The 2 Most Important Factors that Great Teachers Demonstrate to Improve Results.

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Quality equals progress

Teachers are in the business of educating students. The core indicator of how well a teacher is doing in a school is the progress of their students. This is, for the most part, determined by their qualities as an educator.

In fact when you examine student progress and juxtapose teacher quality, I can guarantee that you will find that the students who do best, do so because they have the best teachers in front of them.

All sorts of excuses

Okay, not exactly ground breaking new. Well actually, some try to deny the obvious, citing all manners of external environmental factors like lack of resources, socio-economic factors and the like.

But the truth is, although these variables may have some influence on educational outcomes, the best results are produced by professional teachers: see this earlier post on Professionalism.

We all know that whilst resources are important, governments have poured billions down the educational drain, by simply throwing money at school systems that don’t address teacher quality as the most important factor in student outcomes.

Right, so what exactly are these things the top teachers are doing or not doing to get the best outcomes in their students?

Research shows…

An extensive 2014 Educational Study in England led by The Sutton Trust and Durham University produced some compelling insights into teacher effectiveness and quality.

This research showed that traditional teaching methods overwhelmingly led teachers to get the best results from their students.

Well who would have thought!?

Yes I know, and it’s worth reflecting on how we could have ever have lost sight of this…

Traditional Teaching Methods v Progressive

Unfortunately since the 1960s, in Education, just as in the Church,  a revolution has been taking place, led by progressive forces, that have turned common sense upside down. The results speak for themselves.

Worse still, progressives, not willing to admit their errors, complain bitterly that the benefits will eventually shine through, if only everyone would join in and get on board the progressive bandwagon.

I don’t know about you, but my father, God rest his soul, used to say to me… “Son, when you’re in a hole, the first thing to do, is to stop digging.”

Although we don’t have time to go into it here, it is sufficient to say, that in the educational context, fashionable concepts like ‘discovery learning’ and ‘learning styles’ just don’t make a difference and indeed may have negative outcomes.

What works best?

So what are these traditional teaching methods that compel students to achieve in the classroom,  and are so much more effective than more modern pedagogical experimentation?

Evidence shows that the strongest factors that contribute towards student outcomes are Content Knowledge and Instructional Method.

Really? Knowing what you are teaching and knowing how to teach make a difference? I’m gobsmacked!

Okay, I’m indulging in a little banter here, but it would make you weep to see teachers in the classroom, trying (?) to get results but haven’t taken the time to know their subject matter and practice how to deliver it best.

Let’s not pull any punches…

There really can only be two reasons for this. The first is,  they don’t have the ability. Nothing wrong with that; but if that is the case, the person should try another profession.

As Fr. Richard Tierney S.J. says in Teacher and Teaching which I reviewed here “…That a teacher should be intellectual goes without saying. The classroom is no place for a dolt or an ill-trained man.”

The other reason can only be apathy, to which there is no defence, considering the importance of the teaching role. Fr Tierney… “The teacher’s enthusiasm depends in large measure on his love for his vocation and his knowledge of his subject. A man who does not love his work should give it up. The sooner the better, both for himself and his charges.”

Quite simply, if you want better results, then hire better teachers.

Woe betide the leader who hires a sloth or a simpleton; this dereliction of duty will come back to haunt them eventually.

Content Knowledge

Dr. Robert Coe one of the authors of the above study says that the most effective teachers have deep knowledge of the subjects they teach, and when teachers’ knowledge falls below a certain level it is a significant impediment to students’ learning.

As well as a strong understanding of the material being taught, teachers must also understand the ways students think about the content, be able to evaluate the thinking behind students’ own methods, and identify students’ common misconceptions.

Teacher subject knowledge extends to having the nous to make connections with other subjects areas, through lateral thinking and real life application which helps to educate the whole person.

✓ Quality of Instruction

This includes elements such as effective questioning and use of assessment by teachers. Specific practices, like reviewing previous learning, providing model responses for students, giving adequate time for practice to embed skills securely and progressively introducing new learning (scaffolding) are also elements of high quality instruction.

When you hear stories of teachers who print off forests of handouts and burden their students with a ‘lesson’ of wading through such stuff, you can be sure you have a teacher who has no content knowledge and no instructional method. Those teachers are normally found sitting behind their desks doing something else other than teaching. Alas, it’s true.

So to recap, in these two elements alone, Content Knowledge and Instructional Method, we have the keys to better student educational outcomes.

But does it really make a difference?

Previous Sutton Trust research shows that the quality of teaching is by far the biggest factor within schools that impacts on the achievement of children from poorer backgrounds. It found that over a school year, poorer pupils gain 1.5 years’ worth of learning with very effective teachers, compared with 0.5 years with poorly performing teachers. In other words, a great teacher can produce a whole year’s extra learning.

Note there was nothing in there that was a result of extra funding: this was solely down to teacher effectiveness. Are you surprised?

Other factors that have a more moderate impact on student outcomes…

✓ Classroom climate

Dr Coe says this covers quality of interactions between teachers and students, and teacher expectations: the need to create a classroom that is constantly demanding more, but still recognising students’ self-worth.

It also involves attributing student success to effort rather than ability and valuing resilience to failure (grit).

Student’s must know that high demands will be made upon them in the classroom. Only through this character building environment, can students develop the correct attitude towards their studies.

✓ Classroom management

A teacher’s abilities to make efficient use of lesson time, to coordinate classroom resources and space, and to manage students’ behaviour with clear rules that are consistently enforced, are all relevant to maximising the learning that can take place. These environmental factors are necessary for good learning rather than its direct components.

I was surprised that this did not have a strong, rather than a moderate, effect. But when you think about it, it makes sense. Well managed classrooms require the cooperation of both teacher and student.

Bored or consistently confused students are more likely to be disruptive. A teacher who doesn’t know what they are talking about or who hasn’t made any effort to plan a lesson, is likely to be detested by his students.

Although well-disciplined classes are absolutely necessary for learning, they cannot exist without teacher preparation.

A silent class where no learning is taking place is a detention room. A rowdy class where no learning is taking place is turmoil. Educational outcomes are similarly non-existent.

✓ Teacher beliefs

This involves why teachers adopt particular practices, the purposes they aim to achieve, their theories about what learning is and how it happens and their conceptual models of the nature and role of teaching in the learning process all seem to be important.

This is where exceptional School Leadership comes into play. Teacher beliefs are normally evident through teacher practices. Pedagogy should always be aligned to the School’s Mission and school leaders must monitor this continually.

Teacher formation is key. Unfortunately most Educational Faculties in modern Universities, in my opinion, are driven by political and ideological agendas. I’m still disconcerted by the fact that I had to study Marxist and Socialist educationalists as part of my Teaching Degree.

✓ Professional behaviours

Behaviours exhibited by teachers such as reflecting on and developing professional practice, participation in professional development, supporting colleagues, and liaising and communicating with parents.

It’s hard to separate this element with the report’s two recommended strongest factors. Teacher’s who demonstrate excellence in Content Knowledge and Instructional Method are de facto professionals.

But the lesson here is that these only come as a result of a commitment to ongoing professional learning, reflective practice, collegiality and community engagement.

Teachers learn by study. They observe great colleagues at work. They reflect and adapt their own practices for continual improvement. They engage with students and parents to encourage an ongoing culture of learning.

So what doesn’t work?

The report also detailed common practices in schools, which do little or nothing to improve student educational outcomes and which are not supported by evidence. Culprits include…

Using praise lavishly

Have you ever been on school assembly when a notorious classroom ragamuffin is awarded “Student of the Week’? No wonder the unassuming studious child, groans in quiet disbelief as yet again, the weak teacher negligently ignores the consistently compliant and rewards the infrequent conformist.

You cannot reward bad behaviour ever. If a poor student shows some signs of improvement, then it is correct to encourage them, but over the top displays of unearned praise is damaging to both the student and his peers.

✘ Allowing learners to discover key ideas by themselves

Note the emphasis here is on key ideas. It is perfectly acceptable to allow students to problem solve and do student enquiry. But don’t ask them to reinvent the wheel. Teachers are there to teach concepts so that students can demonstrate their understanding.

✘ Grouping students by ability

It is a truism to say that placing a person in a group of higher ability, helps to improve their performance closer to that of the group. It’s almost a universal concept that works in education as it does in industry and in behaviour.

✘ Presenting information to students based on their “preferred learning style”

There is no evidence to show that this works, so the bucket loads of teacher manuals on Multiple Intelligences might just be a waste of time, when trying to implement in the classroom.

I have had many student cohorts over the years, that have been filled with students who would argue until they were blue in the face, that they were visual learners… and so Sir, can’t we just watch a video on it?

Let’s face it: students can be rascals and if they can get away with doing the minimum, many will! Beware all sorts of learning avoidance that is rife in education.

Continual videos, handing out iPads or other distractions because ‘Mary learns best that way: she’s a kinesthetic learner’. More like Mary likes playing rather than learning, or perhaps teacher can keep Mary quiet that way!

These technologies can be fatal for real learning, so I would advise, only use when absolutely necessary. No amount of laptops in a school can come close to excellent study skills and a well stocked school library.

To conclude…

There is little doubt that professionalism demonstrated through teachers that know their content and know how to teach it, is a deciding factor on whether a student will excel in school or not.

Teachers and schools therefore should invest continually in meaningful and practical professional development that develop these factors, but ultimately the onus falls on the classroom practitioner.

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