Evidence Informed Practice is neither a brand new concept, nor a particularly complicated one. Essentially, it is a cycle of change involving the collaborative planning, testing, implementing and evaluating of approaches for improving practice. Nonetheless, it is yet to be universally embraced or understood, and certainly is not without its challenges. In a jointly-authored blog, Anna Douglas and Anne Hudson, who were appointed joint Heads of Evidence Informed Practice for the Education and Training Foundation in April, discuss why.
Amongst educationalists and policymakers, Evidence Informed Practice is viewed as a significant aspect of improving teaching and learning, but to realise its benefits practitioners need to understand what it is and some of the issues around it. It is a cyclical process, which begins with identifying a problem about learning. Once that has happened, relevant research or practice evidence is gathered and appraised and then applied to planning an intervention in learning. Information is then collected about its effects, the impact of the intervention is evaluated, and the potential value for future practice is assessed. In practice, it is a wrap around model that addresses a problem through evidence.
A cycle of self-assessment based on evaluation of what works and what does not is a very natural part of teaching practice. It should be – the role of reflection as a driver of improvement is indisputable. But proper Evidence Informed Practice does not happen just on an individual level; it is about the sharing of reflection so that the evidence gathered from experience informs colleagues’ practice too.
That is, of course, a very different proposition. Scaling up the way that we reflect on our practice so that it can benefit others requires not just our personal dedication, but also that of colleagues. It’s about developing communities of practice and enhancing the way the sector operates. It means involving colleagues at all levels, particularly leaders. Their role in creating the space, time and mechanisms for learning to be shared is vital. They also set the cultural tone of an organisation – if teachers don’t feel trusted and enabled to try new things, they are far less likely to experiment with their teaching. It is such risk-taking that will create the evidence to inform the evolution of practice. The absence of trust leads to risk-averse culture, which mitigates against experimentation.
Of course, the mindset of leadership is far from being the only barrier to Evidence Informed Practice. Misconceptions can also present problems. Sometimes people worry about identifying the ‘right’ evidence to inform practice and using it as a one-off magic bullet to improve practice. Such a thing does not, of course, exist. In a cycle of improvement, by definition, there isn’t a single piece of evidence that can achieve that. An intervention that works in one context is seldom totally replicable in another, and we should not ask ‘what works?’ but ‘in what circumstances might this work?’ A further challenge is the alleged lack of research in FE, compared to the other sectors of education. Relevant FE research does exist, but its extent has been limited by short-term funding and other contextual factors.
Evidence as the basis of changes to our practice is fundamental: we all strive to be effective reflective practitioners. We must be careful though that in our embrace of evidence we do not become so close to it that we fail to see the bigger picture. It is important to stress that we advocate practice being informed by evidence; we are not suggesting it is completely based on it. That is an important differentiation to grasp, because it is one that some misunderstand as a barrier.
Another barrier to evidence informed practice is lack of time. Pressures on practitioners often limit our inclination to innovate as well as to learn from the innovation of others.
In terms of factors that enable and facilitate Evidence Informed Practice, as well as a supportive leadership culture, a supportive community context is also key. The diversity of the FE sector means that it can be difficult for subject-based communities to develop. Fortunately, initiatives such as the ETF’s Outstanding Teaching, Learning and Assessment (OTLA) and Practitioner Research Programmes (PRP, created in conjunction with SUNCETT, the Sunderland Centre for Excellence in Teacher Training) help to fill the void. These collaborative cross-institution research projects harness ideas for improvement, provide the space needed to test them, and facilitate dissemination to the sector.
As the body at the vanguard of professional development in the sector, it is incumbent upon the ETF to lead the way. That leadership is about much more than the collaborative Teacher Regional Improvement Projects that are being run as part of our T Level Professional Development offer, and it is even about more than the excellent research opportunities offered by the PRP.
Those initiatives are laudable in their own rights, but the challenge for the ETF is to ensure that an Evidence Informed Practice approach is embedded across all of our activities, in the same way that the challenge for practitioners is to ensure that it is driving all of their teaching activity. That may not be straightforward, but it is for the benefit of FE as a whole, particularly our learners – who reap the benefits of our sharing of experience. That is because it drives up and up – on the foundation of a demonstrable, shared evidence base – our standards of practice, and in doing so enhances the status of our profession. That is something we all understand very well.