The question of what makes a great teacher has been around for a long time. It’s an enquiry that poses many problems because there’s simply no set recipe for success, and different approaches work for different professionals and students.
The Sutton Trust has published a report that reviews the research into effective teaching, finding that popular practices, such as lavishing praise on students or allowing them to discover key things for themselves, actually have no grounding in research.
The author of the report, professor Robert Coe from Durham University, says this is a “starter kit” for thinking about what makes good teaching. So, what does the report recommend? Here are 10 salient points to take away:
1. Know your subject
The report, which looked at more than 200 pieces of research, found that there were six main elements to great teaching and one of the most important ones was subject knowledge. It may seem obvious, but the report found that the best teachers have a deep knowledge of their subject, and if that falls below a certain point it has a “significant impact” on students’ learning.
Targeted help for teachers, giving them an understanding of particular areas where their knowledge is weak, could be effective.
2. Praise can do more harm than good
The wrong kind of praise can be harmful for students, the report found. A number of studies conducted by education experts, including Carol Dweck professor of psychology at Stanford University and Auckland University professors John Hattie and Helen Timperley, have observed this.
Deborah Stipek, the dean of the Stanford Graduate School of Education, said that praise is meant to be encouraging but it can actually “convey a teacher’s low expectations”. Stipek said that if a pupil’s failure was met with sympathy rather than anger then they were more likely to think they had done badly due to a lack of ability.
The report adds the caveat that the findings are open to interpretation, however, as teachers can do things well or badly, and some methods are not appropriate in all circumstances.
3. Instruction matters
The quality of teaching has a big impact on the achievement of students’ from poorer backgrounds, and effective questioning and assessment are at the heart of great teaching. This involves giving enough time for children to practise new skills and introducing learning progressively. Defining effective teaching isn’t easy, the report conceded, but research always returns to the fact that student progress is the yardstick by which teacher quality should be assessed.
4. Teacher beliefs count
The reasons why teachers do certain things in the classroom and what they hope to achieve has an effect on student progress. Mike Askew, the author of Effective Teachers of Numeracy, found that beliefs about the nature of maths and what it means to understand it, along with teachers’ ideas about how children learn and their role in that process, was an important factor in how effective they were.
Evidence to support this is not conclusive, however. A study by professor Steve Higgins of Durham University and the University of Newcastle upon Tyne’s David Moseley about teacher beliefs in ICT did not find a convincing relationships between beliefs and pupil progress.
5. Think about teacher-student relationships
This may also seem obvious, but the interactions teachers have with students has a big impact on learning – as well as the “classroom climate”. The report said that it was important to create a classroom environment that was “constantly demanding more” while affirming students’ self-worth. A student’s success should be atributed to effort rather than ability.
6. Manage behaviour
Interestingly, this wasn’t as significant as subject knowledge and classroom instruction as a factor contributing to teacher success. But classroom management – including how well a teacher makes use of lesson time, coordinates classroom resources and manages the behaviour of students – was noted as important.
7. There’s no evidence that setting works
Putting students in groups depending on their ability makes little difference to their learning. Although setting can in theory let teachers work at a pace that suits all pupils and tailor content, it can also create an exaggerated sense of all pupils being alike in the teacher’s mind. This can result in teachers not accomodating to the various different needs within one group and in some instances going too fast with high-ability groups and too slow with low ones.
8. Don’t worry about learning styles
A survey showed that more than 90% of teachers think individuals learn better when they get information in their preferred learning style. But despite the popularity of this approach psychological evidence shows that there is no evidence this actually works.
9. Learning should be hard at first
One finding that may surprise you is that approaches that appear to make learning harder in the short term can actually lead to students retaining more information in the long term. Elizabeth Ligon Bjork, professor at the University of Michigan and Robert Bjork, professor at the University of California, said that varying the type of tasks you ask pupils to do improves retention even though it makes learning harder initially.
10. Build relationships with colleagues and parents
A teacher’s professional behaviour, including supporting colleagues and talking with parents, also had a moderate impact on students’ learning. The report said that there may not be a direct link with these practices and student achievement, but to capture a broad definition of good teaching they should be included.