Guided by Professional Wisdom
Empirical evidence, scientifically-based research, evidence-based practice, and professional wisdom are terms that everyone in the field of education has been trying to grasp since the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act was passed in 2001. One guiding principle of the NCLB Act directs educators to use evidence-based practice -- instructional methods that are supported by rigorous scientific research so that students will make the best possible progress. What exactly does this mean for teachers and administrators? Where do educators find this research? How do educators know that it is valid and reliable? How do educators create instructional practices that are evidence-based?
The NCLB Act defined scientifically-based research as “. . . research that involves the application of rigorous, systematic, and objective procedures to obtain reliable and valid knowledge relevant to education activities and programs.” It goes on to say the research should be empirical and peer-reviewed, and should rely on “multiple measures and observations, preferably through experimental or quasi-experimental methods.”
These research methods are routinely used in agricultural and medical research where subjects can be randomly assigned to experimental and control groups, and where other things that may influence the result can be controlled; however, these research methods are difficult to apply in educational settings. When the Department of Education closely examined the available educational research studies, they found that only a small percent of the existing studies could be considered “rigorous” in design and application.
In October of 2002, Grover Whitehurst, Director of the Institute of Education Sciences, gave educators a definition of evidence-based practice during a speech to the Student Achievement and School Accountability Conference. Whitehurst said that Evidence-based Practice is “the integration of professional wisdom with the best available empirical evidence in making decisions about how to deliver instruction.” Since then, educators have used this definition to guide their work in establishing evidence-based practice in their programs, schools, and classrooms.
Whitehurst also clarified some terms within this definition:
Empirical Evidence 1) Scientifically-based research from fields such as psychology, sociology, economics, and neuroscience, and especially from research in educational settings. Research findings from many fields have relevance for educators’ classroom practice: studies of human behavior, how people learn, how people are motivated, how emotions influence learning, or how the brain grows and matures across age. 2) Empirical data on performance used to compare, evaluate, and monitor progress. Texas adult educators are fortunate to have the Texas Educating Adults Management System (TEAMS). This Web-enabled adult education student tracking and reporting system can provide many useful reports on student progress for both administrators and classroom teachers.
Professional Wisdom 1)The judgment that individuals acquire through experience. Of course we get better with practice; we take note of what works and what does not. When we engage in reflective practice, the wisdom of our experience grows even faster. 2) Consensus views. These are principles and practices that are widely agreed upon by experienced and knowledgeable practitioners in the field. 3) Increased professional wisdom is reflected in numerous ways, including the effective identification and incorporation of local circumstances into instruction. Educational approaches will always need to be adapted to the changing classroom environment; a great lesson at one place and one time can be a failure elsewhere, what works for one student may not work for another. Teachers must consider the students’ goals, the available materials, and the instructional levels of the students in the classroom.
Both Professional Wisdom and Empirical Evidence are needed. Without professional wisdom educators cannot consider local circumstances and make necessary changes. In areas where there is no solid empirical evidence, professional wisdom guides us toward intelligent choices.
Without empirical evidence education cannot hope to resolve competing approaches or generate cumulative knowledge. Educators might then fall prey to personal bias or follow the latest fad without regard to the effectiveness of the approach.
Smith, Bingman, & Beall (2007) make several suggestions for helping practitioners move toward evidence-based practice by using research. Program directors can share research resources with teachers and encourage teachers to seek research information that could help instructional practices in the program. They can also model how to access, understand, evaluate, and use research and collaborate with teachers on the use of research to improve student outcomes. Teachers can read adult education journals and share and discuss relevant articles with colleagues. Teachers can conduct practitioner research and share with others in their program or state. They can also suggest or help lead a book study or a Study Circle on a topic of interest to the program.
State Leadership and professional development groups can highlight important research and its relevance to practice. They can keep research at the forefront of professional development and program improvement goals. They can encourage practitioners statewide to use their Professional Wisdom to adapt and apply research findings in their local programs. When something works well, programs can be encouraged to share their success with the rest of the state.
Comings, J., Beder, H., Bingman, B., Reder, S., & Smith, C. (2003). Establishing an evidence-based adult education system (NCSALL Occasional Paper). Cambridge, MA: National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy. Available online at www.ncsall.net/fileadmin/resources/research/op_comings3.pdf
Comings, J., Soricone, L., & Santos, M. (2006). An evidence-based adult education program model appropriate for research (NCSALL Occasional Paper). Cambridge, MA: National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy. Available online at www.ncsall.net/fileadmin/resources/research/op_comings4.pdf
Smith, C., Bingman, B., & Beall, K. (2007). Research utilization in the field of adult learning and literacy: Lessons learned by NCSALL about connecting practice, policy, and research (NCSALL Occasional Paper). Cambridge, MA: National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy. Available online at www.ncsall.net/fileadmin/resources/research/op_ research_utilization_CPPR.pdf
Whitehurst, G. J. (2002). Evidence-based education (EBE). PowerPoint presentation at Student Achievement and School Accountability Conference in October of 2002. Retrieved on March 2, 2009, from ies.ed.gov/director/pdf/2002_10.pdf