As we begin our work translating research knowledge into accessible and actionable forms for educators, we have been confronted by the challenges surrounding the use of evidence in education. We currently are working on a position paper, which will explore how The Education Hub will be approaching our knowledge translation work. As part of this work, we have identified six key challenges that complicate knowledge translation in education.
1. Teachers need to know more than just “what works”
While knowing “what works” may provide a useful starting point for discussions in schools about how to improve practice, for educators to engage deeply with research evidence they also need to understand why and how particular approaches or strategies are successful, and in what contexts they are most appropriate. To make best use of “what works” evidence teachers also require an understanding of how it looks in practice, and concrete examples that make the evidence relevant to their different subject matters, year levels, and school contexts
2. What works for what? The contestability of outcomes and measures
Questions about “what works” in education cannot be separated from a discussion of the intended and desired outcomes of education. Here, we fall into a quandary. It is very hard to improve what we cannot measure. However, in education and in our schools what we are able to reliably measure tends to be a narrow set of outcomes related primarily to literacy and numeracy, and other content-rich subjects. However, to use these scores as a proxy for learning and educational quality more generally, is highly problematic.
3. The multi-factorial nature of evidence
Research in universities tends to focus on a narrow set of factors, to determine the correlation or causal links between two sets of variables. That is, how does x impact upon y? However, teaching and education do not conform to the scientific model of cause and effect. Teaching and learning are embedded within nested systems – encompassing the teacher, the classroom, the school, the student, the family, the community, the broader policy context – which come together in continuously changing formations to form a complex system of interactions and relationships.
4. The holistic nature of teaching
While it is tempting to try to reduce teaching to a set of proven strategies that can be rolled out across all classrooms in all schools, the reality is much more complex. Teaching cannot be reduced to a transactional model, which is based on the administering of “treatments” (decontextualised interventions, programmes and approaches) with little appreciation of the wider factors, particularly the socio-cultural and relational dimensions, that impact and shape teaching and education.
5. The centrality of the individual in interpreting and utilising evidence
It is not enough simply to make research and evidence accessible and relevant to teachers. Teachers also need to know how to engage with and interrogate evidence and knowledge, how to assimilate and interpret it in their individual contexts, and how to navigate new knowledge, which may not fit with their current working theories and beliefs.
6. The risk of complacency and misinterpretation
Research evidence can at times play a “symbolic role”, where it is used to justify and create legitimacy for existing solutions and favoured approaches. There is a risk that symbolic research use serves to consolidate existing practices rather than to foster the transformation of practice. A similar issue is the considerable risk in knowledge translation work of complacency. That is, teachers who disengage because they believe they are already employing the principles.
In outlining the challenges that face knowledge translation work in education, I am reminded of a quote by David Kelley, founder of IDEO and Stanford d.school:
I am sorry things seem so messy and unclear. You’ve got to embrace it. All we can do is to keep trying to clean it up the best we can and keep muddling forward the best we can no matter what.
At The Education Hub, we are employing the principles of design thinking, which the Stanford d.school have pioneered, to iteratively build, with regular input from our stakeholders, the infrastructure needed to support the effective communication and dissemination of research evidence and practice-based knowledge in education.