What Makes Great Teaching and the Role of Technology

What Makes Great Teaching and the Role of Technology

Yesterday the Sutton Trust released their report What makes great teaching? Review of the underpinning research. In it, its authors highlight the strategies that  can promote better learning, as suggested by the most up-to-date research. According the report, the common characteristics of great teaching with the strongest evidence base are:

1. Content knowledge 

The most effective teachers have deep knowledge of the subjects they teach, and when teachers’ knowledge falls below a certain level it is a significant impediment to students’ learning. As well as a strong understanding of the material being taught, teachers must also understand the ways students think about the content, be able to evaluate the thinking behind students’ own methods, and identify students’ common misconceptions.

2. Quality of instruction 

Includes elements such as effective questioning and use of assessment by teachers. Specific practices, like reviewing previous learning, providing model responses for students, giving adequate time for practice to embed skills securely and progressively introducing new learning (scaffolding) are also elements of high quality instruction.

3. Classroom climate

Covers quality of interactions between teachers and students, and teacher expectations: the need to create a classroom that is constantly demanding more, but still recognising students’ self-worth. It also involves attributing student success to effort rather than ability and valuing resilience to failure (grit).

4. Classroom management 

A teacher’s abilities to make efficient use of lesson time, to coordinate classroom resources and space, and to manage students’ behaviour with clear rules that are consistently enforced, are all relevant to maximising the learning that can take place. These environmental factors are necessary for good learning rather than its direct components.

5. Teacher beliefs 

Why teachers adopt particular practices, the purposes they aim to achieve, their theories about what learning is and how it happens and their conceptual models of the nature and role of teaching in the learning process all seem to be important.

6. Professional behaviours 

Behaviours exhibited by teachers such as reflecting on and developing professional practice, participation in professional development, supporting colleagues, and liaising and communicating with parents.

The response to the report has been overwhelmingly positive. Most teachers have agreed wholeheartedly with its findings, but other teachers and academics have cautioned that reports such as this may be simply propounding strategies for which it is easier to find evidence while eschewing others, which may be equally beneficial to learning, but for which the evidence base is not yet strong enough. Trying to measure the relationship between teaching and learning is notoriously difficult, chiefly because nobody actually knows how learning takes place in the brain.

However, I feel that the report covers most of its bases by making caveats such as this:

Ultimately, the definition of effective teaching is that which results in the best possible student outcomes. There is currently no guaranteed recipe for achieving this: no specifiable combination of teacher characteristics, skills and behaviours consistently predicts how much students will learn.

The role of technology in great teaching

Whatever your view, the report encapsulates neatly the principles of good teaching, but one word that is conspicuously absent form the report is technology. Does technology not impact on great teaching (and learning)? The facile answer is, of course, that it doesn’t have much impact at all. That’s why it doesn’t feature in the report, one might conclude. After all, there is very little evidence of technology’s impact on student outcomes and, in the absence of any real, nuanced measure of learning, exam results are usually resorted to as a blunt proxy for technology’s educational impact.

But what if asking how technology impacts on student outcomes is the wrong question? What if we should really be looking at different proxy indicators? For example, rather than trying to measure how technology impacts directly on outcomes, which is notoriously difficult to do convincingly, should we not instead measure how technology impacts on the processes involved in teaching and learning? For example, should we not be trying to measure how technology impacts on the quality of instruction, on the giving of feedback or on content delivery?

From this perspective, the notion that technology can be measured as a separate intervention can seem questionable, especially when you consider that the best, most effective use of technology in schools is when it supports these processes, not when it runs parallel to them.

It might turn out that technology’s greatest success, which is making itself invisible, is in fact the main reason why at least some teachers question vociferously its impact and value in education. It may be that they can’t see for looking. It may turn out that only by zooming in on the different learning affordances, rather than applying a wide lens that tends to view technology as a separate entity and not an intrinsic aspect of teaching and learning, can we begin to see clearly how technology supports proven strategies that help us make teaching and learning great.

The evidence may be there already. If only we noticed.

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