How to make teaching great

Bringing education to life. Students in class via Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

An article we wrote last week for The Conversation on Seven “great” teaching methods not backed up by evidence prompted a large amount of comment and discussion. One of the main questions has been, ok so what does make for great teaching? It was this question that our recent evidence review for the Sutton Trust set out to address, alongside how teachers can improve their teaching and so bring about better learning for their students.

Defining effective teaching is not straightforward. But it must surely be something like: “effective teaching is that which leads to high achievement by students in terms of valued outcomes”. Many current ways of assessing children, particularly those used in high-stakes exams or in existing research studies, do not fully reflect the range of important outcomes that a child’s education is trying to achieve.

Identifying good teaching is also a challenge because observing children and teachers provides very limited estimates of how much students actually learn from different practices. Whether studies are based on classroom observation, student surveys or scrutinising students’ work, their predictive power is usually not very high. Even in high-quality research studies, it’s difficult to show clear results.

In practice this means that if we use classroom observation to identify teachers as “above” or “below” average in terms of their impact on student learning, we would get it right about 60% of the time, compared with the 50% chance we would get it right by just tossing a coin. Better than chance, but not much!

Six good practices

The research we reviewed suggests there are six common components that are signatures of good-quality teaching:

  1. Content knowledge This is when teachers have a deep knowledge of the subject that they teach and can communicate content effectively to their students. We found strong evidence for the impact of this on student outcomes.

  2. Quality of instruction This includes teachers being skilled in effective questioning and use of assessment. Good teachers also deploy techniques such as reviewing previous learning and giving adequate time for children to practice and so embed skills securely. They also progressively introduce new skills and knowledge, a process known as “scaffolding”. Again, there is strong evidence of the impact of this on learning.

  3. Teaching climate The quality of the teaching and learning relationships between teachers and students is important. Good teaching challenges students but develops a sense of competence: attributing success to effort, rather than ability. We found moderate evidence that the teaching climate in the classroom impacts student outcomes.

  4. Classroom management Efficient use of lesson time, co-ordinating classroom resources and space, managing students’ behaviour with clear rules that are consistently enforced: we found moderate evidence of the impact of these on how children learn. These factors are perhaps the necessary conditions for good learning, but are not sufficient on their own. A well-ordered classroom with an ineffective lesson will not have a large impact.

  5. Teacher beliefs There is also some evidence to show the importance of the reasons why teachers adopt particular practices and the purposes or goals that they have for their students. For example, research indicates that primary school teachers’ beliefs about the nature of mathematics and their theories about how children learn – and their role in that learning – are more important to student outcomes that the level of mathematics qualification the teacher holds.

  6. Professional behaviours Developing professional skills and practice, participating in professional development, supporting colleagues and the broader role of liaising and communicating with parents also have a part to play in effective teaching. We found some evidence to show this has an impact on student outcomes.

Helping teachers help students

Getting the results of this evidence to teachers is another matter. A comprehensive review by New Zealand education expert Helen Timperley and her colleagues detailed the way teachers react when they see that a particular practice leads to students learning more. Their analysis suggests that the way teachers learn about their own teaching can have a direct impact on student outcomes.

Overall, the evidence indicates that teachers who sustain the use of good practice do so by keeping a clear focus on improving student outcomes. Teachers should be given feedback about their teaching in a clear way by a mentor who sets them specific and challenging goals. School leaders also need to promote an environment of professional learning and support for teachers. This is a remarkably similar process to what we know about how students’ learn in schools.

Next, read this: Seven ‘great’ teaching methods not backed up by evidence