What Really Works In The Classroom

  • What Really Works In The Classroom

We teachers are a stubborn bunch. Being told what or how to teach is sure to kindle a flame of resistance in the hearts of many of us. So having read the title of this piece you may already be thinking, get stuffed! Well, hear me out…

A research collaboration between Professor Rob Coe, colleagues at Durham University, and the Sutton Trust, has seen a report called ‘What Makes Great Teaching’ hit the headlines. For me, this report is a call to arms. It is a call to stop teaching in an unquestioning fashion simply because that is how we have always done it. It is a call to resist any fads driven by Ofsted whispers or companies looking to bloat their profits by branding dodgy teaching strategies. Instead, it calls for us to find a better balance between our professional intuitions and the broader evidence base that underpins the report.

The stuff of great teaching is rather uncontroversial. Rob Coe’s report presents a teacher possessing strong subject knowledge and high expectations, whilst effectively applying questioning and assessment for good learning and more. It is hardly likely to stoke a staffroom argument calling for ignorant teachers with gutter-low expectations!

More importantly, this review of the evidence of great teaching has also homed in on what doesn’t work. Given the choice, we shouldn’t be using our precious time to chase down blind alleyways. Too often, we are guilty of trying a pile of new strategies, but also continuing apace with our hardened habits with scant reflection. This report is a good point to stop, reflect and reconsider some of our approaches.

So what is included in this bonfire of the teaching strategies?

Lavish praise

The report grabbed some headlines by critiquing praise, but really it dismisses the empty praise used to puff up the self-esteem of students. Without substance, such praise does little more than harden low expectations. The work of Carol Dweck, of ‘Growth Mindset’ fame, is quickly becoming ubiquitous in schools. Her focus on praising the effort of students and the process of their learning, avoiding their fragile ego altogether, goes some way to remedying the issue of lavish praise.

Discovery learning

In the relentless pursuit of ‘personalisation’ for students, it is too easy to forget that the expert instruction of the teacher is the essential learning tool our students need. Being asked to discover your own learning may amp up interest, but, ultimately, if lacking the strong direction of the teacher… it is likely to leave students groping in the dark.

Active learning.

Perhaps it is the inevitable result of a thousand Ofsted rumours, but the notion that students need to be swinging from washing lines and pasted in post-it notes is a misconception that we need to quash. The fabled learning pyramid describing how students retain 10% of what they read, but 90% of what they teach others is not even built on sand; it’s based on no substance – or evidence – at all.

Teaching to meet the learning styles of students

If your lesson plan is laden with VAK activities then save yourself the wasted effort and just get on with good teaching! Again, no evidence supports this widely held notion that catering separately for kinaesthetic and visual learners makes a blind bit of difference to student outcomes.

Grouping by ability

You are likely to face a strong lobby of resistance if you voice this opinion, but once more, if you follow the evidence trail you find little proof that such ability grouping positively impacts learning.

Re-reading and highlighting to improve memorisation

I’m sure you’ve dished the highlighters out for revision like majority of us. Well, consider the evidence that there is no positive effect on our students’ memory by doing so. Highlighting, as pretty as it may appear, is little more than glorified colouring. Re-reading swathes of text is unlikely to prove fruitful either. On the other hand, regular testing and quizzing is a proven learning tool.

Addressing low confidence and aspiration before teaching content.

Without doubt, I want to help my students to become confident learners. All the evidence tells me to teach them well and let them experience success in my subject to build their confidence. A day of self-esteem boosting visitors, or even well-planned lessons on self-esteem and confidence may provide a short term boost, but it won’t help our students learn any better. Save money and time: focus on teaching great lessons with expert subject knowledge.

Maybe you are not ready to put down the highlighters just yet.

There may be active learning zones in each corner of your classroom working nicely in your opinion. Nonetheless, perhaps it is time to reflect on your practice and seek out the evidence of what works. I’m not telling you what or how to teach, but…

Alex is an aht and subject leader of english at huntington school, york. he writes regular blogs at huntingenglish.com. his book, ‘teach now! english: becoming a great english teacher’ is out now (routledge).