‘There is both a ‘heart’ and a ‘science’ to effective teaching’

24th September 2016 at 18:02
Secondary pupils want teachers who are approachable, respectful, passionate about their subject and who can explain things well – it’s not rocket science

Last June I wrote about the initial findings from a student survey undertaken by the Girls' Day School Trust's group of schools and academies. The online survey prompted responses from no fewer than 11,902 students, with participation from 74 per cent of those in Years 5 to 13. We asked them what makes for great teaching, and the free response answers provide an incredibly rich seam to mine. But we also asked some more restricted questions.

We asked students to choose between pairs of teacher attributes. By all accounts, they found this difficult, being ‘forced’ to choose between attributes that previous research has shown to be important. For instance, they were asked to choose between teachers who are ‘approachable’ and lessons that are ‘varied’ or ‘well-paced’; and between ‘dedicated’ and ‘well-organised’. Each attribute was paired in turn against two other types of attribute.

Some very significant patterns emerged. Four attributes were selected by a clear majority both times they appeared, and together they define a really effective practitioner: teachers who are approachable, who respect their students, who have a real passion for their subject, and who explain things well. Precisely how they do this appears to be secondary in students’ minds.

In these paired comparisons, a hierarchy presents itself. At a push, being able to craft varied, well-paced lessons is less important than being approachable. Being organised is less important than being dedicated. But being dedicated is less important than ability to explain things.

Just to be clear, these are comparative judgements. All these attributes are seen as important, but when asked to prioritise, students’ judgements are finely nuanced, skewed towards what we might call pedagogical productivity – in other words specific teaching tools are secondary to a teacher’s personal qualities, which in turn are less important than the way those qualities actually play out in a teacher’s interactions in the classroom.

We also asked students which lesson they look forward to most. No fewer than 45 per cent of respondents mentioned one of: art, drama, dance, music and PE. Reasons included words like fun, different, creativity, movement, collaboration – giving a sense that students value the chance to use a different part of their brain and body. This underwrites the need to maintain a balanced curriculum, not least in Key Stage 4, in the face of the instrumentalist tendency of public exams and the narrowing effect of the EBacc.

Another striking finding is that one in five pupils in Years 3 and 5 named mathematics as their favourite lesson – a percentage that fell with age. Disengagement from maths seems to occur later.

The detail in many of the responses underlines the vital role of the teacher in influencing which subject a student most engages with.

An article in The Economist, published around the time of the survey, suggested that great teachers are made, not born. The students in the survey take a more nuanced line – affirming that actually it’s a bit of both. There is both a ‘heart’ and a ‘science’ to effective teaching.


Dr Kevin Stannard is the director of innovation and learning at the Girls' Day School Trust. He tweets as @KevinStannard1

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