What makes great teaching? It’s a question most people in education think they can answer – but many of us would be wrong. Prof Rob Coe, lead author of the 2014 report What makes great teaching? Review of the underpinning research, and head of Durham University’s Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring, explains…
Continued from part one…
Outcomes, and reactions
In selecting the desired effects of studies, the researchers defined looked-for outcomes, discernible benefits such as test scores; but also motivation, career earnings and life satisfaction 20 years later. So the results would fit with most people’s ideas of the desired outcomes of education.
“One of the things about research is it doesn’t often surprise you. Systematic research tends more to challenge conventional wisdom – what you thought you knew. But the finding about the value of interleaving or spaced learning – that was surprising to me.
“I had a strong sense when we published that more people would disagree with our findings, because our work did not agree well with what was out there already. But there didn’t seem to be a lot of controversy. I was braced for disagreement, but for me there was surprisingly little.”
How to turn research into practical action?
Teachers are familiar with and expert in assessment for improvement in the classroom. They need to transfer those approaches to their own work and development. Sounds simple. “But it takes time, opportunity, practice, expert feedback, before people start to get the idea and transfer it from deliberate practice into their routine behaviour. To do that, teachers need to transfer all those practices that are so familiar to students: feedback, scaffold, practise, reinforce. Yet when you think of teachers becoming better teachers, almost all of those things are missing!
“Thinking of examples such as: how do you manage disruptive behaviour; how do you do good questioning? Teachers sort of learn, but the learning isn’t optimal. It’s painful, slow and incomplete. It’s a nice irony that the kind of learning that routinely happens with students doesn’t happen, or happens less effectively, with teachers.”
It’s a nice irony that the kind of learning that routinely happens with students doesn’t happen, or happens less effectively, with teachers.
Since the Sutton Trust report prof Coe has worked on the Teachers’ Professional Development Expert Group, chaired by David Weston, on the necessary conditions for teachers to learn and develop their pedagogical skills and expertise. He hopes the DfE will soon be publishing the resulting standards for teacher professional development, and they will help practitioners to make full use of research such as that in the Sutton Trust report.
How should school leaders respond to this information?
“It’s difficult to say to school leaders, ‘here’s something you should do,’ unless you can also tell them there’s something they can stop doing. But I know plenty of schools where this kind of thinking is an open topic of debate and argument. People do think critically and knowledgeably about these things. And I think it’s important that school leaders engage with it.”
He is involved in another project, on training, with research leads in schools. Asked whether this work suggested training could enable schools to use research better, he was unsure: “It’s a big investment of time and energy. There is not good evidence to say it will benefit learners. But if people looked more at what happens in class and why, and become more willing to engage in research, that would be better.”
Can teaching become an evidence-based profession, like medicine?
Prof Coe’s short answer is yes. “Clearly, there are differences; it’s important to bear that in mind. But there are a lot of similarities too. Not everything in medicine is about drug treatments or diagnosable illnesses. A lot of public health interventions are much like educational interventions. If you look at the problems in trying to solve these issues, there are a lot of similarities. Research is trying to change doctors’ behaviour and treatments, just as we are in education.
“Yes, health and medicine are further down the road. But that gives us a good indication of where we might go, without blindly following them: where things work, and where they don’t.”
A lot of public health interventions are much like educational interventions. If you look at the problems in trying to solve these issues, there are a lot of similarities.
There is a massive difference in progress between the two, however, in his view. “Look at progress in health care: 10 years ago, in many areas outcomes were radically worse than they are today, because the treatments that work best were not available. That’s not all due to evidence-based practice, but a lot of it is.
“In education, I would argue, outcomes are pretty much the same as they were 30, 40, even 50 years ago. Is education inherently harder to improve – to measure and influence in this way? I don’t believe that.”
So the challenge is for those in education to understand and adopt research much more in the way that medicine and healthcare do. It will not be an easy task, prof Coe concedes. But it is doable, and vitally important. At an event organised by SSAT and The Prince’s Teaching Institute on 6 July in London, What makes great teaching? – Evidence and practice, he will be part of a panel seeking to answer these questions on the strategies that will best sustain great teaching. Find out more and book your place.