Evidence-based teaching in primary education

The following post is written by Val Poultney, editor of Evidence-based teaching in Primary Education published by Critical Publishing in April 2017.

School improvement is not an exact science. First, the term is a very general one, yet it is applied to many schools as a ‘given’ by politicians and the media. To turn a school around from one that is classified as ‘failing’ or ‘requires improvement’ takes time, commitment and a new approach to teaching and learning. Proponents of the evidence-based teaching approach argue that there should be equal collaboration between educational practitioners, policymakers and researchers and a link established between research outcomes that are seen to be effective in education and how such outcomes could be used in the real-world context of school practice. What might constitute effective school improvement is, arguably, fashionable, context-specific and based on small-scale samples which possibly have little impact on raising standards nationally.

Yet in today’s context of fast-paced schooling, heads and teachers need to be able to plan and respond rapidly to change agendas imposed externally, without the time or space to fully evaluate the worth of the proposed change as it might impact on their school.   Evidence-based teaching as a means of generating an evidential claim to knowledge is a powerful approach but possibly only as ‘local knowledge’ that is very much bound to school context and arguably harder to generalize except to those schools in comparable circumstances.

What constitutes ‘good’ research evidence in these contexts is not for university academics to judge but it should be recognized that these data are but a small part of a bigger picture on the school improvement landscape.  If we are to be truly concerned with raising standards in primary schools then there has to be something more in it for teachers beyond ‘tips for teaching’ and yet another new initiative. We would hope all teachers see themselves as professionals with a contribution to make to the continuing development of their learners and to the profession itself. The literature is replete with references to EBT as a way of providing focused staff development that is meaningful to teachers that helps to build a knowledge-base to supplement the normal statistical school data.  EBT is regarded as a means of giving teaching a real purpose, to instil a confidence in and to ’re-professionalise’ teachers. It opens up opportunities for networking, dissemination and debates about the outcomes of teacher research and challenges teachers to adopt a more inquiring and reflective perspective on their work.

Building and sustaining capacity for everyone to be a learner is one of the crucial roles of any primary school leadership team. These leadership teams become leaders of learning for all staff and children where they develop the potential to change hearts and minds and encourage teachers to focus on their pedagogy in order to make learning happen. School leaders drive the development of a critical epistemological base for practice that provides scope for teachers to reflect upon and explore their own professional practice. Capacity building goes beyond organization and structure however; it allows practitioners to work together in new ways. It is about establishing trust between colleagues and a collective will to want to work together. School leaders are therefore charged with investing in changing the school climate so that they, teachers, support staff and children become central to the work of teaching and learning with internal alignment of teams, structures and resourcing that supports the development of personal and interpersonal capacity. It is about creating a collective capacity where learning is an integral part of everyone’s role in school: leaders, teachers, support staff, estate workers, parents and governors. It is about creating an environment where teachers develop an analytical approach to their own practice and where they begin to see their classrooms through an analytical lens.

In the spirit of taking responsibility for improvement of learning, school leaders may avail themselves of an opportunity to work with an intermediary such as an HEI academic. This affords closer contact with current educational research that can be used to inform and drive inquiry and can act as a means of galvanising a change in practice. Historically, there have been various views on the role of HEI academics in this context, ranging from the notion of bringing rigour to school-based decisions to, more recently, the consideration of research as a means of addressing the disenfranchisement of teachers, where teachers are challenged to develop their own body of locally held knowledge.

Beyond improving teaching and learning, evidence-based approaches can have wider positive ramifications. Teacher research or teacher inquiry can encourage teachers to work together more collegially, promote a proper focus on how to analyse and use existing school data and help to build wider confidence as part of professional development. In turn teachers learn how to make informed choices about practice and use empirical data to cope with future change agendas. Teacher inquiry, if deployed school-wide, can become greater than the sum of its parts and can help to foster a professional learning community. Teachers learn how to evaluate and critique their own practice and that of others to help them make informed choices. The role of the HEI academic as partner, coach, mentor or ‘objective other’ can help to maintain the focus on learning for everyone and to direct teacher reflections on practice. In turn, and with increased levels of confidence, teachers themselves can take on the role of consultants, advisors and critical friends. They can begin to challenge their own commonly held practices, develop their own discourses and reconceptualise their practice.

With these points in mind our recent edition ‘Evidence-based Teaching in the Primary School’ provides the reader with an account of how one primary school used EBT as an approach to improving teacher’s and children’s learning. As a school in challenging circumstances and previously seen as requiring improvement, the Head decided to use this approach over a two year time frame in order to engage and enthuse staff to take a close look at their practice. With the help of a local university academic mainly to advise on research methodology, the staff were offered the opportunity to engage in their own research, be part of some wider research being undertaken by the academic and to come out of their comfort zones to present their findings within and externally to school. There was no blueprint for our work over these two years; the Head acted as a role model for EBT (often unsuccessfully) but he built a community of teachers who began to see the merit of EBT in their own classrooms. EBT became a whole school approach that is on-going today. As a university academic I learnt early on that my credibility with teachers would only stretch so far – what really counted were the perspectives of the teachers engaging in EBT. To their credit, not only did these teachers take on EBT as a whole school initiative but they used its outcomes to widely disseminate their findings culminating in this book. As editor I have tried to present not just the accounts as we remembered them but also some of the ‘uncomfortable messages’ that come with the nature of this work: limitations of the EBT, how to manage rising staff confidence, challenges to school leadership and many more. If you are interested in such work, the book may help to guide you through the trials and tribulations of an EBT approach. All you have to do is to supply your context!




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