Research, evidence and the new professional standards

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Andrew Morris discusses ways ahead for the sector in using evidence to improve professional practice. (Please note that this is a revised and extended version of an ‘FE Expert’ column originally published in ‘FE Week’ on 30th May 2014.)

Whether the new professional standards developed by the Education and Training Foundation actually make a difference in practice will depend on creating the right conditions locally. Just what these conditions are proved a key theme in discussions at a recent Learning and Skills Research Network workshop. Sally Dicketts, Chief Executive of Activate Learning (a group of providers in Oxfordshire and Berkshire) spoke for many present by saying that teacher professionalism is best developed through engaging with evidence in a safe and supportive environment: “We need to be kind to one another, to create good emotional environments for teachers to learn in, not fight-or-flight ones”.

The two new standards that relate to research knowledge were the subject of discussion. “Updating your knowledge of educational research” and “applying theoretical understanding” are reasonable expectations in any profession, but meeting them is no easy task. The challenges they present are for the system as a whole, therefore, as well as for the individuals within it.

Many speakers emphasised that learning from research evidence should not be seen as a lone pursuit. Working through communities of practice – in which teachers, trainers and researchers work together to interpret public evidence and engage in systematic enquiries of their own – is more effective. These are developing in a number of places and encouragement is needed to extend them.

The case for collaborative approaches to professional development is itself grounded in sound research evidence. A systematic review at the EPPI Centre, for example, found that collaborative approaches to CPD “gave teachers greater confidence and belief in their power to make a difference to their pupils’ learning and resulted in greater commitment to changing practice”. The joint-practice-development (JPD) approach advocated by Maggie Gregson from the University of Sunderland and expressed in the LSIS/ETF research development schemes “takes account of existing practice and balances research evidence with local insight”.

The idea that sound research evidence should inform practice is becoming embodied in a number of professional institutions developing across the public services. In health, there is a long tradition of professionals organising their own institutions. For example, the Royal Colleges of Surgeons, General Practitioners and Midwifes focus on training, professional development and guidance on good practice – all grounded in research evidence. Influenced by this, a College of Policing was recently set up which is setting professional standards and promoting good practice based on evidence. A College of Teaching is under active discussion with the intention of enabling (school) teachers to assume ownership of professionalism in their sector, informed by evidence.

The LSRN workshop considered how the sector as a whole should respond to the new standards. The most immediate plea was for efforts to raise awareness throughout the sector of the standards – and the opportunity they present for creating a sense of professional identity. More profoundly, participants urged the profession to take ownership and control of the standards and how they should be interpreted in practice. If it fails to do this, no doubt other powerful forces will move in to act on its behalf.

But how is awareness to be raised and ownership achieved? Simultaneous moves by the various actors were proposed in the workshop plenary session. For speed, a top-down approach through national representative bodies and leadership teams is needed. At the same time, practitioner networks and organisations taking a bottom-up approach are likely produce the greatest effect. Peer-to-peer dialogue at the local level – a sideways approach – will help spread practical ideas about applying the standards in real settings. All are needed.

Awareness and ownership are of course simply the initial conditions necessary to give the new standards a chance. The harder question is how they will actually help the job of teaching and learning. In reality, neither “updating our knowledge of research” nor “applying theoretical understanding” are any kind of a pushover. Both are laudable objectives but neither is easy to enact.

A memorable study of social service institutions identified three types of approach to using evidence. One saw the individual practitioner as essentially responsible; in the second, the institution had a person or department that took the lead; and in the third, use of evidence was embedded in the way the whole organisation operated. In my own experience of education, serious change of practice requires a whole-organisation approach. To relinquish cherished ways of teaching, assessing and supporting students just because the evidence is against you is hard. We tend to cling on to safe and tested procedures as much in our professional as in our personal lives. To persuade ourselves to try a different approach, we need encouragement from above and support from all around. Using evidence to change practice is as much a social process as a scientific or intellectual one. The creation of communities is a powerful help, whether it is the micro-community of a teaching team, the larger one of the whole organisation or the broader community of an external network. These settings help innovative approaches to be trialled, findings and experiences to be shared and using evidence to be an enjoyable and stimulating experience.

However, it seems unlikely that any external infrastructure will be introduced to support institutions in mobilising the evidence needed for staff to update themselves. If this is to be anything more than an individual responsibility, leaders and practice communities will need to adapt resources they have to hand. CPD programmes might be orientated to explore the evidence behind teaching practices, librarians might be encouraged to search for research publications and practitioner groups stimulated to carry out small-scale before-and-after studies around changes they plan to make.

A number of colleges have pioneered these approaches and the Learning and Skills Research Network helps them share their experiences. Other public resources have become available in recent years to support this work. The ‘Inside Evidence’ publication from LSIS offers examples of practice-based research, as well as reports on large-scale studies. The EPPI Centre offers systematic reviews of research in a few relevant topics and the Education Endowment Foundation’s ‘Teaching & Learning Toolkit’ provides a highly-accessible introduction to the most effective evidence-based practices (although these are based on research in schools). The National Foundation for Educational Research offers guidance to help colleges organise themselves to engage with evidence, leading to the award of a Research Mark, which a number of colleges have already achieved.

The plea from the LSRN workshop is for an inclusive approach to realising these new standards. As suggested earlier, to update knowledge and apply theory are not simple tasks for the individual to meet unaided. They require a combined effort by teachers and trainers, academics, unions and intermediary organisations to ensure that a self–determining professional culture develops, in which collaboration and the use of evidence become the norm. To leave this open for others to determine would be a sad loss for the profession.

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