The slogan ‘Everyone remembers a good teacher’ was key to a high-profile advertising campaign to recruit teachers across the UK. I would argue, however, that most people would also remember a bad teacher, or one who made them feel stupid, or one that praised them when no-one else did; or one that took extra time to care for their general wellbeing. Or all of the above, and much more.
Teachers have an enormous impact on us during the most formative years of our life, from very early years through to at least the age of 16. There has been much debate and research into what makes a great teacher, but most of it focuses on academic achievement.
For instance, a review in October this year (2014) by the Sutton Trust studied more than 200 pieces of research to pinpoint which elements of teaching carry the strongest evidence of improving children’s scholastic achievements. The review attracted considerable prominent media coverage including ITV News, The Times and The Guardian.
It found two aspects had the strongest evidence of improving pupils’ academic achievements.
The first is teachers’ subject knowledge. One might think this is somewhat obvious but seemingly it needs to be restated. Sutton Trust concluded teachers need to be able to assess how students think about a subject, enabling them to identify likely misconceptions.
The second most important facet is quality of instruction. Again, hardly a ‘lightbulb moment’. This element includes identifying and using particular techniques, like effective questioning and quality assessment.
The Trust also identified other, slightly less proven aspects of great teaching (in terms of academic achievement). These, to me at least, carry the real value of the research project:
- asking students to identify why an activity is taking place in the lesson is very important. This might include why there is a level of uncertainty, or disruption, or a particularly unenthusiastic class;
- asking many questions of many students – and checking the responses across the board;
- creating gaps between studies on the same topic, spacing out the learning process;
- encouraging students to take tests or come up with potential answers before they have been taught the material.
Now those are food for thought.
So what, according to all this research, does not make a good teacher (again in terms of academic achievement)? Its findings include:
- lavishing praise on students is a big no-no, apparently;
- letting students discover key ideas by themselves (surely not?!);
- grouping students according to ability (very moot!);
- allowing students to dictate their own preferred learning style.
The report clearly has some good advice for teachers seeking to keep abreast of modern thinking and academic results but, for me, is in danger of putting all students into the same melting pot and coming out with a one-approach-fits-all answer to successful schooling.
I am particularly concerned that teachers are now being encouraged not to praise children unduly. Low self-esteem can be a dreadful condition to live with and a common barrier to learning or indeed wanting to learn. If child A is incapable of, or unwilling to, keep up and excel in class, maybe it’s because they are made to feel useless or inept in life outside school. A little public praise goes a long way to bolstering confidence, making a child feel worthwhile and encouraging them to do better. Similarly, a ‘difficult’ child can respond well to praise for even mundane achievements – perhaps a quiet word at the end of the lesson thanking them for not being disruptive in that lesson. If a child suffers entrenched negative behaviours it can help to crack the mould.
Looking back at my own schooling I remember the good, the bad and the ugly in the classroom, and each experience taught me something. Although many countries in the Western world seem bent on academic achievement I believe it’s important to view schooling ‘in the round’, understanding that the enormous impacts of the school experience are usually deeper and can last far longer than the GSCE results on a CV.
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