Improving TeachingTo conclude this page of research, I want to take a look at developing the skill of being a teacher. So far we have seen recommendations for improving the delivery of material to students, and plenty of ways to help students encode, store, retrieve and apply knowledge. But what about improving our own teaching, and that of the teachers we mentor and work with?
1) Improving our own teaching. I am always looking to improve as a teacher, but there is a problem (and it is the same problem that makes research carried out in classrooms so difficult). There are just so many factors at play. Say I decide to try something new with my Year 7s - maybe I have come up with a new way of introducing algebra. How do I know how successful it has been? Sure, I can compare their performance in an algebra test with last Year's class, but that was a different class, with different students, taught in different circumstances and (lest we forgot) that given the distinction between learning and performance identified in the Memory section, how can I even judge if they have really learned algebra any better? So, if it is difficult to evaluate our own teaching in an effort to improve, can others help us through observations? Having read research on the matter, I believe they can. But - and this is a big but - only if we move away from the high-stakes, once-a-year observation that seems to be a key part of the performance management cycle these days. I believe supportive observations, with clearly defined and measurable goals in mind, can help develop teachers of all experiences.
2) Helping novice teachers develop. I have been extremely fortunate to work with many inexperienced teachers over the years in a bid to help them improve and develop. It is only now, having read the research cited on this page about skill development and the difference between how experts and novices think, that I see what a complex task this is. Whilst it is clear that some people have a natural ability to teach - just as some students have a natural ability to do mathematics - good teachers can be made. I believe we need to follow the principles of Explicit Instruction, as opposed to simply hoping inexperienced teachers will magically discover their way to becoming experts, which implies that novice teachers may require more support than they currently receive
Research Paper Title: The Development of Expertise in Pedagogy
Author(s): David C. Berliner
This is a truly wonderful paper that has lots to say on the transition from novice to expert in any field, but with particular relevance to teaching. The authors identify key areas where novices and experts differ, providing examples and supporting research for each:
1) Interpreting classroom phenomena
2) Discerning the importance of events
3) Using routines
4) Predicting classroom phenomena
5) Judging typical and atypical events
6) Evaluating performance
A few things struck me about this. Firstly, how many of these areas can only be improved by experience? Almost all of them, I think. And how many could I describe in great detail? Not many at all. For example, if a student teacher watches me teach and afterwards asks me why I said what I said to a group of students, or didn't say something to another, or ignored a certain situation but acted on another, or how I developed my classroom routines, or knew to adjust my explanation, or deviate from my lesson plan, or pause before moving on, I will find it hard to explain. I cannot nail down the numerous visual and audio cues to cause me to act the way I do, it is just instinct and experience. Like any (so-called!) "expert", I am on autopilot dealing with many things in the classroom, which enables my limited working memory to focus on more complex pedagogical issues. So, how do we help novice teachers develop these skills? Well, the authors have a few recommendations, but two of which stood out to me more than the rest:
1) If expert teachers have so many of these crucial routines on autopilot, and because the very fact they have been automatised makes them hard to articulate to novices, is this an argument for mentoring of novice teachers to be done by "competent" teachers as opposed to "experts"? I guess this is a similar to the argument that great mathematicians sometimes do not make the best teachers - they simply cannot relate to the difficulties students have in grasping basic concepts. Is it better to have a mentor who can remember what it was like to be a novice - can relate to the struggles, can remember how they coped with them - instead of an expert who flies through lessons on autopilot and may struggle to give novice teachers to explicit guidance they need?
2) The novices' relative inexperience in a complex environment allows a good case to be made for the importance of teaching them standard lesson forms and scripts. Now, this is controversial! Two of my podcast guests, Dani Quinn and Greg Ashman have both advocated centrally planned lessons, with the justification that these are lessons that have been planned by experienced teachers and are known to work. Novice teachers may benefit from following these "scripts" in class, enabling them to focus on other areas of teaching (e.g. behaviour, questioning, interactions with students) as they develop. This may also free up some of those hours that are spent searching for PowerPoints and worksheets, and allow them instead to spend their time going over the lesson plan in detail, rehearsing questions and responses, and ensuring they are familiar with the mathematical content. A key point here is that this is not the same as simply giving a novice teacher a PowerPoint on, say, straight-line graphs that worked well for you. It is not just the resource that is important, but the delivery, pace, questions, possible misconceptions, and so on. Essentially this is the same argument for Explicit Instruction versus discovery learning for novice students - in early skill acquisition, novice teachers are likely to benefit from more guidance from experts rather than less.
My favourite quote:
I am suggesting that our extensive knowledge base about teaching and teachers be thought of as more or less appropriate to people in different stages of their development. I am also suggesting that pre-service education may not be the most appropriate place to teach some things, and therefore we have to extend our programs of teacher education for some time after our students have entered practice. I am suggesting as well that the forms of evaluation for experienced and beginning teachers may have to differ. And I am suggesting that experts, revered as they may be, may not always make the best teachers of novices. I am arguing that the development of competence out of ignorance and expertise out of competence may take a long time in a profession as complicated as teaching. We may be unable to shorten the trip very much because extensive experience is fundamental to development, but we certainly ought to help nurture those willing to undertake the journey by providing training and evaluation appropriate for their level of development.
Research Paper Title: Practice with Purpose: The Emerging Science of Teacher Expertise
Author(s): Deans for Impact
In the Explicit Instruction section we looked at the fascinating concept of deliberate practice and how it could be applied to student learning. Here we turn our attention to using Deliberate Practice to improve teaching. Five key principles are identified and discussed with respect to teaching:
1) Deliberate practice requires presenting challenges that push novices just beyond their current abilities
2) Deliberate practice requires setting goals that are well-defined, specific, and measurable
3) Deliberate practice requires a significant level of focus; the practice involves conscious effort on the part of the novice in order to improve.
4) Deliberate practice requires providing high-quality feedback to the novice and adjustment by the novice in response to that feedback.
5) Deliberate practice both produces and relies on mental models and mental representations to guide decisions.These models allow practitioners to self-monitor performance to improve their performance.
Each of these are worthy of discussion, but a couple in particular stood out to me. The setting of specific goals was one. I remember early on in my career when I was being observed, I would rarely have specific goals in mind. I would just want to teach a good lesson. I would have been much better focusing on specific aspects, such as trying to give only task-focused feedback, or reducing the number of controlling questions I asked. Where possible, these goals should be measurable, so you have something concrete and objective to reflect upon. The second point is directly related - feedback. We have seen how important feedback can be for student learning, and how it can have both a positive and negative impact. The same is true for teacher development. We need to know if what we are doing is successful, but that is incredibly difficult when (at best) all we can observe is the performance of our students and, as we have seen in the Memory section, performance is a poor indicator of learning. That is where a colleague, observing in a supporting manner, complete with a predefined set of measurable goals, can help. And this cannot be confined to a once-a-year experience. Regular feedback is the key to deliberate practice, making tweaks where needed and seeing the outcome. I'll be honest - in my opinion developing teaching does not lend itself as well to the principles of deliberate practice as, say, learning to add fractions, but there are certainly key elements that can be used to great effect.
My favourite quote:
The principles of deliberate practice have the promise to improve the quality of teacher education. There will inevitably be challenges with this work: for teacher-educators learning new techniques; for institutions that need to change incentive structures in order to encourage faculty to own collectively the success of every teacher-candidate; and for teacher-candidates and novice teachers who will be pushed beyond their comfort zones. This work will not be easy, but we believe that it is both possible and necessary if we are to advance the field of teacher preparation and prepare effective teachers to serve every student.
Research Paper Title: Does Teaching Experience Increase Teacher Effectiveness?
Author(s): Tara Kini and Anne Podolsky
There are four key findings from this paper, three of which once again extol the benefit of experience, and on which was a game-changer for me:
1) Teaching experience is associated with increased student achievement gains throughout a teacher’s career
2) As teachers gain experience, their students are more likely to do better on other measures of success beyond test scores, such as school attendance
3 More experienced teachers confer benefits to their colleagues and to the school as a whole, as well as to their own students. Again, experience counts. Although the authors do point out that some highly experienced teachers are not particularly effective or have retired on the job, and some novice teachers are dynamic and effective. This is related to the principles of deliberate practice discussed in the paper above - it can be quite easy to coast along in teaching, relying on your experience to get you through. Likewise, as teachers progress in their careers, they often have other responsibilities within schools that take their time away from both planning and teaching. It can be difficult to improve past a certain point, but if a teacher wants to then the principles of deliberate practice can help.
4) Teachers make greater gains in their effectiveness when they teach in a supportive and collegial working environment, or accumulate experience in the same grade level, subject, or district. This is the big one for me. I have always assumed it is good to teach as wide a range of abilities and ages of students as possible - that way you build up your set of teaching tools that can be used in any situation. But findings detailed here suggest it is best to specialise - in other words focus in on a particular ability of student (eg top-set or bottom-set) or age-range (e.g. Year 11). The more I think about this, the more it makes sense. In every school I have worked in there have been specialists - the "GCSE C/D borderline specialist", the "top-set specialist", or the "Statistics specialist" at A Level. Indeed, if I am honest, I find it easier stimulating and extending top-sets than bottom sets, but each year I take a few bottom-sets as I assumed it was the best thing to do for my teaching as a whole. But maybe it is not. Maybe specialising in one specific area of maths teaching allows teachers to develop and refine skills tailor-made to getting the most out of those students. Of course, there are issues with this. How do you know what your area of expertise is if you haven't taught lots of different classes? Sometimes "competition" between teachers teaching parallel classes can be a good thing in terms of stimulating new ideas and giving each other an incentive to strive to improve. Then there are political concerns - who gets the top sets? But I do think there is an argument for specialising, and possibly a strong argument for specialising in your first year of teaching so you can hone your craft on a narrower range of classes and students.
My favourite quote:
The common refrain that teaching experience does not matter after the first few years in the classroom is no longer supported by the preponderance of the research. Based on an extensive research base, it is clear that teachers’ effectiveness rises sharply in the first few years of their careers, and this upward trajectory continues well into the second and often third decade of teaching. The overwhelming majority of the 30 studies reviewed here (93 percent)—and 100 percent of the 18 studies using the teacher fixed effects methods—reach this conclusion. The effects of teaching experience on student achievement are significant, and the compounded positive effect of having a series of accomplished, experienced teachers for several years in a row offers the opportunity to reduce or close the achievement gap for low-income students and students of color.123 Given this knowledge, policymakers should direct renewed attention to developing a teacher workforce composed of high-ability teachers who enjoy long careers in supportive and collegial schools.
Research Paper Title: What makes great teaching? Review of the underpinning research
Author(s): Robert Coe, Cesare Aloisi, Steve Higgins and Lee Elliot Major
This is the second appearance of this paper, having been previously discussed in the Explicit Instruction section. I reference it again here simply because one of the finding that good pedagogical content knowledge has a strong impact on student achievement. Knowledge of the mathematical content itself is directly under the control of a teacher. I remember when I first taught the Decision 1 A Level module for the first time - I literally had no idea what I was doing. I had neither studied nor seen any of the material before in my life. And so I did the only thing I could do - I studied and studied, reading the notes in the textbook, completing all the exercises, and doing all the past papers (incidentally, I found doing past papers without notes by far the most useful way to learn the material, possibly due to the Testing Effect identified in the Memory section). How did my teaching of the unit go? Pretty average, to be honest. Because one part of subject knowledge is not directly under a teacher's control - the pedagogical side. I did not really know how to communicate the ideas clearly in a way that students understood. Why was this? Well, I simply lacked the experience. All I had to go on to identify the potential stumbling blocks and misconceptions where my own experiences of the material, and these often proved different to those of my students. It was only having taught the module twice through that I began to get a sense of the pace I needed to deliver the material, the misconceptions I needed to anticipate and address, and the alternative explanations I needed to offer up. So, there was no way I could have taught that module without good knowledge of the mathematics, but that was not sufficient to teach it well. There is no fast-track to gaining the pedagogical experience needed, but I could have made life easier for myself by watching more experienced teachers in action.
My favourite quote:
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.