What is good teaching and how can we encourage it?

Francis Gilbert's picture
I appeared on Newsnight last night discussing the teaching profession with presenter Kirsty Wark and Sean Worth, who is a Fellow of the think-tank, Policy Exchange, which was set up by a few people, including Michael Gove. We were talking about Michael Gove’s comment on Newsnight the previous night that outstanding teachers supported his reforms and bad teachers do not and views on his reforms in the light of the NUT teacher strike.


I suppose that makes me a very bad teacher because I hardly agree with anything Gove says. But it’s quite funny because I met Gove quite recently at Roger Scruton’s birthday party in the very posh Reform club. What, may you ask, was an annoying teacher like me, a definite member of Gove’s dreaded “Blob”, doing amongst the Corinthian columns of this exclusive gentleman’s club? Well, Scruton is quite an open-minded chap, liked some of my educational writing and asked me to write a chapter in a book Town and Country, which he edited with the left-winger Anthony Barnett, and we’ve stayed in touch ever since. Although I don’t agree with his politics, I admire Scruton’s philosophy, particularly his work on aesthetics, which I’ve referenced in my PhD in Creative Writing and Education and I think his new novel, Notes from the Underground, is really excellent. Believing he was among friends, Gove winced at the sight of me but then recovered himself and introduced me – we’ve met several times before in less friendly circumstances, i.e. me shouting at him on Newsnight in 2010 -- to another guest as a lively writer and a good teacher! But I think he was only being polite so I’m not sure I can use the quote on my CV. On Newsnight, the majority of the discussion was focused on whether performance-related-pay (PRP) will improve teaching standards. I pointed out that the OECD research and my own experience suggests it does not. Fiona Millar has written a good post on this here. Sean Worth wrong-footed me a bit when he said that the OECD research suggested that it did work; but then qualified this by saying the OECD research suggested that standards were higher in countries where PRP happened. Not sure, where he got this from… I countered by saying that if you have a system which encourages teachers to be secretive and competitive, you don’t get a sharing, co-operative atmosphere which enables teachers to talk about improving their teaching honestly. Instead you get “silo-ism”; the tendency for competing projects to hinder the overall progress of an organisation; people all “doing their own thing” and not talking to each other, not learning from each other. The research shows that schools work best when there is a genuinely “bottom-up” co-operative spirit at work. Organisations like the National Teachers Enquiry Network (NTEN) have shown that if you get teachers observing each other’s lessons in an open and non-threatening fashion (i.e. their pay packet isn’t dependent on an “outstanding” grading which is the case in many schools now) then you genuinely raise teaching standards because teachers can admit to their problems and get help to improve their practice. This is what NTEN’s “lesson study” model is based upon and which I’m excited to be involved with next year at my school; it’s what Teacher Toolkit talked about being what significantly improves standards in my interview with him here. The problem is that politicians in this country – on left and right – have not focused upon implementing educational policies that are based on evidence. All of Gove’s reforms have been shown to have a negligible effect upon improving standards when they’re scrutinised carefully: Henry Stewart’s research for LSN has shown that non-academies do as well as academies; Gove’s obsession with high-stakes, do-or-die exams also is shown not to raise standards either. But what does work? Well, it appears that there is some emerging consensus on this with considerable evidence that certain teaching strategies make the biggest difference to standards overall. On the day I went on Newsnight, I also attended a training session run by Evidence-Based Teacher Network which is devoted to training teachers to use methods which the evidence shows really works. The leader of the course, Mike Bell, listed in this order what really works in the classroom:

  • getting students to identify similarities and differences in a subject

  • summarising and note-making

  • developing a growth mindset (put very crudely: focusing upon effort and resilience)

  • repetition and practice

  • non-linguistic representation (graphical methods) (put very crudely: good diagrams)

  • co-operative learning

  • goals and feedback

  • generating and testing hypothesis

  • activating prior knowledge

  • advance organisers (put crudely: telling students in simple terms what they are studying over the whole course)

The evidence for these strategies working with students across all age ranges and in many subjects is overwhelming; you can download a free PDF of Classroom Instruction That Works here and read more about it. If Gove (and the previous Labour administration) had pumped the billions they’ve poured into academies and free schools into training teachers in these methods, there’s no doubt our children would be doing significantly better than they are already. But have they funded genuine research into strategies that actually work? Er, no, of course, that would have been done by the New Zealand government who funded Hattie’s seminal research in this regard, collated in the very technical but useful Visible Learning. Classroom Instruction That Works and Geoff Petty’s books (some of which you can download for free here) put Hattie's research in a much more palatable and teacher-friendly form. So there are rays of hope. NTEN, the Educational Endowment Fund and the Research Ed movement (spearheaded by TES columnist Tom Bennett) all seem to be focused primarily on getting teachers to use strategies that are proven to improve students’ learning and can be practically implemented in the classroom. These are very recent movements which will need time and money to disseminate good practice. However, let’s not forget the woefully neglected professional associations like the National Association for the Teaching of English (NATE), the National Association for the Teachers of Religious Education (NATRE) the Association for Science Teachers (ASE), the Association of Teachers of Maths (ATM). These organisations have been pioneering the model of the teacher-researcher, examining what actually works in specific subject areas. Many like NATE have warned successive governments that their policies won’t work – but they’ve been ignored because they’re only teachers. However, if governments supported them properly, they could play a very significant role in raising standards, but this is difficult at the moment because they’re starved of cash and marginalised by politicians who are obsessed with billion-dollar distractions like academies and free schools.
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Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 11/07/2014 - 11:04

Francis - I confess. In Michael Gove's eyes I am a bad, very, very bad teacher. That's because I don't agree with him.

I love the way he says "outstanding" heads agree with him. This raises an interesting philosophical problem: "Are teachers outstanding because they believe Gove?" or "Does Gove think they're outstanding because they believe him?"

Francis Gilbert's picture
Fri, 11/07/2014 - 11:15

I said on the show that he was guilty of demonising many teachers like you and I, but Sean disagreed and said many teachers like him. Again, not sure where that comes from. I haven't actually met a teacher who has said much positive about him; some like the changes to exams because it means less marking of coursework, but overall, the comments are quite negative. Does that mean I've only met bad teachers?

Mike Grenier's picture
Fri, 11/07/2014 - 11:31

What is interesting is that good teachers (I don't like the 'o' word) are by nature drawn to the profession by a highly developed love of human nature. Most of them support systems and research that they value is shown to improve the life circumstances of their students and maintain a healthy working environment. The worst aspects of politics and capitalism pit people against one another and PRP is a classic example. If you have the time, I recommend Deming on systems that work and do not work; his view on merit awards should strike a few chords.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 11/07/2014 - 12:29

Francis - a YouGov poll from January 2014 might reveal true attitudes. Findings included:

79% of teachers thought the government's impact on education over the last 3 1/2 years was negative;

70% felt they were not trusted;

91% did not believe state-funded schools should be run for profit;

67% supported union action over pay, pensions and conditions;

This rose to 80% support from NASUWT members and 81% from NUT members.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 11/07/2014 - 12:11

Re performance-related pay. Sean Worth is wrong re OECD research suggesting prp did work. Here's the OECD's "bottom line" on prp:

"Performance-based pay is worth considering in some contexts; but making it work well and sustainably is a formidable challenge. Pay levels can only be part of the work environment: countries that have succeeded in making teaching an attractive profession have often done so not just through pay, but by raising the status of teaching, offering real career prospects, and giving teachers responsibility as professionals and leaders of reform. This requires teacher education that helps teachers to become innovators and researchers in education, not just civil servants who deliver curricula"

It appears, then, the OECD thinks it might work but it's a "formidable challenge". In any case, there are better ways. One of these is teacher training (not needed, according to Gove) that encourages teachers to innovate and research education. They should NOT be seen as mere "deliverers" of a mandated curriculum (academies that insist on their schools following the same curriculum, please note).

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 11/07/2014 - 12:17

Francis - Policy Exchange "published" their own survey re prp at the Tory conference last year which purported to show teachers were in favour. But it wasn't published as I said at the time.

In any case it was contradicted by an earlier YouGov poll which showed teachers overwhelmingly against prp.

When the Policy Exchange results were eventually published some weeks later, they showed mixed support as I explain here. So the DT headline claiming teachers backed prp was a little misleading.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Fri, 11/07/2014 - 14:42

This is really interesting on Deming; is it possible to get a link to the research? Yes, very interesting point about teachers being drawn to the profession by a highly developed love of human nature, and I agree that PRP does bring out the worst in people. People become defined by the PRP structure and they don't co-operate; I've seen it myself when a previous head set up a PRP programme in our school. It just led to "silo-ism" and people hoarding their best approaches; they didn't improve and no-one learnt about their good practice. Nothing was shared. Disaster.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Fri, 11/07/2014 - 14:43

Dear Janet, Thanks for this. Very useful. If there was a "dial-a-friend" on Newsnight, I would have called you.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Fri, 11/07/2014 - 14:44

Thanks again Janet. Really interesting to see how if you dig behind these headline statistics, you find a very different story.

Jenny Collins's picture
Fri, 11/07/2014 - 14:55

On the subject of 'performance related pay': it is one of a number of key characteristics of a marketised system because it introduces 'flexible' pay, that is it leads to a weakening of terms and conditions for those actually doing the hardest work: teachers. It lends itself to a more 'hire and fire' approach; it appeals not to a teachers' mind-set, expecting to work in a supportive and collegiate environment, but rather to a managerial mind-set more used to thinking about the bottom-line (i.e. treating a school like a profit-making business).
Interestingly PRP was implemented in the 19th century (then known as 'payment-by-results'). This was more as a result of ignorance than our current politician's cynical desire to turn over a democratically accountable public service to private business interests. It was subsequently abandoned. Why? Because it led to 'teaching-to-the-test', a narrow curriculum and fiddling with results; this is what it will lead to in the 21st century as well. Teachers back then - almost all them women - successfully unshackling themselves from 'payment-by-results' was a big step in the right direction for people's education in this country; it was also an early step towards the professionalization of teaching.
It's understandable that politicians assume PRP is a good move because these careerist politicians are themselves incentivised by big money interests (think of all those 'revolving doors' between Westminster and the banking/corporate world, a classic example in our case would be Gove and Murdoch): doing everything they can to sell off our publicly owned and managed schooling system.
The question 'What is good teaching and how can we encourage it?' is, of course, a perennial one. There is masses of research out there to answer this question but it is not what underpins our current system (a good example: the ignoring of the Cambridge Primary Review). This is because it is not what drives policy.
It's heart-breaking to see our more social model of education being sold off like this. If it's true that our education system produces politicians who can't see beyond their own greed and a generation of teachers who know practically nothing about the real motivations of these same politicians (all is well documented and understood at an academic level) we must question it in its entirety.

Mike Grenier's picture
Fri, 11/07/2014 - 15:14

I put a summary of Deming on www.sloweducation.co.uk and his system of profound knowledge is fascinating. I've spoken about this for the past six months and it would be fair to say that it (rather than me) has provoked really interesting reactions from teachers who find its balance exactly what they are looking for. The Deming Institute has materials and you can get a selection of his writings in print.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Fri, 11/07/2014 - 15:58

Yes, I think you're right Jenny; the "social model" of education is being sold off. I don't think Gove agenda is to raise standards at all, but to privatise as much as he can. I really agree with you here: "It lends itself to a more ‘hire and fire’ approach; it appeals not to a teachers’ mind-set, expecting to work in a supportive and collegiate environment, but rather to a managerial mind-set more used to thinking about the bottom-line (i.e. treating a school like a profit-making business."

Sue Hay's picture
Fri, 11/07/2014 - 23:04

Francis - a fascinating post!

For too long teachers have been driven/directed to follow the current 'fashion' in education, usually based on the personal experience or preferences of the current minister 'in charge' of education. What we actually need to do, and what NTEN/EBTN are striving to do, is create a system which focuses teachers on what actually works; approaches that are evidence based. We need to focus less on the personal/individual attributes of teachers, and focus more on developing the skills/toolkit of effective teaching strategies that teachers can share and enhance. Too much rhetoric at the moment is based on teachers as individuals, and not enough is based on examining our skill set. As you say, there are rays of hope, but I am cynical as to how many schools/school leaders 'chase the butterflies' as the current climate is one of condemnation as opposed to celebration. However, some schools are pushing forward with this idea and perhaps this will be one of the few positive things that come out of Gove's reforms - the ability for like minded schools/individuals to collaborate, innovate and extrapolate great ideas.

I do not feel able to comment regarding PPR as I have been a member of various SLT groups for 14 years, and during that time my pay has been performance related - I am a bit too far removed from the reality of colleagues to make a statement. However, you have not just met 'bad' teachers, but you have had a full on collision with someone who really does not understand the intricacies and nuances of teaching!

What I will echo is the need for teaching colleagues to join their professional association - I am a historian by trade but I have had to teach across a range of subjects - history, geography, RE, ICT, sociology, politics - and I have found subject associations to be invaluable. I am just about to join NATRE!

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 12/07/2014 - 07:35

Jenny - you're right to point out the brushing-aside of the Cambridge Primary Review which was a solid, evidence-based piece of research undertaken over time.

It's a well-known saying that a prophet has no honour in the prophet's own country. And so it is with CPR. By December 2012, 147 countries had accessed the CPR website for ideas. It's shameful that it was rejected by Labour and not taken up by Gove. But that wasn't likely, was it, given his disdain for anything that doesn't chime with his prejudices or doesn't foster the interests of the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM)?

Roger Titcombe's picture
Sat, 12/07/2014 - 11:38

Excellent posts, Francis and Mike.

The key word for me is developmental. Good teaching leads to individual personal development. In academic terms this means that general cognitive sophistication has moved up a step. Such developmental gains are transferable across subjects and contexts. Such teaching is never about quick fixes to pass exams.

On PRP, my post on LSN has been cited in the latest NUT literature.


Neil Moffatt's picture
Sun, 13/07/2014 - 10:27

It is all very sad - education is essentially a social matter - no person in their right mind would choose to stand in front of class after class of disruptive children for money alone. But as said above, politicians do not have a teacher's vocational mindset. MPs operate intensely on measurable matters such as money and votes - this blinds them to the real motivation and worth of teachers. The party system is largely obsolete in my view as it is so out of line with the needs and wishes of the majority,

Arun's picture
Wed, 16/07/2014 - 21:43

A Conservative educationalist told me, "The parent is the primary educator".

Motivating students to work using ethical techniques like encouraging a love of learning is very expensive and requires skilled professionals. Maybe the Government would prefer to outsource motivating to parents and turn a blind eye if parents start to use unethical but cheaper motivational techniques like demonising people who do jobs that don't require degrees and threatening to withdraw love if goals are not achieved.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Thu, 17/07/2014 - 07:59

There is also the issue of subject understanding especially in science, which is profoundly counter-intuitive. Science teaching has a lot answer for. While on holiday I got talking to a woman who asked me what my former job was. When I told her 'physics teacher' she grimaced (the usual reaction) and said that although she was in the top stream of her school and was forced to take GCSE physics and got a C she never understood a word of it, hated it, and understands nothing about it to this day.

Science teachers do indeed have a lot to answer for, including not standing up to heads that demand 'never mind the quality, feel the width' approaches.

I can't see the Conservative educationalist's 'parent as primary educator' addressing this issue.

Scientific illiteracy is rife in all sections of society. I have lost count of the number of times I see articles in broadsheet newspapers that confuse energy (kilowatt hours) with power (kilowatts) and talk about voltages through a wire or a person. Current flows through wires, voltage is the energy that each unit of current possesses.

All this is as essential to an understanding of everyday science as basic grammar is to communication.

Furthermore all pupils of all abilities can successfully be taught science properly with an emphasis on understanding, although this may not be the route to an 'understanding-free' C grade that is regrettably a common experience.

This argument applies to all school subjects not just science and maths.

Children do not need motivating to learn, as intrinsic curiosity and satisfaction from achieving understanding is in the genes. This applies to all abilities but only if carefully designed developmental teaching approaches are used.

This too is profoundly counter-intuitive.

Replacing university based teacher education by 'on the job' operative culture training in an 'improved' crammer secondary is unlikely to be up to the job.

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