Escape Oppression Now: Disrupt the Dominance of Evidence-Based Practice

By Nicole Brunker

Evidence-Based Practice dominates every Australian education system facilitated through government and non-government organisations including NSW’s Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation (CESE), the national and independent Evidence for Learning, and the all-encompassing Australian Education Research Organisation (AERO). In other human fields, EBP has been questioned, challenged, and modified or even replaced while Australia’s education systems continue to promote a narrow base of evidence as ‘what works’ for student achievement.

At the recent AARE/ATEA/ACDE event “What counts as evidence in teacher education research and policy?” one point for action raised was the need to pushback on its dominance.

This disruption is the focus of a project I have been developing with colleagues at the University of Sydney.

What’s the problem?

More than twenty years of critique on EBP exists in academia, alerting us to problems for the teaching profession, initial teacher education (ITE), student learning, wellbeing, and life outcomes, democracy, and more. Central to the problems of EBP is the removal of discussion on the purpose of education and in turn the limiting of education to learning.

Perhaps the most pernicious problem is the simplification of practice that is immensely complex

Teaching is a non-causal practice but EBP relies on causal research, with random controlled trials as the gold standard. That neglects the breadth of research that supports understanding of – and engagement with-  the complexity of teaching. The range of teaching approaches become limited to  options offered from causal research. 

The children and young people who do not comply directly or indirectly to respond in the pre-determined manner are problematised and excluded rather than looking at the full breadth of evidence from practice to problem solve and design action to support stronger relationships between teaching and learning

One of the most inequitable education systems in the world

Teachers’ work is simplified, supporting arguments that anyone can teach. ITE is denigrated for developing pre-service teacher (PST) ability to engage with the complexity of teaching. It alsosupports a  return to the reproductive model of teacher training absent of critical thinking, reflection, and engagement with theory and research. Ultimately, the status quo is maintained, along with the ranking of Australia as one of the most inequitable education systems in the world.

EBP limits teaching approaches by sacrificing  teacher autonomy for claims of causality. The prioritised practice is a conceptualisation of explicit teaching positioned in the camp of direct instruction (see the CESE definition of explicit teaching and representations of explicit teaching by the NSWDoE in the Sydney Morning Herald compared to that articulated clearly in the Ambassador Schools Project). 

Positioning explicit teaching (ie. direct instruction in this case) in opposition and superiority over inquiry-based teaching, creates a false binary. This is constructed through misunderstanding and misrepresentation of inquiry based teaching. It neglects  the essential inclusion of explicit teaching within inquiry based teaching along with a range of approaches necessary to build relationship between teaching and learning with the diversity of students. 

Other professions have questioned, challenged, even moved on from EBP. Social work has recognised the damage of EBP as ‘evidence-based oppression’ through neglect for attention to structural issues in society favouring the neoliberal focus on individuals and individual responsibility.

What is needed in education to pushback on the dominance of evidence-based practice?

Broad understanding of the problem is needed beyond academic discourse. We have over twenty years of academic critique of EBP. Yet it  it rarely reaches professional media for teachers, school leaders and other education stakeholders to access. It rarely reaches mainstream media for parents/carers and the broader general public.

False claims need to be highlighted. Amongst the many falsehoods espoused in the construction of EBP’s dominance is the absence of evidence in EBP claims.

In the subordination of teachers, research is pre-digested into easy-to-read summaries for teachers to know the practices being prescribed are ‘evidence-based’. Such pre-digestion of research is selective presentation of evidence to promote desired practices. It further removes teachers from engagement with research evidence. 

AERO’s latest guide Assessing whether evidence is relevant to your context – For educators, teachers and leaders directs teachers to AERO’s own materials. One document referred to is Formative assessment: Know where your students are in their learning which simplifies the research on formative assessment to consideration of just six papers summarised in two pages. It neglects key aspects and oversimplifies leading to errors. Further examples of ‘evidence’ disseminated to teachers in pre-digested formats include CESE’s Cognitive load theory: Research that teachers really need to understand which is based on a paper widely critiqued as a strawman fallacy. CESE’s paper is then relied upon by AERO in their presentation of evidence for cognitive load theory to teachers.

AERO leads to more AERO

Teaching must be valued for the complex, ‘problematic’ practice that it is. Wider understanding is needed on how teachers have and do use evidence to build relationship between teaching and learning to support other teachers and school leaders, along with teacher educators and PSTs. Teachers have been making evidence informed decisions for action long before the emergence of EBP. Matthew Clarke reminded us at the AARE/ATEA/ACDE event that evidence is not proof, and that evidence cannot speak for itself, rather evidence must be interpreted. 

We need to reclaim and clarify

Teachers are surrounded by evidence and analyse evidence to inform teaching for student learning. Recognising that teaching is non-causal requires teachers to draw together a range of evidence to help them build relationship between teaching and student learning. EBP dominance is hindering teachers’ opportunities to utilise the full range of evidence necessary to teach children and young people.

We need to reclaim and clarify the language of Evidence Informed Practice (EIP): drawing on the work of Helen Timperley who presented EIP as involving integrated analysis of evidence from research, evidence from teaching, evidence from students to make decisions for further action within an ongoing cycle of practice whereby further evidence is collected through action. EIP involves practitioners in the collection and analysis of evidence to make decisions for action with broader consideration to the purposes of education. It utilises evidence in consideration to the context and the possibilities from other contexts. Evidence Informed Practice recognises a broad range of evidence including a much broader value for the diversity of research than EBP’s reliance on causal research. EIP is research in itself and when formalised and shared enables practice to feed back into research and policy development.

So, what are we doing?

First is a forthcoming paper tracking how education has come to be in this position of EBP dominance drawing together the breadth of academic critique.

Next is a multi-stakeholder workshop that will happen later this year, leading to the development of a green paper for public consultation to inform the development of a white paper to give school leaders, policymakers, and others a basis on which to pushback on the dominance of EBP and strength to develop their EIP.

From there will be a program of research. Pivotal will be case studies of EIP in action in schools to share insight to the complexities of practice, the scope for how teachers engage in EIP, and the wide-ranging benefits for children, young people, teachers, and society. The case studies will provide further basis for teachers and schools to pushback on the dominance of EBP and guidance in using EIP. From there we will work with schools to support practitioner inquiry to develop EIP. Threaded through this program of research will be ongoing exploration of work with PSTs positioning them as agents for change in the transition from EBP to EIP through the development of reciprocal learning during professional experience and into their early career teaching.

Nicole Brunker is a senior lecturer in the School of Education and Social Work, The University of Sydney. She was a teacher and principal before moving into Initial Teacher Education where she has led foundational units of study in pedagogy, sociology, psychology and philosophy. Her research interests include school experience, alternative paths of learning, Initial Teacher Education pedagogy, and innovative qualitative methodologies. Current research projects include the diversity of pre-service teacher apprenticeships of observation and disrupting evidence-based practice in education. You can find her on LInkedIn and on X:

13 thoughts on “Escape Oppression Now: Disrupt the Dominance of Evidence-Based Practice

  1. What is the alternative to Evidence-Based Practice: just do stuff and hope it works? As this article points out the problem is not checking teaching methods work, but what criteria are used to judge success.

  2. Nikki Brunker says:

    Rather than an alternative there is need to expand – to expand the basis of evidence to include a wide array of research that enables a broad view to education, along with evidence from teaching practice and evidence from students to support contextualised decision making within schools.

  3. Dr. Rosie Thrupp says:

    A solution could be to identify EBP as collecting evidence on individual children and designing the way ahead based on that evidence. Evidence becomes the teacher’s understanding of each child. The practice becomes many different strategies determined and implemented to facilitate learning.

  4. Nikki Brunker says:

    I prefer ‘Evidence Informed Practice’ not as a change in rhetoric rather an expansion on the base of evidence, who collects evidence, how evidence is collected, how evidence is analysed, and how evidence is used – to include a wide array of research that enables a broad view to education, along with evidence from teaching practice and evidence from students to support contextualised decision making within schools to guide the use of the full range of approaches necessary to be responsive to students.

  5. An excellent piece. We speak about evidence based, yet cherry pick the so-called evidence to fit and ignore all the other things for which there just is no evidence at all – such as standardised curriculum and testing.
    Evidence is also clear that teacher autonomy is important in attracting and retaining excellent teachers, yet the evidence-based brigade are happy to completely ignore this.

  6. Nikki Brunker says:

    thank-you Michael!

  7. Emma Rowe says:

    I enjoyed reading this article, thank you. I just wanted to point out that it is problematic describing ‘Evidence for Learning’ as “independent”. They are owned by Social Ventures Australia (SVA) and receive funding from the UK’s Education Endowment Foundation. (SVA strongly lobbied for AERO, and most of the Expert Board have strong financial ties to SVA). I think that describing them as ‘independent’ is problematic, since they are essentially owned by venture philanthropy/profit driven initiatives. This can deepen our understanding of policy mobilities that stem from their initiatives.

  8. Nikki Brunker says:

    yes, spot on, thank-you!

  9. Chela Weitzel says:

    I am currently studying a PhD in activist maths teaching practice and this post definitely hits the nail on the head! From a maths education perspective, I am looking at the mathematisation of social technologies (like policy), which I think aligns with what you’re talking about here in terms of narrow conceptions of ‘evidence’ and ‘data’, as well as uncritical beleif in the validation that is given to argument through reference to mathematical concepts.

    As a parent, I am also fighting the segregationist streaming practices (from Year 1 on) at my child’s local public school, which uncritically rely on the Department’s ‘High Performing and Gifted Education’ policy, with it’s attached information brief, which is the sort you describe in your post. I wander how many people (staff, parents, community members (nevermind students!)) actually read these documents. Like almost every policy document, they are passed around as objects of authority, not content.

  10. Nikki Brunker says:

    many thanks Chela and all teh best with the PhD journey

  11. Chris Curnow says:

    This is music to my ears.

    I have previously felt a bit like a lone voice in saying all practice is evidence based. Teachers don’t just walk into classrooms having randomly picked a topic and approach to teaching it. Rather they rely on their previous experience on what works and has worked for them in the past. They learn about each student they work with and choose methods they think have the most likely prospect of working for that student. Whether it does or not is further evidence which can be used to inform future practice.

  12. Nikki Brunker says:

    Thank-you Chris! It is exactly that ‘intelligent problem solving’ (Biesta/Dewey) that we hope to recognise in teachers’ work

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