The Growing (but Still Limited) Importance of Evidence in Education Policy and Practice

Cooper, A., Levin, B. & Campbell, C. (2009). The growing (but still limited) importance of evidence in education policy and practice. Journal of Educational Change, 10(2), 159-171. doi: 10.1007/s10833-009-9107-0


The last decade of education change has been characterized by the rise of evidence-based policy and practice agendas. Internationally, we are witnessing efforts to increase and incorporate research use in public services. This article examines efforts in education to address the research-practice gap through an emerging field we term knowledge mobilization (KM). We explore some of the controversy surrounding the use of ‘evidence’, outline national and international KM initiatives and consider some of the issues and challenges that arise from the increased interest in evidence and research use in education. We also assess the current state and desirable future directions of efforts to strengthen the role of research and evidence in education.

The paper starts from the premise that “no reasonable person would disagree with the idea that policy and practice should be based on the best available evidence” and goes on to examine some of the controversies in concepts of evidence.  With a nod to post modernism, the authors state that “Evidence and values are inextricably connected, so the idea that ‘research’ will unambiguously reveal the truth or right course of action in all circumstances clearly involves an unwarranted optimism”. But they then put this in context citing that evidence is interpreted through social and political processes and research therefore introduces a degree of objectivity and returns to accept as all reasonable people do that evidence is valuable for decision making. For more on post modernism and KMb check out Watkins, J.M. (1994). A postmodern critical theory of research use. Knowledge & Policy, 7(1), 55-78.

Specific to the work of RIR and other university-based knowledge brokers, the authors note (even in 2009) that some universities are making efforts to make their research more accessible to diverse audiences and they preface the recent work emerging from Levin’s group examining the use of web sites and other electronic media as tools for KMb. These electronic tools are closely linked to the role of knowledge intermediaries. The paper describes a number of knowledge intermediaries and efforts in the UK and US as well as international efforts like the systematic reviews of the Campbell Collaboration to link research to policy/practice.  The leading Canadian initiatives in this effort are Canadian Education Association (CEA) and the Canadian Council on Learning (CCL). Since 2009 when this paper was publish, CCL has been forced to reduce its activities since the organization did not get their federal funding renewed in 2010.

Levin himself made efforts to increase the use of education research to inform education policy while he was the Deputy Minister of Education for the Government of Ontario. These include creation of the Ontario Education Research Committee and the annual Ontario Education Research Symposium.  “These initiatives are predicated on a strong belief that partnerships are necessary to improve connections between research, policy and practice in education.” However the authors recognize that more explicit efforts have been made to create these connections by think tanks and lobby groups rather than universities even though universities are on of the main producers of education research.

There is a brief discussion of the different terminologies for knowledge intermediation: mobilization, translation, transfer, exchange etc. The authors prefer mobilization because “it best embodies the idea that the use of knowledge is a social process…is multidirectional…and implies effort and direction not just random interaction.” There is then a lengthy discussion about knowledge brokering and the emergence of scholarship on knowledge intermediaries. There are three recommendations the authors make:

  1. Strengthen research efforts related to KMb
  2. Research producing organizations, especially universities, should make KMb activities a priority
  3. Organizations that deliver education should invest in more capacity to find, share, understand and use education research.

With all the talk of evidence for policy and the roles of knowledge intermediaries, the authors rightly point out that the field of knowledge mobilization is itself inadequately based on evidence! Despite growing interdisciplinary work many scholars and knowledge brokers are unaware of relevant work in other disciplines or countries. This is a very important point for knowledge brokers, see earlier blogs we have written about this here and here. Where is the evidence on which we base our practice and how many of us create the time in our schedules to consider the evidence?

Key Points for discussion: There are two messages that stand out among all of the work presented in this overview paper.

1. KMb is a social process.  Tools such as research summaries, social media, directories and systematic reviews should be used to support socially mediated relationships and networks

2. Knowledge brokers need to invest the time to find, share, understand and use KMb research so that their own KMb practice is informed by KMb research.

RIR is producing this journal club series as a way to make the evidence on KMb more accessible to knowledge brokers and to create on line discussion about research on knowledge mobilization. It is designed for knowledge brokers and other knowledge mobilization stakeholders. Read the article. If you’re a community member seek a colleague at your local university to obtain this article for you. Then come back to this post and join the journal club by posting your comments.

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