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NFER: Who creates the evidence for ‘evidence-informed teaching’?

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The Key works closely with The National Foundation for Educational Research in England and Wales (NFER) to help answer questions about Research on effective teaching and Specific approaches to teaching and learning.

Dr Julie Nelson is a research director within NFER's Impact team, ensuring the Foundation's research engages effectively with policymakers, teachers, and others. In this guest post, she explores how best to apply evidence in teaching.

It seems to me that there are two schools of thought about the meaning and practice of evidence-informed teaching (EIT). Our recent review found two quite separate bodies of literature on this topic – one on the role of academic research in teaching practice; and the other about teachers conducting their own research or enquiry.

Further discussions have shown that, at best, each practice can operate with little awareness of the other, and at worst, there can be active disagreement about who is best placed to conduct research and produce ‘evidence’.

I believe this distinction is unhelpful, and that there is a place for both practices within an evidence-informed teaching profession.

What is the goal of evidence use?

Teachers and researchers often have different views about what EIT means. Typically, the debate focuses on who produces the research. Teachers can feel that researchers do not understand their situations or contexts, while researchers often argue that teachers have insufficient skill, or systems, to conduct robust research.

I think it is more helpful to think things through differently – focusing not on the producer, but on the goal:

Think through the purpose of the research. What do you want to find out, and how do you plan to use the evidence? Is it intended to have impact across a number of schools; to support one school’s development; or to aid a teacher’s personal development?

Consider the methods that suit it best. Research for system-wide impact will need to be statistically representative, while research for personal development or reflection can possibly be smaller in scale, or case-study based.

Think about who is best placed to conduct it. Statistically-representative research is likely to need a professional research lead, while research for the purposes of one school’s improvement, or for personal development, may be conducted internally - sometimes in collaboration with external researchers.

A number of schools are already involved in large-scale quantitatively robust investigations, while many academic researchers are involved in small-scale qualitative research - stereotypes are not helpful.

Making the most of evidence

Schools are under constant pressure to deliver high quality teaching and learning within an autonomous landscape. In a previous NFER blog post I argued that evidence has the power to support schools to meet this challenge and to enhance professional autonomy.

But while this may be a valid philosophical argument, in practice teachers face a number of well documented barriers to engaging with research (not least time shortage). So what’s the best way to streamline the process of evidence use? Our recent collaborative research with United Learning produced a useful guide for school senior leaders on how to develop a culture of evidence-informed practice.

My advice is to take a little time to consider the answers to some key questions before embarking upon any kind of research – this will inevitably save much time later on. Key questions can help to identify existing research evidence, thereby avoiding unnecessary investment in a detailed piece of original research. Simultaneously, they can draw attention to genuine gaps in knowledge that can potentially be filled by new research or development.

  1. What is my challenge or area for improvement?
  2. Do I know everything that I need to know to tackle this?
  3. If there is a gap in my knowledge, what question will help me to fill it?
  4. Is there any evidence that can help to answer this question? (e.g. the Education Endowment Foundation Toolkit, the Institute for Effective Education's Evidence4Impact website, NFER’s On the Web)

Once you have a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer to question 4 – try applying the following logic to make a decision about how to use or create research evidence.

Space for synergy

I believe that here is potential for synergy between academic research and school-led enquiry, and between teachers and researchers.

By thinking through the challenge that needs addressing, and the research question that will address it, it should make it possible to decide what evidence gives best fit, how it can best be accessed/compiled and applied and, ultimately, who is best placed to develop it.


For further material on this topic see the developing teaching practice area of The Key for School Leaders' website.


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