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What makes great teaching?

by on 2014/12/03

Guest Post by Neil McLennan.

Following newspaper headlines, I have previously written on two themes regarding education research. Firstly, the need to promote good research and evaluation to the teaching profession so that micro research might be used in a local context to explore what learning works and the most effective pedagogy in context. Secondly, I have written about the false dichotomy that often accompanies the release of education research where we see methods either triumphed or the baby thrown out with the bathwater in some unhelpful news headlines.

The latest incarnation of this came when Professor Rob Coe’s report, “What Makes Good Teaching?”, was launched by him and colleagues at Durham University. Durham’s research, and in particular that of the Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring, has been commended in my blog pieces before for giving frameworks relating to education improvement strategies alongside research into their cost and effectiveness. This most recent report does this again by reviewing over 200 pieces of research and looking at which elements of teaching and learning have evidence showing their impact on increasing attainment.

The report found that six factors contributed to good learning and raised attainment. The two strongest factors in their report were:

  • teachers’ content knowledge, including their ability to understand how students think about a subject and identify common misconceptions;
  • quality of instruction, which includes using strategies like effective questioning and the use of assessment.

Four other practices were found to also have evidence of having an impact on improving attainment:

  • challenging students to identify the reason why an activity is taking place in the lesson;
  • asking a large number of questions and checking the responses of all students;
  • spacing-out study or practice on a given topic, with gaps in between for forgetting;
  • making students take tests or generate answers, even before they have been taught the material.

In contrast, Professor Roe and his team found that some practices common in schools did not have evidence to support that they helped improve attainment. One should note at this point that it is not to say that they did not impact on attainment, only that there was not evidence in place for this. Perhaps, relating to my earlier point, my challenge might be to teachers who find these practices useful, that they undertake some research to demonstrate impact or otherwise.

The four practices in this uncertain category were:

  • using praise lavishly;
  • allowing learners to discover key ideas by themselves;
  • grouping students by ability;
  • presenting information to students based on their “preferred learning style”.

They were all of interest to me as I know of lots of teachers who deploy all, some or at least one of the above, and would comment on how this has helped get better exam results.

The UK media were quick to pick up on the report and highlighted not what was good practice in improving attainment, but rather the area that the researchers raised uncertainty about. Needless to say, they focussed on the headline-friendly, “Lavish praise from teachers ‘does not help pupils’” (BBC), while ITV reported that praise was unlikely to help students. The Scotsman’s education writer went on to say that teachers were being told that praise could hamper student learning.

The focus on this media-friendly area was perhaps predicable, as was the overemphasis on the negative impact of one area in the report.

However, unlike the media, the report should and can be a stimulus to the teaching profession to think about their own practice, their pedagogical approaches with different age groups, cohorts, sexes and abilities of student: What is working well? What is not working well? How do we know? What are we doing to change and improve?

Hopefully if teachers digest this, rather than the headlines which often misrepresented the main findings, then we will be able to improve education for all in a systematic, research and evidence-led approach.

Now that would be a headline worth reading! For is that not what makes good teaching – one who achieves good results for their learners either academically or in the positive destinations achieved, or by instilling a sense of purpose either individually or community-related, or sparking an interest in lifelong learning?

Neil McLennan is a member and co-chair of the Young Academy of Scotland.  From 2011-2014, he chaired the Academy’s Excellence in Education Working Group.

The full report can be found here.

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