Recently we have been bombarded with conflicting information around many COVID-19 related issues, including to pursue ‘elimination’ of the virus or not, to close borders or otherwise, and the wearing of protective masks. In Australia, as in many countries, there has been inconsistent and changing advice. Differing views have been hotly debated and the rules ever-changing. During this pandemic, when evidence has played such a central role in policy making and guidance for the public, there is a need to focus on how it is used. This challenge of understanding how to best use evidence also applies to teachers in their everyday teaching and learning practice.
Understanding the use of research evidence is complex. For the last 18 months, our project team has been exploring how research evidence is used by school teachers and other practitioners. Having searched over 10,000 scholarly records from databases across education, health, social work and policy, along with over 100 documents and 65 organisational websites, we have developed a framework for thinking about quality use of research evidence.
There are three key things that teachers can look out for when considering evidence-based advice.
- Understanding what evidence is available and if it is ‘good’ evidence
Discussion of the ‘reading wars’ debate in the media provides a helpful entry point. Two key arguments highlight the best ways to teach reading: a whole language approach or synthetic phonics. Experts on both sides provide compelling arguments. We need to step back from the ‘heat’ of the argument and look at the evidence presented to us carefully. What studies are they referring to? Are they current? Are they based on rigorous and robust research? Have these theories been tested in the classroom? Are those contexts similar to the one in which I work? Answering these types of questions gives a clearer idea about the quality of the evidence presented and how well that might fit within our practice and with our learners.
- Thoughtfully engaging with the evidence
The questioning process is an important part of thoughtfully engaging with the evidence. As we engage with the evidence, we may also want to consider our own biases. For example, “Am I just looking for confirmation of what is currently in place or am I genuinely engaged in the deliberation process?” Thoughtful engagement can be strengthened through conversations with colleagues, asking their opinions, and respectfully challenging ideas, our own and theirs.
Reflection whilst teaching also supports thoughtful engagement through considering how new and emerging ideas might be appropriate to our context. For example, “Can decisions made about the recommended ways to teach reading be integrated into this school, at this time, and with these students?” “How will these approaches fit with the ways we teach currently?” This reflective approach ensures that the appropriate evidence is considered carefully in relation to the local context.
Support from and collaborating with colleagues, leaders and teachers, is also important. For example, sharing past experiences, sourcing and discussing relevant information and resources, and being given the time to assimilate the new information. The level of support available to us will depend on our school’s commitment to developing a research-engaged culture. Part of this is also about connecting with wider sources of support such as organisations like Evidence for Learning.
- Thoughtfully implementing the evidence into practice
The next step is to consider how to practically use this evidence-informed approach in the classroom. That is, taking the decisions made through the thoughtful engagement process and ‘experimenting’ with new ways of practising in the classroom. This requires a disposition towards valuing the research engagement process and taking risks (moving away from the known and the familiar).
Again, context is important: does the school culture, relationships and infrastructure support this?
So making sense of all the information available to us and using the research evidence in teaching practice is a skilled and mindful process, requiring an ability to understand the different types of evidence, including research, that are available to us. It also requires skill in evaluating the quality and appropriateness of the evidence, in collaboration with colleagues within and beyond the schools.
So, be it in relation to ‘border wars’ or ‘reading wars’, the need for understanding, evaluating and using evidence has never been more important in our everyday and working lives when navigating the COVID world and beyond.