Lucas Walsh

It’s not just identifying quality evidence, it’s quality use of it that makes the difference

Medical experts around the world are channeling rapidly evolving, and sometimes contradictory, research evidence to inform politicians and the public on the best way forward during this pandemic. A high level of expertise is required to navigate this torrent of information, determine the most appropriate evidence, communicate it, and help work out ways to apply it across diverse populations.

School teachers and leaders, like medical experts, demonstrate a similar expertise to determine appropriate evidence from a range of sources, including student data and research evidence, then adapt and apply it to inform decision-making, planning and implementation in diverse education settings.

Yet, how school educators access and use research evidence is still far from well understood. So at Monash University we have embarked on a large scale, five year project to investigate how teachers in Australia use research evidence to inform their practice, and to help educators who are interested in improving the quality of their use of evidence in their classrooms and schools .

Our project

Understanding how educators use research evidence is an emerging field of research in education and is at the heart of the Monash Q Project. Our research is a first for Australia.

We began by searching more than 10,000 scholarly records from databases across education, health, social work and policy, as well as over 100 documents and 65 organizational websites to understand what it means to use evidence well. We reviewed and synthesised this global knowledge and, coupled with regular feedback from project partners and stakeholders, used it as the basis for defining what quality use of evidence might be in education, and to develop a best practice framework for use of evidence in classrooms and schools.

We defined the quality use of research evidence in education as: the thoughtful engagement with and implementation of appropriate research evidence, supported by a blend of individual and organisational enabling components within a complex system.

Our framework describes the key characteristics of quality use of research evidence that are salient to education. It focuses on the quality of use of evidence as well as the quality of evidence.

Quality use of research evidence framework

Our framework is a resource for anyone interested in improving the use of research evidence within and across all levels of schools and school systems.

At the centre of our framework are two core components we believe are needed to use evidence well. The first is the ability to find and understand appropriate research evidence, and the second is to be able to thoughtfully engage with and implement the evidence.

The ability to identify appropriate research evidence

Our research indicated that being able to identify appropriate research evidence well involves, among other things, understanding the strengths and weaknesses of different forms of research evidence, as well as their potential and practicality to inform teaching and learning. 

According to a principal in a P-12 school in Queensland who was involved in our study, using appropriate research evidence well means

“considering the context of the research, and working out the extent to which the research applies to our local context and students”.

The ability to thoughtfully engage with and implement the evidence

Alongside the ability to identify appropriate research evidence is the ability to thoughtfully engage with and implement evidence. This involves engagement with the evidence, shared deliberation about its meaning and effective integration of aspects of evidence within practice. Our research indicated that to do this well includes questioning assumptions about the evidence within the context of practice, working collaboratively in professional learning communities, and working to adapt strategies over time. 

In our study a middle school leader in a Victorian High School emphasised,

“all teachers involved in implementing a program or practice that purports to be informed by research evidence would have sufficient professional learning time ALLOCATED to read, review, and critically analyse that evidence”.

The inter-dependencies of these two components of our framework are more nuanced than simply applying research to practice, particularly in highly variable contexts such as schools and classrooms. 

Cross sector insights

Our cross-sector research in health, social care and policy provided insights around evidence use, highlighting a central role for practitioner expertise in using evidence well. Practitioner expertise was characterised as the ability to apply external and practical knowledge in context – referred to as tacit and explicit knowledge. Far from just following the evidence, all sectors emphasised the need for such expert interaction with theevidence.

In one of the first and most enduring definitions of evidence-based medicine, American-Canadian physician and a pioneer in evidence-based medicine, David Lawrence Sackett, emphasised the need to balance external evidence with expertise:

“Without clinical expertise, practice risks becoming tyrannized by external evidence, for even excellent external evidence may be inapplicable to or inappropriate for an individual patient. Without current best external evidence, practice risks becoming rapidly out of date, to the detriment of patients.”

Practitioner expertise and professionalism

These ideas are relevant in the education sector, where educators have to navigate education research, some more fashionable than others, to determine what is most appropriate for their own students. With the growing expectation for Australian schools to use research evidence to underpin their improvement efforts, the challenge of building expertise (and confidence) to use evidence becomes more salient.

According to British educationalist, Professor Dylan Wiliam, “Evidence is important, of course, but what is more important is that we need to build teacher expertise and professionalism so that teachers can make better judgments about when, and how, to use research.”

The need to understand and support such expertise raises the question: How can practising ‘thoughtful engagement with and implementation of appropriate research evidence’ become part of educational professionalism?

As our experiences of the COVID-19 crisis have shown, evidence does not speak for itself but depends on careful decisions about whether, when and how to use and act on it in specific contexts, raising the question: How can quality use of research help us understand the potential and limitations of research evidence in responding to educational challenges?

Responding to the current pandemic requires growing our collective understanding of and respect for the level of expertise needed to negotiate an ever-changing body of knowledge and then apply it effectively in a rapidly unfurling context. In education, the Monash Q Project is working to better understand what this kind of expertise looks like among teachers and leaders in our schools.

Now, more than ever, a concerted effort is needed to understand, develop and support educators and schools to make better evidence-informed decisions to improve the quality of teaching and learning.

Connie Cirkony is a research fellow with the Q Project in the Faculty of Education at Monash University, investigating how educators use evidence in their practice. Connie’s background is in science and environmental education, and in educational practice and policy. Her research is focused on improving students learning experiences. Connie is on Twitter @ConnieCirkony

Lucas Walsh is Professor of Education Policy and Practice, Youth Studies, in the Faculty of Education at Monash University. He is currently a chief investigator on The Q Project (Quality Use of Evidence Driving Quality Education) funded by The Paul Ramsay Foundation. Recent books include: Imagining Youth Futures: University Students in Post-Truth Times (Springer, with Rosalyn Black), and Young People in Digital Society: Control Shift (Palgrave Macmillan with Amanda Third, Philippa Collin, and Rosalyn Black,.

Mark Rickinson is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education at Monash University. His work is focused on understanding and improving the use of research in education. He is currently leading the Monash Q Project, a five-year initiative with the Paul Ramsay Foundation to improve the use of research evidence in Australian schools.

Joanne Gleeson is a Research Fellow with the Q Project in the Faculty of Education at Monash University. Joanne draws from cross-sectoral professional experience in executive human resource management, business consulting, careers counselling, education and education research. Her research is focused on improving adolescents’ career identity, employability and education-work transitions. Joanne is on Twitter @dr_gleeson

Mandy Salisbury is a Research Assistant in the Faculty of Education at Monash University. She has worked in the early years and primary sectors in teaching and leadership roles, and also has commercial experience. Mandy has a passion for supporting teachers and pursuing equitable educational opportunities and outcomes.

Access the Monash Q Project’s Quality Use of Research Education Framework

Access the Discussion Paper “Towards Quality Use of Research Evidence In Education.

Learn more about the Monash Q Project

Join the Twitter Conversation @MonashQProject

Readers are encouraged to connect with the Q Project and be part of strategic dialogue and system-level change around research evidence use in Australian education.

Is there a need for multi-faith education in all Australian schools?

Australia’s diversity is frequently celebrated by politicians as a multicultural success story. Schools, particularly public schools, educating children with diverse cultural and social backgrounds, are seen as the lynchpin to such success. Yet schools and other education sites in Australia constantly confront tensions and difficulties in their efforts to be inclusive and to create a climate of social cohesion.

Our research looked at the potential and limitations of current approaches used by teachers and school leaders who work in a school community experiencing high levels of racialised, gendered and religious conflict, often fuelled by fear politics, mainly Islamophobia, in mainstream media.

What we found supports calls for critical multi-faith education courses to be taught in Australian public schools.  We believe this would be a welcome resource for teachers and schools.

Our research findings also point to the need for support and professional learning for teachers who face these complex social and religious tensions in their classrooms, schools and school communities every day.

Our research project

This research project was generated from a larger study (still to be published) that sought to examine school-level responses to social cohesion in Victorian schools. In this project we focused on one of the case studies, a small state primary school situated in an outer suburb, that we refer to as  ‘Starflower’ Primary School. It is recognised as exemplary in its efforts to support social cohesion especially in relation to fostering a sense of belonging and acceptance for students and parents of minority faiths.

Starflower Primary is located in a community (of low socio-economic status) that has experienced much change over the past thirty or so years. The cultural diversity has markedly increased from a largely white Anglo population in the 1980s to a vibrant mix of ethnic cultures where approximately 70% of students speak a language other than English. The majority of students identify as Muslim, followed by Christian and then a mix of other religions. The majority of teachers and administrators identify as Anglo-Australian. The school performs well on external and public measures of academic learning such as NAPLAN.

Although the teachers and leadership team who participated in the study generally saw the climate of Starflower Primary in a positive light, they did relay many stories of social conflict. This conflict occurred within and beyond the school community and was associated with racial, religious and gender discrimination.  For example the teachers spoke of one Muslim family who had been “chased” out of the community by an Anglo-Australian family who “used to go in and trash their house at night”. Children from both families were enrolled at the school.

They also told of gendered reactions and attitudes from “Middle Eastern” boys and men towards female staff members, including a father telling the female principal that he would not speak to her about an issue at school because she was a woman.

Our research included interviews with the school principal and leadership team, data collection and debriefing conversations with the principal. This study was largely interview-based.

Secular Christianity and Australian public education

Anxieties around terror and rising social unrest

The terrorist attacks in the US on September 11, 2001 and those that followed have fuelled a demonizing of Muslims. As a result the Muslim community is bearing the brunt of increased levels of discrimination. Also the fear of terror has generated intense interest and resourcing (from the state) to the growing industry of countering terror and fostering social cohesion.

There has been a range of different responses to these anxieties and unrest within the context of public education in Australia

Public school policy reactions

Some of these responses have been driven by fears that schools are becoming breeding grounds for radicalisation, for example, the state-wide audit of prayer groups in all NSW public schools and the instating of training for educators to identify students who may be at risk of radicalisation.

Others are focused on security such as the Federal Government’s Schools Security Programme (2015-2018) that provides ‘at risk’ schools with funding for security infrastructure, such as CCTV.

There have also been responses that are more educative in their focus on countering religious racism, especially Islamophobia, through embedding the teaching of religious beliefs and spirituality across the curriculum.  A good example of this is the new Victorian curriculum for state schools (Foundation to Year 10) that includes Ethical Capability as a key learning area. The aim here is to broaden students’ understandings and appreciation of different religious perspectives. The content includes opportunities for critical thinking and reflection towards developing students’ capacities to apply these understandings to the investigation of ethical problems.

Teacher understandings of secularity

As outlined in the Victorian Government’s Education and Training Reform Act Australian public schools are governed by an overriding principle of secularity that does not permit the promotion of ‘any particular religious practice, denomination or sect’ but that provides for general religious education that ‘assist[s] students to understand the world around them and act with tolerance and respect towards people from all cultures’.

In our research, the first part of this definition of secularity provided justification for dismissing religion as a topic or area of discussion and learning as one teacher’s story suggests.

The teacher tells of interrupting an argument between two young Muslim girls about gender modesty and what it means to be a good Muslim. One was telling the other that she could not be a good Muslim and wear shorts to school. The teacher said her response was to tell them:-

‘…we don’t bring religion into school … Religion is personal. I don’t tell you about what religion I am. I don’t push that on you guys. And you guys should not be talking about religion here at all.’

This dismissal of religion was understood as consistent with the secular position of public schools in Australia – to not promote ‘any particular religious practice, denomination or sect’ (Victoria State Government 2017). Like fellow teachers at the school this teacher was particularly mindful of not offending the Muslim students and parents.

Another teacher from the same school commented:

I’ll be very honest, I think some [teachers] go, ‘Well, okay … we’ve accepted different cultures, but then you don’t want to respect ours’ … as one teacher said, ‘Well, it’s a state school … it’s secular’ … If you want your child brought up in the Catholic system, well, you can send them there. If you bring them to the state system, you’ve got to understand, be accepting of what goes on in that culture…

Secularity in this regard was associated with a rejection of religion – a common but narrow view based on avoiding the promotion of any particular religious practice, denomination or sect (consistent with the Education and Training Reform Act). In our research, we noted the potential for this exclusion to reinforce understandings of secularity as distinct from and oppositional to religion, within a binary where secularity is associated with rationality and objectivity and religion is associated with irrationality and subjectivity. These understandings and practices do not reflect a nuanced understanding of secularism, nor do they recognise the Christian privilege embedded within Australia’s public education system.

Christian privilege

Christian privilege plays out in Australian schools in explicit and implicit ways. Explicitly, it plays out through the National Chaplaincy Program (which provides funding for schools to employ a chaplain but is primarily serviced by Christian organisations) and the conducting of religious instruction classes during school hours, which is predominantly un-regulated and delivered by evangelical religious groups.

Implicitly, it plays out through the normalising of practices (sometimes masquerading as secular) such as timetabling around the Christian calendar which does not recognise non-Christian occasions and days of worship, curriculum choices that reflect Eurocentric (typically Christian) perspectives, standards and values, and dietary norms, which tend not to include Kosher or Halal foods. Such structures and practices reflect an infusing of Christian hegemony that reinforces the marginality and stereotyping of non-Christian religions.

Educating for religious inclusion and social cohesion

Teachers are not well equipped

Schools are confronted daily with new and increasingly complex forms of racial, religious and gender conflict. What our research indicates is that teachers are not well equipped to productively respond to and address some of the contentions arising from the cultural and religious diversity in our classrooms.

Teachers’ personal beliefs and perceptions about secularity and religion are significant in shaping their practice and relations with students. Engaging in ongoing self-critique is a crucial personal resource that is necessary for teachers to identify how their beliefs might impact on countering or contributing to racialised, gendered, religious-based or other oppressions.

Teachers require ongoing, regular and targeted support and professional learning to develop the personal resources and pedagogic skills to support their students’ critical understandings of religious and non-religious views

An interpretive, reflexive, critical and student-centred approach is needed

Such teaching requires a particular level of content knowledge about religious, secular, philosophical and ethical concepts that are important for facilitating informed and critical discussions that can broaden students’ understandings and appreciation of different perspectives on the world.

Important here is an interpretive, reflexive, critical and student-centred approach that

1) is inclusive of, and sensitive to, the views and beliefs of students from a wide range of religious and non-religious backgrounds;

2) adopts an interpretive approach where there is the opportunity for productive discussion around multiple perspectives;

3) is conducted in a ‘safe space’ where students feel comfortable to express their views but where there are agreed ‘ground rules’ to moderate behaviour (such as respect for others, democratic process and due regard for accuracy);

 4) reflects a spirit of openness in which personal views or theoretical positions are not imposed upon students; and

5) encourages an attitude of critical enquiry

Such an approach reflects potential in teaching for religious inclusion and social cohesion. It can engender a sense of belonging and acceptance in relation to religious identities.

As professor of sociology at Monash University, Gary Bouma, argues

 ‘for Australia to continue to be a harmonious culturally and religiously diverse society, it is in our national interest to invest in multi-faith education as a strategy to promote social inclusion’.

Rolling out multi-faith education and support for such education across Australia would take commitment and dedicated funding from our governments. We believe it would be an invaluable investment in ensuring the continuation of Australia’s multicultural success story.

Amanda Keddie is a Research Professor at Deakin University (Melbourne, Australia). She leads the program Children, Young People and their Community within REDI (Research for Educational Impact). Her published work examines the broad gamut of schooling processes, practices and conditions that can impact on the pursuit of social justice in schools including student identities, teacher identities, pedagogy, curriculum, leadership, school structures, policy agendas and socio-political trends. Amanda is on Twitter@amandaMkeddie

Jane Wilkinson is Associate Dean for Graduate Research, Faculty of Education, Monash University, Australia and Associate Professor Educational Leadership. Jane’s main research and teaching interests are in the areas of educational leadership for social justice and practice theory (feminist, Bourdieuian and practical philosophy). Jane has conducted extensive research with refugee students, schools and universities in regional and urban Australia. Her most recent study examines the role played by school and community leaders in building social cohesion. Jane’s new books include: Educational leadership as a culturally-constructed practice: New directions and possibilities (with Laurette Bristol, Routledge, 2018); and Navigating complex spaces: Refugee background students transitioning into higher education (with Loshini Naidoo, Misty Adoniou and Kip Langat, Singapore: Springer, 2018).Jane is lead editor of the Journal of Educational Administration and History and a member of the editorial boards, Journal of Educational Leadership, Policy and Practice; Journal of Gender Studies and International Journal of Leadership in Education.

Dr Lucas Walsh is Professor of Education Policy and Practice, Youth Studies, and Interim Dean of the Faculty of Education at Monash University. His work explores responses to the questions: what does the world beyond school look like for young people and what types of education and training do they need to navigate it? He is currently a chief investigator on The Q Project (Quality Use of Evidence Driving Quality Education) funded by The Paul Ramsay Foundation. Recent books include Educating Generation Next (Palgrave), and with Rosalyn Black, Rethinking Youth Citizenship after the Age of Entitlement (Bloomsbury) and Imagining Youth Futures: University Students in Post-Truth Times (Springer). He next book with Amanda Third, Philippa Collin, and Rosalyn Black is Young People in Digital Society: Control Shift (Palgrave Macmillan).

Dr Luke Howie is Senior Lecturer, Politics and International Relations, School of Social Sciences at Monash University and Deputy Director of the Global Terrorism Research Centre (GTReC).

Read more about our research in our paper …we don’t bring religion into school’: issues of religious inclusion and social cohesion