What makes good teaching and how can we encourage it?
I appeared on Newsnight last night discussing the teaching profession with presenter Kirsty Wark and Sean Worth, who is a Fellow of the think-tank, Policy Exchange, which was set up by a few people, including Michael Gove. We were talking about Michael Gove’s comment on Newsnight the previous night that outstanding teachers supported his reforms and bad teachers do not and views on his reforms in the light of the NUT teacher strike.
I suppose that makes me a very bad teacher because I hardly agree with anything Gove says. But it’s quite funny because I met Gove quite recently at Roger Scruton’s birthday party in the very posh Reform club. What, may you ask, was an annoying teacher like me, a definite member of Gove’s dreaded “Blob”, doing amongst the Corinthian columns of this exclusive gentleman’s club? Scruton is quite open-minded: he liked some of my educational writing, and asked me to write a chapter in a book Town and Country, which he edited with the left-winger Anthony Barnett, and we’ve stayed in touch ever since. Although I don’t agree with his politics, I admire Scruton’s philosophy, particularly his work on aesthetics, which I’ve referenced in my PhD in Creative Writing and Education and I think his new novel, Notes from the Underground, is really excellent. Believing he was among friends, Gove winced at the sight of me but then recovered himself and introduced me – we’ve met several times before in less friendly circumstances, i.e. me shouting at him on Newsnight in 2010 — to another guest as a lively writer and a good teacher! But I think he was only being polite so I’m not sure I can use the quote on my CV. On Newsnight, the majority of the discussion was focused on whether performance-related-pay (PRP) will improve teaching standards. I pointed out that the OECD research and my own experience suggests it does not. Fiona Millar has written a good post on this here. Sean Worth wrong-footed me a bit when he said that the OECD research suggested that it did work; but then qualified this by saying the OECD research suggested that standards were higher in countries where PRP happened. Not sure, where he got this from… I countered by saying that if you have a system which encourages teachers to be secretive and competitive, you don’t get a sharing, co-operative atmosphere which enables teachers to talk about improving their teaching honestly. Instead you get “silo-ism”; the tendency for competing projects to hinder the overall progress of an organisation; people all “doing their own thing” and not talking to each other, not learning from each other. The research shows that schools work best when there is a genuinely “bottom-up” co-operative spirit at work. Organisations like the National Teachers Enquiry Network (NTEN) have shown that if you get teachers observing each other’s lessons in an open and non-threatening fashion (i.e. their pay packet isn’t dependent on an “outstanding” grading which is the case in many schools now) then you genuinely raise teaching standards because teachers can admit to their problems and get help to improve their practice. This is what NTEN’s “lesson study” model is based upon and which I’m excited to be involved with next year at my school; it’s what Teacher Toolkit talked about being what significantly improves standards in my interview with him here. The problem is that politicians in this country – on left and right – have not focused upon implementing educational policies that are based on evidence. All of Gove’s reforms have been shown to have a negligible effect upon improving standards when they’re scrutinised carefully: Henry Stewart’s research for LSN has shown that non-academies do as well as academies; Gove’s obsession with high-stakes, do-or-die exams also is shown not to raise standards either. But what does work? Well, it appears that there is some emerging consensus on this with considerable evidence that certain teaching strategies make the biggest difference to standards overall. On the day I went on Newsnight, I also attended a training session run by Evidence-Based Teacher Network which is devoted to training teachers to use methods which the evidence shows really works. The leader of the course, Mike Bell, listed in this order what really works in the classroom:
- getting students to identify similarities and differences in a subject
- summarising and note-making
- developing a growth mindset (put very crudely: focusing upon effort and resilience)
- repetition and practice
- non-linguistic representation (graphical methods) (put very crudely: good diagrams)
- co-operative learning
- goals and feedback
- generating and testing hypothesis
- activating prior knowledge
- advance organisers (put crudely: telling students in simple terms what they are studying over the whole course)
The evidence for these strategies working with students across all age ranges and in many subjects is overwhelming; you can download a free PDF of Classroom Instruction That Works here and read more about it. If Gove (and the previous Labour administration) had pumped the billions they’ve poured into academies and free schools into training teachers in these methods, there’s no doubt our children would be doing significantly better than they are already. But have they funded genuine research into strategies that actually work? Er, no, of course, that would have been done by the New Zealand government who funded Hattie’s seminal research in this regard, collated in the very technical but useful Visible Learning. Classroom Instruction That Works and Geoff Petty’s books (some of which you can download for free here) are more palatable, teacher-friendly summaries of these key research findings. So there are rays of hope. NTEN, the Educational Endowment Fund and the Research Ed movement (spearheaded by TES columnist Tom Bennett) all seem to be focused primarily on getting teachers to use strategies that are proven to improve students’ learning and can be practically implemented in the classroom. These are very recent movements which will need time and money to disseminate good practice. However, let’s not forget the woefully neglected professional associations like the National Association for the Teaching of English (NATE), the National Association for the Teachers of Religious Education (NATRE) the Association for Science Teachers (ASE), the Association of Teachers of Maths (ATM). These organisations have been pioneering the model of the teacher-researcher, examining what actually works in specific subject areas. Many like NATE have warned successive governments that their policies won’t work – but they’ve been ignored because they’re only teachers. However, if governments supported them properly, they could play a very significant role in raising standards, but this is difficult at the moment because they’re starved of cash and marginalised by politicians who are obsessed with billion-dollar distractions like academies and free schools.