Can good teaching be measured?;Yes;Summer debate;Opinion

13th August 1999 at 01:00
An academic and a policy specialist argue over whether effective educating can be embodied in a list of precise techniques.

WE rightly say that no one forgets a good teacher. But we have been slow to learn from what good teachers do.

Whether because of the British notion that teaching is an art, not a science, or because of the belief that personal qualities like a sense of humour or a love of one's subject are all that is required to teach, we have been slow to study, codify and transmit to teachers the science of their profession.

This science is available from literally thousands of studies across the world, particularly from the United States.

Produced largely by observing what teachers do and then looking at pupils' gain in academic and social performance, these studies of the best teachers show that what they do has regularities.

First, they challenge intellectually, through a commitment to their subject, high expectations, challenging yet appropriate questioning, and through their capacity to excite interest.

Second, they bring to their classrooms a sense of mission that the classroom is basically a place for learning, through a focus on a limited range of goals and through strong structures.

Third, they don't waste their most precious resource - time. Lesson transitions are well handled, interruptions dealt with efficiently. Lessons are extended through appropriate use of homework.

This science of teaching extends to the most appropriate methods for teaching different subjects, with, say, whole-class interactive teaching - particularly important for mathematics - and rich questioning for English. It also covers the appropriateness of methods for children of different ages, and those for disadvantaged communities, where giving children immediate help before they "turn off" and teaching all knowledge in small 'bite-sized chunks' are important.

With this body of science, of course, come instruments to measure what teachers do, systems of peer observation to help teachers "buddy" each other and systems of performance indicators to give schools data on their best practice to use as benchmarks.

Historically, we in Britain have not used much of this knowledge. This has left us with some outstanding teachers who invented great methods themselves, but many others who might have benefited from being helped. It has also left us with a system that does not employ effective methods routinely used in other countries.

Why do so few teachers use multiple questions to the same child and make questioning an academic tool rather than a form of crowd control? Presumably because no one told them of the methods.

Why in our research is only 5 per cent of primary lesson-time taken up with collaborative group work? Presumably because no one told teachers about its power.

Why is every teacher not using the last 15 minutes of every lesson to review that lesson, rather than socially closing it? Probably because no one has every suggested it to them.

Why is every British teacher not given the science of their profession? Presumably because we care more about the views of union leaders - that teachers should determine their methods - than we do about the children.

I suspect that teachers are no longer happy to be denied their rights to the world's great knowledge bases. The success of the literacy strategy, which involved bringing teachers some of these knowledge bases, has left teachers wanting more. The imminent arrival of performance review and appraisal schemes will further fuel teacher interest.

What possible reasons can there be to further delay giving all our teachers what they need?

David Reynolds is professor of education at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. He is advising the Government on the implementation of its proposals on professional development and performance-related pay

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