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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.

A recent report for the well-regarded Sutton Trust which sought to summarise research on ‘what makes great teaching?’ continues to engender largely productive discussion both in the wider media (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-29838029) and at a recent Heads of Department Meeting.  The former link focuses on ineffective techniques, such as over-lavish praise and encouraging students to discover everything for themselves rather than exposing them to direct instruction, perhaps because they are more eye-catching for a news site.  The Heads of Department gatherings are invariably fascinating, whatever the discussion topic, because of the varying perspectives of experienced teachers in different subject areas; our recent discussion focused mostly on the effective techniques, highlighted in the report, as befits an ambitious school community.
The Sutton trust report suggests that the following ‘tips for success’ are well-supported by research; the top 4 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. 
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. 
Classroom climate: effective teachers have good relationships with their students which allow them to constantly demand more whilst still recognising the students’ self-worth.  Effective teachers also attribute success in learning to effort rather than ability.
Classroom Management: effective teachers have clear rules for students’ behaviour and are able to use time and teaching resources effectively. 
Over the next few weeks the Heads of Department will be talking about these insights further to see what we can learn from them; here are a few of my reflections:
Birkdale is lucky to have some very experienced, specialist teachers.  Last week we completed a round of interviews for a new Second in the English department; the day was genuinely enjoyable for me because of the huge strength of the field.  It was an absolute delight to talk to the candidates about their love of English and their insights into how students learn and how they reflect these in their own teaching. 
I am also encouraging Birkdale teachers to become examiners at the moment, partly to gain an insight into the new GCSE and A level courses but partly because it seems the quickest and easiest way for teachers to learn about the common misconceptions of students.  Looking at 300 scripts from different candidates allows for more reliable conclusions to be drawn than from just examining the work of one’s own class.  If we really can pinpoint some of the commonest errors in understanding then we stand a better chance of avoiding or eradicating them in our expositions.
Asking good questions is really important as an effective question can engage the students’ interest, expose any errors in understanding and encourage students to stretch their thinking on a new topic.  Some of the teachers and Heads of Department now collect brilliant questions and record them within department resources for all to benefit.
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.
I have come to understand ever more clearly the importance of linking success to effort rather than ability for students.  If our progress is determined by ability, resulting from some sort of genetic coincidence, then there is no point in trying to get better: what could be more demotivating.  On the other hand if success is largely determined by effort (surely closer to the truth) 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.  See here for an eloquent and impassioned development of this thought http://www.ted.com/talks/carol_dweck_the_power_of_believing_that_you_can_improve .
Looking at the 4 points above, it does seem that Dr Cattermole was indeed a great teacher.

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