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 identify ways in which schools can promote the best possible learning for their pupils.

Professor Coe is explicit that any judgement of the effectiveness of teaching must be referenced against its impact on pupils’ outcomes. Professor Coe values ‘consequential validity’ as opposed to gauging how well a teacher’s practice conforms to a set of ‘objective’ criteria – in layman’s terms ‘ticking boxes’. He recognises that quality teaching is ‘multi-dimensional’ and tends to be greater than the sum of its parts. Teaching really is far more ‘art’ – or ‘craft’ – than it is ‘science’.

Equally interesting in Professor Coe’s report are those examples of ineffective practices. For example, lavish and undiscerning praise can harm learning and actually reinforce low expectations. Conversely, teachers who offer a critical – yet supportive – assessment of a pupil’s work, affirming effort 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 some might think. Although independent research clearly has a place in learning, it seems the specialist 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 their 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 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, will hold a class rapt whatever the topic.

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) has no benefit.

Perhaps a little more controversially, Professor Coe explains that grouping pupils by ability – ‘setting’ – makes very little difference to learning outcomes. In reality, research indicates that setting 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). 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’. Thus, the learning experience needs to be tailored and differentiated for each pupil if 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 to which a teacher knows their subject. Detailed knowledge of what is being taught in its wider intellectual context is self-evidently important, however, Coe’s 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 allow innovative thinking or unconventional responses (yet channel those responses productively), whilst 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) whilst valuing resilience in the face of challenging work. The latter stresses the teacher’s capacity to make the classroom productive and safe, whilst ensuring the learning is maximal.

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 what might we take from Professor Coe’s findings? First, we can draw strength from the key teacher effectiveness principles at the heart of his report. Second, Coe underlines the need for schools’ professional development programmes to engage with teaching as an holistic enterprise, yet retain an unswerving focus on pupils’ progress and their outcomes. Third, teacher recruitment needs to be uncompromisingly rigorous with heads expecting and nurturing excellence in their teaching staff.

Professor Coe’s report demonstrates that nothing succeeds like hard work: committed professionals, immersed in and enthused by their subject, who, in turn, inspire young people. At the same time, the very best teachers have the skill, courage and sensitivity to shape the learning experience appropriately for each pupil they teach.

Dr Richard Maloney, Headmaster, Bede's