Evidence, practice and philosophy: How can we undertake effective evidence-informed practice in Wales?

Wales is currently experiencing an unprecedented level of educational reform. Along with a distinctive approach to curriculum development comes an emphasis on transforming schools into professional learning organisations (PLOs). This results in stakeholders not only debating curricular concerns about what knowledge pupils need to know and how, but also what teachers need to know and do to improve their practice. Teachers’ engagement with research evidence in a key component of this process.

Evidence-based practice has increased in popularity since the 1990s, with an emphasis on scientific approaches emerging from the medical field (Davies 1999). Resistance to this approach includes concerns that it can supplants teachers’ professional knowledge and expertise, reducing them to technicians who potentially apply inappropriate/irrelevant findings to their teaching contexts (Biesta 2007). These critiques call for a shift to evidence-informed practice, arguing this allows for a greater synthesis of research evidence, professional knowledge and agency in enhancing teachers’ practice.

Research on teachers’ engagement with educational research in Wales shows most of the teachers surveyed believed they knew how to find and use research evidence, but they didn’t feel they had the support needed to undertake these activities. While the overall results seem favourable, there are still unanswered questions. For example, are these self-appraisals by teachers accurate? What are the conditions for supporting teachers in evidence-informed practice in school? and how can we better understand and improve these conditions?

The Welsh Government commissioned an investigation from the Wales Centre for Public Policy (WCPP) to examine these and other questions. A recent finding from the report  is the need to determine the desired behaviours associated with evidenced-informed practice and the challenges teachers face in developing them. These include research literacy, adherence to best practice in national key areas and a more reflective approach to action research and professional learning. An important consideration related to these behaviours is the ability to differentiate normative claims from empirical evidence. This involves a keen understanding of how values, beliefs and meaning-making processes inform how we produce, interpret and respond to research evidence.

Ferrero (2005) addresses the difficulty of interpreting evidence into practice:

“The point here is that translating research into practice is not as straightforward as we often pretend. While the research can usually tell us something useful about how to teach — or how not to teach — it does so at a high level of abstraction. Furthermore, research tells us almost nothing about what to teach and why to teach it. This is because what and why aren’t empirical questions; they are normative ones. Their answers derive from beliefs, value systems, and world views.” (p. 426)

Ferrero (2005) continues to emphasise the importance of values, stating “between the science of learning and the practice of teaching lie important value judgments that color our reading of the research and the implications for practice we derive from it.” These value judgments are borne from, and exercised through, ideological worldviews and philosophical considerations of education and research evidence. By critically reflecting on our own philosophical assumptions about education, and engaging with others about their views, we can come to a better understanding of research evidence and its relevance to, and potential for, improving our practice.

As I work with schools and local consortia on building teachers’ capacity for engaging in educational research, many teachers involved in developing the new curriculum for Wales have told me they felt woefully unprepared for curriculum-making because they lacked the theoretical tools – the philosophical knowledge of curriculum theory and design. This is partly due, they say, to the tumultuous state of educational policy in Wales which has subjected teachers to a crowded, heavily prescribed national curriculum, increased levels of school competition and severe accountability measures. In this setting, philosophical endeavours are sacrificed in favour of more “practical” considerations. However, through the Pioneer School model, many teachers feel they have benefited from having the time, knowledge and support to engage in thinking philosophically about their craft.

While some teachers have exhibited an enthusiasm for engaging in philosophical considerations, others have expressed disdain for such endeavours, describing them as self-indulgent “navel-gazing.” These responses sadden me, because if teachers do not value thinking philosophically about education and their practice, they run the risk of misinforming their practice, of disempowering their pedagogy, and contributing to the suppression – and possible erosion – of the intellectual foundations of their profession.

Engaging in evidence-informed practice is not simply translating “fact” into action. It is a purposeful consideration of the factors leading to the production and communication of evidence, as well as how we interpret and implement it in our own practice. The effectiveness and potential of evidence-informed practice – the transformative promise of it if you will, is not solely dependent on its technical application. Rather, it lies in our ability to differentiate between normative and empirical claims, in understanding the values embedded within the philosophies of education that organise our approaches to teaching and learning, and in our attempts at robust, thoughtful and considerate engagements with evidence and its relationship to our pedagogical beliefs and practices and those of our colleagues.


Biesta, G. (2007) Why ‘What Works’ Still Won’t Work: from Evidence-Based to Value-Based Education. Studies in Philosophy of Education. 29 (5) pp. 491-503.

Davies, P. (1999) What is Evidence-based Education?, British Journal of Educational Studies, 47:2, 108-121, DOI: 10.1111/1467-8527.00106

Ferrero, D. (2005) PDoes Research-based Mean Value-free? PHI DELTA KAPPAN. pp.424-432.

Ferrero, D. (2005). Pathways to Reform: Start with Values. Retrieved from http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/feb05/vol62/num05/Pathways-to-Reform@-Start-With-Values.aspx on 08/04/2019.

Hargreaves, D.H. (1996) Teaching as a Research-Based Profession: Possibilities and Prospects (Cambridge, Teacher Training Agency Annual Lecture).