Innovation or evolution? Research and evidence in education practice – part 2

Suzanne Cridge, Director Education of The Connection SVA,, presenting on stage at the Thought Leadership Gathering

From the first day of school, many systemic issues affect First Nation students and shape their experience. Ill-informed practice, school and community dissonance are just two of the potential issues they face everyday.  At the latest Thought Leadership Gathering, we explored how we could break down the barriers faced by First Nation students and bridge the education gap.

This article is the first in our 2-part series from The Connection, SVA’s pioneering education leadership development network, about the latest Thought Leadership Gathering. Attended by educators and school leaders around Australia, the three-day event explored our vision for improving education practice. Part 1 of the series explores how educators and leaders can use research and evidence to inform school practices. Part 2 of the series explores the barriers to improved outcomes facing First Nations students. 

Research-evidence approach for Indigenous student success

At their latest Thought Leadership Gathering, The Connection, SVA, and their network of high performing and emerging leaders, began exploring how we innovate. We can innovate by not creating completely new ideas but by building on from what’s already working. Day 1 of the Gathering, featured in ‘Innovation or evolution? Research and evidence in education practice – part 1’, saw speakers laying the foundations for how research-evidence approach might be used effectively to identify what is already working.  

Day 2 focused specifically on the evidence, which helps educators make evidence-informed decisions around issues affecting First Nation student success. Speaker, Dr. Kevin Lowe, shared the findings of his synthesis of over 1,300 Australian research studies titled Towards an Australian model of culturally nourishing schooling. He said that if we were using evidence-informed approaches in our schools, we would’ve seen some improvements for these maginalised groups of students – however research and results show this is not the case.  

Participants at the latest Thought Leadership Gathering sitting and raising their hands
Participants at the latest Thought Leadership Gathering

Barriers and success strategies

Dr. Kevin Lowe shed light on the many systemic issues affecting Indigenous student success and experiences at school: the history of colonisation, structural disengagement, school and community dissonance, policy failure, ill-informed practice, and discordant knowledge systems. He clarified that while leaders are far from responsible for any of these problems, they sit at the centre and have an unmatched opportunity to influence change. He challenged that changing practice in classrooms is not enough. It is the belief systems of teachers and leaders that stop them from moving forward.   

Dr. Lowe shared his Culturally Nourishing Schools’ model – a framework that moves away from gestures to truly acknowledge culture and work side by side with First Nation students and communities. The key factors underpinning this model are:  

  • Engaging openly with students, families, and communities.
  • Understanding, addressing and incorporating student’s Indigenous identity.
  • Building and engaging all of school leadership and facilitating change of teachers’ underpinning beliefs.  

These factors are distilled into four strategies that need to be visible in schools in order to transform the impact of schooling on First Nation students. These strategies include:   

  • learning from Country 
  • cultural Inclusion 
  • epistemic mentoring
  • teacher professional change.

The strategies in action

Thought Leadership Gatherings are events designed to bring educators and school leaders together to explore evidence-informed thinking and education practice.
Engaging evidence-informed thinking to improve education practices

We heard from two school leaders for a lens on what these strategies look like in practice. Angela Byron, Principal at Oak Flats High School near Wollongong, and Grant Keleher, Principal at Central Yorke School in SA. 

At Oak Flat 88% of students sit in the bottom half of socio-educational advantage and 15% come from an Indigenous background. They are in the Culturally Nourishing Schools network, working with Dr. Lowe. Most state departments have an expectation that all staff members complete a professional learning course on cultural awareness. While better than nothing, Angela felt that this wasn’t enough for her school. She sought out authentic opportunities by going on Country a couple of times a year and sharing stories with the local Aboriginal community.   

At Central Yorke, an R-12 school on the Yorke Peninsula, 80% of students sit in the bottom half of socio-educational advantage and 35% come from an Indigenous background. This includes a 100% Indigenous R-2 campus on the site of an old mission at Point Pearce. Central Yorke have been part of The Connection for the past year. For Grant, cultural inclusion starts with relationships and wellbeing. The modelling of inclusion starts from the top and Grant modelled the language that he uses to welcome the Aboriginal students and talks about the Aboriginal language, stories and artwork that runs through the curriculum. He was clear to point out that this curriculum is for all students, not just Aboriginal students.  

Both leaders supported the importance of going beyond ‘gestures’ of cultural appreciation and inclusion. Events and significant days can be recognised, but Aboriginal education is a school’s business – all day, every day.   

The role of social networks

Professor Alan Daly, University of California and Dr. Jeffrey Brooks, RMIT, brought the learning to a close by identifying the role of social networks in evolving ‘what works’ in education, because “we flourish through human interactions”. Both innovation and evolution are the result of the collective flourishing together. But how can you make sure that the collective ­– whether that be your school staff, your school community or the community between The Connection schools ­– is flourishing? 

Professor Daly suggested two important aspects: 

  • a sense of belonging: feelings of belonging are tied to positive peer and teacher relationships. Feelings of school belonging are positively related to students’ academic expectations and aspirations
  • social networks: energy is generated through relationships and the capacity and opportunity to form those relationships is more important than tasks and roles.

Leaders finished with the opportunity to think about all the factors that influence the extent to which their school communities can flourish by comparing their current practice against the success criteria generated at the end of Day 1. From there, they took away next steps for evolving what we know works from the evidence, in practice.   

If you would like to know more about The Connection, visit our website here or email Suzanne Cridge, Director Education – The Connection.


About the author: 

Erin Corbyn is an Associate Director, Education in The Connection team at Social Ventures Australia. The Connection is a network of school leaders, delivering exceptional results within communities experiencing disadvantage. Erin brings extensive on-the-ground experience to the role as a primary teacher and school leader. The majority of her teaching career was in schools where students experience significant social disadvantage and she specialises in strengthening the teaching of fundamental skills.