By Jade Pearce
Embedding an evidence-informed approach in schools takes time, determination and careful planning. Jade Pearce describes the journey her own school has been on, from first exploring the idea five years ago, to where they are now.
My school has been on a huge journey over the last five years. We began from the starting point of introducing our teachers to the idea that our practice could be more evidence-informed and that the evidence supporting great teaching existed. We now have two T&L groups, each with between 15-20 members, a large number of teachers who voluntarily complete additional CPD to engage with evidence, teachers reading and sharing research and evidence-informed practice embedded across the school.
So, how did we achieve this and what lessons did we learn along the way?
1. Do fewer things, better
This journey to becoming an evidence-informed school has taken a number of years for a reason: I truly believe that for any new strategies to be fully-embedded into teaching across a school, a small number of priorities (a maximum of three or four) should be focused on at any one time, and that these priorities should remain the only priorities for the long-term (at least three years).
It is extremely difficult as a T&L lead to not move onto developing another area of teaching. There is so much that we want to improve, but this may lead to change-fatigue and previous priorities fading away.
2. Identify your priorities
We are at a brilliant time in teaching where there is more high-quality CPD available than ever before (books, conferences, podcasts, online courses, a new suite of NPQs and more). Whilst this has undoubtably increased the use of evidence-informed practice and improved the teaching of many, it also means that it always feels like there is something else we should be addressing or implementing in our schools. It is also very tempting to see something that has worked extremely successfully in another school and to want to implement it in your school straight away.
However, I have found that it is crucial for school leaders to ensure that any new strategies address the problems and priorities that are specific to their own schools. Before introducing any new priorities at my own school, we gathered information on teaching and our main areas for development. We looked at examination results, pupil surveys, and pupils’ work, watched lessons and spoke to teachers and middle leaders. We were then able to identify our T&L priorities for the following year.
3. It’s all about active ingredients
When introducing any evidence-informed strategy it is crucial to be clear on the strategy’s active ingredients – those aspects that are crucial for the successful implementation of the strategy. This ensures that the technique is implemented most successfully. For example, when introducing retrieval practice this included that it should be low-stakes, include corrective feedback and both factual and higher-order content.
4. Autonomy is key
Alongside being ‘tight’ on the active ingredients, it is also important to give individual departments and teachers’ the autonomy to decide how best to implement whole-school teaching strategies in their subjects and lessons. Leaders should also trust teachers to have autonomy over their professional development for example by being able to decide areas of focus and activities.
5. The importance of the why
When introducing any evidence-informed strategies it is hugely beneficial to go through the supporting theory with teachers in depth. For example, if concentrating on the strategies supported by cognitive science it is absolutely crucial that all teachers have a good understanding of the model of memory. This includes working memory and long-term memory, but also desirable difficulties and the concepts of retrieval strength and storage strength. This will help to ensure they understand why the strategy is effective and how to implement them most successfully.
Similarly, it is also important to explicitly explain the research that supports the strategy you are advocating, including referring to specific papers and their findings. Feedback from our teachers showed that this gave new strategies additional credibility.
6. Teachers reading research
When we started this journey, I saw it as my role to read research and distil this for staff in briefings, newsletters and summaries. While I still see it as a way to enable time-poor teachers to engage with research, I also now see the benefits of teachers reading the research for themselves. We have achieved this through a T&L Research Group, research twilights and giving time for independent reading. We have found this leads to greater understanding of and commitment to evidence-informed teaching. It has promoted the view that teachers reading research is the norm.
7. Development, not judgement
A culture of development and not judgement is crucial to an evidence-informed approach. Teachers will not feel able to engage with research and trial new techniques if they are concerned with the quality of their teaching being judged with high-stakes consequences. This means removing formal lesson observations and data driven performance management targets, and focusing only on all teachers getting better.
Alongside this, leaders must prioritise the development of all staff. This includes leaders modelling their approach to their own professional development, providing time for professional development and reducing workload from competing demands such as written marking and data and reporting.
For an evidence-informed culture to thrive, effective relationships and trust must exist between school leaders and teachers and between one teacher and another. This allows teachers to feel able to trial the new practices, make mistakes, evaluate successes and failures, and make refinements over time, all without the fear of judgement or consequences.
This can be achieved through reduced monitoring, distributed leadership, and autonomy, and through leaders demonstrating personal integrity and a high level of competence in their own roles.
9. Culture takes time
It is important to note that this has been a five-year journey, with elements of our T&L strategy and CPD offer being added to over time. Hopefully my own school’s experience will help other teachers and school leaders such as yourself, whether you are someway into your own journey, or if you are just starting to explore evidence-informed practice, as we were five years ago.