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The road to quality use of evidence in schools

Schools value research more than they actually use it. In its raw form, after all, it can be notoriously abstruse. Not only are scholarly papers replete with hard-to-penetrate jargon, but often the research base is hard to access, and abuzz with competing ideas and theories. Working out what quality evidence looks like is the first challenge; working out how to use it for the betterment of students is a far greater one.

Yet once this trove is not only unlocked, but understood and applied, the benefits can be manifold. 

Empowered with evidence, schools can make informed decisions on a range of high-priority issues: from optimising class sizes, to minimising bullying and other asocial behaviours, to making the most of support staff. Research-guided approaches can also help with STEM learning and literacy – areas aflame in the minds of many.

Despite this, little research has been done into education evidence use in Australia. 

To begin filling in this troubling blank, Monash University has embarked on a five-year, Australian-first project into how schools are using research-based evidence in their practice, and how this can be enhanced. Called the Q Project (or ‘Quality Use of Evidence Driving Quality Education’ in full), the team will be gathering empirical data across 100 primary, secondary and cross-phase schools in NSW, Queensland, South Australian and Victoria over two years beginning 2020. Through a combination of surveys and school visits, they will investigate how (and if) evidence is accessed and incorporated into teaching.

Ultimately, and through collaboration and partnership with education stakeholders, the project aims to create a professional learning framework endorsed within national and state education policy, as well as a better awareness of how research evidence can be used well within Australian schools.

Overall, the project seeks to directly impact 80,000 students.

Pitsa Binnion, Principal of Melbourne’s McKinnon Secondary College (recently profiled for its decision to ban mobile phones), has already made the decision to sign up.

“We’re always looking to improve learning outcomes for our students by implementing new ideas that appear to work well in other schools, but often there’s no actual evidence that something’s going to work,” she told Monash Life magazine.

“So, when I heard about the Q Project, I was very keen to be involved. For educators to be able to take evidence-based research and apply it in the classroom is of fundamental importance.”

Made possible by $6.2m of funding from the Paul Ramsay Foundation, the Q Project coincides with a growing awareness of the chasm between “front line professionals” in the classroom and education scholars. A study from this year found that, despite the growing calls for “schools to be research-engaged, for teaching to be research-rich and for researchers to engage with end-users,” this urgency has not been effectively translated into action. 

What’s more, while the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers and School Leaders sets expectations for using evidence (e.g. ‘demonstrate knowledge and understanding of research into how students learn and the implications for teaching’), professional learning around this topic is lacking. 

“Accessing, understanding and using research evidence well is demanding and highly professional work,” Mark Rickinson, Q Project director, told Education Review.

“It is important therefore that the process of teachers accessing and using research evidence is seen as a professional learning challenge as opposed to an information transfer challenge.”

For this to happen, there needs to be a fundamental change in the way that universities and schools interact, “supported by a blend of enabling skillsets, mindsets, relationships and systems”.

“Efforts to improve connections between universities and schools are about educational improvement not research impact,” he adds. “The use of research is a means to an end, not an end in itself.”

Registration is currently open for schools to participate. The shortlist of schools – expected to be made in February 2020 – will be determined to ensure variation across school location, type and socioeconomic characteristics. All collected responses will be de-identified. 

Schools can register their interest here.

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