Ask the expert: Jonathan Haslam

30 April 2018

Name: Jonathan Haslam

Role: Director of the Institute for Effective Education (IEE)

What does evidence informed practice mean to you?

Taking the knowledge from education research and applying it with the wisdom of professional experience.

Why do you think it is so important to embrace evidence informed practice?

It just seems common sense to me to base your decisions on the most robust evidence that you can find.

Which piece/s of research has had most impact on you?

My role (particularly trying to find research for Best Evidence in Brief, our fortnightly newsletter) involves scanning an awful lot of research, and often a lot of awful research, but I learn something from everything I read. So it’s difficult to pick a favourite. But I’d like to pick a pilot study conducted by NFER for the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF). It looked at the extent to which teachers are engaging with research evidence. One question asked what teachers understood by the term “evidence-based teaching”. The top two answers were “using pupil performance data” and “conducting action research”. “Combining academic research with professional expertise” came third. It’s a helpful reminder of how important definitions are. Terms like “evidence” and “research” are used in all sorts of ways, with plenty of scope for confusion.

Can you explain why and how you have used this research?

Well, it was directly helpful in thinking about how we might measure an individual’s research engagement, but more broadly it’s a useful indicator of how far we have to go. We can get quite large numbers of teachers and schools engaging with projects such as the Research Schools Network but we are still only scratching the surface. Widespread adoption of evidence-informed teaching – combining academic research with professional expertise – will be a long time coming.

What difference has this made?

Personally, it helps to know that this is a long game. I think we are in danger of over-promising and under-delivering on the benefits of evidence-informed teaching, so I’m keen that we should be honest about this. Institutionally, this kind of research was really helpful in informing initiatives like the Research Schools Network, which has at its heart more realistic expectations about the extent to which it takes in-depth training to make a change. We know that simply communicating about what the research says is only the start, albeit an important first step.

What would you say are the key ‘take-aways’ for teachers, from this piece of research?

Well, firstly, think about what a term like “evidence-informed teaching” means to you! But beyond that, don’t expect magic silver bullets from using evidence. If you want to embrace it, it’s like the red pill from The Matrix, it can change the way that you see, actually not just education, but the world. Reading the research itself (or at the very least readable summaries of that research) is endlessly fascinating, surprising, and sometimes confusing. But it’s hard work to unpick from the research evidence what are the best bets for changing your practice in the classroom, and then even harder to make that change. The satisfaction, though, of knowing that what you do is based on firmer foundations than a politician’s whim must, I hope, make it a prize worth chasing.

What advice would you give to teachers who are interested in becoming more ‘evidence informed’?

Please subscribe to Best Evidence in Brief! Stay curious. Research should be like a whodunnit, where you’re desperate to find out who the murderer was, but don’t get too upset to find out it was the butler after all. New research might support what we already know, or challenge received wisdom. And we shouldn’t damn it for either outcome. Rather, we’re trying to build up a secure body of knowledge to protect ourselves from fads, fashions, and politicians. But, most importantly, to find the best ways of improving outcomes for children.

Posted on 30 April 2018
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