A new report by Sutton Trust has reviewed the evidence around
successful teaching practices. How can we improve the way we assess
The question of what makes a great teacher has been around for a long
time. It’s an enquiry that poses many problems because there’s simply
no set recipe for success, and different approaches work for different
professionals and students.
From learning styles to managing behaviour, here are the key points to
take away from research on what makes a great teacher.
1. Know your subject: The report, which looked at more than 200 pieces
of research, found that there were six main elements to great teaching
and one of the most important ones was subject knowledge. It may seem
obvious, but the report found that the best teachers have a deep
knowledge of their subject, and if that falls below a certain point it
has “significant impact” on students’ learning. Targeted help for
teachers, giving them an understanding of particular areas where their
knowledge is weak, could be effective.
2. Praise can do more harm than good: The wrong kind of praise can be
harmful for students, the report found. A number of studies conducted
by education experts, including Carol Dweck professor of psychology at
Stanford University and Auckland University professors John Hattie and
Helen Timperley, have observed this.
Deborah Stipek, the dean of the Stanford Graduate School of Education,
said that praise is meant to be encouraging but it can actually
“convey a teacher’s low expectations”. Stipek said that if a pupil’s
failure was met with sympathy rather than anger then they were more
likely to think they had done badly due to a lack of ability.
The report adds the caveat that the findings are open to
interpretation, however, as teachers can do things well or badly, and
some methods are not appropriate in all circumstances.
3. Instruction matters: The quality of teaching has a big impact on
the achievement of students’ from poorer backgrounds, and effective
questioning and assessment are at the heart of great teaching. This
involves giving enough time for children to practise new skills and
introducing learning progressively. Defining effective teaching isn’t
easy, the report conceded, but research always returns to the fact
that student progress is the yardstick by which teacher quality should
4. Teacher beliefs count: The reasons why teachers do certain things
in the classroom and what they hope to achieve has an effect on
student progress. Mike Askew, the author of Effective Teachers of
Numeracy, found that beliefs about the nature of maths and what it
means to understand it, along with teachers’ ideas about how children
learn and their role in that process was an important factor in how
effective they were.
Evidence to support this is not conclusive, however. A study by
professor Steve Higgins of Durham University and the University of
Newcastle upon Tyne’s David Moseley about teacher beliefs in ICT did
not find a convincing relationship between beliefs and pupil progress.
5. Think about teacher-student relationships: This may also seem
obvious, but the interactions teachers have with students has a big
impact on learning – as well as the “classroom climate”. The report
said that it was important to create a classroom environment that was
“constantly demanding more” while affirming students’ self-worth. A
student’s success should be attributed to effort rather than ability.
6. Manage behaviour: Interestingly, this wasn’t as significant as
subject knowledge and classroom instruction as a factor contributing
to teacher success. But classroom management – including how well a
teacher makes use of lesson time, coordinates classroom resources and
manages the behaviour of students – was noted as important.
7. There’s no evidence that setting works: Putting students in groups
depending on their ability makes little difference to their learning.
Although setting can in theory let teachers work at a pace that suits
all pupils and tailor content, it can also create an exaggerated sense
of all pupils being alike in the teacher’s mind. This can result in
teachers not accommodating to the various different needs within one
group and in some instances going too fast with high-ability groups
and too slow with low ones.
8. Don’t worry about learning styles: A survey showed that more than
90% of teachers think individuals learn better when they get
information in their preferred learning style. But despite the
popularity of this approach psychological evidence shows that there is
no evidence this actually works. You can read more about the evidence
on learning styles here.
9. Learning should be hard at first: One finding that may surprise you
is that approaches that appear to make learning harder in the short
term can actually lead to students retaining more information in the
long term. Elizabeth Ligon Bjork, professor at the University of
Michigan and Robert Bjork, professor at the University of California,
said that varying the type of tasks you ask pupils to do improves
retention even though it makes learning harder initially.
10. Build relationships with colleagues and parents: A teacher’s
professional behaviour, including supporting colleagues and talking
with parents, also had a moderate impact on students’ learning. The
report said that there may not be a direct link with these practices
and student achievement, but to capture a broad definition of good
teaching they should be included.