What Makes Great Teaching?

“What Makes Great Teaching: Review of the Underpinning Research”
-Robert Coe, et all, 2014

Coming off of two year starting and running a large scale EiE program in Lebanon, and overseeing technical teams and programming with well over 200 teachers of variable quality, I’ve been focusing what is left of my intellectual acuity on my sabbatical on teacher performance and practice research, and the suitability and lessons for critically underserved developmental and EiE contexts. I came across this macro-analysis last night, which I’d like to outline, detail and delve a bit further into, as it contains some great information and lessons.

The framework is divided into three areas:

  1. What makes great teaching?
  2. What kind of frameworks can help to capture great teaching?
  3. How can this promote better learning?

Part 1: What Makes Great Teaching?
Great teaching is understood by the authors as that which leads to improved student progress-all benchmarks of teacher quality must be defined by the outcomes of students. However, as I’ve mentioned many times, this is impossible to control for, as there are many other inputs which affect student learning outside of teacher ability and practice. The authors offer a “starting kit” for looking at teacher quality, with the following components and their impact on student outcomes. From the overarching research, content knowledge and quality of instruction seem to be the key teacher characteristic determinants for improving student learning outcomes:
a. Content knowledge-beyond content knowledge, teachers need to understand student misperceptions of content and be able to respond appropriately (strong)
b. Quality of instruction-questioning, assessment and teacher practices (generally defined-strong)
c. Classroom climate-interaction and expectations between teachers and students; self worth and establishment of success causation (moderate)
d. Classroom management-managing behavior and making effective use of classroom time (some)
e. Teacher beliefs-conceptual models of practice and roles in the classroom (some)
f. Professional behaviors-developing practice and participating in professional development, speaking with parents and supporting colleagues (some)

Part 2: What Kind of Frameworks Can Help Us Capture Great Teaching?
Teacher assessment must include various measurements from different sources on a continuous basis; triangulation of these various sources is preferable to improve validity. The authors cite several areas of teacher assessment to be used, as per the above:, with the first three being cited as reliable as per available research:

  1. Classroom observation by peers, principals, external evaluators (valid): well-trained observers, combined with multi-rater validation and high quality tools, can be seen to effectively measure teacher performance; however, results need to be further validated on multiple lessons, and from experience, this is staff-intensive (and staff must be adequately overseen and incentivized to accurately rate teacher performance); in addition, staff fatigue also comes into play when they are rating multiple teachers (and staff tend to be less able to discern relatively major issues); in addition there needs to be a delicate balance between “rigor” and “complexity” with the tool development
  2. Assessing gains in student achievement/learning outcomes (valid); although results cannot be directly correlated to teaching practice unless there is a control trial undertaken, there is some impact of teacher performance that can be derived through student assessment; assessments must be standardized, rigorous, yet not exceedingly complex-and preferably administered by outsiders, which can be a staff/capacity issue, especially in remote areas with limited accessibility
  3. Student ratings of teachers (valid); there is evidence of student evaluations being accurate for teacher assessment-however, this tends to cluster with older children, who are able to more accurately articulate and extrapolate teacher quality; measures need to be developed for self-reporting amongst younger children, paying close attention to simplicity and usability
  4. Principal judgment (limited evidence)
  5. Teacher self-reports (limited evidence)
  6. Analysis of class work/portfolios (limited evidence)

Part 3: How Can This Promote Better Learning?
The authors stress a virtuous “knowledge building cycle” for teachers that provides a positive feedback loop, and has been shown to strongly and positively impact positive student learning outcomes. Six Principles of Teacher Feedback are highlighted as:

  1. Keeping a focus on improving student learning outcomes
  2. Feedback is related to clear and specific goals for the teachers
  3. Focus is on learning and not on comparisons with others
  4. Teachers encouraged to be continuous independent learners
  5. Feedback provided by a mentor in a trusting environment
  6. School Leadership promote an environment of learning and support