Monday, 17 November 2014

My response to 'What Makes Great Teaching'

I'm sure many teachers have seen, or at least heard about, the recent publication by Robert Coe et al. (2014) entitled 'What makes great teaching? Review of the underpinning research'. I first heard about it during one of my Masters of Education sessions at the University of Cambridge's Faculty of Education. I was interested enough to download the document, and I'm going to type up my thoughts alongside reading it. As such, the writing that follows is a direct response to the review

To begin, the purpose of the review was to establish 'What makes 'great teaching'?; 'What kinds of frameworks or tools could help us capture it?'; and 'How could this promote better learning?' (2). What initially drew me to the review was its claims about being able to define 'great teaching'. I'm skeptical of anything that can be used to classify what is and isn't 'great teaching'. In fact, I feel that the word 'great' itself is already problematic, because it suggests a hierarchy of 'greatness', or 'right' versus 'wrong'. A better word might be 'effective', which the review appears to slip into using in the first paragraph, where they 'define effective teaching as that which leads to improved student achievement using outcomes that matter to their future success' (emphasis added by myself) (2).

Already I take issue with their definition. I'm not sure that we should define effective teachers on the achievement of their students, because this presents a multitude of issues. First of all, it relies on external results, of which teachers and students have little control. It also doesn't take into account the variety of learners that are out there, nor the situation or placement of schools, their students, and the learning environments. Besides, achievement can fluctuate wildly within classrooms and groups, from year to year, so I'm not sure how you could come to a consensus for any given teacher, given the wide variety of success they're likely to see regarding student achievement. I know a lot of teachers who get their students to 'get the results', but I'd hardly define them as 'great' teachers. Personally, I think it's much more complex than a measure of achievement, though I'd be hard pressed to offer a viable alternative. I'd like to find a way to link it more to 'learning', but until we find a way to better judge how well students learn (other than through external assessments), then we're stuck.

Upon reading further, I am pleased to see the authors acknowledge some of the arguments that I make above. They acknowledge that

A number of factors will influence students’ achievements, for example, pre-existing student characteristics (both of individual students and collectively), characteristics of the school and of the teacher (some of which may be alterable, others not), and of the context. In practice, the attribution of an ‘effect’ to an individual teacher or school is generally determined by what cannot be explained by factors that are judged to be outside the control of that individual (Raudenbush, 2004).  (9)

They then move on to define the 'six components of great teaching', which include 'content knowledge', 'quality of instruction', the 'classroom climate', 'classroom management', 'teacher beliefs' and 'professional behaviours' (2-3). To begin with, I understand why they'd place subject knowledge first, as you certainly wouldn't want someone with no knowledge of mathematics teaching your child Maths; however, it's also been proven in various studies that outstanding subject knowledge doesn't necessarily make for a 'great' teacher. As for the next five, I must admit that I don't take issue with their placement in the review, since much of what they entail links to a lot of the reading I've been conducting over the past year.

I find it interesting that the review proposes to use a 'formative teacher evaluation system - based on continuous assessment and feedback rather than a high-stakes test', since this is the way we currently grade the achievement of our students (3). Surely if we're assessing effective teaching in a formative way, one which uses 'different sources' and 'a variety of methods' we should assesses effective learning in the same way! But I digress...

The review goes on to say that teachers are assessed using classroom observations, value-added models (which link to student achievement) and student ratings, suggesting that principal judgement, teacher self-analysis and analysis of classroom artefacts were of marginal use (4). I can't help but thing back to some of the readings I've recently done on providing effective feedback to students; I think that work could be done on training teachers how to become better at self-assessing themselves - I think we're missing a trick here if we continue to allow others (usually outsiders) to assess us. The literature suggests that students make much better progress if they are trained in peer and self-assessment, so surely the same could be said for teachers themselves.

In fact, it appears that the review addresses part of this issue itself, when it refers to how teacher feedback could be used effectively; the authors suggest that the 'observation/feedback routine should be structured explicitly as a continuous professional learning opportunity that enables them to work on improving student outcomes' (5), which sound a lot like how formative assessment should be used in lessons to aid pupil progress. 

In fact, the six principles of teacher feedback that they outline have many similarities to some of the suggestions in the literature on how to make feedback to students more effective:

Sustained professional learning is most likely to result when:
1. the focus is kept clearly on improving student outcomes;
2. feedback is related to clear, specific and challenging goals for the recipient;
3. attention is on the learning rather than to the person or to comparisons with others;
4. teachers are encouraged to be continual independent learners;
5. feedback is mediated by a mentor in an environment of trust and support;
6. an environment of professional learning and support is promoted by theschool’s leadership. (5)

Admittedly, I can't argue much with these six principles. In fact, I would tend to agree that if schools adopted these strategies, they'd be more likely to see an improvement in teaching, because they're exactly the sort of things that, if teachers used them in their classrooms with students, would see an improvement in learning. 

The authors go on to explain that a focus on learning would be ideal, but acknowledge, as I have previously done above, that measuring learning is much harder. They describe how an evaluation of the 'necessary conditions for such learning to occur' could be a step forward. 

For example, we might argue that teachers need to feel trusted and valued, that their experiences and perspectives are acknowledged, that the culture of the schools in which they work should promote critical questioning and innovative approaches, with space and encouragement for discussion and sharing of ideas (8). 

I would agree that such an environment would undoubtedly encourage better, more effective teachers; I'd like to work in such a school environment, at any rate. 

The authors then go on to suggest that, while it's hard to rate teacher effectiveness using the three criteria that they have selected (and I agree with this point), it's still beneficial to use their methods as a starting point. They go on to suggest that they 'also stress the role of feedback from and discussion about the results of an assessment in professional learning, and the role of a clearly specified framework of performance indicators to focus teachers’ attention and effort on things that are important (10-11). Again, a lot of what they are proposing here isn't that far off from the things researchers propose about effective feedback to students. It makes sense that they should be similar, since, at the end of the day, we're all human and we're all (or should be) lifelong learners. 

Another comforting statement is seeing that they 'acknowledge that quality teaching is multidimensional: a profile of multiple, independent strengths and weaknesses may be more useful – and a better fit to reality – than a single, unidimensional measure' (11). This addresses one of the concerns that I had earlier, and is therefore good to see. I was initially concerned that the review would attempt to provide some kind of 'checklist' of skills, traits or teaching styles that made up 'effective' teaching. However, the authors go on to suggest that they hope to present examples of behaviours, approaches and practice that 'meet our criteria of being implementable and linked to gains in student outcomes' instead of  'a checklist of desirable behaviours' (13). 

What follows is a series of summaries about theories, techniques, strategies or routines that have been found, through other studies, to have had a positive impact on student achievement. Admittedly, this was not what I was expecting from the review, although I'm not sure why that is. I think I went in with a negative idea of what the review was going to imply, which perhaps clouded my judgement. I'm not going to go through these strategies here, but if you're interesting in knowing what they are, I'd suggest you access the review yourself as they do provide an interesting 'tool kit' of ideas. 

The next, more interesting part, is when the authors summarise 'bad practice'. They rationalise doing so by saying that sometimes it's good to challenge people's perceptions in a 'constructive way' (22). It is this section of the review that the media seems to have picked up on, because the first example that the authors give is on praise, which appeared in the news following the publication of the review. As I recall, it was widely reported in the press that praise was a bad thing, and that teachers shouldn't give praise any more. 

Unfortunately, I think (surprise, surprise) that the media has quoted out of context. I've read much of the same literature as the authors of the review, and know that many researchers do suggest that praise has little to no effect on achievement. However, I think this statement needs clarification. They don't mean that all praise should be stopped; instead, they mean that praise for the sake of praise - saying 'Good job' or 'Well done' - isn't effective. 

Further reading of the review has led me to believe that there is a massive gap in the research when it comes to observations of teachers, and, more specifically, how to make these observations more effective in terms of a) assessing teacher quality and b) providing feedback to move teachers forward. This is an area that I'd be interested in studying further, if I wasn't already tied down to my thesis research project. 

Overall, I think that the review is actually a pretty interesting piece of writing, which could have many positive effects if used correctly within schools. It is less of a tool of judgement, and more a suggestion of steps and procedures that schools should take to promote effective teaching in their schools. It's too bad that the media didn't lock on to the positive elements of the review, and instead tried to find something controversial, or negative, to share with the wider public.