Research suggests that there are three dimensions to great teaching: who the teacher is, what the teacher knows, and how the teacher teaches. Studies such as that by the Sutton Trust tend to concentrate on the latter two dimensions – understandably, because these are more easily quantifiable, and much more easily linked to the fairly narrow ‘outcomes’ data used as dependent variable in such surveys.
When students are asked what makes for really effective lessons, they tend to focus on how the teacher teaches – the contents of the teacher’s toolbox. In a series of interviews with groups of students in GDST schools, they described effective lessons as having a visible structure, with a high-impact start, clear pace and a coherent summary at the end.
They stressed the need for interactivity and a mixture of group and independent work. They said they appreciate variety, but not for its own sake. They want extension work that is interesting and not just more of the same. They appreciate being challenged in a supportive environment: ‘The best lessons encourage you to test yourself, to try things out and perhaps fail, to take risks’.
But when students are asked a slightly different question, what makes a great teacher, the focus tends to be different. When we asked students to make free responses in an online survey, we found that references to the methods teachers use were less frequent than references to their personal qualities.
These personal attributes included teachers being approachable and calm, patient, polite and positive. On the whole they trumped toolbox qualities like giving good feedback, preparing well, and varying lessons.
But in the survey, which we will be exploring at our Annual Conference next week, an important and interesting middle category emerges, which was still more frequently referenced, and which might be called "pedagogical praxis" – a transitive category, rooted in the teacher’s character and background, but realised in practice in the classroom. These are qualities that are inscribed in particular behaviours towards students.
These become real, as far as students are concerned, in behaviours towards them and their classmates. Responses such as, "doesn’t rush me", "treats me as an individual", "allows independence", "explains things well", and "gives advice" may be categorised as aspects of pedagogical praxis.
The possible implications are interesting. While basic personal qualities might not be easily changeable or trainable, they should be aspects looked for in recruitment and selection; and their translation into effective teaching, through pedagogical praxis, is something that can be developed through professional development. You don’t need a brilliant sense of humour to make a lesson fun.
A Year 2 pupil had this view of recruitment priorities: “If you want to be a nice teacher, you will need to be loving, caring, clever and sharing, helpful, understanding and kind. They need to help children to do their best and have integrity, and they also need to trust everyone.”
An older student acknowledged the moral scale of the task: “A great teacher did not apply just to mark books but to change and guide a generation.”
Dr Kevin Stannard is the director of innovation and learning at the Girls' Day School Trust. He tweets as @KevinStannard1