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Middle Leaders as Catalysts for Evidence‐Informed Change

Middle leaders who have the capacity to exchange practice knowledge and high quality research, and can track its impact on changes in practice and student outcomes, have the potential to be catalysts for evidence-informed change.

These catalysts typically:
•model and share knowledge about impactful middle leadership practice
•build professional capacity in others within and beyond the school
•co-develop evidence-based tools to track ways in which they can change and enhance their own and teachers’ practice as a result of this knowledge exchange, and
•find ways to promote sustainable norms of between-school knowledge exchange.

They must be research champions, have a strong desire to facilitate constructive collaboration, and challenge and develop a knowledge sharing community in which they connect with a range of partners, including their own school-wide community, businesses, universities, organisations and networks of schools, both local and global.  There is a clear intent and shared agreement around the learning goal to be researched, designed, piloted, and embedded.

Catalysts value effective research using processes that are both engaging and challenging. We have found that these catalysts use a social process, which we call knowledge animation (Stoll, 2010), as a way that people can make learning connections when engaging with their research findings (what we know). Knowledge animation helps people to learn and use ideas generated elsewhere (what is known). It focuses on finding ways of making knowledge accessible in order to stimulate conversation that challenges people’s thinking, promotes new understanding and helps them generate their own evidence-informed and contextually-relevant knowledge that enhances practice and learning conversations (Earl and Timperley, 2008; Stoll, 2012).  This leads to the knowledge being jointly interpreted and converted into new knowledge that can be used to change practice. (Stoll, 2010; Brown and Rogers, 2015).

Animating knowledge is intended to help practitioners encounter research in manageable units of meaning and in accessible, varied formats. This requires protocols, tools and processes that present evidence in ways that stimulate exploration of topics and issues, deepen engagement, aid reflection, help people articulate tacit knowledge and beliefs, feed conversations in which they process together, and stimulate collaborative learning and enquiry.

We have found in our research that it is important to choose catalysts carefully. They must have a learning mindset, be highly committed, able to influence colleagues, and assist spreading and embedding of high quality practice (Daly 2010). This will include creating a community of practice across the whole school community, and engaging with a wider community beyond school to exchange new knowledge. With support, catalysts should be developing strategies to lead improvement, innovation and change (SCSEEC, 2015).

Alongside catalysts, we have designed materials to track and evaluate progress and change. We did this using specific processes and tools that assist practitioners to self-evaluate and audit their situation and contexts, identify problems and think about ways to resolve them, prioritise alternatives and compare approaches, plan and take action, and lead and manage change.

Our findings also highlighted that catalysts need the right conditions in their schools for agreed innovations to succeed, both within and across schools. They need the support in creating a professional learning community culture which encourages collective responsibility for and reflective dialogue about student learning, and the purposeful sharing of practice (Leithwood & Louis, 2012).  Catalysts can improve their capability by working with colleagues in other schools and developing change agent skills. We have found that the skill of trust building is most valued.

Middle leaders as catalysts for evidence-informed change are essential in designing and developing innovations that are sustainable and will influence real change within and beyond school. They are today’s organisational influencers in a complex world where being able to embrace complexity is most necessary.


Brown, C. and Rogers, S. (2015). Knowledge creation as an approach to facilitating evidence informed practice: examining ways to measure the success of using this method with early years practitioners in Camden (London), Journal of Educational Change, 16, 1, pp 79‐100.

Daly, A. (2010). Mapping the terrain: social network theory and educational change, In Daly, A. (Ed) Social Network Theory and Educational Change, (Cambridge, MA, Harvard Education Press).

Earl, L. and Timperley, H (2008). Understanding how evidence and learning conversations work, in: Earl, L. and Timperley, H (Eds) Professional Learning Conversations: Challenges in Using

Evidence for Improvement. Springer.

Leithwood, K. and Louis, K.S. (2012) Linking leadership to student learning. (San Francisco, CA, Jossey‐Bass).

SCSEEC. (2015). Australian Professional Standard for Principals and the Leadership Profiles. AITSL.

Stoll, L. (2010) Connecting learning communities: capacity building for systemic change, in A. Hargreaves, A. Lieberman, M. Fullan and D. Hopkins (Eds) Second International Handbook of Educational Change. The Netherlands: Springer.

Stoll, L., (2012) Stimulating learning conversations, Professional Development Today, 14, 4, pp. 6‐12.

i The chapter on which this blog is based is Stoll, L. and Brown, C. (2015) Middle leaders as catalysts for evidence‐informed change, in C. Brown (Ed) Leading Evidence Use in Schools, (London, IOE Press).

About Contributors

Dr Chris Brown
London Centre for Leadership in Learning, UCL Institute of Education
Professor Louise Stoll
London Centre for Leadership in Learning, UCL Institute of Education
What do we know about effective middle leadership within and across schools that changes teachers’ practice?
What are the powerful ways we can share knowledge about excellent middle leadership practice within and across schools?
What evidence-based tools can be designed collaboratively across our community of practice to track changes in teachers’ practice as a result of catalyst influence?
What leadership conditions in schools help develop and embed cultures of shared outstanding practice?
Teaching and learning
Design thinking
Case for change