How can we break down barriers to using education research?

By Jordan Hill

Analyst, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

Key points:

– Helping teachers and education policy makers to use evidence is important to improve student learning.
– Targeted mechanisms can increase the use of research, but their quantity and quality are important factors.
– Developing a robust understanding of what has been successful in the past twenty years is essential in improving future strategies of increasing use of education research.

I recently met a schoolteacher who lives in my apartment building. After telling them I worked in education at the OECD they (jokingly) replied: “Oh, you’re the people that tell me how to do my job!”

Incentivising evidence-based teaching practice and policy-making is an awkward and complex process. “Research on research use” conducted over the past twenty years has concluded that evidence cannot simply be “pushed” onto educators and policy makers. Instead, potential users need to “pull” evidence into their decision-making by asking what knowledge already exists about challenges they face.

Is it even important to use education research?

Research-based education can improve student learning, equity and educational outcomes. Take, for example, Barak Rosenshine’s 10 principles of instruction. First published in 2012 based on extensive research into cognitive science and classroom practices, they are now a staple in many teachers’ practice. They encourage teachers to review previous learning daily, provide models and worked examples for new knowledge to build on and integrate both collective and independent learning into their pedagogy. These principles have been shown to strengthen recall of the information students need across educational contexts. This is just one of many examples where research has helped to build effective classroom practices that improve students’ outcomes.

Analyses show that, despite increasing recognition of its usefulness, truly research-informed policy and practice remains far from the reality. By combining expert insights with the results of an extensive policy survey with data from over 30 education systems, our new publication identifies barriers and opportunities to using education research well.

Mechanisms designed to increase the use of education research by policy makers or practitioners are crucial. But both the quantity and quality of mechanisms is important.

Time flies when you’re using research. How can more mechanisms lighten the load?

Lack of time for individuals to access and engage with research is the most widely reported barrier to research use. Teachers often complain that their workloads are too heavy to engage with research. Policy makers grumble that their timeframes are not compatible with the time it takes to conduct research.

Initiatives like scientific red teams remain relatively uncommon in policy making but they are gaining momentum. Scientific red teaming is the practice of rigorously challenging plans, policies, systems and assumptions by having experts adopt an adversarial approach. For education policy, it means weaving expert advice throughout the whole policy process, rather than at a fixed point in time. This could alleviate the pressure of clashing timeframes. For practitioners, the challenge is different. Most teachers do not have much time to engage with research themselves, so assigning one teacher to do so on their behalf can help. For this reason, having research champions engaging with evidence in schools, on behalf of other teachers, is a promising mechanism. If policies at local, regional or national level recognise the role of these research champions (e.g. by reducing their teaching load), they might be more effective. Unfortunately, only around 1 in 5 education systems have this mechanism in place.

Knowing me, knowing you. Do we need better mechanisms?

The Teaching and Learning Research Initiative in New Zealand is an example of a mechanism with research use as a core component. It is a government fund established in 2003 for collaborative research about teaching and learning in the early childhood, school and tertiary sectors. It involves over 400 researchers and practitioners working on hundreds of different projects and publications. Evaluations show a profound and positive change to teaching practices.

Project-based mechanisms like the one above, encouraging interactions and relationships between researchers, practitioners and policy makers, are the most widely used to support research use in education systems. However, the absence of good relationships between these groups is still a major barrier in many OECD countries. This suggests that many of the current mechanisms are either not designed to increase research use, or do not perform as well as they could.

In addition to having the right mechanisms, is important to understand what can make them more effective. Around half of the OECD countries have specific agencies to make it easier to use education research by improving access and making results understandable. A few are long-standing and widely known such as the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) in the United Kingdom (UK). Others are brand new, such as the Australian Education Research Organisation (AERO), established in 2020. Yet, only 3.5% of education initiatives like these had publicly available evaluations.

There is huge scope for improving the mechanisms that already exist to strengthen research use – and informing the design of new ones – by understanding what has been successful. It is time to take stock of these initiatives by conducting more quality meta-analysis of them. When we look back at the next twenty years of “research on research use” in education, will the teachers of 2042 still see research as too “pushy”?

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Photo: Shutterstock/ – Yuri A