The bigger picture: taking a systems approach to encouraging research use in education

This post originally appeared on the BERA blog and is shared here with BERA’s kind permission:

 Whilst it is not always easy to see the tectonic plates moving, a culture shift appears to be occurring in English schools towards widespread engagement with research (Department for Education, 2022). Yet, when we consider the development of evidence-informed practice we often focus on schools and teachers, rather than the education system as a whole. In a recent Review of Education paper we have taken a wider perspective to consider the overall systems in which research evidence is produced, mobilised and used (available here).

But what exactly do we mean by a ‘research use system’ in education and what are the potential implications for schools, policy makers and intermediary organisations?

A system can be defined as “a set of components that work together as a whole to achieve a common goal. A system is greater than the sum of its constituent components because the relationship between the different components adds value to the system” (Ndaruhutse et al, 2019). In that respect, a loaf of bread could be considered as a system, in that you take a group of separate ingredients – flour, water etc. – and add the action of heat and yeast to create something that is greater than the sum of the parts. Systems are also dynamic and constantly evolving, which also applies to a loaf of bread as it is initially baked then goes dry over time.

It is with this systems perspective that we recently examined efforts by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) to mobilise its guidance on ‘Making Best Use of Teaching Assistants’ and, in particular, activities to support the development of evidence-informed practices at a regional level. Research use in this project emerged as a dynamic process that relied on the alignment of multiple factors and activities relating to evidence production, mediation and use. It was influenced, for example, by the quality and usefulness of the evidence, the receptiveness and capacity of schools as evidence users, and the presence of research intermediaries. Furthermore, research use didn’t take place in isolation, but instead sat within the broader contexts in which schools operate e.g., regional policy, school improvement, accountability.

Put simply, research use is as a myriad of interconnected ‘moving parts’ that need to function optimally and be aligned. Weakness in any area of the system, or interactions between different actors and activities across the system, can potentially impede research use. It is a strong as its weakest link.

A system-based approach to research use has some potential implications for policy makers, and, indeed, anyone who is interested in developing an evidence-informed education system:

  1. Failure to acknowledge the complexity of research use systems is likely to result in less-than-optimal interventions to improve research use.

Current approaches to supporting research use in education typically underplay the complexity of systems change. There has been a growing recognition that simply ‘packaging and posting’ research is unlikely, by itself, to impact significantly on decision-making and behaviours (Nutley et al, 2007). Taking a systems perspective on research use encourages us to see the complex interdependencies between different actors and activities and so gain a deeper understanding of the factors at play.

  1. There is value in exploring multi-stranded mobilisation strategies that work together at different levels of the system e.g., school, regional policy, national.

One of the characteristics of research use systems is the high degree of interdependence between activities at different levels of the system e.g., school, regional, national.  EEF’s ‘Making Best Use of Teaching Assistants’ scale-up campaign illustrates how mobilisation activities at different levels can influence each other e.g., press/media engagement; influencing national and regional policy. A systems perspective encourages you to think strategically about how different mobilisation activities interact and reinforce each other.

  1. Create receptivity for research use

As discussed, research use activities do not operate in isolation, but sit within the broader contexts and systems in which schools operate. Policy makers should therefore consider how the wider systems in education – e.g., accountability, school improvement, teacher training – can enhance effective research use. They should promote evidence use as a clear priority throughout the system to encourage alignment and consistent expectations across the sector.

  1. A systems perspective can be used to examine the functioning of existing systems and make informed decisions on where best to intervene.

Applying a systems lens creates opportunities to examine the existing research-use systems and make informed decisions as to where best to intervene. It can identify impediments and enablers to research use, which can then inform the choice of intervention strategies (Gough et al, 2021). For example, if an identified limiting factor within the system is the capability of schools to critique and interpret evidence, activities that build the capacity and skills of schools as research users would be a worthwhile strategy to consider.


Department for Education (2022) School and College Panel – March 2022 wave

Research Report. Department for Education

Gough, D., Maidment, C., & Sharples, J. (2021). Enabling knowledge brokerage intermediaries to be evidence-informed. Evidence & Policy, 1–15.

Maxwell, B., Sharples, J., Coldwell, M. (2022) Developing a systems-based based approach to research-use in education. Review of Education 10(3)1-26

Nutley, S., Walter, I., & Davies, H. (2007). Using evidence: How research can inform the public services. Policy Press.

Ndaruhutse, S. et al (2019). Why systems thinking is important for the education sector. Education Development Trust

Professor Jonathan Sharples is a Professorial Research Fellow at the Education Endowment Foundation, seconded from UCL Institute of Education. He works with schools and policy makers in the UK, and internationally, to promote evidence-informed practice and spread knowledge of ‘what works’ in teaching and learning. He is the lead author of EEF’s ‘School’s Guide to Implementation’.

Professor Bronwen Maxwell is an Emerita Professor at Sheffield Hallam University who has led many large scale research and evaluation studies focused on research use in education and teachers’ professional learning, knowledge and development.

Professor Mike Coldwell is a Professor of Education at Sheffield Hallam University. His research focuses on professional learning, education policy and research use in education.









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