It's the classroom, stupid;Opinion

28th May 1999 at 01:00
Policy-makers have ignored the most obvious factor in raising standards, argues David Reynolds. It's time we understood what makes an effective teacher

TEACHING is the central activity that teachers engage in. How teachers behave in their classrooms is the most important factor determining the educational standards of pupils.

Yet for more than 20 years policies have been concerned much more with changing our schools than with directly changing what teachers do. Indeed, if one were to analyse education Acts, green papers or ministerial speeches "school" appears many more times as a word and as a theme than "classroom".

Certainly, the recent Green Paper represents an acknowledgement of the need to resource teaching and the teaching profession and certainly the literacy and numeracy strategies recommend certain teaching approaches, but historically "teaching" has not been addressed with the same vigour as "schooling".

The most recent evidence from school effectiveness research suggests this may be harming our chances of educational advance.

First, in statistical analyses it is clear that the teacher "level" explains three to four times more in terms of the pupil results than the school "level".

Second, there is evidence of substantial variability in quality within our schools, in terms of departmental performance and in teachers' effectiveness. Indeed, the range of effectiveness within schools dwarfs the variation between them which has been the focus of our range of performance indicators.

Third, the absence of a focus upon the teacher costs us the ability to understand, and utilise, those programmes from abroad that combat underachievement. Virtually every effective programme of educational intervention is classroom or, to use an American phrase, instructionally based, involving changing teacher behaviour as well as school organisation. The lack of take-up of these programmes in Britain is directly due to the lack of comprehension one finds in Britain of the importance of the "learning level".

Our inability to understand the whole-class interactive teaching of Taiwan and the other Pacific Rim countries, which was referred to as whole-class teaching for over two years, makes the same point about the consequences of our ignorance of teaching.

Fourth, our relative ignorance of what takes place in the classroom deprives us of vital information that could be used to drive up standards. This can be done by focusing on the importance of what teachers do, by analysing the variation between them, and using this variation to identify effective ways of teaching. Yet such an approach has received little attention.

Fifth, our national focus on schooling rather than teaching has given us an impoverished debate. Any educational change in Britain is still pigeonholed by the media to be either a move towards "progressivism" or towards "tradition", and coverage is usually obsessed by trivia such as whether desks are in rows. It is teacher behaviour that matters more than the organisation of their classrooms, and within any type of classroom organisation there will be effective teachers and ineffective teachers.

The reasons for our neglect of the classroom as an area of intervention are numerous. Academic effectiveness research within Britain has largely ignored the teacher. Our historic difficulty in addressing the interpersonal and political issues related to variation in the competence of teachers has made research and indeed even discussion difficult. We fear that identifying and learning from the leading edge of the profession identifies the rest as "less than leading edge", we fear to recognise, research and learn from variation.

The historic absence of routine assessment data from the primary sector, a marked contrast to the United States where frequent "blanket testing" in elementary schools spawned a huge teacher-effectiveness research base, has also hindered research. Additionally, because of our concern to ensure teacher ownership of their methods, we have celebrated a culture that has tolerated and encouraged a variety of approaches rather than any one "right way".

It is likely that the historic reluctance of governments to intervene in teaching methods is a rational reaction to this lack of evidence about "what works". It is clear that other countries can rely on research about effective teacher behaviour that goes into the detail of "what works" for different ages, subjects and types of catchment areas. Consequently, they can have a national debate about teaching methods. One suspects that such a debate about "teaching" interests teachers far more than the historic British debate about school management and organisation.

It is also likely that governments have been reluctant to specify further what should happen in classrooms because of a belief that repeated reforms of teacher education have now generated practitioners with an adequate technology of practice. However, many countries teach "instructional theory" to their trainee teachers, as well as teaching methods. Very few load method training onto schools as heavily as we do. Any survey of the world's great teacher-effectiveness knowledge bases would suggest that we in Britain utilise a fraction of their totality, even though this is an improvement on what would have been the case prior to the Teacher Training Agency.

None of this is to say that governmental attention to the quality of school organisation and governance is misplaced. Effective schools are necessary to create effective teachers. Effective schools are not, however, sufficient to create effective teachers.

The historic tendency to focus upon the school may have encouraged a "nodding dog" syndrome in which everyone writes plans, nods, says the plans are going to be implemented and then carries on teaching in the same way as before, with the same results.

British educational outcomes will change when our children's teachers behave differently not when a local education development plan is written. Bill Clinton's mantra for his 1992 election landslide was "It's the economy, stupid". For us in British education, it's surely time to recognise that "It's the classroom, stupid".

David Reynolds is professor of education at the University of Newcastle and newly-appointed adviser on the implementation of the Green Paper proposals on professional development and performance-related pay

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