It’s all about the expertise, stupid

In recent times we have seen a raft of initiatives, both in the UK and further afield, that have attempted to bridge the gap between evidence and policy. That evidence-informed policy making is not a routine way of life in any education system, however, would suggest that these attempts are not working, or not working as well as they might.

In Making Evidence Matter my alternative is to re-examine this issue through the lens of expertise. As a concept, expertise can be illustrated by the ‘Dreyfus model’, which employs five ‘levels’ of human learning, ranging from novice to expert, with each level comprising recognisably different behaviours in relation to the performance of a given skill. A novice, for example, is new to particular situations, and will during instruction learn about facts corresponding to the situation in question and so is taught, or develops, ‘rules for action’. The move to genuine expertise, however, sees learners take a quantum leap: they transform from being simply an analytical problem solver to someone who exhibits thinking and behaviour that is rapid, intuitive, holistic, and interpretive.

Being able to develop this type of expertise is directly correlated with the number of specific instances (for example, of a given situation) we engage with: more continuous and consistent engagement with specifics is thus vital to developing expertise. It is the lack of regular engagement with evidence, however, that I believe is undermining current attempts to link evidence and policy. Unfortunately it is also a problem that is deep rooted: for example, most models of policy development suggest that there will be fixed points at which evidence will or should be consulted in order to inform policy. In other words they do not position evidence as something to be considered continuously or holistically, but separately as part of a defined, rationalised, sequence of events. The kinds of evidence requested and privileged by policy makers don’t help the situation either, often being akin to the knowledge that may be found in an instruction manual (eg, evidence that details ‘what works’): instead, more valuable engagement would see policy makers taking into account the basic or underlying principles of the message in question, and for these to become intertwined with other situational/contextual variables in order to produce a solution (ie, reflective engagment).

So in what format should such continuous engagement take place? Developing expertise often requires deep immersion amongst those considered to be experts. Learning communities are an alternative form of capacity building, which embrace this approach as a means to build learning in order to support educational improvement. Good learning communities comprise inclusive, reflective, mutually supportive, and collaborative groups of people who find ways, inside and outside their immediate community, to investigate and learn more about their practice. The notion of such communities therefore encapsulates instances where policy makers and researchers might come together to facilitate learning about and from formalised/academic knowledge. A key benefit of the learning communities approach, meanwhile, may be attributed to the nature of the learning that takes place within them, which is encapsulated by the process of knowledge ‘creation’; one where the producers and users of formal knowledge, who are, respectively, also the users and holders of ‘practical’ knowledge, come together to create ‘new’ knowledge.

Vital then is how to facilitate and enforce policy makers’ continuous engagement with evidence, via the establishment of policy learning communities. This is likely to need thought and effort both at the level of the individual and at the level of departments/organisations. For example, at an individual level, the general remit or expected requirements of policy makers will need expanding so as to include an active engagement with evidence (ie, revisions may be required to the Professional Skills for Governmentcompetency framework).

In addition to competency, however, are the mechanisms of support and enforcement: ie, a combination of capacity building and prescription with regards to how professional expectations will be realised in practice. Organisational culture will also need to accommodate learning community activity.

Naturally, the establishment of policy learning communities, the instigation of processes of knowledge creation within them, as well as the introduction of mechanisms to ensure policy makers are required but also supported to participate within such communities, will come with a time and financial cost attached. I argue, however, that it is only by unleashing the type of expertise that will accrue from such activity that we might see evidence use increasing the probability of policy being more effective, equitable, and efficient in terms of its value for money. In a time of austerity, when we need to achieve more with less, it is thus perhaps a cost worth paying.

Dr Chris Brown is a John Adams Research Fellow at the London Centre for Leadership in Learning, Institute of Education. His new book, Making Evidence Matter, published by IOE Press, is out now.


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