Sutton Trust report on ‘What Makes Great Teaching’

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You may have noticed on the radio and television over half term that a report on ‘What Makes Great Teaching’, from the Sutton Trust and Professor Rob Coe, provoked a lot of debate.

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It is an excellent read that makes an attempt to review all the best evidence in defining great teaching. It also made me think about what we’ve been saying for the past few years and how close we are to what Rob Coe and others now see as good practice.

Key aspects that come out of the report for me are quoted as follows:

  • “Effective questioning and use of assessment by teachers”.
  • “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)”.
  • “Creating a classroom that is constantly demanding more, but still recognising students’ self-worth”.
  • “Attributing student success to effort rather than ability and valuing resilience to failure (grit)”.
  • “Behaviours exhibited by teachers such as reflecting on and developing professional practice, participation in professional development, supporting colleagues, and liaising and communicating with parents”.

It breaks down the most effective strategies for great teaching as follows:

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  1. (Pedagogical) content knowledge. The most effective teachers have deep knowledge of the subjects they teach, and when teachers’ knowledge falls below a certain level it is a significant impediment to students’ learning. As well as 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. Includes elements such as effective questioning and use of assessment by teachers. 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. 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. 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. These environmental factors are necessary for good learning rather than its direct components.
  5. Teacher beliefs. 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. Behaviours exhibited by teachers such as reflecting on and developing professional practice, participation in professional development, supporting colleagues, and liaising and communicating with parents.

It also focuses on the strategies that are ineffective for student learning. This less than magnificent 7 are:

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– Using praise lavishly. For low-attaining students praise that is meant to be encouraging and protective can actually convey a message of low expectations. The evidence shows children whose failure generates sympathy are more likely to attribute it to lack of ability than those who are presented with anger.

– Allowing learners to discover key ideas for themselves. Enthusiasm for ‘discovery learning’ is not supported by research evidence, which broadly favours direct instruction.

– Grouping students by ability. Evidence on the effects of grouping by ability, either by allocating students to different classes, or to within-class groups, suggests that it makes very little difference to learning outcomes. It can result in teachers failing to accommodate different needs within an ability group and over-playing differences between groups, going too fast with the high-ability groups and too slow with the low.

– Encouraging re-reading and highlighting to memorise key ideas. Testing yourself, trying to generate answers, and deliberately creating intervals between study to allow forgetting, are all more effective approaches to memorisation than re-reading or highlighting.

– Addressing low confidence and aspirations before teaching content. Attempts to enhance motivation prior to teaching content are unlikely to succeed and even if they do the impact on subsequent learning is close to zero. If the poor motivation of low attainers is a logical response to repeated failure starting to get them to succeed through learning content will improve motivation and confidence.

– Presenting information to students in their preferred learning style. Despite a recent survey showing over 90% of teachers believe individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style, the psychological evidence is clear that there are no benefits to this method.

– Being active, rather than listening passively, helps you remember. This claim is commonly presented in the form of a ‘learning pyramid’ which shows precise percentages of material that will be retained when different levels of activity are employed. These percentages have no empirical basis and are pure fiction…

The list of ineffective strategies should certainly make us reflect deeply on what we do and the time we invest in what we plan for our students. The report is highly recommended. It is a substantial read, but worth returning to again and again.

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Sutton Trust Report

 

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