Sutton Trust Report strikes a blow against league table culture

On Friday 31 October, the Sutton Trust published its report What Makes Great Teaching, authored by Professor Rob Coe and colleagues at Durham University.  Drawing on over 200 pieces of research, it sheds light on a range of working misconceptions that have insinuated themselves into our national understanding of what teaching should be.

The Trust hung its press release on the report’s finding that lavish praise for students is not good practice as, rather than being encouraging and protecting, this can convey a message of low expectations. Amen to that: the hugely successful and widely disseminated work of Carol Dweck ought by now to have steered teachers away from such practice.

An enduring concern is the persistence of damaging beliefs about effective pedagogy, such as the belief in ‘learning styles’ which, again, the report challenges. A focus on ‘learning styles’ can, we know, lead teachers to pigeon-hole students and perpetuate in the latter a fixed belief as to how they can or cannot learn. It is surely paradoxical that we would identify apparent weaknesses in a student’s learning armoury (e.g. the ability to listen), and then deliberately avoid strengthening it by not expecting them to do so! This represents a fixed mindset if ever there was one. The falsity of the ‘learning styles’ approach has been known for years, and it raises serious questions about professional development in schools given that 90% of teachers remain invested in it. Rather, and this is stressed in the report, a multi-dimensional approach to learning sits at the heart of good teaching and benefits all.

Most heartening about the report is the high value placed on the importance of a teacher’s judgment in making decisions about how to interact with a class. There is no single infallible recipe for success in the classroom, and there is as much art as there is science in teaching: this will be music to the ears of those teachers who have been shackled to overly-prescriptive schemes of work by distrustful managers and policy makers.

Traditionalists will seize on the apparent support given to direct instruction over active learning methods, or ‘discovery learning’. To an extent this is welcome, and the pendulum does need to swing back to empower teachers to spend an appropriate amount of time delivering information as part of a range of teaching strategies without fear of condemnation from OFSTED-style judgments, but this should certainly not become an excuse for interminable periods of front-led chalk and talk.

Previous Sutton Trust research shows that the quality of teaching is by far the biggest factor within schools that impacts on the achievement of children from poorer backgrounds; more widely, there is good evidence that teachers’ knowledge of their subjects and the quality of their instruction have a positive effect on results. Whilst common sense tells us that this is so, culturally, we would also do well to heed the underpinning ethos of the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS), popular in America, which places a high value in assessment on the warmth, respect and enthusiasm evident in the classroom, as well as a teacher’s sensitivity to students’ needs and regard for their perspectives. Our experience at Bedales has always been that good relationships between staff and students are a prerequisite for effective learning.

The report’s repeated acknowledgment of the difficulty in evaluating teacher effectiveness is particularly welcome, not least in its caution about using any one metric in isolation to judge a teacher’s work. This goes against a dominant and damaging tendency to make simplistic links between raw exam results and the quality of an education provided by a teacher – or indeed a whole school.

The report considers different methods of evaluating teaching: using ‘value-added’ results from student test scores, observing classroom teaching – at which we are apparently surprisingly unsuccessful - and getting students to rate the quality of their teaching. Bedales is a school which has long prized student input into the evaluation of teaching, and it comes as no surprise to us that that the report should consider student evaluation to be one of the more reliable ways to predict measurable success. Overall, it finds that all of these methods have some merit, but warns that it is easy to draw invalid conclusions, and no one metric should be used in isolation.

Judgments about the quality of an education, whether on an individual or a collective scale, must draw on a whole range of evidence – some qualitative and some quantitative – and must be tempered by nuanced and provisional readings of the data. The Sutton Trust authors do exactly this, acknowledging the considerable ambiguity of the evidence base for various popular beliefs about the nature of effective teacher evaluation. As such, the report implicitly strikes a blow against the crass over-simplification of league table culture.

Alistair McConville, Deputy Head, Academic, Bedales School