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As we approach the end an academic year and start to think about the new courses we deliver next year is it time to reflect on what great teaching is? “What makes Great Teaching? Review of the underpinning research”was written by Coe, Aloisi, Higgins and Major and published in October 2014 and gives some insights. (full report found here)

My favourite bit of the report writes “How teaching leads to learning is undoubtedly very complex. It may be that teaching will always be more of an art than a science, and that attempts to reduce it to a set of component parts will always fail. If that is the case then it is simply a free-for-all: no advice about how to teach can claim a basis in evidence. However, the fact that there are some practices that have been found to be implementable in real classrooms, and that implementing them has led to improvements in learning, gives us something to work with. “

The report starts by defining great teaching “as that which leads to improved student progress” and identifies six key factors that contribute to great teaching based on 200 pieces of research.

(Pedagogical) content knowledge: the most effective teachers have a deep subject knowledge and understand the way students think about the content. This in turn allows them to identify students’ common misconceptions.

Quality of Instruction: high quality instruction includes effective questioning; using assessment; reviewing previous learning, providing model responses; giving adequate time for practice to embed skills and scaffolding new learning.

Classroom climate: the interactions between teachers and students creates a classroom which demands more whilst recognizing students’ self worth. The climate attributes student success to effort rather than ability.

Classroom management: the teacher’s ability to make efficient use of lesson time and manage student behavior with clear rules consistently enforced is important to maximising the learning that can take place.

Teacher belief: why teachers adopt particular practices; their theories about what learning is and how it happens are important.

Professional behaviours: teachers reflecting on and developing professional practice, participation in professional development, supporting colleagues and liaising and communicating with parents enhance learning.

While it is never desirable to concentrate on the negative: the report also identifies common teacher practices, which the evidence suggests, have no significant impact on student learning. These are

Using praise lavishly as a number of studies suggest that the wrong kinds of praise can be very harmful to learning, for example, Stipek (2010) argues that praise that is meant to be encouraging and protective of low attaining students actually conveys a message of the teacher’s low expectations.

Allowing learners to discover key ideas for themselves as enthusiasm for ‘discovery learning’ is not supported by research evidence, which broadly favours direct instruction (Kirschner et al, 2006). Although learners do need to build new understanding on what they already know, if teachers want them to learn new ideas, knowledge or methods they need to teach them directly.

Grouping learners by ability as evidence on the effects of grouping by ability, either by allocating students to different classes, or to within-class groups, suggests that it makes very little difference to learning outcomes (Higgins et al, 2014).

Encouraging re-reading and highlighting to memorise key ideas gives a satisfying – but deceptive – feeling of expertise (Brown et al, 2014) but a range of studies have shown that testing yourself, trying to generate answers, and deliberately creating intervals between study to allow forgetting, are all more effective approaches.

Addressing issues of confidence and low aspirations before you try to teach content: teachers who are confronted with the poor motivation and confidence of low attaining students may interpret this as the cause of their low attainment and assume that it is both necessary and possible to address their motivation before attempting to teach them. In fact, the evidence shows that attempts to enhance motivation in this way are unlikely to achieve that end. Even if they do, the impact on subsequent learning is close to zero (Gorard, See & Davies, 2012).

Presenting information to learners in their preferred learning style is a belief that continues to persistent, but the psychological evidence is clear that there are no benefits for learning from trying to present information to learners in their preferred learning style (Pashler et al, 2008; Geake, 2008; Riener and Willingham, 2010; Howard-Jones, 2014).

Ensuring learners are always active, rather than listening passively, if you want them to remember is a claim is commonly presented in the form of a ‘learning pyramid’ which shows precise percentages of material that will be retained when different levels of activity are employed. These percentages have no empirical basis and are pure fiction. Memory is the residue of thought (Willingham, 2008), so if you want students to remember something you have to get them to think about it. This might be achieved by being ‘active’ or ‘passive’.