Truth, trust and teachers

| October 3, 2020

The federal government’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Nick Coatsworth, recently wrote that while Australian states and territories “are largely heading in the same direction in relation to how best to school our children while we battle coronavirus”, differences in the pace at which states and territories are moving “has led to a sense of confusion”.

To address this confusion, he suggests, “we need to go back to the evidence, and then we need to go beyond that, and build our community’s trust in our schooling recommendations”.

Additionally, we must trust the teachers.

The evidence suggests that we’re starting from a stronger footing than other public institutions. While recent Australian survey data suggests that trust in politicians and the media is in short supply, the reverse is true for teachers.

A study by Monash University researchers published earlier this year found that 93% of the Australian public said they trusted teachers to do a good job in the classroom.

Trust in teaching, and the evidence used to develop learning

While we need to rely on and trust in evidence to inform government directives about schooling during COVID-19, of equal importance is understanding how teachers as skilled professionals use evidence to inform teaching and learning.

Coupled with teachers’ commitment towards their students is their use of evidence-informed practice. There are worldwide efforts to improve the use of research evidence across fields of health, social care, education and international development.

In Australian education, there have been similar calls for the development of an evidence-informed approach (for example, by the Australia Productivity Commission), a research-rich profession, and a national evidence institute.

Such developments raise important questions about what it means to use research evidence well in education. We tend to focus on the quality of the evidence, but improved evidence use in education requires clarity about not only what counts as quality research evidence, but also what counts as quality use.

This matters, because while having credible evidence to support a given practice or decision in a classroom is important, how, when and where it’s used requires particular expertise. How to do this well is poorly understood.

To understand the importance of using quality research in relation to Australian schooling, we’ve searched more than 10,000 scholarly records from databases across education, health, social work and policy, as well as more than 100 documents and 65 organisational websites. Here are some initial findings and areas we are exploring:

Mindsets matter

Building better evidence use requires the development of education professionals with not only the knowledge and capabilities to understand what is the most appropriate research evidence, but also the dispositions and values to be open to its meaning. The capacity to integrate the research evidence with professional experience and work with others to figure out how to use evidence in context is further required.

Collaboration is key

This sophisticated undertaking cannot be done well in isolation. Education organisations, such as schools, not only need the structures and processes to enable groups of staff to engage with evidence, but also the ethos and values to make this a cultural norm, bolstered by the leadership and commitment to demonstrate and promote its significance.

Trust is central

Trust is important when it comes to engaging with evidence – such as weighing up the trustworthiness of different types of evidence, or having trusted colleagues to help make sense of evidence.

Given the low levels of trust in democratic institutions, public trust in teachers should be prized, and teachers given the respect and support they need to do their job well. The system-wide commitment to foster evidence-informed practice is one small way of advancing continuous improvement.

“Trust,” Dr Coatsworth writes, “is such an important commodity in society.”

With more uncertainty ahead, continued public (and government) trust in the professional expertise of teachers to not only do a good job, but also to help re-envision a high-quality education experience for students for a post-COVID future, will be essential.

This article was written by Lucas Walsh, a Professor of Globalisation Leadership and Policy; Connie Cirkony, a Research Fellow in Globalisation Leadership and Policy, Faculty of Education; Mark Rickinson, an Associate Professor of Global Engagement; Jo Gleeson, a Research Fellow in Globalisation Leadership and Policy and Mandy Salisbury, a Research Assistant in the Faculty of Education at Monash University.  It was published by Lens.


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