The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Owen Carter

Make your teaching better

What works in the classroom? Unfortunately it’s not so simple…

Imagine the perfect classroom. Kids happily engaged with the task at hand, shiny faces intent with concentration. No gum under the tables, no notes passing hands and no unwanted interruptions. A serene teacher presides over it all.

Well, I can't give you that. And don't listen to anyone who says they can.

What I can give you is some tools for making pupils in your class work better than they do already. 

What do you mean?

Fortunately, a lot of the hard work has already been done for us. John Hattie, a New Zealand researcher, locked himself away for 10 years, synthesised the results of over 50,000 studies and came up with a list of what works.

But it doesn't end there. Huge studies by Marzano, the EEF, the APA and others all seem us to give us pretty definitive ideas about what we should be doing in the classroom, and why it works.

If you look at a lot of these lists they all seem to prioritise the same things:

  • feedback matters, a lot
  • practice is more important than innate ability
  • pupils will often behave how you expect them to
  • assess what pupils know, so you can build on it.

So far, so obvious, right? But there are two things you should know first.

One, hindsight is king. While these principles might seem straightforward to us, the reality is that when teachers are independently asked ask about what makes teaching and learning, they uniformly fail to mention these things.

The second major thing is that, done properly, some of these tactics have truly huge effects. To take one from Hattie, pupils self reporting grades has an effect size of 1.44. Translated out of the statistical jargon, that means a difference of nearly two and a half grades.

And that isn't even the really exciting thing. What happens if you combine some of these techniques? Effect sizes don't add together neatly, but if you were to combine even a few of the best teaching strategies you could be looking at a difference of at least three grades.

You don't need to take my word for it either. Eric Hanushek’s 1992 study found that in the course of just one year’s teaching of disadvantaged pupils the difference between a great and a bad teacher was a whole year’s worth of learning.

So why isn't everyone doing the things that great teachers do? 

Time for the truth

Here, I'm afraid, is the hard part. At the risk of using a cliché, the devil truly is in the detail.

Take peer tutoring. The evidence for the effectiveness of getting pupils to teach other has long been pretty solid. The EEF toolkit suggest it adds five months to average pupil progress. So far so good. But yet the EEF’s own evaluations of two peer tutoring programmes found they had no impact on children’s attainment.

This gap between the general findings of research overviews and what actually happens in the classroom is one that teachers simply can’t afford to ignore.

The problem is that the inside of a classroom is really complex. Teachers ask up to 400 questions a day, make just as many decisions, and have to keep the behaviour of their pupils from teetering over into sheer chaos. Can you imagine getting your rowdy Year 11s to submit to the order of a randomised control trial?

'After 30 years of doing such work, I have concluded that classroom teaching…is perhaps the most complex, most challenging, and most demanding, subtle, nuanced, and frightening activity that our species has ever invented…The only time a physician could possibly encounter a situation of comparable complexity would be in the emergency room of a hospital during or after a natural disaster.' Lee Shulman

It turns out that what works isn't the same in every context, and that what works in one classroom may be actively damaging in another. On top of this we also have to face reality. In the UK at least, when it comes to improving, there are two glaring problems teachers face.

  1. Time. The average teacher in Britain works nearly sixty hours a week. A lot of them have families of their own, and interests outside of work. So how on earth are they meant to find the time and mental space to reflect and improve in the way they need to?
  2. Information overload. Engaging with research is bound to give almost anyone a severe case of cognitive dissonance. We're told one thing works, and then another thing. Making sense of it all is quite an undertaking.

Still, trying is worth it.

The way forward

Dylan Wiliam once said 'Every teacher needs to improve, not because they are not good enough, but because they can be even better'.

Very true. But we know from the research that one-off, sporadic professional development doesn't do very much at all. To deliver the best outcomes for pupils requires ongoing professional learning and support.

Here are some ways to start you on that journey:

  • Evidence based teaching: five strategies to start: The things research tells us are often counter-intuitive. What if I told you that you should tell more stories, slow down your teaching, test more frequently and make things more difficult? This is a piece on practical ways to improve your teaching.
  • Making growth mindset matter: If you haven’t heard of growth mindset, I don’t know what sedimental layer you’ve been hiding under. Do not miss this half hour presentation on Dweck’s theory from Chris Hildrew of Chew Valley – who’s been rolling it across his school.
  • Marginal learning gains: improve your teaching: Is it cheating to put something I wrote here? Still, this is (I hope) a useful interview with Zoe Elder about marginal learning gains: an idea about how to introduce and review new ideas in the classroom. Worth a read.

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