Australia’s national education evidence body

Our national survey has found that Australian early childhood education and care (ECEC) services often have cultures of sharing and discussing evidence, but more support is needed for early childhood educators to actively change their practice based on evidence.

This page outlines our findings relating to ECEC. Read our findings relating to schools.

Context

The extent to which ECEC practitioners use evidence and evidence-based practices can be influenced by many factors, including how much support they have from their early childhood service.

We know from existing studies that specific supports such as mentoring are valuable in helping ECEC practitioners understand and act on evidence. This is reflected in the National Quality Standard, which includes a focus on relationships and mentoring, and sets out the role of the educational leader in building the knowledge and skills of educators.

Although we know these types of supports are important for evidence use, relatively little is known about what these supports currently look like for ECEC practitioners across Australia.

AERO was therefore interested to learn more about the specific ways in which Australian ECEC practitioners are supported to use evidence in their practice. To answer this question, we surveyed early childhood educators across Australia about specific examples of leader, colleague, and structural supports available within their services to help them use evidence.

Our survey asked about supports for using both practitioner-generated evidence (for example, observations of children’s learning and development) and research evidence (for example, summaries of academic studies).

The findings below focus on responses from 260 early childhood educators. These survey respondents broadly represented the ECEC sector and different service types across Australia. The final section (graph 3) supplements these findings with responses from an additional 106 leaders who responded to the survey. In this article, ‘educators’ includes respondents who identified either as educators, early childhood teachers or both, and did not report holding a formal leadership role. ‘Leaders’ includes respondents who identified as room or team leaders, nominated supervisors, educational leaders, assistant directors and/or directors, or as educators or early childhood teachers who also held one of these formal leadership roles.     

Findings

Structures and processes

While most educators report structures and processes in their services that help with evidence use, others do not have access to these supports:

  • 82% of educators agree or strongly agree their service uses evidence when deciding on policies and programs
  • 75% of educators agree or strongly agree their service has set aside regular times or meetings to discuss evidence that could improve their practice
  • 72% of educators agree or strongly agree their service provides easily accessible information, resources, training or other supports to help them to use evidence
  • only 64% of educators agree or strongly agree their service has coaching available to help them use evidence to change their practice.

Relationships

Most educators reported that their services have cultures of discussing and sharing evidence:

  • 86% of educators agree or strongly agree that leaders encourage educators to use practitioner-generated evidence to determine whether a practice works
  • 82% of educators agree or strongly agree that colleagues discuss evidence that could improve their practice
  • 80% of educators agree or strongly agree that leaders share and discuss evidence that could improve educator practice.

However, for evidence to effectively inform practice, educators also need to be confident and capable to encourage each other to act on this evidence. While relationships clearly exist that allow practitioners to discuss and share evidence, it is less common for educators to actively support each other to change their practice based on evidence:

  • only 46% of educators agree or strongly agree that colleagues explicitly encourage them to use evidence (either practitioner-generated evidence or research evidence) to change their practice.

These findings are also reflected in responses to a slightly different question — whether educators and leaders are themselves willing to encourage colleagues to stop using an ineffective practice. Practitioners’ willingness to encourage others to do so can shed further light on cultures around evidence use within a service.

When educators are asked what happens at their service:

  • 63% agree or strongly agree they will encourage their colleagues to stop using a practice if evidence they have collected from their service (a form of practitioner-generated evidence) shows it does not work
  • only 53% agree or strongly agree they will encourage their colleagues to stop using a practice if research evidence shows it does not work.

Leaders surveyed are slightly more willing, although still somewhat reluctant, to do this:

  • 68% agree or strongly agree they will encourage their colleagues to stop using a practice if evidence they have collected from their service shows it does not work
  • 62% agree or strongly agree they will encourage their colleagues to stop using a practice if research evidence shows it does not work.

There are many possible reasons for these findings. For example, within services, there may be a greater focus on trialling new practices rather than changing existing ineffective practices. Both educators and leaders may also lack confidence in drawing practice recommendations from the available evidence. Additionally, there may be other barriers (such as high staff turnover, workforce shortages, and time or financial pressures) that limit the development of cultures around evidence use in a service. Whatever the reason, if we want cultures of evidence use, we need to build supportive environments where practitioners are confident and capable to support others to both use evidence-based practices and review the use of practices that are known to be ineffective.

Next steps

Recommendations for the early childhood sector

These findings suggest that Australian early childhood educators are currently engaged in conversations about evidence that could improve their practice. This is important because we know that collaboration is a key enabler of evidence-informed practice in education. Conversations about evidence also reflect the cycles of observation and planning and critical reflection set out in the National Quality Standard (elements 1.3.1 and 1.3.2).

Although educators are talking about evidence, they are not necessarily being supported to put evidence into practice. Supporting change is critical to effective cultures of evidence use, but it is considerably less common for educators to report relationships or structures that directly help them to act on the evidence.

Educators need further support to put evidence into practice. This could involve ensuring more educators have access to structures like support from their educational leader and easily accessible resources that are designed to help with evidence use. It could also involve building cultures within services that focus on actively using evidence – whether this means stopping ineffective practices, trialling new or changed practices, or reinforcing existing quality practice.

For further investigation

Our survey provides a snapshot of organisational support across a moderately large sample of Australian early childhood practitioners. To enable early childhood services to better support their practitioners to use evidence, AERO is currently investigating the most effective service and system supports, and how they may vary depending on service context, types of evidence used, and the needs of practitioners.

AERO will use insights from these investigations to provide resources and advice to ECEC practitioners for how best to encourage the development of evidence-based practices in all educational settings. 

Reflection questions

For educators

  • Do these survey findings reflect the supports available in your service? Why or why not?
  • What are two key factors that help you to use evidence? To what extent do these supports already exist in your service?
  • What are two key barriers to evidence use within your service? How could these be addressed?
  • When discussing evidence with colleagues, do you mainly talk about practitioner-generated evidence (for example, observations of children’s learning and development), research evidence (for example, findings from a study) or both? How do/could you use these types of evidence together?
  • Would you feel comfortable encouraging a colleague to review or challenge their practice to align with what evidence recommends? Why or why not?

For leaders

  • What types of organisational supports are already in place at your service around evidence use? How could these be strengthened?
  • What are the main barriers to evidence use within your service? How could these be addressed?
  • How do you ensure that discussions about evidence have actionable follow-ups, or influence how educators think about or act on the evidence? For example, how do you ensure that discussions around Quality Improvement Plans are supported by professional learning for staff?
  • If your service has coaching structures in place, to what extent does coaching take place as planned? How do/could coaching conversations incorporate evidence to improve practice?
  • What role does the educational leader play in supporting evidence use in your service? How is the educational leader supported to build the capability of educators and teachers?
  • Do evidence-based discussions in your service mainly draw on practitioner-generated evidence, research evidence or both? How do/could you use these types of evidence together?

For policymakers 

  • Which of these findings stood out the most to you?  
  • What do you see as the difference between educators being engaged in conversations about evidence, and being actively supported to put evidence into practice? 
  • What do you see as the key barriers to the development of cultures around evidence use in early childhood services? How could these be addressed? 
  • How might factors like high staff turnover, workforce shortages, and time or financial pressures limit the development of cultures around evidence use in early childhood services?  
  • How could educational leaders be further supported to build the capability of early childhood educators to use evidence? 

For researchers 

  • These survey findings highlight further research questions that are yet to be examined. What additional questions would you identify?  
  • How might researchers explore the quality of early childhood service supports, and what would make them more effective and sustainable?   
  • Are different types of supports required to help practitioners use practitioner-generated evidence compared with research evidence?  
  • How do you think organisational supports link to practitioner beliefs, confidence, and use of evidence? Do these links indicate that some types of support are more important than others? 
  • How do you think organisational supports relate to each other? For example, is support from service leaders needed to sustain other types of support?  

Further information on sampling

Schools

We've summarised our findings relating to support for teachers' use of evidence in schools.

Examining evidence use project

More information about this project and more findings from our evidence use survey.

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