The art of good teaching

Bede’s Headmaster Dr Richard Maloney responds to last week’™s Sutton Trust Report, ‘What Makes Great Teaching?’

Last Friday, in conjunction with the Sutton Trust, Professor Robert Coe of Durham University published his report ‘What Makes Great Teaching?’ His aim was to answer that apparently simple question and try to identify ways in which schools could promote the best possible learning for their pupils.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, a number of Professor Coe’s findings might appear counter-intuitive to some observers. By linking teaching to the progress of pupils, Professor Coe is explicit that any judgement of the effectiveness of teaching must be checked against its impact on pupils’ outcomes. However, departing from those who have tended to believe that effective teaching can be measured by how well a teacher’s practice conforms to a set of ‘objective’ criteria – in layman’s terms, ‘ticking boxes’ – Professor Coe values ‘consequential validity’. What he means by this is that quality teaching is ‘multi-dimensional’: there is often so much that goes into effective teaching that it tends to be greater than the sum of its parts.

Teaching probably really is far more ‘art’ – or ‘craft’ – than it is ‘science’. So what does Professor Coe identify that best contributes to effective practices? Perhaps equally interesting are those examples, derived from academic educational research, that are ineffective. For example, using praise lavishly can harm learning. Teachers who use praise without discernment can actually reinforce low expectations. And, let’s face it, it probably is patronising to be praised for producing something we know in our heart not to have been of the best standard.

Conversely, teachers who offer a critical – yet supportive – assessment of a pupil’s work, affirming effort (where it is due) and setting bespoke future goals, are more likely to stretch students’ aspirations and see their pupils attaining ever-higher outcomes.

‘Discovery learning’ also appears not to be as effective as many might think. Although research clearly has a place in learning, it seems the expert resource in the room – the teacher – has the most important role to play. As the resident expert, a teacher’s instruction, their questioning, leading and shaping of knowledge – challenging pupils into uncertain and difficult areas of learning – is, as it turns out, the most effective component in helping pupils to progress.

Teachers have oft been told to ensure that pupils are active – rather than listening passively – if young people are to remember what they learn. Professor Coe dismisses the notion that different levels of activity lead to ‘precise percentages of material being retained’ as ‘pure fiction’. His view, one which many of us share, is that if you want pupils to remember or understand something, they need to think about the topic at hand.

Clearly, thought – engaged thought – can be achieved ‘actively’ or ‘passively’. A fascinating inspirational teacher, expert in their subject, can hold a class rapt whatever the topic – whether it be population displacement, the influence of F R Leavis on literary criticism, simultaneous equations, or the repeal of the Corn Laws.

Notions of ‘preferred learning styles’ also receive short-shrift from Professor Coe. The research indicates that the present – albeit well-intentioned – fashion for trying to present information in a child’s preferred learning style (be that visual, auditory or kinaesthetic) is not impactful. Professor Coe is unambiguous when he states that the ‘psychological evidence is clear that there are no benefits from trying to present information to learners in their preferred learning-style’.

Perhaps most controversially, Professor Coe explains that grouping pupils by ability – ‘setting’ – makes very little difference to learning outcomes. In reality, research indicates that setting, I suspect especially in younger children, can reinforce negativity towards learning (amongst those in the lower sets) or, conversely, an over-confident sense of impregnable entitlement (for those in the higher sets). Although these two extreme perspectives might be a little caricatured, with pupil self-perception lying somewhere on that continuum, it is the case that (some) teachers can settle into a comfortable – yet misplaced – sense of ‘setted’ homogeneity in their pupils. If a teacher unconsciously takes this attitude, they tend not to push for progress beyond the set’s ‘normal’ boundaries, allowing themselves and their classes to ‘settle’ for what is ‘expected’.

In my view, it is absolutely crucial that teachers recognise they are teaching individuals and that the learning experience needs to be tailored and differentiated for each pupil if those children are to progress to the highest level possible.

In the end, Professor Coe’s research identifies two areas where there is strong evidence of positive impact on pupil learning. The first is the depth in which a teacher knows their subject. Detailed knowledge of what is being taught in its wider intellectual context is self-evidently very important – which is why Bede’s always strives to employ teachers with exemplary academic records themselves. However, this point is nuanced. Great teachers understand more than just the subject material; they are also able to understand how pupils think about the subject. The best teachers permit innovative thinking or unconventional responses (yet channel those responses productively), while being able to identify misconceptions in understanding and/or factual knowledge. In short, they are intellectually ready for anything.

Secondly, the quality of instruction is at the heart of teacher effectiveness. However, this is not to be confused with dry didacticism. We are talking here about the armoury of the effective teacher: effective questioning; challenging and shaping pupil responses; reviewing previous learning; offering pupils models for their responses; scaffolding and structuring learning; and allowing time for pupils to practice and embed their skills and understanding.

Professor Coe’s report identifies two further areas where there is moderate impact on pupil progress. These are classroom climate (the quality of interactions between the teacher and pupil) and classroom management (the good order and efficiency of the learning environment). The former attributes pupil success to effort (rather than ability) while valuing resilience in the face of challenging work. The latter stresses the teacher’s capacity to make the classroom productive and safe, while ensuring the learning is maximal.

I strongly believe that environment does matter, which is why I am so pleased that the Governing Board have agreed that the Trust’s next major phase of capital development will be the replacement of the Senior School’s classrooms with new spaces fit for 21st century learning.

Professor Coe finds that teachers’ sense of professional purpose, their motivations for teaching and their philosophy of learning have some – yet limited – impact on the learning process. Similarly, and although ancillary to the actual learning experience of pupils, a teacher’s professionalism – their willingness to reflect on and develop their practice, their use of data, their support for colleagues, their proactive communication with parents – are shown to impact positively on pupil outcomes.

So why do I write at such length about a report that might reasonably be construed as only of interest to educational professionals? The answer is that Professor Coe’s report vindicates and support Bede’s approach to education. We share the key teacher effectiveness principles at the heart of his report. Our professional development programmes are innovative, yet focus unswervingly on pupils’ progress and their outcomes. Our teacher recruitment is unashamedly elitist: I want the best people in the country teaching Bedians and our teachers need top-class credentials to meet our exacting standards. We expect and nurture excellence in staff. Our school believes in the individual and places each child’s progress and development at the heart of the learning experience. We want the very best outcomes for everyone in everything they do.

Professor Coe’s report demonstrates that nothing succeeds like hard work: committed professionals, who remain immersed in and inspired by their subject, who, in turn, inspire young people. At the same time, great teachers have the skill, courage and sensitivity to shape the learning experience appropriately for each individual pupil they teach. A teacher’s capacity for excellence draws the same commitment and enquiry from those they teach.

Our job as a school is to continue recognising that there is no substitute for great teaching. Moreover, that we, the educational professionals, must remain committed to our own professional growth and development so that our pupils can enjoy the best learning experience they can.

If we get that right, I know that the outcomes for our pupils will indeed be great.

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