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What Makes Great Teaching?

At school in the early 1980s one of my favourite teachers was the magnificently named Dr Cattermole who taught Chemistry with spectacular flamboyance. A man who seemed to have become his own caricature, Dr Cattermole’s battered visage was entirely consistent with a complete disregard for even the most obvious of precautions for his own safety; his clearly planned eccentricities of speech and behaviour invariably secured the interest of his adolescent pupils; his ability to ask exactly the right question at exactly the right moment to uncover a misunderstanding or to develop a thought was extraordinary (and occasionally, at least for my youthful self, somewhat unnerving).

I have largely forgotten the intricacies of aromatic alcohols but the memory of Cattermolic inspiration lingers on. Was he a great teacher? He was certainly regarded as such within the school and I fondly remember his enthusiasm for his subject, the clarity and insight of his explanations and, in an age before the internet, his seemingly encyclopaedic knowledge.

The well-regarded Sutton Trust sought to summarise research on ‘what makes great teaching?’. The report suggests that the following ‘tips for teaching success’ are well-supported by research; the top four are presented here in decreasing order of importance:

Content Knowledge: effective teachers have a deep knowledge of the subject and also understand how students will think about the subject and what possible misconceptions they may hold. At SGS we are lucky to have great teachers with strong academic backgrounds. Many of our teachers are also examiners. Looking at 300 scripts from different candidates each summer allows for more reliable conclusions to be drawn than from just examining the work of one class. If we can pinpoint some of the commonest errors in understanding then we can emphasise the correct version in the classroom.

Quality Of Instruction: effective teachers are good at asking the right questions as well as regularly reviewing previous work, introducing new work at the right pace and providing model responses for students. Many teachers at SGS collect great questions and share them within departments and use them again in future years. Model answers, particularly in the humanities, seem very useful to try to get students to understand more clearly what they are doing wrong and how they can change their work to match the public examination mark schemes more closely. It does seem that the students need to see ‘excellence’ in order to understand what it looks like and how their performance can be improved. This ‘tip’ also stresses the importance of giving feedback to pupils about what they need to work on next whether through discussion, marking or reports. At SGS we make these targets explicit on every report to make sure that all the pupils are clear about the next step.

Classroom Climate: effective teachers have good relationships with their students which allow them to constantly demand more whilst still recognising the students’ self-worth. There is good evidence for the importance of not praising pupils too much, particularly on easy tasks, as this leads to the pupil coming to believe that the teacher has a low opinion of their ability. Having really high expectations of pupils and explaining this to the pupils regularly helps them achieve more highly.

It is also important that teachers ascribe pupils’ success in learning to effort rather than ability. If our progress is determined solely by ability, resulting from a genetic coincidence, then there is no point in trying to get better: what could be more demotivating. On the other hand, if success is at least partly determined by effort then the way to progress is to work hard and draw encouragement from a demanding but supportive teacher. It also seems to be the case that the act of trying to learn something actually changes our brains to increase our abilities in this area. An eloquent and impassioned development of this thought can be found here.

Classroom Management: effective teachers have clear rules for students’ behaviour and are able to use time and teaching resources effectively. At SGS we are lucky to have a fantastic school environment with motivated pupils and great facilities.

Looking at the four points above, it does seem that Dr Cattermole was indeed a great teacher.