The ethics of evidence-informed practice

One of the challenges you will face as an evidence-informed practitioner is that while it is relatively straightforward to understand that working in an educational setting has an ethical component, it is not so clear as to how go about making ethical evidence-informed decisions within such a setting.  This lack of clarity is in large part due to a lack of an agreed ethical framework for how schools should be led or managed – although this week’s announcement of ACSL’s Framework for Ethical Leadership in Education is surely to be welcomed.

In addition, although there are clearly established for principles for the conduct of research BERA (2018), evidence informed practice should not be conflated with research. Put simply, evidence informed practice is about making practical decisions based on the best available evidence and which may result in changes in practice.  Whereas research is a deliberate inquiry into a particular issue, which hopefully increases the evidence-base, provides a statement of results and, creates new knowledge - Carnwell (2001). As such,  the ethical considerations involved in the creation of new knowledge are different from those relevant to making decisions based on that new knowledge .

Ethical evidence-informed decision-making

When first seeking guidance on the ethical principles underpinning evidence-informed decision-making  it makes sense to start with the  Center for Evidence-Based Management’s Guiding Principles - CEBMa (2018).   Established in 2011 the CEBMa - a not for profit independent organisation -  was established by an international group of management scholars and practitioners to promote the use of evidence-based leadership and management. The CEBMa’s Guiding Principles are described in Figure 1

Figure 1 The Guiding Principles of the Center for Evidence-Based Management 

Evidence Matters

We will base our practice on the best available critically appraised evidence from multiple sources. Reflective use of high-quality evidence drives better outcomes for organizations, their members and clients, and the general public. Where high-quality evidence is not available, we will work with the limited evidence at hand and supplement it through “learning by doing”, by systematically assessing the outcomes, implications, and consequences of our practice. 

Ethics and Stakeholder Consideration

We recognize the moral obligation to understand the implications that our practice can have for multiple stakeholders, including any who would benefit or be harmed by it in the near or long-term. We seek to overcome the biases associated with a narrow view of stakeholders that contemporary organizations sometimes propagate, and incorporate the values and concerns of all stakeholders in our practice and decision processes. 

Lifelong Learning 

As practitioners in business, academia, government or community organizations, we will remain committed to lifelong learning. We encourage and champion open discussion, feedback, constructive criticism, reflection, and ongoing assessments related to our practice. We appreciate that this may lead us to change our judgment and conclusions.

Independent Critical Thinking

We are open to views from everyone and will weigh them against the best available evidence from multiple sources. We will never be afraid to speak up when the available body of evidence contradicts established practice or political interests. Independent critical thinking is the lifeblood of evidence-based practice.

Center for Evidence-Based Management

These guidelines are particularly useful as they provide generic guidance on the principles underpinning ethical evidence-informed  decision-making.  That said, although understanding these principles is relatively straightforward, what is far more complex, is seeking to apply them within a real-life situation where there the diverse interests of multiple stakeholders need to be met.   In addition, it would be sensible to ensure that these guiding principles are used alongside whatever code of practice/professional guidelines exist for your role.  

Applying CEBMa’s guiding principles 

Let’s say that you have been asked to undertake a review of the school’s teacher professional growth policy – including lesson observation -  and make recommendations to the school’s senior leadership team by the end of the school year.

First, it will be necessary to obtain the best available critically appraised evidence on teacher professional growth.  However, this will not be limited just to academic research but you will need to obtain other sources of evidence, including stakeholders, practitioners and the school.  In other words, making a recommendation on the basis that the ‘the research evidence says’ is indicative of an incomplete process of acquiring evidence. 

Second, there is a requirement to engage in genuine inquiry -  Le Fevre, Robinson, et al. (2015).   Gathering evidence from a range of stakeholders, and then only paying lip-service to what has been said – undermines the authenticity of the evidence-gathering process.  Indeed when gathering and appraising evidence from stakeholders it is essential to be explicit about why the evidence is being gathered and how that evidence is going to be used.  If this is not done, this can lead to negative consequences for the perceived legitimacy of any future decision.

Third, crucially there needs to be a willingness  to change your mind.  There is little or no point in going about a process of gathering, appraising and aggregating evidence if you are not willing to change your mind about how to proceed.  At the start of the process you may have a view about say, graded lesson observations and how it can generate valid and reliable evidence of a teacher’s effectiveness.  However, if the research or other evidence strongly suggests otherwise, then a willingness of change your position on the matter becomes a prerequisite

Fourth, and this in many situations may pose a difficult challenge, if after engaging in your review you draw conclusions which could well be different from those of powerful and influential stakeholders – be it senior leaders or staff associations – you will need to find a way to articulating those views in a way, which does not unnecessarily alienate those influential stakeholders.   The work of Heifetz, Grashow, et al. (2009) on adaptive leadership is extremely useful helping  you thrive in such situations.

In addition there are two other considerations, such as free and informed consent and the prevention of harm that you will also need to take into account - Robinson and Lai (2005).  In this context – given that you are reviewing the school’s professional growth policy as part of your day to day responsibilities and the school is constantly asking for feedback on policies from teaching staff, then it would be unreasonable to expect that written formal consent would be required. However, alongside this, you will also need to take into account whether staff will have the right not to participate the evidence gathering process – as there may be power differentials between say recently qualified teachers and more senior staff.  In these circumstances it would be wrong to compel teachers to participate.  However, if you do have colleagues not willing to participate this should ‘set-off alarm bells’ about the nature of school’s culture, which has led to colleagues not wanting to participate.  Indeed, this maybe the most important thing you find out from your evidence gathering process.

Next, you will need to take into account the prevention of harm.   This is particularly tricky issue as there may be circumstances where whatever decision is made will lead to someone being ‘potentially’ harmed.  However, that does not mean you cannot try and minimise any harm that arises from the process of generating evidence.  So in this example of reviewing the school’s teacher professional growth policy you may decide to use a survey to gather colleagues’ views.  In doing so, you may want to make sure the survey is designed in such a way that it is not possible to identify individual respondents.  If this is not done, respondents may feel that their responses may lead to them to being ‘targeted for reprisals’  if their views do not coincide with that of the senior leadership team

So where does this leave you – the evidence-informed practitioner – when trying to engaged in ethical decision-making.  Robinson and Lai (2005) provide some outline guidance for use with practitioner research, which can be easily adapted for use with evidence-informed practice.

·      There are no definitive rules for the conduct of evidence-informed practice – rather you will need to be awareness of both the principles underpinning evidence-informed practice and the professional values relevant to your role in the school.  You will then need to use your professional judgment to apply them to you particular context.

·      You will not be able to get away from the ethical implications of your decision-making.  Whereas ethical research activities set out to prevent harm being done to the participants, the very nature of decision-making in schools may lead to harm being done to certain individuals.  As such, the ethical evidence-informed decision-maker is seeking to minimise harm rather than eliminate it altogether.

·      Try and increase the perceived benefits to others of participating in the process – the greater the perceived benefits the greater the chance that you may receive feedback which might provide a different insight into the issue you are trying to address

·      Given the nature of evidence-informed practice, which involves gathering evidence from multiple sources, it makes sense to try an involves others in the decisions that affect them.  Indeed, if we go back to the origins of evidence-based medicine an essential element involves making clinical decisions which are informed by the patient’s preferences and values.

·      Check your assumptions and do not take anything for granted.  Just because you think a process is designed to be unthreatening – that does not mean that is how it will be perceived by colleagues.  Engage in genuine inquiry to gain a real understanding of stakeholders perceptions of the process.

And finally

Sometimes the difference between research and evidence-informed practice may be blurred.  Nevertheless, there is as simple rule of thumb – try and minimise the harm caused by any decision that you may make.


BERA. (2018). Ethical Guidelines for  Educational Research (4th Edition). London. British Educational Research Association

Carnwell, R. (2001). Essential Differences between Reasearch and Evidence-Based Practice.

CEBMa. (2018). Our Guiding Principles. Rotterdam, Netherlands. Center for Evidence-Based Management

Heifetz, R. A., Grashow, A. and Linsky, M. (2009). The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World. Harvard Business Press.

Le Fevre, D., Robinson, V. and Sinnema, C. (2015). Genuine Inquiry : Widely Espoused yet Rarely Enacted. Educational Management Administration & Leadership. 43. 6. 883 - 899.

Robinson, V. and Lai, M. (2005). Practitioner Research for Educators: A Guide to Improving Classrooms and Schools. Thousand Oaks, CA. Corwin Press.