With schools partially closed due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak and many staff using the time to progress their professional development, we asked leading expert Jonathan Haslam, to explain why and how schools may want to consider taking a more evidence-based approach to teaching…

There’s a very strong case for using research evidence to inform teaching. Fundamentally, it’s an ethical argument. If you know that there is information, rigorously distilled, on practices and programmes and their impact in hundreds of schools, shouldn’t you use it? Otherwise you’re denying yourself and your students access to the accumulated wisdom of more teachers and researchers than you could ever hope to meet.

But where to start?

The research evidence in education is often complicated. There are no silver bullets, no education equivalent of medicine’s antibiotics. Instead we have approaches that probably improve outcomes a little bit, depending on how you implement them.

An increase in interest in research evidence among teachers and schools has been one of the success stories of the last ten years. We may not have mastered the best ways of distilling that evidence and then using it to improve outcomes for children, but there is now an eager audience out there, excited about research evidence. (This wasn’t the case when we started the Institute for Effective Education in 2008.)

If you are new to looking at education research, how might you begin?

The Institute for Effective Education 'Engaging with evidence guide' is a good place to start. It provides you with a critical framework. Research evidence can now be found everywhere, and in all kinds of publications, from blogs to systematic reviews. This guide includes useful questions to ask about the reliability and usefulness of each kind of evidence. There is no research that is inherently “better” than another. They are all useful for different things, and can all be done well, or poorly.

If you are new to education research, I suggest that you start by looking at the top level information. Keep yourself up-to-date on what research is saying about the bigger picture, before diving in deep. Good starting points are the EEF’s Teaching and Learning Toolkit, which provides a useful overview, and our own Best Evidence in Brief newsletter and webinars, which drip feeds you the latest findings, in bite-sized, easy-to-understand chunks.

If an approach or intervention catches your eye, then approach with care

This is the time-consuming element of research engagement as you start to unpick the details and nuance – reading several studies or reviews on a topic, so that you clearly understand the recommended approaches. EEF and Campbell reviews of evidence can be helpful here, and EEF guidance reports short cut this process by providing you with the distilled implications for practice (though I would argue it is still familiarising yourself with the strength of the research evidence that underpins these recommendations).

Stay curious

Try to avoid having favourites, as the research evidence is still incomplete, and new theories and innovations (and research challenging both new and well-established theories and innovations) continue to emerge. Using research has the potential to support an improvement cycle that sees teachers, schools, and the system as a whole, improve steadily and incrementally, rather than lurching from one fashionable approach to the next. That’s a prize worth striving for.

How the National College can help

Jonathan Haslam is the Director at the Institute for Effective Education and presents our Monthly ‘Best Evidence in Brief’ webinars, focusing on stories with practical implications for schools and policy makers, including only high quality research from around the world.

To see how you could benefit from Jonathan’s expertise and start your journey towards a more holistic approach to professional development, click here.