valuing the development of all teachers and recognises that we are all capable of making improvements to our practice.
- Applying an evidence-informed lens to decision making so that our efforts are directed towards the best bets we discussed previously.
Relational trust is the trust that occurs between groups of people in school, and for the purpose of this presentation, namely between school leaders and teachers, and between one teacher and another. Bryk and Schneider in their seminal work, ‘Trust in Schools: A core resource for school improvement’ identified four components to building and sustaining relational trust including: respect, personal regard, competence in your role and personal integrity.
This is crucial to the embedding of an evidence-informed culture because relational trust can mean teachers feel less vulnerable and so they feel able to have honest conversations with colleagues without fear of judgement. They also have a positive attitude to innovation and risk, enhanced commitment and are more willing to work collaboratively to tackle tough problems together and value learning from one another.
So, how can we develop these components and so relational trust in our schools? Firstly, we can develop positive relationships by demonstrating a personal regard for our colleagues through our informal conversations. These are the small chats that often take place in corridors or at break time and may be about professional or personal topics but demonstrate that we care about how people are, how things are going and if they need support.
We can also use more formal professional conversations to develop trust. For example, staff at my school each complete an individual CPD plan at the start of the year where they identify any areas of their practice they would like to focus on and discuss their career aspirations and any personal needs from this. These discussions that take place with line managers demonstrate the importance of we place on our teachers and their development and careers.
Beyond this, leaders must demonstrate that they trust teachers as experts, that they trust their professional judgement. This can be achieved through giving teachers autonomy over how they teach, for example by allowing teachers to decide how best to implement whole-school T&L strategies in their subjects and lessons (often cited as a tight but lose approach), and by consulting staff, taking their views into account.
Leaders have to demonstrate that they trust their teachers to do a good job. This means removing monitoring or quality assurance activities such as work scrutiny and lesson observations used to evaluate or judge the quality of teaching. Instead, dropping into lessons can be used to show teachers they can trust in your support – by checking pupils are behaving well and doing what they should, providing support if necessary.
Leaders should also trust teachers to have autonomy over their professional development for example by being able to decide areas of focus and activities, and determine their own individual CPD plans.
Prioritising the development of all teachers:
The second enabler of an evidence-informed culture is prioritising the development of all teachers. This is crucial to an evidence-informed culture firstly because it means that all teachers feel the need to engage with those practices that are best supported by evidence, in order to improve.
Secondly, if we focus on development, rather than accountability, it means that teachers will feel able to trial new practices, make mistakes and make refinements over time – all crucial to evidence-informed practice.
As with trust, there are a number of practical things that leaders can do to emphasise development. One of the biggest tools here is the schools’ performance management or appraisal system. This must not include data-driven targets. Instead, engagement in professional development and evidence-informed practice should be enough.
Secondly, there should be no judgemental high stakes lesson observations as this detracts from a developmental culture where staff feel safe to try new practices and admit to any weaknesses. Instead, all lesson drop-ins should only be used to identify good practice, support teachers, check behaviour and identify any common areas for development that can feed forward into future CPD.
In order for all have to develop, leaders have to prioritise professional development. Here, they need to model their own ongoing development by discussing the areas of practice that they are currently working on, how they are learning and their own successes and failures.
Further to this, leaders have to prioritise the development of their teachers by minimising workload and competing demands from other areas – this may include sensible feedback policies, removal of admin meetings, shared behaviour systems, shared resources/assessments, reduced data entry, reduced reporting commitments, and reduced non-teaching duties.
Finally, leaders must ensure time for teachers to engage in development activities such as external courses and visits, protected time for internal CPD, protected time for collaboration meetings, time for observing others, and individual reading and reflection time.
Use of evidence:
The final enabler for developing an evidence-informed culture is unsurprisingly, the constant and ongoing use of evidence. This ensures that evidence-informed practices are valued and that all teachers engage with them.
Here, all decisions on all aspects of school life should, where possible, involve evidence, from teaching and learning, to the strategies used to improve attendance, increase parental engagement and best provide support for disadvantaged students. This has to be seen as the normal.
Furthermore, leaders have to explicitly explain the evidence behind all of these decisions and make sure that they always question the evidence behind for any changes or new initiatives.
Increasing the understanding and use of evidence-informed practices across the school
Once we have the three prerequisites in place, leaders can start to take practical steps to increase our teachers understanding and use of evidence-informed practice.
Again, there are three elements to this: ensuring a whole-school approach, research dissemination and engagement, and teachers undertaking research.
Ensuring a whole-school approach:
Taking a whole-school approach is crucial so that evidence-informed practice is implemented across the school, rather than only by those teachers that choose to engage with research.
To achieve this, leaders, and importantly the headteacher, must agree that evidence-informed teaching is a whole-school priority and must communicate this to all staff.
The development and use of evidence-informed practice should take a central part in the schools’ development plan and this should feed through into department development plans and individual performance management.
A shared framework of evidence-informed T&L should be created and shared with all staff. This gives a shared understanding of what great, evidence-informed teaching looks like.
Whole-school CPD can then be provided on these elements to enhance this shared understanding. This must be in-depth and be followed up with additional sessions and departmental meetings to encourage teachers to engage with the strategies deeply and develop a proper understanding of their successful implementations to prevent lethal mutations or cargo cults.
Research dissemination and engagement:
We are all very aware that one of the main barriers to teachers engaging with research is time. Most classroom teachers just do not have the time (nor, understandably, after a full day of teaching) the will, to read an extensive paper or book. Therefore, the summarisation and dissemination of research into a format which is accessible to teachers is crucial. This can take many formats including:
- T&L Newsletters/blog
- CPD library
- Sharing papers, blogs, podcasts/pre-recorded/conferences/reading lists.
We can further encourage the engagement of teachers with research by providing them with direct opportunities to do so – this can be done through reading research/evidence together in a T&L research, journal or book club, or departmental research session, providing time for teachers to engage with research independently (flexi-time), or by offering teachers the opportunity to complete external courses such as such as CCT Certificate in Evidence-informed education.
Teachers’ undertaking research:
Finally, we can increase teachers’ understanding of evidence-informed practice by allowing them to undertake their own research. This can allow teachers to focus a specific area of interest to keep to their own professional development. This can be done in large groups such as a T&L inquiry group or small group inquiries, or as individua inquiry questions.