Lee Elliot Major lists ten tips from research

One of education’s great ironies is that we invest huge efforts to improve the learning of pupils yet neglect the learning of teachers themselves – the very people we entrust with our children’s development.

The ‘core business’ of teaching matters more than anything else within schools, particularly for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. A Sutton Trust review found that over a school year poorer pupils gain 1.5 years’ worth of learning with very effective teachers compared with 0.5 years with poorly performing teachers. In other words a great teacher can produce a whole year’s extra learning. That’s a big, life-transforming difference.

Teacher time

The problem for the 450,000 teachers in the UK is that they are not given much time to reflect and refine their craft. The latest Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) by the OECD found that teachers in England have larger workloads than their peers in many of the world’s highest performing nations in education. But despite this, what is striking is the extra time devoted in these higher-performing nations for teachers to learn from other teachers through observation and feedback.

It is not just quantity but quality that is a problem. The uncomfortable truth for educators is that little has been done to evaluate the best approaches to teacher learning. It means that many well intentioned professional development programmes are likely to be ineffective.

Ten things teachers should know from the research

Some general lessons however have emerged from the studies across the world. Here are ten things all teachers I believe should know.

1. The best bets for teacher learning are those that involve teachers working alongside other teachers focusing on their practise in the classroom.

2. Reviewing a teacher should ideally combine the results of multiple approaches of assessment.

3. The strongest evidence supports the use of three main sources of feedback: teacher observations (particularly from fellow teachers or peers); surveys of students; and measures of student progress.

4. Observations and feedback for professional learning should be a separate process to appraisals or performance management.

5. Teachers should be properly trained as observers.

6. Teacher observers need to be extremely cautious about their assumptions of what great teaching looks like. In his blog ‘Classroom observation: it’s harder than you think’ Durham University’s Professor Rob Coe spells out the many traps observers fall into.

7. Teachers should adopt the same principles for teacher feedback as they do for providing feedback to pupils in the classroom. See for example the “professional learning cycle” used by schools in Australia. It mirrors so much of what we know about feedback loops for dialogue between teachers and children.

8. It is critical to create a culture of trust and collegiality among teachers if feedback is to genuinely impact on practice. It is a key point highlighted in reviews undertaken by New Zealand academic Helen Timperley (referenced extensively by John Hattie, among others).

9. At the same time there must also be genuine challenge for teachers if they are to change behaviour, something that can be provided by school heads or external peers.

10. Last but not least, any professional learning programme needs to be rooted from start to finish in student outcomes. The yardstick for success is improved progress of learners in the classroom.

Sutton Gates summit

The research underpinning these ten points is summarised in the Sutton Trust’s report published this week. But useful as they are, they do not offer the practical strategies that school leaders and teachers have found to be successful.

More will be revealed by evaluations from the Education Endowment Foundation. One study, for example, is assessing the impact of Lesson study, a collaborative peer observation programme currently much in vogue in English schools. Another study will assess whether teachers trained as observers also improve their own classroom practice.

But with such little research available, what wisdom can we gather from teachers and school leaders? This is exactly the question at the heart of an international summit the Sutton Trust is organising in partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

To be held over two days in Washington DC next week, the summit will bring together 80 school leaders and teachers from a range of countries including the UK, US, Canada, Australia, Finland, Holland, Singapore and Hong Kong. The participants will hear the latest research. But they will also bring with them their practical tools and strategies for observation and feedback that have improved teachers around the world. The aim will be to create a practical guide for the effective professional learning of teachers – currently so conspicuous for its absence in our schools.  I look forward to reporting on what we find.

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