What makes a great teacher? - The value of professional development

by Guest Blogger, 03 November 2020
A toolkit

What makes a great teacher? Our international exam board, Cambridge Assessment International Education, has partnered with UK research group Evidence Based Education to try and answer this question, resulting in the Great Teaching Toolkit: Evidence Review. Professor Rob Coe of Evidence Based Education led the project to analyse, collate and distil more than a hundred individual pieces of global research on the links between teacher performance and student outcomes. Here, he explains what the toolkit is and how it can make a difference.

What is the Great Teaching Toolkit?

It’s a lifetime’s work! The question we started out with was: ‘If you wanted to make a list of things that actually make a difference, or that indicate real quality in teaching, what should be on it?’. There’s a lot of research out there already, but I think there’s still a bit of confusion among teachers about what matters most. So we decided to simplify the evidence and make it accessible in a single report. It’s meant to be a bag of tools to help teachers learn to be better. We’re giving them clear guidance about what’s worth learning and what’s worth working to be better at.

How much of a challenge was it to collate all the research?

It was very challenging because there’s a massive amount of literature out there. Some of it is entirely relevant and some of it much less so. It was a process of filtering and sorting the research to find the work of the highest quality, as well as of pushing aside any personal biases.

What surprised you the most as you read through the findings of the evidence review?

The conclusions weren’t what we were expecting. For example, I think there’s a lot of enthusiasm for cognitive science, and a lot of teachers get quite excited about things such as cognitive-load theory, but we had a big debate about how necessary that was.

Do teachers really need to know those kinds of theories? Is that what makes a great teacher?

The interesting thing is that there isn’t really much evidence that teachers who have that knowledge are any more effective than teachers who don’t. It’s possible for a teacher to apply these theories in practice even if they’ve never heard of them.

How difficult was it to come up with a toolkit that could be used by teachers across different countries, departments and year groups?

That was another big challenge. My background is in secondary schools as a UK maths teacher, so I found myself thinking of this through the same lens, but this has to equally apply to early-years teachers, as well as to schools all over the world. Obviously, there are going to be a huge number of differences, as well as there being some similarities. Context is very important, but broadly speaking, great teaching is pretty much universal.

With so many other challenges facing schools this year, how important is it for teachers not to overlook professional development?

I think that if we are invested in education at all then professional development really is key. When it’s done well, it really does have a huge effect on educational improvement – it obviously benefits students, but it also really benefits teachers in terms of their identity, their satisfaction and their likelihood of staying in the job. Part of the challenge is that good professional development is actually pretty rare. If you ask a lot of teachers about their experience of professional development, they’ll just roll their eyes and tell you horror stories. That’s a real shame because the potential is there for something really powerful.

What are the next steps for the Toolkit?

This is the first stage, which is the literature review, and that sets out a starting point for teacher learning – things that teachers should focus on if they want to get better at what they do. The next stage is for us to try and create a suite of key indicators so a teacher can look at their own practice and get really robust, insightful, actionable feedback about what they’re doing well, and to see whether they’re improving.

Find out more about the Great Teaching Toolkit - evidence review, sponsored by Cambridge Assessment International Education.

On 28 October, Cambridge International Education held a Great Teaching Toolkit webinar led by Professor Rob Coe. A recording of the webinar is now available on the Cambridge International Education YouTube channel. 

Professor Rob Coe

Prof Rob Coe

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