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What makes a great teacher?

by on 2015/01/13

Guest Article by Neil McLennan.

A recent article I was privy to, having been circulated around the RSE Education Committee, provides an interesting headline and an interesting challenge for researchers. So far, Research the Headlines has been about putting journalists on the right track when reporting on research released (as well as offering guidance to consumers of news). Furthermore, it has been about sending out research to journalists that has gone ‘under the radar’ (like this post here) and deserves further public exposure. However, on this occasion I would like to flag something up that has appeared in the press to researchers.

One of the most complex and interesting pieces of research for academics and practitioners has been ‘What makes a great teacher?’. Questions over what teaching impacts, how students learn best and how learning makes better students, workers and people, are hotly debated in today’s society (as I’ve blogged about before). Some of it takes us back to fundamental questions about the purpose of education: is it raw exam attainment, is it to improve the moral character of people, is it to create lifelong learners or is it to create ‘better citizens’ (whatever they are?).

Measuring performance and the impact of a country’s education system is high on the agenda for many educators and politicians. PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) is run by the OECD and ranks countries according to their test results.

Historically, Asian countries have topped PISA. In particular, the Chinese province Shanghai tops the table. However, has enough been done to go “beyond the curtain” and find out what teachers are doing differently to give these areas such a high rank, eclipsing our own country’s results?

While researchers might not have been able to either complete in depth research, or indeed share findings in a way that is having an impact, one newspaper reporter has tried to start the conversation for those currently involved in cutting edge pedagogy.

Janice Turner in the Times, 26th November 2014, wrote on How to teach Maths Chinese style. Her article laid to rest many of the myths that may exist with another education system and one which consistently achieves such high results. Contrary to popular belief, there is no streaming. Backing a recent report I wrote about, the journalist found that the Shanghai-based teacher, on an exchange visit to the UK, taught students in whole groups, supporting recent moves in our own education system towards inclusive approaches to education, with no streaming of students by ability not learning styles.

Furthermore, the language of learning is taught very early on and there is no rigid approach to progression. Just as Scottish education is moving away from ‘tramway’ to ‘pathways’, so too is this Shanghai teacher. Most importantly, in Ms Chenli’s class there is no rigidity to her whole class teaching as Ms Turner’s article finishes looking at the active learning approaches she has deployed.

So, while Ms Chenli was part of an exchange which included UK Minister Liz Truss and British students, how can we ensure this is repeated with Scottish teachers? How can we ensure those Scottish teachers involved in Mandarin programmes and other such exchanges in any country programme work alongside researchers to plan, evaluate and report back on their learning. Moreover, how can we ensure that this learning has an impact on classrooms across the country?

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.

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