What Makes Great Teaching?

6 lessons from learners

Tom Sherrington wrote recently that seeking student views can “help us to do a better job as teachers.”  At times, students’ viewpoints need to be treated with caution.  In Do Learners Really Know Best? urban legends about learners as ‘digital natives’ and ‘self-educators’ are exploded, whilst Kirschner et al. argue here, that students do not always prefer the most effective form of instruction.  Despite this, what struck me when reading the Sutton Trust’s What Makes Great Teaching was the correlation to student voice I had done with Year 10 students on their views of effective teaching:

1. WMGT emphasised quality of instruction; students said that good teacher explanation matters

For the students, it was quality of explanations that made the difference between a good and a bad teacher.  Unsurprisingly, they liked clear, step-by-step explanations with well-matched modelling or worked examples and effective questioning to check for understanding.  This matches the Sutton Trust’s high-quality instruction which “includes elements such as effective questioning and ... providing model responses for students.”  Unsurprisingly, students disliked it when teachers were ‘irritated’ by explanation.  The length of explanation was important, with overlong and too short explanations both coming in for criticism.  Teacher talk, in and of itself, was not criticised but a distinction was made best summed up as ‘are you teaching or just talking?’  The students also commented on the usefulness of constructing their own explanations, therefore unconsciously echoing Dunlosky here on the efficacy of self-explanation particularly for procedural or problem-solving tasks.  Students from the lower sets also commented on the importance of explanations being visual and left in place so that they could return to them through the lesson. 

1. Excellent ideas on explanation from The Learning Spy here and Headguruteacher here
2. How to model from Headguruteacher here
3. Using analogies in explanation from Reflecting English here
4. Great ideas on 'talk better' teaching from Reflecting English here 
Ideas on memorable explanation from Chip and Dan Heath here and here
6. Introducing hinge questions @Improving Teaching here

The dangers of poor explanation! (Thanks @meridianvale)

2.  Students said that marking matters

@Class Teaching has great student voice on feedback here.  The students that I spoke to were cautious about peer assessment which Shaun Allison points out is “no substitute for teacher feedback;” as Graham Nuthall explains in The Hidden Lives of Learners, much of what students learn from each other is wrong.  Also, if 45,500 grades needed to be changed last year due to inaccurate marking by qualified teachers, what makes us think that students will get it right? 

And don’t forget the obvious; as one student commented plaintively, ‘I can’t read the teachers’ writing.’  

1.     For a superb round up of feedback techniques check out @Class Teaching here
2.     For fabulous tips of fast feedback see @Belmont Teach here
3.     Tips on reclaiming your marking @ Love Learning Ideas here
4. A round up of good marking ideas from @Meols Cop High School here

3.  WMGT emphasised classroom climate; students said a well-organised lesson matters

For the students, a classroom climate in which there was “efficient use of lesson time” was important: what Stephen Tierney describes as the “relentless pursuit of learning.”  Unsurprisingly, they disliked unclear objectives not obviously linked to the task, and long or irrelevant starters.  Students in top sets disliked teacher ‘add-ins’ through the lesson as the teacher remembered things that they had forgotten to explain in the first place, because this interrupted their learning.  Students from lower sets also disliked being interrupted in the middle of a task as ‘we forget what we are writing.’  Tom Sherrington suggests the use of silent working here: “If a silent atmosphere is created in the right way... it means this: ‘OK; we’ve done all the talking, we’ve thrown up all our ideas... now it’s over to you to bring it all together, to get really stuck in and produce something that shows what you’ve learned, by yourself.’  It’s intense; intensely productive and intensely concentrated.”

1. Headguruteacher explains how to create clear lesson objectives here
2. Good ideas from Pragmatic Education here about structuring instruction
3. Mastery Lesson Plan @Love Learning Ideas 

4.  WMGT emphasised content knowledge; students said teacher enthusiasm matters 

Criticism of boring lessons focused on lack of teacher enthusiasm, although it would also be true to say that overuse of anything can cause student fatigue (or Death by Powerpoint Syndrome).  A pet hate of students, particularly in top sets, was the phrase ‘you don’t need to know that; it’s not on the syllabus.’  Whilst there is not an automatic correlation between teacher enthusiasm and subject knowledge, it is probable that the most enthusiastic teachers would be those with a “deep knowledge of [and love for] the subjects they teach” which the Sutton Trust identified as a key factor in effective instruction.  

Tom Sherington writes here: “I want to suggest that one of the most important habits of a Great Teacher teaching Great Lessons is to find joy in what they’re doing and in what the students are doing.  When I walk into a lesson that gives me a sense that it is a Great Lesson… The teacher and the students are busily engaging in tasks or exchanging ideas in a way that conveys enthusiasm and interest and even pleasure… JOY!”

5.  WMGT emphasised classroom management; students said that tackling poor behaviour matters

In 2013-14, 83% of schools were graded as having good or better behaviour:

Pupils respond very quickly to staff’s instructions and requests, allowing lessons to flow smoothly and without interruption. Low-level disruption in lessons is rare. 

However, Ofsted’s Below the Radar Report (2014) stated that, “broadly one in 12 secondary teachers said that more than 10 minutes of learning was lost per hour.”   PISA results from 2010 cited here found that 31% of pupils in England felt that “in most or all lessons... there is noise and disorder” whilst OECD research cited here suggests national differences: 28% of UK students reported that teachers had to wait a long time for students to quieten down, compared with 7% in Japan.  Haydn’s research into behaviour reported here, found that classroom management might be the biggest factor in underachievement, with poor international comparisons due to comparatively poor behaviour in English schools.  The Sutton Trust mentioned the “teacher’s abilities...to manage students’ behaviour” as a key environmental factor in effective teaching.

Unsurprisingly, students disliked shouting, empty threats and time spent on bad students.  They also disliked being put into ‘forced’ groups where they were used to control the behaviour of other students – an interesting perspective on seating plans.  Students from lower sets also stressed the desirability of being taught by a teacher in a good mood! 

1. Top 10 tips for managing behaviour @Hunting English 
2. Tom Bennett’s Top 10 Behaviour tips here 
3. Be better at behaviour.  Ideas from Love Learning Ideas here

6.  WMGT emphasised teacher beliefs; students said that being involved matters

As you would hope, the students noticed new teaching and learning initiatives and wanted to know more about these.  If pedagogy is not explained to students there is a risk of misconceptions arising.  How many students for example have extended abstract understanding of SOLO Taxonomy, which is (apparently): “I fully understand SOLO Taxonomy including key terminology and structures.  I can confidently use SOLO Taxonomy to achieve deep learning and effective assessment for learning and assessment.  I can use SOLO Taxonomy to identify my progress.”  According to the Sutton Trust, teachers’ theories about what learning is and how it happens, “seem to be important” – would greater student understanding help learning?

1. Consider developing Learner CPD.  How to Pass Exams here explains memory retrieval practice to students.

Posted on February 14, 2015 .