New report by the Sutton Trust: What Makes Great Teaching

Posted on 31-10-2014

Today the Sutton Trust and the University of Durham have published a fascinating new report called What Makes Great Teaching? It sets out to answer that title question, as well as looking at ways we can measure great teaching, and how that could be used to promote better learning. Here is my short summary of some key points from the report.

1. What is effective teaching? This report is very honest about the fact that we don’t have as clear an idea of what good teaching is as we think we do. I think this is an important point to make. Too often, reports like this one start from the point of assuming that everyone knows what good teaching is, and that the challenge is finding the time/money/will/methodology to implement changes. This report is saying that actually, there are a lot of misconceptions about what good teaching is, and as such, reform efforts could end up doing more harm than good. We need to think more clearly and critically about what good teaching is – and this report does that. As well as listing what effective teaching practices are, it also lists what ineffective practices are. This list has already received some media attention (including a Guardian article with a bit from me), as it says that some popular practices such as learning styles and discovery learning are not backed up by evidence. The report draws its evidence from a wide range of sources, including knowledge from cognitive psychology. It cites Dan Willingham quite a lot, and quotes his wonderful line that memory is the residue of thought. As regular readers will know, I think cognitive psychology has a lot to offer education, so it is great to see it getting so much publicity in this report.

2. How can we measure good teaching? According to this report, the focus should always be on student outcomes (not necessarily just academic ones). This can also be a bit of a hard truth. If a group of teachers work really hard at mastering a particular technique or teaching approach, and they do master it and use it in all their lessons, it can be tempting to define this as success. But this report says – no. The focus has to be on student outcomes. Although we can devise proxy measures which can stand in for student outcomes, we always need to be regularly checking back to the student outcomes to see if those assumptions are still holding true. The report is also honest about the fact that a lot of the current ways we measure teaching are flawed. That’s why we need to use more than one measure, to always be checking them against each other, and to be very careful about the purposes we put these measurements to. The report suggests that our current measures are probably only suitable for low-stakes purposes, and that they certainly can’t be used for both formative and summative measures at the same time (or ‘fixing’ and ‘firing’ as they call it).

3. How can we improve measurement? Although the report is very cautious about the current state of measurement tools, it offers some useful thoughts about how we could improve this state of affairs. First, school leaders need to be able to understand the strengths and limitations of all these various data sources. According to the report, there is ‘the need for a high level of assessment and data skills among school leaders. The ability to identify and source ‘high-quality’ assessments, to integrate multiple sources of information, applying appropriate weight and caution to each, and to interpret the various measures validly, is a non-trivial demand.’ Also, student assessment needs to be improved. If we always want to be checking the effect of our practices on student outcomes, we need a better way of measuring those outcomes. The report gives this tantalising suggestion: that the profession could create ‘a system of crowd-sourced assessments, peer-reviewed by teachers, calibrated and quality assured using psychometric models, and using a range of item formats’. It would be great to hear more details about this proposal, and perhaps about how CEM or the Sutton Trust could provide the infrastructure and/or training to get such a system off the ground.

One of the authors of the paper is Rob Coe, and I think this report builds on his 2013 Durham Lecture, Improving Education: A Triumph of Hope over Experience. This lecture was also sceptical about a lot of recent attempts to measure and define good teaching, as can be seen in the following two slides from the lecture.

Improving Education Fig 6 Mistaking School Improvement Improving Education Fig 8 Poor Proxies

I recommended this lecture to a friend who said something along the lines of ‘yes, this is great – but it’s so depressing! All it says is that we have got everything wrong for the last 20 years and that education research is really hard. Where are the solutions?’ I think this paper offers some of those solutions, and I would recommend it to anyone interested in improving their practice or their school.