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Newsletters


2017-09-28
Newsletter 129 - Seven myths about education


Education study finds in favour of traditional teaching styles

Report from Sutton Trust and Durham University says way that pupils learn ‘remains a mysterious subject’. What makes “great teaching”? It’s a complicated question, made more difficult by trying to measure how teachers make decisions in the classroom and what impact those decisions have on what pupils learn.

Schools need to put more effort into evaluating what makes effective teaching, and ensure that discredited practices are rooted out from classrooms, according to a new study published by the Sutton Trust and Durham University.

The study suggests that some schools and teachers continue using methods that cause little or no improvement in student progress, and instead rely on anecdotal evidence to back fashionable techniques such as “discovery learning,” where pupils are meant to uncover key ideas for themselves, or “learning styles,” which claims children can be divided into those who learn best through sight, sound or movement.

Instead, more traditional styles that reward effort use class time efficiently and insist on clear rules to manage pupil behaviour, are more likely to succeed, according to the report – touching on a raw nerve within the British teaching profession, which has seen vigorous debates between “progressive” and “traditional” best practice.

Professor Robert Coe of Durham University, one of the authors, said assessing effective teaching was difficult, because exactly how pupils learn remains a mysterious subject.

“It is surprisingly difficult for anyone watching a teacher to judge how effectively students are learning. We all think we can do it, but the research evidence shows that we can’t. Anyone who wants to judge the quality of teaching needs to be very cautious,” Coe said.

The evidence collected by Coe also rejects the use of streaming or setting, where pupils are grouped by ability within classes or year-groups. It remains popular in many schools despite being supported by little evidence that it improves achievement. Ability groups can result in teachers “going too fast with the high-ability groups and too slow with the low,” according to the research, and so cancels the advantages of tailoring lessons to the different sets of pupils.

Instead, the best research suggests that teachers with a command of their subject, allied with high-quality instruction techniques such as effective questioning and assessment, are the most likely to impart the best learning to their pupils.

Daisy Christodoulou, a former teacher and author of Seven Myths About Education, a book that highlighted classroom orthodoxies, said: “This is a brilliant and helpful report, full of very practical advice and recommendations. I think it really moves the debate forward and has the potential to spark genuine improvements.

“It is upfront about the problem we face: we do not have as clear an idea of what good teaching is as we might think. So before we can actually discuss how to improve teaching practice, we need to clarify what good practice looks like. Otherwise we risk promoting practices that are not actually very effective.”

Michael Tidd, deputy head teacher at a Nottinghamshire primary school, said the findings should come as no surprise. “What remains to be seen is whether this report will reach the wider teaching community and have an impact in classrooms,” Tidd said.

“Until teachers, school leaders – and perhaps vitally, Ofsted inspectors – are brought up to speed with the latest developments, the impact will be limited.”

Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said: “Successive governments have ignored the importance of investing in teachers, including teacher education, continuous professional development and teacher retention. Instead, policy has erred on the side of believing that changing the status of a school will somehow raise the quality of teaching within it.”

In a new report for the Sutton Trust, we have tried to set out how great teaching leads to great learning. Our overall aim is to see whether setting out a framework of indicators that focus teachers’ effort on things which are important can help their pupils learn even better.

You can find a copy of the report on the website by searching under the resources tab.

Some things we are pretty sure about. Effective teachers have good knowledge about what they teach and know how best to communicate this to their students. They have a high level of skill in questioning pupils and assessing what they know and can do. They have high expectations and set a climate which promotes challenge and values success. Most of our report looks at effective classroom practices and how we can measure these.

What doesn’t work

We also think it is useful to look at what hasn’t been shown to work, even if this may seem a rather negative way to focus on improvement. Many ineffective teaching practices seem to be quite popular, even though most evidence is anecdotal and selective.

By stopping doing things that are either ineffective or inefficient, it should allow more time to focus on things that will make more of a difference. Here are seven common teaching practices that are not backed up by evidence.

No evidence for (1): Using praise lavishly

Praise for students may be seen as affirming and positive, but a number of studies suggest that the wrong kinds of praise can be very harmful to learning. Other research argues that praise which is meant to be encouraging and protective of low-attaining students can actually convey a message of the teacher’s low expectations. What is important is praise which is valued by the learner.

No evidence for (2): Allowing learners to discover key ideas for themselves

Enthusiasm for “discovery learning” where learners undertake problem-solving activities or open-ended tasks is not supported by research evidence, which broadly favours direct instruction where children are more explicitly guided through the learning process. Although learners do need to build new understanding of what they already know, if teachers want them to learn new ideas, knowledge or skills, they should teach them directly.

No evidence for (3): Grouping learners by ability

Evidence about the effects of grouping by ability suggests that it makes very little difference to learning outcomes. In theory, ability grouping might allow teachers to create lessons that have a narrower range of pace and content. But it can also create an exaggerated sense in teachers' minds that children in one group are very similar to each other, and that they are different to other groups. This can result in teachers not making the necessary accommodations for the range of different needs within a supposedly similar “ability” group and going too fast with the higher groups and too slow with the lower ones.

No evidence for (4): Re-reading and highlighting

Doesn’t matter what colour, it probably won’t help. 

Re-reading and highlighting are among the commonest and apparently most obvious ways to memorise or revise material. They also give a satisfying – but deceptive – feeling of fluency and familiarity with the material. Yet a range of studies have shown that testing yourself, trying to generate answers and deliberately creating intervals between study to allow forgetting, are all more effective approaches.

No evidence for (5): Addressing issues of confidence and low aspirations

The evidence shows that attempts to enhance pupils motivation are unlikely be successful and even if they do, the impact on subsequent learning is close to zero. In fact the poor motivation of low attainers is a logical response to repeated failure. Start getting them to succeed and their motivation and confidence should increase.

No evidence for (6): Teaching to a learner’s preferred learning style

The belief in the importance of learning styles seems persistent. A recent survey found that more than 90% of teachers in several countries (including the UK) agreed with the claim that: “Individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style (for example, visual, auditory or kinaesthetic)”.

But the psychological evidence is clear that there are no benefits from trying to present information to learners in their preferred learning style.

No evidence that (7): Active learners remember more than passive learners

This claim is commonly presented in the form of a “learning pyramid” which shows precise percentages of material that will be retained when pupils have different levels of activity. These percentages have no empirical basis and are pure fiction. Memory is the residue of thought, so if you want students to remember something you have to get them to think about it. This can be achieved by being either “active” or “passive”.

By including some examples of “ineffective practice” in our research on what makes great teaching, we are likely to provoke a strong reaction from teachers and parents. We hope this can be challenging in a constructive way. Clearly, telling a professional teacher that some aspect of their practice is problematic is a risky way to get a productive discussion going. But thinking about what is effective as well as what isn’t can help clarify how to improve professional teaching practice.