Why praising to the skies clouds the issue

31st October 2014 at 00:00
`Lavish' compliments are among teaching don'ts revealed by study

Telling students they have done a good job may seem a sensible method of encouragement, but dishing out excessive praise has been named one of the worst teaching missteps.

"Lavishing" approval on pupils, grouping by ability and seeking to make children "active learners" are among the teaching "don'ts" that appear in research released today. Meanwhile, the traits identified as most common among the best teachers include deep subject knowledge, good classroom management skills and ensuring that students are always challenged.

The study was commissioned by social mobility charity the Sutton Trust, which hopes the findings will be distilled into an easy-to-use toolkit for improving teaching methods and learning (the report, What Makes Great Teaching, will be available at www.suttontrust.com).

Robert Coe, the director of Durham University's Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring, led the research, analysing which teaching methods show clear evidence of boosting attainment among students and which methods have little proven benefit.

Professor Coe will present the findings next week at an education conference in Washington DC, sponsored by the Sutton Trust and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Practices that have minimal impact on achievement include "lavish" praise and, in particular, giving the "wrong kind" of praise to low-attaining students, which could confirm teachers' low expectations of them.

Similarly, grouping students by ability makes "no difference to learning outcomes", the report says. Teachers are often unable to distinguish between the strongest and weakest learners in a group, and either go too slow for high-ability pupils or too fast for others, it adds.

"Praise can be fine, and if done properly can be good, but it can also undermine and reduce performance if given out badly," Professor Coe said. "There's no simple recipe for what is good or what is bad, but that is part of the issue. What teachers will need to do is look at the toolkit produced, but then go further and read about the research to get a real understanding of what works and what doesn't."

Part of the reason why teachers continued to use ineffective teaching methods was that the UK lacked a culture of sharing research among practitioners, Professor Coe added.

Alex Quigley, assistant headteacher and director of research and learning at Huntington School in York, said teachers and their senior leadership teams had often been too eager to buy into quick fixes when trying to improve school performance.

"As with all these things - learning styles, active learners - they are easily packaged up as being a silver bullet for great teaching," Mr Quigley said. "As soon as you can brand it as something, you can then sell it, and teachers are very busy and so sometimes they fall for it.

"Teachers and school leaders are partly to blame. The pressure of the job means sometimes you look for shortcuts, but there are no real shortcuts to improving a school."

Outside influences - such as inspection - also played a role, with "Ofsted whispers" sometimes leading to misunderstanding of preferred teaching methods, he said.

And although Mr Quigley welcomed the idea of a toolkit outlining best practice, he warned that a go-to guide would only be helpful if teachers had a proper understanding of why methods did or did not work. A first-class degree in a particular subject would not make a teacher great unless they also had other strengths, such as classroom control, he added.

The Sutton Trust hopes the research will become as widely used as another of its resources, the Pupil Premium Toolkit. Now known as the Sutton Trust-EEF Teaching and Learning Toolkit, it was adopted by the Education Endowment Fund and is used in schools across the country.

Lee Elliot Major, director of policy and development at the Sutton Trust, said the research came at a time when politicians and policymakers had finally shifted their focus away from the structure of schools and towards improving what happened in the classroom.

"One of education's great ironies is that we invest huge efforts to improve the learning of pupils, yet neglect the learning of teachers themselves," Dr Elliot Major said. "This is an important report as it signals the increasing focus education leaders are placing on improving the `core business' of teaching in schools.

"We know a great teacher can more than anything else transform the prospects of poorer pupils in particular. It's why teaching will be at the heart of the major political debates over education."

Dos and don'ts of classroom practice

What works

  • Content knowledge.
  • Behaviourclassroom management.
  • Classroom climateexpectations.
  • Quality of instruction.
  • Wider professional elements: collegiality, development, relationships.
    • What doesn't work

      • Using praise lavishly.
      • Allowing learners to discover key ideas for themselves.
      • Grouping learners by ability.
      • Encouraging re-reading and highlighting to memorise key ideas.
      • Presenting information to learners in their preferred learning style.
      • Ensuring learners are always active, rather than listening passively, when you want them to remember something.
      • Addressing low confidence and aspirations before teaching content.


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