Teachers, meet evidence. The seed for radical transformation?

It was only toward the end of my time in the classroom that I began to engage with rigorous research.

When I first started at SVA nearly a year ago, I was particularly impressed by SVA’s dedication to building the evidence base in the social sector, so that policy and practice can be built on what works.  I started my career as a teacher, and – beyond the basics that I learned at uni – I really learned how to teach by a combination of trial and error, chats with my colleagues in the staff room and trawling through 100s of emails that came through every day on a couple of educational listservs (the late-90s, email-dependent equivalent of Twitter).  These sources gave me a lot of practical wisdom, but very few of my professional conversations were informed by robust research.  In a lot of ways I was really experimenting with my students, not knowing whether what I was doing would really help them learn.  It was only toward the end of my time in the classroom that I began to engage with rigorous research and to reap the benefits for my teaching practice and my students’ learning.

A lot of my time at SVA has been spent trying to figure out how to help more teachers and school leaders get access to and apply a robust evidence base for the benefit of their students.

In January, I had the opportunity to present some of SVA’s education work at the International Congress for School Effectiveness and Improvement (ICSEI) conference in Cincinnati, OH.  The conference brought together hundreds of education policy makers and researchers from around the world to focus on how to better connect research with education to ‘educate all children to their full potential,’ as the brochure had it.

Most of the conference presentations focused on making direct connections between researchers and educators, and there were some fantastic examples of this kind of work.  Dr. Vivian Tseng, Vice President of Programs at the William T. Grant Foundation in the U.S., spoke about an inspiring national network of partnerships between school districts and researchers. (Check out their great resource on research-practice partnerships.)

Dr. Tseng emphasised that it can be difficult to get research to have an influence on decisions that education leaders make because of the welter of other influences on their decision-making: funding, local data, politics, values, students, and teachers to name a few.

Another presentation showcased the Knowledge Network for Applied Education Research (KNAER/RECRAE) in Canada, which, despite shifting the culture among some Ontario educators towards the use of evidence, was grappling with how to improve teachers’ practice at scale.

Getting robust evidence to change decisions. Getting evidence-based practice to spread. These are key challenges for us at SVA, which we explored at our Education Dialogue in October 2014.  One of the keynote speakers was Dr Kevan Collins, CEO of the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), an independent grant-making charity in the UK dedicated to breaking the link between family income and educational achievement.  Among the many brilliant insights he shared, his visit also introduced the EEF’s Teaching and Learning Toolkit to Australia.  The Toolkit is an accessible online summary of educational research into 34 interventions to improve students’ academic achievement, especially those in disadvantaged circumstances. Based on the evidence in more than 10,000 rigorous scientific studies, it is free to anyone with an internet connection.  For each intervention, the Toolkit includes an analysis of the average impact on student achievement, the strength of the evidence used to determine that impact, and the average cost of implementing the intervention.

In our minds at SVA, the Toolkit can play a key role in helping all schools, but especially those in disadvantaged communities, raise their students’ achievement.  Because it’s free and online, even the most remote school with no connections to a university can benefit from the findings of world-class research.  Because it has average costs, the Toolkit will also help a school choose practices that are cost-effective. The Toolkit will also save schools time.  Instead of having to trawl through one academic journal after another to find effective practices, they can use the Toolkit to see average results across thousands of studies and can compare one intervention to another.

It’s for these reasons that SVA has been very excited to work with the EEF and the Victorian Department of Education and Training to create an Australian version of the Toolkit.  The Australian Toolkit website went live in February, and there is already great interest throughout the education sector.  I had the opportunity to present the Toolkit at researchED Sydney, an event organised by teachers to improve research literacy in the education. (Check out the Twitter hashtag #rEDSyd for a rundown.)  One of the participants in my session called the Toolkit the best educational resource she had ever seen, and I have already had several enquiries about integrating the Toolkit in professional development work for teachers and school leaders.  Exciting times lie ahead!

The Toolkit, the work of both the KNAER and the William T. Grant Foundation, and the ICSEI conference are all indicative of the larger cultural shift in education toward evidence-based practice.  It’s a transition that happened in medicine about a century ago, with astounding results for the health and longevity of people around the world.  I have no doubt that the results in education will be equally far-reaching, and I’m glad I can play at least a small role in that transformation.