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Closing The Gap Between The Knowledge Base and Practice in Schools:More Reflections on ICSEI2015

I have been returned from the International Congress for School Effectiveness and Improvement (ICSEI) for a couple of days now and have begun to reflect on some of the main messages and issues that featured at the congress.

The main issue, that kept recurring through keynotes and in the breakout workshops, centred around the gap that exists between our knowledge-base and the actual practice that goes on in schools. When we have so much research, and evidence, about 'what works' in schools, learning and leadership, why is little of this evident in schools and practice? Alma Harris had posed the following question to all delegates in her opening remarks, 'How do we consolidate the research-base?' Various speakers considered this issue, and how we get this to have greater impact in schools. It was also a topic that regularly came up in post-workshop and keynote discussions, including the many informal ones that occurred over coffee, meals and the occasional drink!

On day two Tom Good gave a retrospective of his career in education and compared where we were in the 1960s to where we are now. He started by giving the younger members of the audience a background of the social landscape of the sixties. Not necessary for some of us! He recognised the complexity involved in high quality teaching but lamented that ' despite the knowledge-base improving over time, the impacts have been modest.' Research had consistently shown that teachers had profound impacts on student performance, but that teacher effects were not stable and that policy-makers had over-used the research base in too many instances. He seemed to be suggesting that the overuse of research could be just as bad as its under-use. As Alma Harris had noted at the Scottish Learning Festival in September, 'research and data should inform practice and policy', not drive it. He listed his regrets at the current state of so many systems to include the 'fadism' and search for 'magic bullets' that still exists for many, and the lack of respect shown for the profession 'including researchers who flaunt the inadequacies of the profession.' This might touch on one of the reasons for the gap between research and practice that still exists and I will discuss later. He dismissed approaches that used checklists, with no focus on quality, as 'a waste to time.'

Dr Vivian Tseng, of the William T Grant Foundation, also addressed the issue of the gap between research and practice in her keynote about scaling up improvements in school systems. In her talk she too identified the fact that we have research and how we go about using this, as a critical problem. Like Tom Good and Alma Harris, she agreed that we needed to use research  to inform both policy formation and practice. She cautioned that we should also consider the quality of research and, like many others, said that we should engage critically with research. She noted that we had models of research use to inform practice already, but that most of these came from the world of medicine. The difficulty then was that education and learning was more complex process, with lots of factors impinging on practice, so the simple use of medical-type models would not suffice. Vivian described how we needed a 'two way street' between practitioners and researchers to help close this gap. She recommended closer partnership working by all sectors to explore and deal with the issues faced. If people are collaborating and talking to each other it is easier to develop collective understandings and and build the trust that is necessary between all parties.

Daniel Duke, in his keynote, considered factors that come into play when principals are trying to turn around low-performing schools. He identified informed leadership as the key factor in turning such schools around. When leaders were good at this, they recognised that change could be feared by all staff and there may well be resistance to change. Leadership research, and research around change, could help equip  principals to get better at this. He noted that 'all principals exist in a world of trade-off.' That is, they have to constantly make judgements and they need to be clear on the basis for which they are making those judgements.

His keynote was followed by a really good breakout session where we considered what it was we didn't know, and what we should be focusing on next. This had a panel of Dave Reynolds, Andy Hargreaves, Roel Bosker, Alma Harris, Craig Hockbein, Karen Seashore Louis, Daniel Muijs and Marie-Christine Opdenakker who shared their thoughts. Amongst the issues they identified were: how do we apply the sound knowledge-base we have to improve outcomes for learners? How we consider the validity of the data we use, and that which we ignore? The importance of context and how this impacts on the research we use? How do we explain in-school variance of teacher performance? What about the things we used to believe and now don't? All the participants then formed small groups to consider the initial inputs and identify the one issue that we felt needed further consideration. My own group identified the issue of, why so much research has been produced and then ignored or had little impact, as the key one.

So you can see the issue around the gap between research and practice was one that exercised many minds over the course of the congress, and I am sure will continue to do so in the lead up to the next one in Glasgow January 2016.

The two aspects that I wish to share, and consider further, from the congress are collaboration and networking. I believe these two concepts to be key if we really are serious about closing this gap between research and practice. Collaboration was mentioned as a key aspect of every keynote and in all the breakout sessions I attended. Time after time people spoke of the importance of collaborative work and practices as critical factors in all sorts of different research and development projects. These ranged from individual teacher development, school development, system improvement and leadership at all levels. The best results and biggest improvements occur when we collaborate and form partnerships with others. 'None of us is as bright as all of us' as Ken Blanchard would say.

Closely linked to the concept of collaborative practice is that of network creation. ICSEI itself is a meta-network and and has a number of other networks within it. There are five networks within ICSEI and these met each day whilst the congress was happening. These are: an Educational Leadership network which aims to connect up leaders at all levels in research, policy and practice; the Methods of Researching Educational Effectiveness network, which focuses on presenting and interpreting the results of empirical studies in educational effectiveness and exchanging ideas; the Early Childhood Education and Care network, consisting of practitioners, researchers and policy-makers considering, and exchanging, research and knowledge from around the world; the Policy, Politicians and Practitioners network which aims to bring these three groups together in order to build capacity and improve services for all learners; and finally, the Data Use network, which aims to bring together those interested in, and working in, the field of data-based decision making.

All of these formal networks promote collaboration, collaborative understanding and working.  Network such as these are crucial in bringing people with particular expertise and interests together to widen their understanding, and to develop the knowledge-base that resides within them. I think we all have and need such networks, and if we haven't we need to actively find them or create them. We have super examples of such working in Scotland. Some are formal like the Scottish College for Educational Leadership (SCEL), the Career Long Professional Learning national network, the Partnership networks recently established between universities and local authorities, the Scottish Educational Research Association (SERA), professional associations and so on. But others are more informal and include networks like Pedagoo, Teachmeets, Blogs, Twitter groups and so on. All of these are important in developing understandings, practice and research and bringing people together.

So what do we need to do to close the gap between research and practice? Some steps have been touched on above but here is what I think are the important aspects that need to be addressed. 

Collaboration is key. We have to collaborate, by meeting together to share understandings and to consider how we can use research to impact on practice in every classroom.
Networking is a way of linking people and sectors interested in the same issues. They work to promote collaboration and joint working.
Trust needs to be built between researchers and practitioners. Both need to see what each brings to the table, and neither should be afraid or dismissive of the other.
Criticality is important so that practitioners are not just seen as passive receivers of wisdom passed down by researchers. Researchers need to consider what it is practitioner can bring to them and how they can help them develop the research base further
Time needs to be provided to allow practitioners to actively engage with and assimilate the findings from research. Schools need to stop being busy for busyness sake and stop looking for 'magic bullets' to solve everything
Impact should be the focus of us all. It is just as unacceptable for researchers to not consider how their research will help and impact in classrooms for learners, just as it is for practitioners to think similarly. 
Depth should be a priority for everyone. Schools need to do less in order to do more in depth, and this should be informed by data and research. We need to stop searching for 'magic bullets'.

None of the above will happen if there are not open lines of communication between practitioners and researchers. They need to be meeting and engaging on a regular basis. As a practitioner, one of the disappointments for me at ICSEI2015 was the paucity of practitioner voice. We will never close the gap if we don't take every opportunity to bring people together, and both groups have to see this as important and helpful. That is why we hope to have a bigger input from practitioners at the next congress in Glasgow. At this we will be introducing a 'Practitioner's Day' on the Saturday, where we hope to hear from Scotland's practitioners and bring them together with some of the leading researchers and thinkers from around the world. This is quite an innovative step, but one which we hopes reflects our desire to be different for a purpose, and that purpose is to improve outcomes for all learners everywhere. See you there?

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