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Five Vital Roles for School Leaders in the Pursuit of Evidence of Evidence-informed Practice

by Chris Brown & Joel Malin - March 20, 2017

In this commentary, the authors set out thoughts on school leadersí crucial roles in fostering evidence-informed and -engaged learning environments. They argue that school leaders must address both transformational and pedagogical aspects. Addressing both, they provide a definitive summary checklist for the role of school leaders in developing their schools in this manner.

Engaging with research and evidence as part of a process of effective professional development has substantial benefits for teachers and students (see Handscomb & MacBeath, 2003; Mincu, 2014; Supovitz, 2015). However, fostering vibrant, evidence-informed learning environments has proven challenging. Also, the failure of research to make a widespread impact on teachers’ practices has been recognized as an international phenomenon (Bryk, Gomez, & Grunow, 2011). Like others, we view school leaders as linchpins relative to these efforts. In this commentary, we set out thoughts on school leaders’ crucial roles in fostering evidence-informed and -engaged learning environments. These are environments where there is a deliberate strategic approach to fostering practices and cultures informed by research evidence across all staff members.

To foster truly evidence-informed learning environments, we argue that school leaders must address both transformational and pedagogical aspects. As such, we uniquely draw together core themes emerging from recent literature into these two aspects and provide a definitive summary checklist for the role of school leaders in developing their schools as evidence-informed. We begin with two factors that cover the transformational acts of enabling research use to be embedded as an organizational goal. The remaining checklist items focus on the pedagogical aspects of research engagement. This ensures that research evidence use can lead to improved teaching.


As authors like Roberts (2015) argue, school leaders must actively and demonstrably buy-in to evidence-informed practice if it is to become part of a school’s way of life. As such, school leaders must not only promote the vision for and develop the culture of an evidence-engaged school (including the promotion of values that support genuine learning communities), they must also provide the necessary resources and supporting structures so that sustained and meaningful research engagement can become a reality, and resulting changes in practice can be widely applied. For example, they must ensure that teachers:

have regular time and space to come together,

have access to research, and

are upskilled so that they are able to engage critically with research (see Bennett, 2015).

Distribution of research leadership can also be effective. However, teacher leaders’ likelihood of success must be maximized, the vision for success must be clear, and the path for reaching the vision cleared.

It is also important that school leaders not view research engagement as someone else’s job. Senior leaders’ active involvement with research activity is vital. They need to ensure that it remains top of mind and that any issues in engaging with research and evidence are encountered firsthand. Moreover, their involvement enables senior leaders to walk the talk not only to demonstrate their commitment, but also engage in more learning-centered leadership practices such as modeling, monitoring, mentoring, and coaching (e.g., dialogue), thus ensuring wider buy-in across the school (e.g., Earley, 2013, Southworth, 2009). As both Stoll (2015) and Earl (2015) note, a key characteristic for senior leaders to model is having an enquiry habit of mind. This includes consistently looking for a range of perspectives, purposefully seeking relevant information from numerous and diverse sources, and continually exploring new ways to tackle perennial problems.


A key to many definitions of leadership is that there must be a process of influence. More than just those people who possess formal responsibility can engage in leadership activity as a form of influence (Finnigan, Daly, Hylton, & Che, 2015). Jim Spillane and his colleagues (2010) also posit that informal leaders, perhaps more than formal leaders, determine the fate of reform initiatives. As a consequence, the implementation of new initiatives, such as research and evidence use, must attend to the informal aspects of an organization as it is lived by its members day-to-day. In attending to the informal organization, it is argued, “we expand our focus beyond formally designated leaders in a school’s advice network to also include those individuals who are key advice givers, but who have no formal leadership designation” (Spillane, Healey, & Kim, 2010, p. 30). As Stoll and Brown (2015) argue, one of the core issues in bridging the gap between evidence and practice is the need to influence teachers’ values or beliefs and change their behaviors. The vision of school leaders must be consensual and grounded in collaborative ideals embraced throughout the informal organization. Any vision for research engagement needs people who champion it on the ground, including middle leaders, if it is to be more than superficially embedded.


A great deal of evidence recommends that professional development that makes a difference needs to start with the end in mind (Earley & Porritt, 2014; Lemov, 2010; Stoll, 2008, 2015; Stoll, Harris, & Handscomb 2012; Taylor & Spence-Thomas, 2015). One should clarify intended outcomes before commencing any professional learning activity. This approach includes two key benefits. First, it provides a point of focus, a goal, or a vision to strive toward. Second, starting with the end in mind provides a way to measure impact and to assess how effective any efforts have been in achieving this vision. Following evaluation and sharing, practices should be collaboratively refined, radically changed, or removed as appropriate. This means research engagement activities should not be considered one-off in nature and must be undertaken within the context of a wider iterative cycle of inquiry and improvement. For example, the Connect to Learn (C2L) approach was developed by Harris and Jones (2012) and later used by Taylor and Spence-Thomas (2015).


As Saunders argues (2014, 2015), effective research use does not mean replacing teacher knowledge with academic knowledge or with what works information emanating from sources such as the Institute for Education Science’s What Works Clearinghouse (U.S.) or the Education Endowment Foundation’s Teaching and Learning Tool Kit (England). Effective research use stems from developing expertise. This ensures that teachers are able to bring together what is known (e.g., formal knowledge) with what they know about their context, their students, and what they currently see as effective practice. Along a similar vein, as we see in Supovitz (2015), effective data use is that which helps teachers make connections and examine the relationships between what they do (e.g., teaching activity) and its outcomes (e.g., how students fare in response). Engaging in this type of process, described by Brown and Rogers as knowledge creation (2015), means that teachers gain a wider understanding of both the causes of problems relating to teaching and learning and practical understanding for how these challenges might be addressed.


A school leader’s vision needs people on the ground who can champion it so that it can become deeply embedded. Similarly, aspects of learning-centered leadership also need support from teachers who agree that specific approaches to improving teaching and learning are required. They also need to be happy to endorse them to peers. In related research, Stoll and Brown (2015) detailed how they strategically selected teacher leaders for this role. They sought those who were keen to tackle and promote evidence-informed change. They soon discovered that the most effective catalysts were influential within and beyond their schools. Crucially, their peers were willing to learn from and engage with them.

Social network analysis (SNA) and methods (Daly, 2010) provide another way of identifying who has influence in schools. A good example of this is England’s Research Learning Communities project being led by this commentary’s first author (Brown, 2015). Here SNA is used to identify those teachers who others turn to for support in pedagogic expertise, research informed advice on teaching and learning, and collaborative activities (e.g., joint lesson planning and the exchange of teaching materials). These central and influential people, along with formal leaders in their schools, were then chosen as the project’s evidence champions. Between the period of 2014–2016, these champions were brought together into learning communities, with activities designed to help them increase the awareness and use of evidence throughout their schools and to measure the impact of doing so.

Another way of thinking about who is in the room is to consider what expertise and resources are required to make research engagement happen and, if necessary, seek this from external sources. Louise Stoll and Chris Brown partnered with Challenge Partners, a group of over 300 schools across England that work collaboratively to improve teacher and pupil outcomes. They give participating schools access to formal research, skilled facilitators, a network of teacher leaders that could form an instant learning community covering many sites, and a central coordinating function that could negotiate release and cover across 15 schools, pay cover costs for teachers, and help ensure schools were all broadly moving in the same direction simultaneously. Stoll also makes the point that teachers and leaders need critical friends who will ask challenging questions (see 2008, 2012, 2015). As research suggests, academics are often well-placed to ask these challenging questions (see Greany, 2015; Greany & Brown, 2014). In the U.S., research-practice partnerships (RPPs) are increasingly being forged as a collaborative means of investigating problems of practice and generating solutions (Coburn & Penuel, 2016). A special type of RPP occurring with increased frequency in the U.S., and closely related to Stoll and Brown’s project, involves forming and leveraging networked improvement communities (Bryk, Gomez, & Grunow, 2011). In all of these cases, the success of these partnerships will require school leaders who can foster the support required, but who can also ensure adequate time and space is created for practitioners and researchers to come together.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: March 20, 2017
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 21869, Date Accessed: 5/28/2022 8:56:43 AM

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