Five simple steps for raising achievement
Such is the politicised nature of education, answers to the question "how do you raise achievement in schools?" are rarely free from ideological baggage, and almost always come from above after little consultation with us humble teachers.
It is no surprise, then, that the majority of measures aimed at raising achievement look at the administrative, political or management level of education. Some of these suggested solutions focus on school structures. Some look at the curriculum. Others consider the examination process. There have also been debates recently on the role of selection, vocational education and the burgeoning impact of technology.
As teachers, we soak up all the consequent diktats. But whatever the changes that take place around us, we will remain where we have always stood - in the classroom, interacting with students.
And it is here that politicians are consistently missing the most important factor in raising achievement: the quality and effectiveness of the teaching that students receive. Many factors affect this but ultimately teachers hold the key themselves. Unfortunately, the many interventions to raise achievement noted above - those that start from the top and work down - do not pay heed to this fact by giving teachers more help and guidance.
It is not as if there has been no research to let politicians know they are often looking at the wrong areas. A number of high-profile studies in recent years have identified the central role that teachers play in raising achievement. These include a report by social mobility charity the Sutton Trust on the impact of teachers on student achievement in the UK, Rand Education's Teachers Matter and the Measures of Effective Teaching project from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. In each case, the significant benefits of good teaching and high-quality interactions are clearly illustrated.
So rather than simply trying to determine how to make school systems better, it would be wise for the powers that be to look at how educators can be helped to improve student-teacher interactions in order to boost achievement. Numerous options are available, but these five, built on interventions singled out by Professor John Hattie in his book Visible Learning, will serve as a foundation for teacher progression.
1 Be clear
Every teacher has got to the end of a lesson and realised that their students just don't get it. This is generally the result of lack of clarity. There are two key areas where communication can fall down.
l When explaining ideas: you are most at risk of ambiguity when you are discussing a subject with which you are very familiar. This can lead to false assumptions about what the students already know and understand.
l When giving instructions: again, familiarity with a subject can cause us to overestimate students' prior knowledge, leading to a lack of clarity in what we are asking them to do.
So what can you do? Well, first up is modelling. This is where you demonstrate what you want the class to do: giving them a sentence starter, showing them how you would complete an activity or giving a visual representation of an idea (dropping a pen to demonstrate gravity, for example).
You can also ask students to re-explain. This helps you to judge whether your explanation was clear and gives the students a second chance of absorbing the information. Ask two students to reprise your explanation, indicating that the first should re-explain and the second should listen in, ready to add anything they think has been missed.
2 Give feedback
Every time you communicate with students about what they are doing and how they might do or think about things differently, you are providing feedback. Doing this well will help students perform better. Here are three ways to give more feedback during your lessons.
l When students are working, walk around the room and make suggestions or ask questions designed to aid the students' understanding or to challenge their thinking.
l During a group task, invite groups up to your desk in turn. Talk to them about where they are at and what they are doing. Give them feedback based on what you hear.
l Talk to your class as a whole about how they are doing, where you would like them to go next and what they could do to make more progress.
Some teachers rightly observe that comment-based marking takes longer than simply assigning marks or grades. One way to speed up the process of giving formative feedback is to ensure that you are familiar with the success criteria relevant to your subject. Take 20 minutes out of your day to make a list of everything your subject requires in order for student work to be deemed successful. Every time you mark a set of books, have the list to hand and use it to help you write your comments more swiftly.
3 Don't label students
Labelling students means that you attach certain expectations and judgements to them in advance of meeting, working with and getting to know them, usually based on what you have heard from colleagues or information from school data. This is simply wrong. Each student should start every lesson with a clean slate.
That is not easy to ensure, of course, and nor is it an excuse to ignore or gloss over poor behaviour. Make it clear that negative or disruptive behaviour will be dealt with but that every student has the opportunity to start afresh every lesson. You'll be surprised by how much expectations can influence behaviour and achievement.
4 Build teacher-student relationships
An excellent lesson will always have at its heart an excellent relationship between the teacher and their students. So here are three quick and easy ways to help you develop a good teacher-student bond.
l Smile: everyone loves a smile, students included. Smile and the world smiles with you. It creates positive connotations and makes everyone involved feel good.
l Be organised: students want to feel as though you have prepared carefully for them and put effort into the lesson. Being organised will convey this message and make them want to work with and for you.
l Meet and greet: standing at your classroom door and greeting students as they come in will play a big part in ensuring that positive relationships develop.
5 Use self-verbalisation and questioning
Self-verbalisation means talking to yourself in a way that will help you deal with a cognitive task. Self-questioning is similar, except that you ask yourself questions as a means of directing your mind.
Provide students with opportunities to practise self-verbalisation so that they become more at ease with it. A great way to do this is by introducing "Talk It Through Time" at the beginning of tasks, in which students take two to three minutes to talk themselves through what they are going to do to successfully complete the activity you have set.
When introducing self-questioning, first identify some of the questions you ask yourself while you are teaching. Share these with your students and talk to them about why you use them. Invite your class to discuss in groups the kind of questions they could ask themselves when they are doing a particular type of task. Get groups to share their ideas, create a synthesis of all these questions and select a set of four or five that everybody can use.
Raising achievement is a never-ending pursuit, not a task that can have a completion date. We strive for constant progression in schools and teachers should be at the heart of those efforts. There are many more strategies and tips out there, but those detailed here will provide a strong foundation from which we can, and should, all build.
Mike Gershon is a teacher and trainer who has published a number of books on classroom practice. He shares his resources on TES Connect and expands on this article in his booklet Raising Achievement in Your Classroom, available to TES Pro subscribers at tesconnect.comachievement
The value of measurement - or why better results may not mean greater attainment.
Bhangra and ballet: two teachers discuss how best to boost achievement.
Signposts on the road to raising attainment in Scotland.
Improving the Impact of Teachers on Pupil Achievement in the UK: interim findings (Sutton Trust, 2011). bit.lyTeacherImpact
Teachers Matter: understanding teachers' impact on student achievement (Rand Education, 2012). bit.lyRandEducation
Ensuring Fair and Reliable Measures of Effective Teaching (Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, 2013). bit.lyEnsureEffectiveTeaching
Hattie, J, (2008) Visible Learning: a synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement (Routledge).