‘Evidence-based’, ‘what works’ and ‘best practice’ are not free from theory: Why the field of educational leadership needs social, critical and political theory

Year: 2019

Author: Gowlett, Christina, Niesche, Richard

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

In recent times, education has been constructed as ‘in crisis’ in many parts of the globe, with positivist, instrumentalist and, more recently, school effectiveness and improvement agendas dominating discussions about how to ‘fix’ the system. Anything (be that research, policy or attitudinally) that is not seen to be moving in the direction of providing a ‘what works’, ‘best practice’ or ‘evidence-based’ solution is positioned as peripheral because it is portrayed as out of touch with the day-to-day lives and realities of teachers and those working in schools. There is something seriously concerning about that. We all use theory, knowingly or not, because every time we make a decision, there is a theoretical premise about the world that underpins it. Theory is not escapable from practice, yet somehow, practice is often put forward as being void of theory and, worryingly, this (false) disconnect is put forward as being a good thing. It is not uncommon for ‘best practice’, ‘evidence-informed’ and ‘what works’ policy initiatives and frameworks to be marketed (and we use business vernacular deliberately here) as good because they are not theory laden and full of academic mumbo jumbo. The irony of this false claim does not escape us. ‘Evidence-based’, ‘what works’ and ‘best practice’ ideas are not theory free. They are imbued with particular ideas about how schools and leaders should operate. Now, more than ever, is the time for the field of educational leadership to embrace social, critical and political theory. In this presentation, we will outline why educational leadership needs this injection of new thinking, and argue for an expansion of theoretical understanding.