24 Nov 2017

Using research in schools? Helpful suggestions from Dylan Wiliam

Using research in schools? Helpful suggestions from Dylan Wiliam

Dylan Wiliam’s article Critical Context in the most recent RSA journal provided me with some useful reminders about the role education research can play in schools. Acknowledging the both the complexity of translating research into practice and education’s appetite for ‘what works’, Wiliam sets out four roles for research in education:

  1. research can identify strategies or initiatives that are unlikely to be effective and thus should potentially be avoided.
  2. If available, research can identify not only the educational benefits to young people but also the costs. This data can enable teachers and school leaders to judge which approaches may provide value for money.
  3. Research can build knowledge about why particular strategies or interventions are likely to be successful. In Wiliam’s own words, ‘we can move from ‘It works sometimes, and it doesn’t work at other times’, to ‘It works when the following conditions are in place’.’
  4. It can focus teachers’ professional development on approaches that are likely to have the greatest impact.

Having read and reflected on these suggestions, I was left with a set of questions which teachers and school leaders may wish to ask themselves if they are interested in employing evidence in schools in the way Wiliam suggests.

  1. How regularly do we reflect on the teaching and learning strategies we use and promote in schools? Do we take them for granted and assume they’re effective? Could we be more strategic about reviewing what we do, using the research base and our own school evidence? Are we brave enough to abandon approaches that are found to be having little effect?
  2. Do we know the costs of different approaches we employ? Are we able to identify the amount of teachers’ time that particular approaches require? Can we compare this to the impact on student learning? Should this information influence the approaches we promote in schools?
  3. When reviewing successful approaches, do we stop and ask how and why it might have worked? Do we consider what might need to be in place for a particular approach to be effective again? Do we share this information with our colleagues?
  4. How are decisions made about the content of teachers’ professional development time? Does relevant research feature? Is it critiqued? Is it part of the debate about how teaching can improve?

Throughout the article, Wiliam underscores the importance of being critical when engaging with the evidence base. The process of translating research into practice is challenging; initiatives that have evidence of promise usually require adaption to local school contexts. This requires careful and critical understanding of the evidence base, of the context and some creative thinking. In the spirit of this, I would welcome comment and critique about the suggested questions in this article – could these help teachers and school leaders to engage with evidence more effectively?

N.B. For those that are interested in the debate about the use of education research and schools, I would suggest looking at the work of Huberman (1985), Hargreaves (1996), Biesta (2007) and Sharples (2013) to get a sense of the debate in the UK over the last 30 years. The Tes also ran a series of articles in April 2015 about this very topic to which Dylan Wiliam, John Hattie, Kevan Collins and Tom Bennett all contributed.


Bennett, T. (2015, April 11th). Evidence-based education is dead — long live evidence-informed education: Thoughts on Dylan Wiliam. TES Blog.

Biesta, G. (2007). Why ‘‘What Works’’ won’t work: Evidence-based practice and the democratic deficit in educational research. Educational Theory, 57(1), 1- 22.

Collins, K. (2015, April 13th). Dylan Wiliam is wrong to imply that teachers should shut the door to evidence. Tes. Retrieved from: https://news.tes.co.uk/b/opinion/2015/04/13/39-dylan-wiliam-is-wrong-to-imply-that-teachers-should-shut-the-door-to-evidence-39.aspx

Hargreaves, D. (1996). Teaching as a research-based profession: possibilities and prospects. Teacher Training Annual Lecture: London.

Stewart, W. (2015, April 22nd) ‘Leave research to the academics, John Hattie tells teachers’. Tes. Retrieved from: https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-news/leave-research-academics-john-hattie-tells-teachers

Huberman, M. (1985). What knowledge is of most worth to teachers? A knowledge-use perspective. Teaching and Teacher Education, 1(3), 251- 262.

Sharples, J. (2013). Evidence for the Frontline: A report for the Alliance for Useful Evidence. London: Nesta. Retrieved from: http://www.alliance4usefulevidence.org/assets/EVIDENCE-FOR-THE-FRONTLINE-FINAL-5-June-2013.pdf

Wiliam, D. (2015, April 10th) The Research Delusion. Tes. Retrieved from: https://www.tes.com/news/tes-archive/tes-publication/research-delusion-0