What really matters
Why do 95% of teachers not know about what really works in the classroom? Why are the media and politicians even more clueless? According to Mike Bell, who runs the Evidence-Based Teachers’ Network (EBTN), very few people are actually aware of the teaching techniques that are proven to work across all the age ranges and subjects. Bell feels this is because we don’t live in a culture which values evidence; we prefer to argue and disagree rather than come to a consensual point of view based on the best evidence before us.
I have to confess that, until recently, I was not aware of the full range of work that has been done which shows that there are some really effective, simple teaching techniques that consistently work. Sure, I was aware of John Hattie’s seminal research studies but I have to confess that I’d found his book Visible Learning rather heavy weather: it is full of off-putting charts and statistics and isn’t written in readily accessible language.
Fortunately, I was lucky enough to attend an EBTN training day recently and came away feeling much more enlightened. The training day was persuasive because, unlike many CPD days I have attended, Bell produces hard evidence that the teaching strategies he advocates have actually worked. Furthermore, he is an excellent communicator, in my view the best in this particular field: his approach is a bit less technical than his mentor and colleague, Geoff Petty, who has written books on evidence-based teaching.
In this short video clip of my interview with him, he explains where to find effective teaching techniques:
As he says in the interview, there are a number of strategies and policies which we know from years of evidence are ineffective. These include:
• Charter schools/academies/free schools
• Reducing class sizes
• Non-specialist information technology
• Untrained teaching assistants
• Staff development with no feedback
In his interview with me, Bell went through the things that definitely do make a difference to students’ outcomes. You can find the main sources: Hattie, Marzano and EEF on the EBTN website. All of the strategies which he advocates and which are proven to work are ones which play to the brain’s strengths. As Bell says, scientists are finding more and more about the human brain and are realising that are brains learn by making connections, spotting the similarities and differences between things; this is why teaching by analogy is so important. This is what effective teachers do anyway, but it is useful to know why making analogies help students learn. In this clip, bell explains why ‘Using Analogies’ comes top of Marzano’s list of effective methods.
Teachers are notorious for being overburdened by marking, but Bell says that they needn’t be. Indeed he says that teachers shouldn’t waste their time by marking too much:
It is more effective often to get students to mark their own work. Summative Assessment should be minimised.
What teachers really need is to have time to reflect upon their own practice. Good quality staff development has one of the highest effect-sizes in education. In this clip, Bell talks about why they need this space during school time:
Indeed when teachers are encouraged to research a particular area of their teaching, they usually improve their students’ learning. They start to see the learning through the eyes of the student:
Bell points out that there is a great deal of evidence that setting by ability does not change average results and often doesn’t work for the less able students:
What students need to do is to have the space to talk through problems in mixed-ability groups so that less able students communicate with more able students and improve their knowledge of a topic:
When teachers nurture discussion, they really manage to raise levels of achievement. This is why a “no hands-up” rule often works very well because it forces students to discuss key issues in groups.
Students also need to adopt positive attitudes towards learning and to adopt a “Growth Mindset” where they believe that can achieve if they try. Rewarding students for effort not for their innate ability is vital in this regard:
While some of these methods might seem suspiciously trendy to some more traditional teachers – no hands-up, co-operative learning, Growth Mindset –
some methods are quite old-fashioned. Bell advocates “rote-learning” where appropriate:
He also says that teachers must be giving students the big picture of a topic consistently, as well as the fine detail. This is something many teachers neglect to do.
In the interview, Bell discussed the major researchers in this area, who are: Michael Shayer and Philip Adey, John Hattie, Robert Marzano. Here he talks about how Cognitive Acceleration developed following classroom experiences in the 1970s. It enables less able students to understand complex topics:
In this clip, he talks at greater length about the methods and approaches of the evidence-based approach:
Bell’s own video, The Case for Evidence-Based Teaching, is a good summary of all the main points he makes:
Let’s hope that teachers are given more support and training in these vital areas. Instead of wasting billions on initiatives that we know don’t work, we need to nurture a system which really helps teachers use strategies which are proven to raise standards.