Bringing evidence into the classroom

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Imagine that a primary head teacher has called a meeting to decide what to do to help children who are failing to learn to read. Teachers suggest all sorts of solutions. Should they provide one-to-one tutoring for struggling readers? If so, should the tutors be teachers or teaching assistants? Would small group teaching do just as well? How about ICT? Or should the school focus on better reading programmes to keep pupils from falling behind in the first place?

These are important questions, faced by every primary school. Fortunately, there is a lot of research on what works with struggling readers. In fact there is a lot of research on what works in most subjects and year levels. Unfortunately, this research is not widely known or used by educators or policy makers.

The Institute for Effective Education (IEE) established at the University of York in 2007, aims to change this.  The IEE, created with a major grant from the Bowland Trust, is committed to doing practical research on what works in education, and making the findings of research accessible and actually used by educators throughout the UK.

The work of the institute is focussed on four main areas: evaluating programmes and practices to determine what really works in the classroom; conducting scientific systematic reviews; developing new programmes and tools for practitioners; and encouraging a shift in policy and practice to favour high-quality research.

Educational programmes and practices are assessed through large-scale, scientifically rigorous trials. The achievement of pupils who experience the teaching methods being assessed is compared to a control group of similar pupils who continue to be taught as normal. In this way the researchers can clearly establish whether programmes and practices are effective or not.

Systematic reviews organise and analyse all previous research in a particular area (such as primary reading or secondary maths), making existing evidence accessible and offering an overview of what has been found to work. A new website, the Best Evidence Encyclopaedia (the BEE), has been developed to communicate to educators the findings of these reviews. The BEE not only provides the full length systematic reviews, but also handy Educator’s Summaries, which offer an accessible overview.

The IEE is developing innovative new approaches to teaching using techniques that have been proven to be effective. So far, these programmes have included new forms of co-operative learning (in which children work together in teams and take responsibility for each others’ learning), applications for interactive whiteboards, and help for struggling readers and for pupils struggling in maths.

The IEE wants to see a stronger evidence base being used to develop policy and practice. With this in mind, it not only publishes research results but aims to ensure that they are useful in practice. The IEE is also working hard to build support for evidence-based education.

Working with practitioners is essential in seeing evidence used more widely. In addition to the BEE website, a new magazine was launched in 2009 which explores what works in the classroom. Each edition of Better: Evidence-based Education focuses on a specific theme, with issues so far covering reading, maths, and social-emotional learning. Articles are written by leading international academics, and are both accessible and engaging. Most importantly, they offer practical, evidence-based recommendations and fascinating insights into the latest research.

The IEE is also developing positive links with practitioners through a new Coalition for Evidence-Based Education. The coalition brings together practitioners, policy makers, and researchers who share an interest in improving the way that evidence is used in policy and practice. The aim is to explore challenges and opportunities, develop a clearer idea of what an evidence-using culture might look like, and develop practical proposals for change.

Building practice on a sound evidence base is essential. With others, the IEE is working hard to ensure that the body of research available is steadily increasing. It is also aiming to achieve a shift to more evidence-base practice that will help teachers improve outcomes for their pupils.

For more on the work of the IEE, visit the IEE website: www