What works and what doesn’t? Should students be grouped by ability? How big should classes be? How long should they run for?
Evidence for Learning (E4L)’s mission is to provide educators with the answers to those questions.
The non-profit organisation has spent the last two years pooling existing studies on educational practices, commissioning their own and summarising the findings as part of a free, online database, known as the 'Teaching & Learning Toolkit'.
“The Toolkit is a summary of more than 13,000 research studies from around the world ... which has been grouped into 34 approaches to improving academic outcomes,” E4L director Matthew Deeble says.
“That covers things like whole school approaches, like school uniforms and behaviour interventions, down to specific pedagogical approaches such as mastery learning, or curriculum-based instruction like phonics.”
The Toolkit has an accessible design, with educational practices rated by their cost to implement, efficacy and E4L’s confidence in the available research.
Efficacy is determined by looking at the average additional learning progress of a student over a year.
For example, feedback is considered a high impact strategy, with students that receive it expected to get the equivalent of eight extra months’ progress over a year, when compared to students that don’t receive feedback.
“The key bit about feedback is, one, feedback is not praise for effort, because praise for effort on its own can dampen the idea of a further drive forward,” Deeble says.
“So feedback needs to be specific to the action that’s occurred, it needs to describe well what a student has displayed and the next thing they should do to improve their work or their learning.
“And so when feedback is delivered in this way, it makes measurable, and, over time, substantial, improvements in student achievement.”
On the other end of the scale, E4L rates the practice of holding students back a year as the most regressive strategy in the Toolkit, with students losing an average of four months’ worth of progress as a result.
“It’s a bit counter-intuitive because you’d imagine that if a student struggled with the work that’s already there in front of them, that giving them another year to catch up would be helpful,” Deeble says.
“But what the evidence has shown is that, particularly for kids from vulnerable circumstances or disadvantaged backgrounds, that it has that negative impact because if they didn’t understand or appreciate the material the first time around, that creates no guarantee that they’ll understand it better the second time around.
“And it also creates a negative self-perception about their ability to learn.
"So kids do more poorly after they repeat a year.”
Sometimes E4L’s findings require closer analysis, with their entry on teaching assistants a prime example.
The Toolkit shows that teaching assistants have the mildly positive impact of one extra months’ learning, but this average lies in the middle of highly variable outcomes.
“What the research does say about teaching aids is when they’re used to support and not replace what teachers do, they can have a fantastic improvement on classroom learning,” Deeble says.
“But where they’re used as ... an alternative to a teacher, which sometimes happens when schools will say ‘I’ll give the one or two kids that are struggling the most to the teaching aid, because then they’ll get more individual attention’, it has a negative consequence.
“... You have the less well-trained instructor working with those kids, and so the teaching aids can often reinforce poor practice, not give the chance for the kids to lift up by the support of a trained teacher.”
While many strategies are too expensive for individual teachers to implement in their own classrooms, it is fortunate that most of the highly effective strategies are also among the cheapest.
“The really interesting thing out of all that research ... is the biggest difference is teaching quality, and the ways in which teachers work in their classroom, or work together between classrooms actually have the highest effect size,” Deeble says.
“... Things like the Toolkit ... can give them indicators of ways in which they could be amending or improving their practice for low to no cost, that could make a big difference for the kids in their care.”
It’s for this reason that Deeble says, were he in charge of the education system, his focus would be on professional development.
“We know from the research that teachers make the biggest difference, and schools that support collective efficacy by teachers [are] where we see the biggest gains.
“Part of building and supporting teachers is developing them professionally and then requiring of them, as professionals, that they in turn focus on improving their practice, and so I would put my money into building and supporting the profession and ... as part of that profession, building and supporting a transparent and accountable professional model for growing student achievements.”
Deeble says that the Toolkit was developed in response to the vast gulf between the volume of educational research being conducted and its availability to teachers.
“Every day teachers around the country turn up to do the best work and try and make the biggest difference for their kids’ learning, so there’s no lack of goodwill.
“There’s also teachers using everything that’s available to them to make the best decision they can each day, but what they don’t have at the moment is the body of knowledge from thousands of schools, hundreds of thousands of schools and millions of teachers from around the world, and yet there are researchers that are looking at that material.”
E4L had its profile boosted in recent months by recommendations made in the second Gonski review that the Government set up an independent organisation to evaluate the effectiveness of different educational practices.
“One of the recommendations of the Gonski review was to create an independent national evidence institute, and so we support that but the key word in that context is ‘independent’,” Deeble says.
“Because unless the evidence body is useful to and trusted by practicing educators it won’t be effective, and the way to be useful to and trusted by educators is to be seen to be above politics and here for the long term, to help teachers make better choices.”