How teachers can use data and research to improve education

By Florian Koester

Analyst, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

To improve learning in the classroom, we expect teachers to use evidence on both the latest teaching methods as well as their students: on their grades, strengths, difficulties and behaviour. To incorporate this evidence effectively into their daily work, teachers need three basic ingredients: capability, motivation and opportunity. If any one of these three elements is missing, there is no reason to expect evidence to inform teachers’ work – even if it’s readily available to them.

This is where a new OECD Toolkit comes in. Our Knowledge Governance module helps countries identify what they can do to help decision makers use evidence in their daily work. It identifies concrete efforts to promote the systematic use of evidence – for teachers, but also for school leaders, policy makers and administrators.

Professional development can help teachers build the skills necessary to access and make sense of available evidence. This can include training on how to work with research and evaluate its trustworthiness, value and relevance for their practice. School leaders can also help teachers build the skills needed to help their peers work with evidence. Teachers can work with each other and with universities to investigate practices, which can provide them with important hands-on experience in using evidence.

Most teachers are highly motivated to help their students learn, but when things get busy, they often respond to more immediate challenges and forgo opportunities to use evidence. Reminders of how and where to get information, and dedicated time and space for teachers to discuss useful evidence, can help motivate them to engage with evidence – even amid their day-to-day challenges.

The question of motivation is fundamental: teachers will only use evidence if they believe it can make a positive difference. Teachers must be determined to explore evidence, even if it may contradict their convictions about what good teaching looks like. Here, bringing teachers and researchers together can offer a positive social influence, and can contribute to a common language. Such a language allows teachers to talk dispassionately about their practice – without criticising their colleagues’ personal qualities.

Using evidence to improve teaching needs to start with teachers – with their contexts, capabilities and motivations.

But even if teachers are capable and motivated to use evidence, it will not make any difference if the available evidence does not meet their particular needs. Providing clear and direct access to available data won’t necessarily provide teachers with opportunity, either. Using evidence to improve teaching needs to start with teachers – with their contexts, capabilities and motivations.

If making evidence available does not start with the users, the effort to use evidence might be too onerous for their daily practice. As a researcher-gone-school-principal told us, “I have 12 years of training in making use of evidence – do we want to expect teachers to engage with data like a full-time researcher on top of their teaching and other responsibilities?”

Making evidence conveniently available should follow a clear purpose to minimise costs – costs entailed in providing the evidence and in sifting through it to find what is relevant. This includes avoiding heedlessly implementing solutions simply because they are technically possible. Just as tablets in the classroom do not improve teaching on their own, merely putting data out there does not mean it will be used.

Indeed, making evidence available is only half the story. The other half involves organising day-to-day work in a way that enables and encourages teachers to engage with each other and in activities around making use of evidence. Authorities and school leaders can support this by providing and helping with knowledge management systems, and by weighing the costs and benefits of changing a school’s work processes.

Ultimately, all three components – the capability, motivation and opportunity to engage with evidence – need to be present in order to change behaviour. Responsible authorities need to motivate teachers to use data to improve education, help build their capabilities, and create opportunities to engage with data to improve teaching and learning.

This kind of evidence-centric culture is not created overnight – but assessing and promoting these three elements is a useful place to start.

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