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What makes great teaching – answering a vital question

Teacher-paintingAndy-Williams-newAfter 20+ years’ experience in teaching, SSAT Senior Education Lead Andy Williams was delighted to see research evidence of what really works…

In the recently published government white paper, Educational Excellence Everywhere, it is gratifying to see not only the focus on the learner, but the emphasis placed on outcomes, not methods. It states: ‘Set stretching, well-measured outcomes and empower professionals to determine how to achieve them, through innovative local solutions.’

This feels like a return to the level of autonomy I experienced when I started teaching some 20+ years ago. The autonomy to decide on what works best for the learners in your care sounds like the ideal. But, of course, in the intervening 20-odd years there have been a plethora of initiatives, processes, resources and theories, many of which claim to be the silver bullet for education: if we do X then we get Y… every time… with every child… on any given day.

The reality is that there is no silver bullet: the learning activity that works remarkably well one day fails to work another day – such are the joys of teaching!

This is what makes teaching often so challenging but also rewarding; those times when you get it right, the students learn well, and you adapt the approach to suit different learners.

One of the ways that many teachers get their rewards is the realisation that they have designed the lesson to not simply accommodate the learners’ needs, but to make the learning come alive, on that day, with that class.

Identifying what works

But teachers need help in identifying what is more likely to work and what is simply the latest bandwagon rolling past your school.

This is where tireless researchers such as Professor Rob Coe come in, those who seek out what really works beyond the rhetoric.

One of the seminal pieces of work for me as an educator was Professor Coe’s What Makes Great Teaching (October 2014). This clearly and succinctly outlined the six components of effective teaching that all teachers should consider when assessing teaching and learning quality.

1. Pedagogical content knowledge (evidence of impact on student outcomes: strong)
The most effective teachers have deep knowledge of the subjects they teach; when teachers’ knowledge falls below a certain level it is a significant impediment to students’ learning.

But as well as having a strong understanding of the material being taught, teachers must also understand the ways students think about the content, be able to evaluate the thinking behind students’ own methods, and identify students’ common misconceptions.

2. Quality of instruction (evidence of impact on student outcomes: strong)
Includes elements such as effective questioning and teachers’ use of assessment. Specific practices, like reviewing previous learning, providing model responses for students, giving adequate time for practice to embed skills securely, and progressively introducing new learning (scaffolding) are also elements of high-quality instruction.

3. Classroom climate (evidence of impact on student outcomes: moderate)
Covers quality of interactions between teachers and students, and teacher expectations: the need to create a classroom that is constantly demanding more, but still recognising students’ self-worth. It also involves attributing student success to effort rather than ability and valuing resilience to failure (grit).

4. Classroom management (evidence of impact on student outcomes: moderate)
A teacher’s abilities to make efficient use of lesson time, to coordinate classroom resources and space, and to manage students’ behaviour with clear rules that are consistently enforced, are all relevant to maximising the learning that can take place.

5. Teacher beliefs (evidence of impact on student outcomes: some)
Why teachers adopt particular practices, the purposes they aim to achieve, their theories about what learning is and how it happens, and their conceptual models of the nature and role of teaching in the learning process all seem to be important.

6. Professional behaviours (evidence of impact on student outcomes: some)
Behaviours exhibited by teachers such as reflecting on and developing professional practice, participation in professional development, supporting colleagues, and liaising and communicating with parents.

The two factors with strongest impact

Let’s consider the two with the strongest evidence of impact on student outcomes: pedagogical content knowledge and quality of instruction.

Not only do teachers need to have a strong understanding of the content, but an understanding of how learners will conceptualise this, alongside the processes involved in learning such as reviewing, formative assessment and modelling.

Not only do teachers need to have a strong understanding of the content, but an understanding of how learners will conceptualise this

Again, I am sure many of us can think back to our own school days, or even dare I say it, know of colleagues who have been highly skilled in the content of their subject, but less skilled at being able to teach this so that others can learn.

Undoubtedly, it is nigh-on impossible to be truly passionate, energetic and motivating if you don’t ‘know your stuff’ inside out and back to front. Part of this, of course is because you need to anticipate how learners will think about the content – often from left field!

But in addition we need to know how learners learn, teaching is not simply providing a recipe or a sequence of instructions to arrive at a solution – as Professor Coe mentions, we need learners to think hard. We need, therefore, to understand the processes or methods that will enable learners to think through the learning and how they got there, to understand what is meant by quality instruction.

How to avoid distractions?

So the big question is: how do we support teachers to develop and extend this understanding? How can they can best avoid the distractions of the latest fashionable ideas and instead consider the evidence, embed it into their practice and continually reflect on its efficacy for their context?

One of the answers is to enable teachers to engage with the evidence, through summary research such as Hattie’s visible learning for teachers, where effect sizes shown in a series of meta-analyse give an indication of effectivenesss.

Another useful source of evidence is the EEF teaching and learning toolkit, which collates evidence on effectiveness with an indication of relative cost of implementation (and which also uses Professor Coe’s work).

Using these sources, we can firstly dispel some of those long–held but unsubstantiated beliefs about what works, such as smaller class sizes (expensive and with little impact on outcomes, the evidence shows) and performance-related pay for teachers (likewise).

Using these sources, we can firstly dispel some of those long–held but unsubstantiated beliefs about what works.

We are then in a position to enable teachers to focus on the more effective strategies, such as providing feedback. As with learners, however, it is not simply a case of following a recipe – we have to guard against fooling ourselves, with what Professor Coe calls ‘poor proxies for learning’;

  • Students are busy: lots of work is done (especially written work)
  • Students are engaged, interested, motivated
  • Students are getting attention: feedback, explanations
  • Classroom is ordered, calm, under control
  • Curriculum has been ‘covered’ (ie presented to students in some form)
  • (At least some) students have supplied correct answers, even if they
    – have not really understood them
    – could not reproduce them independently
    – will have forgotten it by next week (tomorrow?)
    – already knew how to do this anyway.

It boils down to a clear message: teacher quality matters.

We need to focus on teachers as learners. Leaders in education need to provide clarity on what we want our teachers to learn and how they are going to learn and improve. And then teachers need good quality feedback so they know where they are on their learning journey.

Professor Rob Coe will be joining us in London for a one-day conference on Wednesday 6th July that will answer the question ‘What makes great teaching?’ View the agenda here. Find out more and book your place here.


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Find out more about the What makes great teaching? event here.


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