Rethinking how we approach evidence in education

HomeUncategorizedRethinking how we approach evidence in education

Rethinking how we approach evidence in education

HomeUncategorizedRethinking how we approach evidence in education

By Maury Leyland

A couple of years ago, our school called and told me that my son had not achieved what he needed to for Year 12 and suggested that he repeat the year. I was against it. It was obvious that school was an environment that he needed to leave behind him as soon as possible and I couldn’t see how another year could possibly help.

But repeat the year he did, convinced by the dean that this was the right thing for him. But in the end, he left school half way through Year 13 with no qualifications.

It turns out that this was highly predictable; there is a huge amount of evidence demonstrating that unlike most interventions, repeating a year has a negative impact on student outcomes, and damages their self-efficacy and motivation for learning.

During the tense meeting I had with the principal after he left school, I discussed the broad evidence across numerous studies and tried to listen politely to the defence that he had personally seen it work for several students during his time as a teacher.

I know that the dean and the principal cared for my son and took it personally when he dropped out. So why was the evidence ignored? The simple answer is that it was never considered. Our schooling system is designed in a way that means evidence based research is not routinely used to support decisions around teaching and pastoral care.

For me, the question became – what are the barriers to this happening? A critical issue is that our teachers have too much on. Demands are increasing as society changes and for teachers this means new tasks are being added a lot faster than redundant tasks are being removed. The result is that over time their capacity for new change decreases.

Not only is there an overload of change, but on average it is not being managed well. A review of the literature on how to achieve successful change in schooling is uninspiringly linear, eg.

  • Align messages to the overall vision for educational improvement.
  • Connect the dots.
  • Develop a communications plan, and execute it flawlessly.
  • Make sure organizational leadership is on board.
  • Consider engaging external partners

Think about the last time you changed a habit in your life or the way that you worked. Was it the result of this type of process? Probably not. Instead, you might have changed for a number of reasons:

  • People you respect and who you interact with were doing something new and you thought it was worth trying;
  • You came across an idea that you could see was going to give you more time or capacity in your day and you could see how it was done and how you would apply it to your life;
  • A new kind of behaviour gave you some kind of instant emotional reward – not always good, the new habit could be a Facebook addiction;
  • A disaster or crisis occurred and you changed because you were determined to not have it happen again.

In order to achieve change at scale, the first two of these are the kind of experiences we need to trigger or inspire for the people who we are expecting to implement the change. Given this, it is easy to see why all the things we “should” do in education, just don’t happen – or certainly not in the way we intend. And it provides some food for thought about how we might approach a change where evidence was more commonly used to support important decisions and initiatives.

A key goal of The Education Hub is to find ways to bridge this gap. We have talked to many educators across the sector and found a common desire to improve the experience for our children and to have better access to relevant and usable ideas, research and innovations.

As we see it, our role is it to filter the available research to determine which interventions and approaches work best and which don’t; to filter for those that fit within the context of our schooling system; to interpret the findings in a way that teachers can pick up and use without weeks of extra work themselves; to provide vivid and real examples of how respected and relevant schools and teachers have used the interventions and experienced positive outcomes for their students; and, to provide a forum for them to ask, discuss, and share their experiences as they work through it themselves. We want to find ways to be a catalyst to ignite broader systemic level change.

This is a significant undertaking. But we believe that it will contribute towards taking school education in Aotearoa New Zealand towards the future to which we aspire.


Maury Leyland

Maury is chair of the trustees at The Education Hub. She has a long held passion for working with organisations that can bring change that benefits New Zealand. She currently is a member of the Lincoln University Transformation Board, is on the board of Genesis Energy, and is on the steering committee of Te Hono Movement. Maury has previously worked as a consultant with The Boston Consulting Group and as a member of the executive team at Fonterra.

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