Ingredients for Teaching

What does the research tell us about the ingredients for great teaching?

I’ve just picked a copy of educational scientist Pedro De Bruyckere‘s new book The Ingredients For Great Teaching. It’s well worth a read but….

it makes me nervous when we start talking about ‘ingredients’ because they can make teaching sound like some sort of off-the-shelf cook book.

In fact, many lesson plans look precisely like a ‘How to make  the perfect risotto’ with ‘What you will need’ followed by a whole bunch of bullet-points to follow step-by-step.

Lessons aren’t recipes to follow. If you do follow a recipe then what you get isn’t a perfect risotto – more like a dog’s dinner.

However, inside the book are some really useful chapters and links. One that caught my eye was a reference to Barak Rosenshine’s article ‘Principles of instruction: research-based strategies that all teachers should know.’

This particular reference is interesting because Rosenshine notes that there are 10 ‘principles’ that every teacher should know – this got me thinking – what would happen after 25 years of teaching I didn’t know or that some were missing from my toolkit. Let’s take a look at what they are:

  1. Repeat each day part of what had already been learnt.
  2. Present new material in small chunks and help the pupils to practise them.
  3. Ask lots of questions, particularly ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions; this not only helps pupils to learn but also allows you to see how far along they are in the learning process.
  4. Act as a model; demonstrate your own thought and work processes when solving problems.
  5. Offer support for difficult tasks.
  6. Direct and guide pupils in their practice of new material; just showing it once is not enough.
  7. Check regularly that the pupils have understood properly.
  8. Make sure the pupils show their successes, so that you can see this and correct, of necessary.
  9. Demand and monitor independent practice and work towards this all the time.
  10. Regularly activate learned knowledge through a wide range of different exercises.

So, how did you do? Have you covered all these bases? Arguably, this is just good teaching and what all good teachers do but is it enough? I don’t think the list of principles is particularly earth-shattering in what it tells us. We do all this stuff instinctively throughout the day. Even as a trainee, these principles will be drummed into you and pretty quickly these are the things you can start to embed.

Did Rosenshine just pluck these 10 Principles out of thin air? No, we are told they have been informed by three things: research in cognitive science, research on master teachers and research on cognitive supports. This for me is where things start to unfold.

I take issue with the research on ‘master teachers’ presuming there is such a category of teachers in the first place. Are we sure that anyone ever reaches ‘mastery‘?

Rosenshine defines master teachers as those classrooms whose classrooms made the highest gains on achievement tests. This in itself doesn’t prove anyone to be a master teacher. They may  display the 10  principles above but who defines what mastery is and what it looks like? All because your class perform well in tests does not in any way, shape or form make you a master teacher. The are too many other factors that interact.

I don’t think master teachers even exist. Dylan Wiliam once said,

The great thing about teaching is that you never get any good at it; you never crack it.  That’s what makes it so frustrating, so challenging, and yet so rewarding.

Rosenshine says that “The best way to become an expert is to through practice – thousands of hours of practice. The more practice, the better the performance.”

This isn’t gospel. You can engage in thousands of hours of practice but doing something that is faulty, erroneous and stale. In other words you can repeat your mistakes.

What is most revealing about Rosenshine’s article is that he adds a further 7 principles to his main 10 so we end up with 17 principles.

And here’s the problem: only 17 principles? It is what’s not on the list that is most concerning. I’d be looking at least 100 principles and many of those who relate to personality, charisma, presence, aura, humour and being a ‘true teacher’ – one that isn’t great or the finished article as there is not such thing.

There is one glaring omission from the list(s) Rosenshine gives us and that is the ‘teacher stare’ or the ‘teacher eye’. If you don’t have this then you are going to find teaching impossible.

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