Ten approaches to supporting evidence use across Australian school systems
The best-performing school systems internationally strive to develop their teachers to be more effective instructors. Key to improvement is using evidence to incorporate “what works” or “tried and tested” practices into teaching and learning.
AERO’s recent report shows most teachers are using evidence to inform their teaching to varying degrees and want to use it more to help support student improvement.
Australian school systems and sectors (for example, state government education departments, Catholic dioceses, and independent schools’ associations) have implemented a range of initiatives to support and increase use of evidence and evidence-based practice. However, there is a shortage of quality evidence to demonstrate which system- and sector-wide approaches (individually or in combination) are most effective (Cain 2015; Levin 2013; Nelson et al. 2014). The Australian Education Research Organisation (AERO) wants to understand how systems and sectors can best support evidence use in practice. But first, we need to better understand what systems and sectors are currently doing in this area.
To do this, we mapped common approaches used by school systems and sectors to support and increase evidence use in practice. To construct the map, AERO consulted representatives from school systems and sectors across all Australian states and territories and supplemented these findings with a desktop scan of school systems’ and sectors’ websites.
We identified 10 approaches commonly used by Australian school systems and sectors (see diagram below). We grouped the approaches into 3 broad, interlinked, categories: “leadership and improvement”, “professional learning and support”, and “access”.
This map shows how the approaches implemented by a school system or sector can work together to support and increase use of evidence and evidence-based practice. The use of multiple, complementary approaches is supported by research that suggests strategies focused on changing the behaviour of educators alone are insufficient and multiple interventions are required to increase evidence engagement and use by educators (Langer et al. 2016; Tripney et al. 2018).
Leadership and improvement
Research has shown that effective support of evidence use in education settings occurs when evidence use is part of the organisational culture (Brown and Greany 2018; Coldwell et al. 2017; Hornby et al. 2013) and that organisational leadership is an important factor in creating evidence-informed change (Rycroft-Malone et al. 2015; McLaughlin et al. 2005 (PDF)). Schools that are deeply engaged in research have strong leadership, and research evidence is integrated into all aspects of the organisation.
Furthermore, studies suggest that research use should be linked to continuous learning and improvement rather than accountability requirements to enhance motivation.) Schools with a high level of research engagement were found to start from a school priority and apply evidence to help meet this priority. This process is how school improvement cycles typically integrate evidence use.
Professional learning and support
Professional learning is considered a critical mechanism to address skill gaps in research use and data literacy (White 2021; Parker et al. 2020; Spina 2019; Maher and Prescott 2017; White et al. 2018; Prendergast and Rickinson 2019; Jackson 2022). Research has demonstrated that professional learning and support, such as coaching and critical appraisal training, are effective in increasing the use of evidence by teachers when combined with strategies aiming to increase teacher capability and motivation to use research evidence (Langer et al. 2016; O’Neill and Glasson 2019). However, in one study almost half of Australian school teachers surveyed said they haven’t received good quality professional learning on engaging with education research.
Some systems have created ‘Research Lead’ positions to strengthen research engagement and use. A pilot study has shown that this is related to increased self-reported research access, engagement and use. These findings align to other research suggesting that on site professional development is more beneficial than that delivered off site.
Enabling access to robust research evidence by teachers and leaders has been shown to be an important part of supporting evidence use. Journal articles, however, are often behind a paywall that is prohibitively expensive for teachers. Surveys of Australian teachers about evidence use indicate a preference for systems and sectors to provide resources and methods of access that minimise the need to search and shift through evidence. This includes comprehensive and accessible syntheses of research evidence, step-by-step implementation guides and digital platforms with curated content (Parker et al. 2020; White et al. 2018). Teachers have also expressed interest in increased availability of forms of research evidence that are 'compact, credible and convenient'. However, another study found that simply communicating research evidence to schools in one-off, light touch approaches is not enough to sustain change. This reinforces the importance of using multiple approaches from across the categories.
Collaboration with research partners has also been shown to be important for increasing the use of evidence in education (Levin 2013; Nelson et al. 2014). A UK study found schools that were more research engaged were leading or participating in external research.
One of the most common approaches identified to support evidence use across all the school systems and sectors was through a school improvement agenda. This approach typically supports evidence use in the classroom by linking the use of evidence or evidence-based practice to school-level priorities or goals. Systems and sectors often use complementary strategies to support school improvement. These can include, for example, professional learning programs or data collection and online dashboards.
What AERO is doing next
Supporting continuous school improvement is one of AERO’s 7 research priorities. AERO’s school improvement research in 2023 will explore how schools respond to key system-level school improvement strategies. We already know that some schools make use of these strategies and see improvement. However, some schools face challenges.
We will be working with schools that have seen improvement, as well as schools that have not seen improvement, to understand how the strategies are implemented and what impacts their implementation success. We will then take these learnings and work with systems and sectors to develop evidence-based guides for key school improvement strategies. Understanding how best to implement school improvement strategies will assist systems and sectors to strengthen and refine the effectiveness of the strategies they use.