Innovation or evolution? Research and evidence in education practice – part 1

Participants of the latest Thought Leadership Gathering posing for a photo at the venue

This is Part 1 of our two-part ‘Innovation or Evolution’ blog series. Click here to read Part 2.

As we mark two years of the Covid-19 pandemic in Australia, there is a pressing need for schools to rapidly change the way they work. At the latest Thought Leadership Gathering, The Connection, school educators and leaders from around Australia explored how we could use research and evidence to build better schools.

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 will explore the barriers to improved outcomes facing First Nations students . 

The need for change

We have heard post-pandemic that we need to create the ‘new normal’. That we cannot simply go back and that, instead, there is a pressing need for innovation. Innovation, taking bold steps towards a vision, is often believed to be about creating something new. However, Dr Landon Mascareñaz, Vice President for Community Partnerships at The Colorado Education Initiative, says:  

“We throw out [the word] ‘innovation’ all the time, but sometimes innovation is just the willingness to expand what’s already working.”  

The Connection, SVA, explored this idea of building on from what’s already working at the latest Thought Leadership Gathering. Thought Leadership Gatherings bring together the entire cohort of schools from The Connection initiative. They are conducted over three days: two days of thought provocation, collaboration and reflection, and one day of visiting a school or strategic partner organisation.   

Research-evidence approach

Evidence is defined by the Australian Education Research Organisation (AERO) as any type of information that supports an assertion, hypothesis or claim. In the first day of the gathering, participants looked deeply at how evidence can point us to what is working in practice and signpost us to the ‘best bets’ for their context. To establish common ground, participants were first asked to consider what research evidence meant to them. They shared common themes around evidence as a type of proof which:  

  • Informs plans or decision making in the first instance 
  • Validates or challenges existing practice  
  • Helps to monitor and evaluate the impact of practice.  

This discussion highlighted that there was a difference between research evidence that uses rigorous methods to provide insights into educational practice and practitioner-generated evidence. By looking at the two types of evidence together leaders and teachers can take an evidence-informed approach to teaching and leadership.  

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

Our first speaker, Dr. Joanne Gleeson, Research Fellow with the Monash University Q Project, reiterated the growing expectation that school leaders will use research to inform and improve their practice. She shared the growing body of work that shows that when teachers use research evidence to inform their practice, not just their practice improves but the whole school improves. However, only one third of teachers are sourcing and using research to inform their practice. Shifting this behaviour is not straight forward.  

The research from the Monash Q project shows that there are several underlining conditions that act as either enablers or disablers to educators’ research engagement. Participants took a deep dive into collaboration as an enabler to research use. The Connection network model is built on high-trust collaboration across and within schools, so this was a concept not unfamiliar to participants. Dr. Gleeson shared how high density use of research relies on trust ­– giving teachers an equal voice in implementing research and creating opportunities both within and across schools for professional discussions that draw on research.  

Research-evidence approach in practice

Erin Corbyn, Associate Director Education at The Connection, speaking at the latest Thought Leadership Gathering
Erin Corbyn, Associate Director of The Connection initiative, speaking on stage

In the following workshops drawing on the Monash Q Project Resource Suite, leaders grounded everything they heard in their context. In mixed school groups they discussed how to have better discussions around research in schools, what structures can be put in place, how external professional learning providers can be used effectively and what room was there for growth in their schools.  

One Connection Principal shared her experience as a school who are at the beginning of their work using research evidence to inform practice. The other leaders recognised the collaborative approach that had been used. By using Google Classrooms to set up working groups, school teachers felt more confident to share their opinions on a particular research piece than they would have done in the face-to-face. They noted that the executive team were all clear on the ‘why’ to use research evidence and this was shared with all staff. Leaders placed themselves alongside teachers as learners showing their commitment to the common goal.  

This was reinforced by our next speaker Danielle Toon, who spoke about Evidence for Learning’s Getting Evidence Moving in Schools (GEMS) work. She challenged leaders to think about the difference between surface and deep level engagement with research evidence at different stages of an implementation cycle. From selecting to understanding, from mobilising to evaluating the impact of evidence, schools reflected on whether staff were engaging deeply with these elements, and what deeper engagement might look like in their school.  

Excitingly, at the end of Day 1, Connection leaders were able to build out a shared set of success criteria for using research evidence effectively to inform 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.