Surprise findings, maybe


We all learn throughout our lives. But learning as part of the formal educational enterprise—takes place mainly in school classrooms, as a result of the daily, minute-to-minute interactions that take place between teachers and students and the subjects they study.

This is stating the blindingly obvious, perhaps. But surely too little attention is paid to what actually happens in the classroom and the quality of teaching. We are a lot more concerned, for instance, about what doctors do in their surgeries and medical research than we are about what teachers do in the classroom or to the research that tells what best practice in the classroom is. Yes, what doctors get up to is a matter of life and death but what happens in the classroom can determine whether a child makes a success of their lives or fails to meet their potential with all the personal  and social consequences that this entails.

It seems logical that if we are going to improve the outcomes of the educational enterprise—that is, improve learning— we have to intervene directly in daily classroom instruction. And we also have to   find out how best  to  up- scale  and share what works  if we are at all serious about improving the educational outcomes of all students, especially students now stuck in chronically low performing schools.

Professor Dylan Wiliam of the Institute of Education has found, perhaps counter-intuitively, in his research, that it  isn’t knowledge of the subject, nor for that matter the quality of initial teacher training, that really makes a good teacher. Instead it is professional development throughout a teachers career, particularly the early years, the first five to ten, that is most important and has the most significant effect on outcomes.

There is also other research that suggests that teachers only improve in the first two to three years after ITT, then their performance plateaus.

So, Teacher quality is the most important determinant of how much pupils learn in school and the effect is much greater than is commonly supposed.

Professor Wiliam has found that pupils taught by the best teachers learn four times as much as those taught by the worst.  Recent Research too by Professor Simon Burgess from the University of Bristol seems to confirm the effects of bad teaching on academic achievement. He found that children taught by the worst teachers get at least a grade lower pass mark at GCSE than those taught by the best. In addition, Peter Tymms, professor of education at Durham University, led a study, published in the journal Educational Assessment, Evaluation and Accountability that found that  having  a bad teacher in the first year at primary school can blight a child’s entire education. The research discovered that the effect of having an exceptionally poor – or an unusually good – teacher in the reception year was still detectable six years later. The findings suggest that many pupils are being betrayed by schools that, in an effort to rise up national league tables, concentrate their best teachers on pupils about to take their Sats tests at the age of 11.

Professor Wiliam’s research found that Subject Knowledge actually accounts for just 15% of the difference in teacher quality

Where teachers receive their initial teacher training, Professor Wiliam has found, is almost irrelevant. Instead, the most important variable is teaching skill and what matters most, in this respect, is that teachers acquire a commitment to sound professional development throughout their careers.

What is clear is that the quality of good and bad teaching has a very significant effect on outcomes and the life opportunities of our children and deserves much more attention. Structural reforms, alone, were never going to deliver improvements across the system. It is clear that our politicians realise this but structural reforms amount to the low hanging fruit of education reform. The biggest challenge remains improving what happens in the classroom which is infinitely more complex and not very susceptible to the   centrally driven prescriptions of politicians.



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