‘The EEF Toolkit has revealed the academic secret garden to teachers'

The author of the Sutton Trust-Education Endowment Foundation Teaching and Learning Toolkit responds to academics' criticism of his work

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Academics will always disagree. It’s in our nature.

Last week Gert Biesta and Terry Wrigley expressed their concerns with the risks associated with simplifying complex academic research into accessible information, as the Education Endowment Foundation does in the Teaching and Learning Toolkit.

But there is a danger that reasonable academic debate distracts from the fundamental issue: how can we make academic research useful for teachers?

For far too long, education research has lived in an academic "secret garden", accessible only to a select few. To get even a very basic overview of the research around one topic, you would have had to have spent hours – if not days – reading papers, usually presented in inaccessible jargon and hidden in expensive journals. 

Academic research was of little use or relevance to teachers in the classroom.

When we launched the Toolkit in 2011, our aim was to change this. We designed it specifically with busy headteachers in mind. "Best bets" for improving children's attainment are presented in the language teachers will immediately understand: the extra months of learning that approaches might lead to during an academic year.

The top-level overview of each Toolkit strand helps to set a range of research in context. We use meta-analyses and existing research reviews to compare effects across these different areas and make an estimate of the cost and impact of different approaches as accurately as we can. While this will inevitably involve combining studies with different results, the security rating for each strand gives teachers a clear indication of how confident we are of the underlying evidence.

Making evidence accessible

The Toolkit can only tell us what has been successful, on average, in other contexts, with other pupils, in other schools. This is “what’s worked”, rather than what will work somewhere else. It is this that seems to be at the heart of the two professors’ concerns.

But they do teachers a disservice. All serious advocates of evidence-based practice know that it is the combination of external research evidence with professional judgement – knowledge of your pupils, your contexts, and their challenges – that really makes the difference.

Where the average indicates that it is a good bet, schools will want to make sure they adopt or implement it in a way which increases the chances of success for them. We present this information and the range for each strand of the Toolkit in a technical appendix which sets out the sources on which it is based. Schools can also look at some of the other complementary work of the EEF in terms of its promising projects, its school themes, campaigns and guidance reports.

There is little doubt that by opening up the academic secret garden, the Toolkit has helped to create a more evidence-led culture in the classroom. Teachers now ask questions about research in a way they simply didn’t five years ago. I’ll be delighted when it is teachers who are debating research as robustly as Gert Biesta, Terry Wrigley and I are today. That will be when the Toolkit really has shown its worth.

Steve Higgins is professor of education at Durham University and author of the Sutton Trust-EEF Teaching and Learning Toolkit

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