Tuesday 4 November 2014

Sutton Trust Report and What Makes Great Teaching - Implications for the Further Education Sector

Last week saw the publication of the Sutton Trust's report  What Makes Great Teaching by Robert Coe, Cesare Aloisi, Steve Higgins and Lee Elliot Major and which created quite a furore.  The report warned that many day to day classroom practices used by teachers can be both detrimental to learning and are not substantiated by research, for example, using students' preferred learning styles as a means to determine how to present information. However, the main body of report focuses on three simple questions : What makes ’great teaching’? What kinds of frameworks or tools could help us to capture it? How could this promote better learning?  In this post, I will focus on 'what makes great teaching' and consider the implications for leadership in the further education sector.  
     Coe et al define great teaching as:
 ... that which leads to improved student progress.  We define effective teaching as that which leads to improved student achievement using outcomes that matter to their future success. Defining effective teaching is not easy. The research keeps coming back to this critical point: student progress is the yardstick by which teacher quality should be assessed. Ultimately, for a judgement about whether teaching is effective, to be seen as trustworthy, it must be checked against the progress being made by students. (p2)
Coe et al subsequently go onto identify the six components of great teaching as:
  • (Pedagogical) content knowledge (Strong evidence of impact on student outcomes)
  • Quality of instruction (Strong evidence of impact on student outcomes)
  • Classroom climate (Moderate evidence of impact on student outcomes)
  • Classroom management (Moderate evidence of impact on student outcomes)
  • Teacher beliefs (Some evidence of impact on student outcomes)
  • Professional behaviours (Some evidence of impact on student outcomes)
     So what does this mean for the leaders of further education colleges, initial reflection on the impact of content knowledge and quality of instruction would suggest the following:
  • Leaders need to ensure that the ‘Coe’ report is disseminated and discussed within their own colleges and staffrooms.  In doing so, leaders should create opportunities for individual and collective reflection in a way which encourages colleagues to look at the evidence on effective pedagogy, and in a way may challenge their existing pre-conceptions and practices.
  • As Samuel Arbesman argues a large amount of what we know will be obsolete within a few years.   This will require college’s to ensure there are substantive and well-resourced programmes of CPD which provide opportunities for staff to update their subject knowledge.  This will require more than just the odd-bit of work-shadowing done at odd times of year, but rather bespoke and structured programmes of subject knowledge updating which have a focus on improving student outcomes.
  • The need to ensure the further education sector is an attractive employment proposition for those individuals with high levels of content knowledge, attracting individuals to participate in further education, rather than as so often is the case just ‘falling’ into FE.
  • Colleges need to invest in developing the ‘craft’ of teaching and having a CPD programme which focuses on teaching and learning, rather than the latest requirement for the purposes of compliance or change in assessment regime.  That is not to say the latter are important, they are, but they are necessary but not sufficient for effective teaching and learning.
  • As Coe at al rightly identify lesson observation schemes need to have a formative focus – and which are not 'one-off' graded lessons used for the purposes of performance, review and appraisal.  Lesson observations need to be crafted as processes which support both individual and collective professional development.  Imaginative approaches need to be adopted, such as unseen observations, lesson study and videoed observations as advocated in Matt O'Leary's recent book - Classroom Observation : A guide to effective observation of teaching and learning.
  • Coe et al al provide compelling evidence that lesson observation schemes are best suited for low-stake developmental purposes, and even in these circumstances will require trained observers trained in the use of a valid protocol.   As most of the high quality lesson observation schemes have been developed in the US, work needs to be undertaken to develop a high quality protocol which is suitable for the need of assessing the effectiveness of vocational pedagogy.
Finally, as Gert Biesta and Nicholas Burbules argue in their 2003 book Pragmatism and Educational Research - effective education and pedagogy is more than just being technically skilful as teacher, it requires a deep and profound exploration of the why, what and the how of education - and any implementation of this report in colleges needs to be seen within the context of the fundamental purposes of further education.   As you can probably tell I have only just begin to scratch the surface of the implications for the further education sector of Coe et al's report.  Nevertheless, I do believe it is a report which is worth reading especially given the current emphasis on teaching and learning within the further education sector. I hope this post helps start this discussion.


  1. The question of what makes great teaching has surely been around since there have been teachers. Thousands of years later, and despite the plethora of academic texts on the subject, I am not sure we are much closer to an answer. Am I a great teacher? I have no idea. I have no idea whether I am even a good teacher let alone a great one. If you speak to my students you will discover that they mostly enjoy my lessons. If you look at student achievement for my units you will notice that it is high. On paper at least, I am doing something right. The trouble is, I don't know that that "something" is, and I'm not sure anyone really does. Subject knowledge, as stated above, must be a key factor. Quality of instruction is where I feel the college can help us to improve as teachers. Unfortunately there is an obsession with maximising the number of hours that teachers are in class delivering. The way to improve quality of instruction is to have teachers in class less, not more, so that they can spend quality time on planning. This would mean having more teachers and is therefore a non-starter in these times of prolonged austerity. Do more with less is the current mantra but there is only so much juice to be squeezed from an orange. Sure, you can squeeze a bit harder but if you want more juice you really need more oranges. Shall I collect my social security now or later? 8)

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