Richard Adams reports for the Guardian on new Sutton Trust research into teaching practices.
Schools need to put more effort into evaluating what makes effective teaching, and ensure that discredited practices are rooted out from classrooms, according to a new study published by the Sutton Trust and Durham University.
The study suggests that some schools and teachers continue using methods that cause little or no improvement in student progress, and instead rely on anecdotal evidence to back fashionable techniques such as “discovery learning,” where pupils are meant to uncover key ideas for themselves, or “learning styles,” which claims children can be divided into those who learn best through sight, sound or movement.
Instead, more traditional styles that reward effort, use class time efficiently and insist on clear rules to manage pupil behaviour, are more likely to succeed, according to the report – touching on a raw nerve within the British teaching profession, which has seen vigorous debates between “progressive” and “traditional” best practice.
Professor Robert Coe of Durham University, one of the authors, said assessing effective teaching was difficult, because exactly how pupils learn remains a mysterious subject.
“It is surprisingly difficult for anyone watching a teacher to judge how effectively students are learning. We all think we can do it, but the research evidence shows that we can’t. Anyone who wants to judge the quality of teaching needs to be very cautious,” Coe said.
The evidence collected by Coe also rejects the use of streaming or setting, where pupils are grouped by ability within classes or year-groups. It remains popular in many schools despite being supported by little evidence that it improves achievement. Ability groups can result in teachers “going too fast with the high-ability groups and too slow with the low,” according to the research, and so cancels the advantages of tailoring lessons to the different sets of pupils.
Instead, the best research suggests that teachers with a command of their subject, allied with high-quality instruction techniques such as effective questioning and assessment, are the most likely to impart the best learning to their pupils.