What makes a good teacher? An overview of teaching effectiveness research

23 January 2008

The Third Cambridge Assessment Research Seminar was hosted and chaired by Barry Sheerman MP, Chair of the House of Commons’ Children, Schools and Families Select Committee. The session was entitled: “What makes a good teacher? An overview of teaching effectiveness research.” Attendees were addressed by three keynote speakers; Professor Patricia Broadfoot, Professor Mary James and Professor Deborah Myhill. After the presentations there was a sustained debate to which all were able to contribute.

A summary of the proceedings of the seminar is below:

Patricia Broadfoot: Many traditions; one future.

University of Gloucestershire

Prof Broadfoot drew lessons from over ten years’ of comprehensive research into teacher practice. There are, she said, a number of themes, or ‘constants’, that emerge when looking at comparative studies of education in France and England, and these have implications for the future as the process of globalisation emerges. These included the findings that English teachers perceived their range of responsibilities and accountabilities to be wider than those of their French counterparts; their conceptualisations of teaching also involved social and emotional aspects of learning.

Teachers’ perceptions of failure were also different across the nations. The French teachers tended to attribute pupil failure to the pupil’s lack of work, in contrast to the English teachers who tied failure to notions of pupil ability. The PACE (1990) project suggested that the emergence of the National Curriculum added a coherence and organisation to teaching in England and that the allied pressures, which related to the greater emphasis on learning performance outcomes, encouraged a greater element of collegiality amongst the teaching profession.

The convergence of these disparate factors leaves teachers in England in a good position to deal with future developments, such as the lifelong learning agenda. The UK teaching tradition has an unusual culture which recognises the importance of learning in a holistic sense which centres on relationships. Teaching in the globalisation era will involve greater degrees of professional autonomy and responsibility; increased emphasis on relationships and emotions and a reduced focus on intellectual factors in the learning process; as well as a continuing need to question and overcome established traditions in teaching and learning.

Mary James: Ten principles from the UK’s Teaching and Learning Research Programme.

Institute of Education, London

The issues emerging from the Teaching and Learning Research Programme (TLRP), a major research initiative aiming to impact on the learning outcomes of learners of all ages across all sectors of education and training, can be distilled into ten principles clustered around four themes. These principles are therefore valuable tools for engaging discussion about teaching and learning.

Education values and purposes is the first, and perhaps the most important cluster, since it underlies understandings of later clusters. This principle suggests that effective teachers have a holistic sense of learning and learners and that their practice recognises the importance of good relationships alongside the social and emotional aspects of learning.

The second set of principles cluster around curriculum, pedagogy and assessment, recognising that education deals with forms of knowledge that are culturally valued. There is also an implication that learning is successful when it is dialogic in nature. This allows for teacher recognition of learner prior knowledge and the scaffolding of learning. It is also imperative that assessment is congruent with a complex and longitudinal view of learning.

The third set of principles cluster around personal and social processes. Learning is a social activity and the power of collaborative and informal working needs to be recognised. Effective teachers promote active learner engagement and consider both personal learning and social, grouped learning outcomes.

The final set of principles cluster around teachers and policies. At the heart of teachers’ professionalism is a sense that they should be reflexive and that their own learning is maintained within their service. There is also a need to have consistent policy frameworks which have teaching and learning as their primary focus.

Debbie Myhill: What makes a good teacher?

University of Exeter

‘Good’ is a value statement and is therefore a cultural judgment. Countries with the highest achieving schools tend to consider teaching to be a high status profession, attracting highly qualified graduates. Recent years in the UK have also seen teachers accorded a growing status. The question needs to be asked whether highly qualified graduates necessarily make the best teachers, and can the skills already highlighted by other speakers be taught through teacher training?

The ‘intellectual calibre’ of people joining the profession should not be conceptualised in a narrow sense. It inevitably involves a degree of subject knowledge but it should also consider pedagogic understanding; how to translate and mediate knowledge to learners. It should also involve critical and reflective knowledge to enable teaching practice to continue to move forward. ‘Creative adaptation’ is also a crucial aspect of teaching. The ability to mediate policy through a clear understanding of learning is what often sets good teachers apart form those others who consistently resist or passively adopt new initiatives.

The desire to ‘make a difference‘ should be at the heart of teachers’ value and belief systems. High expectations are often related to high outcomes but this involves teachers aspiring to change rather than replicate educational outcome patterns commonly associated with particular learner groups. This requires learners to be considered as individuals and teachers to be enthusiastic about change and development. Teachers also need to be excellent communicators. This involves an ability to interact with learners and fellow teaching colleagues. Another key disposition is emotional resilience. Teachers need to be able to cope with failure and be able to balance this against a drive towards perfection. If this balance isn’t successfully struck it can potentially lead to burn out.

Finally, the context of learning is also an important consideration, and the importance of ongoing support for teachers’ development whilst teaching is something that needs to be acknowledged.

Other participants in the seminar then took the opportunity to engage with the speakers and put forward some ideas of their own.

Richard Pring, of the University of Oxford, suggested that there had been little distinction made between initial teacher training and teachers’ continuing professional development (CPD). Was there evidence, he wondered, that more emphasis on CPD might lead to better outcomes?

Mary James: Successful learning requires learning to be respected at a system level. This means that school managers need to support ongoing development.

Debbie Myhill: Initial teacher training isn’t enough on its own so ongoing support is crucial for continuing teacher practice to develop.

Kathy Sylva, of the University of Oxford, worried that the presentations ran the risk of overemphasising social and emotional development in learning to the detriment of intellectual development. She highlighted work from the Evidence for Policy and Practice Information Centre (EPPI-Centre) suggesting that teaching approaches which ‘challenge minds’ are also important.

Patricia Broadfoot: The emphasis on social and emotional aspects is perhaps more subtle than presented but it should not be ignored, particularly in assessment where these factors are centrally implicated.

Tim Oates, of Cambridge Assessment, said that the finding which suggests that teachers’ constructions of learners are predicated on ability is crucial. This also relates to the way that learners construct their own learning identities. UK and US teachers’ constructions of learning tend to rest on particular conceptions of ability which lead to the labelling of learners around failure. Other cultures unlock latent attainment because their cultural premises suggest that failure might be the result of the poor presentation of concepts to learners.

Pam Sammons, of the University of Nottingham, believed that it is important to look at research findings which suggest that cognitive and affective issues are related. Not attending to good research findings has led to a number of home-grown practices and these are at the heart of the variances that exist within learning attainment levels in the UK. For example, one area of research suggests that teachers who use a plenary during literacy or numeracy lessons achieve better results.

Debbie Myhill: Teachers need to understand the purpose of a policy initiative and use it appropriately; this would suggest that it is not only the use of the plenary that matters but teachers understanding why they use it which is most powerful.

Louise Bamfield, of the Fabian Society, asked how far head teachers support learning autonomy in schools? It appeared to her that some of the teaching skills outlined might not be teachable; is behaviour management an aspect of teaching that might be teachable?

Mary James: The TLRP found that effective schools tended to focus on learning, and that this also involved the learning of the teachers.

Debbie Myhill: Behaviour management is an aspect that can be taught to an extent but it also relates heavily to the other already existing facets of a teacher’s profile and it would interact deeply with these.

Paul Black, of Kings’ College London, said that any analysis of government policy shifts in England needed to be understood in terms of their aims and methods. The English situation contrasts with Scotland, where research has been used to help change teacher practices.

Patricia Broadfoot: The culture of teachers in different countries is also an issue. Policies in France aimed at influencing teacher practice have been difficult to implement because of the high levels of professional autonomy claimed by French teachers.

Chris Day, of the University of Nottingham, felt that the focus has been more on effective teaching rather than effective teachers and we need to get beneath the surface of CPD. His research showed that teachers have professional life phases and that their effectiveness is not related to their age or experience levels. Therefore, is targeted intervention needed at different stages of a teacher’s career?

Iram Siraj-Blatchford, of the Institute of Education, said that it was necessary to deconstruct the core of what is important. Successful practice seems to be found in contexts where there is a high focus on outcomes and that this leads to attention being placed on the relationship between teacher and learner. This is also supported at a school leadership level.

Mary James: The core message from the TLRP appears to be the need for practitioners to understand how learners learn.

Liz Francis, of the Training and Development Agency for Schools, noted that Ofsted has suggested that there is a strong relationship between teachers’ subject knowledge and attainment levels. Did participants think that teacher recruitment should focus less on teacher subject knowledge?

Debbie Myhill: Teaching ability is greater than teachers’ subject knowledge alone. Teaching is about the mediation and application of subject knowledge, and focusing on audits of teacher subject knowledge can lead to a fossilised concept that discourages ongoing teacher development.

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