The Practices: Teaching
The Professional Practices
Professional practices describe the skills, knowledge, habits and behaviours that characterise our school and support professional and personal growth. If these practices are to reflect the profoundly Christian nature of our mission, they must occur at the intersection of our intentions for and purposes of education at St Teilo’s. In other words, professional practices should improve excellence, increase equity and deepen faith whilst educating for wisdom, hope, community and dignity.
The practices help us to consider the characteristics we seek to develop in leaders, teams, teachers, support staff and pupils. They foster self-reflection, team analysis, improvement planning and performance management without being mechanistic, distracting or constraining. The Christian inspiration and educational underpinnings of the practices create the sort of team action that allows us to move forward together confidently in the same direction.
The Professional Practices: Teaching
Asking questions to challenge and deepen thinking is one of the most common things teachers do. The key to quality is not the number of questions but the type of questions and how they are used. For Hattie (2012) it is about the balance between deep and surface level thinking that teachers promote. Indeed, promoting deep learning is one of the distinguishing characteristics of expert teachers (Smith et al., 2008). The key point is that just asking a lot of questions is not a marker of quality; it’s about the types of questions, the time allowed for, and depth of, student thinking they provoke or elicit, and how teachers interact with the responses.
Teachers use questioning for two main – and quite distinct – purposes: to refine students’ thinking and to assess it (see ‘Assessing Understanding’). In the former purpose, questioning is a tool to promote deep and connected thinking. Great teachers use questioning as part of a dialogue in which students are engaged and stretched. They prompt students to give explanations and justifications for their answers, or just to improve an initial response, to describe their thinking processes, to elaborate on their answers, exploring implications and connections with other ideas and knowledge (Dunlosky et al., 2013; Praetorius et al., 2018).
Great teachers recognise that complex tasks often require scaffolding: beginning with a simplified or limited version of the task to make it manageable. This often requires some differentiation, as different learners may begin with different levels of readiness and different capacity for learning new material. A knowledge of individual students’ needs, including additional learning needs, comes into play here. However, one of the defining characteristics of highly effective teachers is that they require all students to achieve success (Hattie, 2012).
Scaffolding provides a gentler entry, but the destination remains the same. Lower-attainers may take longer and need more help, but the job of teachers is to ‘disrupt the bell curve’, not just to preserve it (Wiliam, 2018). The crucial thing about scaffolding is that you take it away as ideas and procedures become secure and fluent: by the end, those complex tasks are accessible to all.
Great teachers also share learning aims with their students in ways that help students to understand what success looks like. This does not mean simply writing out lesson objectives or (worse still) getting students to copy them down. To specify learning aims properly, teachers also need to have examples of the kinds of problems, tasks and questions learners will be able to do, as well as examples of work that demonstrates them, with a clear story about how and why each piece of work meets each aim. In lessons, learning tasks must present an appropriate level of difficulty for each student: hard enough to move them forward, but not so hard that they cannot cope, given the existing knowledge and resources they can draw on.
Just as great teachers use questions to promote deep learning, so do great learners. The range of activities teachers use to promote oracy and dialogue includes encouraging students to ask their own questions. Shimamura (2018) suggests that learners apply the ‘three Cs’ (categorise, compare and contrast) and ‘elaborative interrogation’ (asking – and answering – ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions) to help them learn new ideas.
Used carefully, peer assessment can improve students’ understanding of success criteria, help them to become more engaged in learning and develop their interpersonal skills (Black et al., 2003; Topping, 2017). However, peer assessment can hinder students’ learning if poor-quality, insensitive or unhelpful peer feedback is exchanged, and may strain relationships between learners (Topping, 2017, 2018). Therefore, guiding students to give effective feedback is important, since they often find it challenging to think of their work in terms of a set of goals. During peer assessment, learning objectives need to be explicit, and there needs to be clarity around how these can be successfully met (Boon, 2015; Topping, 2018). If students are familiar with success criteria, they can use these to evaluate how far their partner has moved towards accomplishing a learning goal (Min, 2005, 2006). Developing exploratory talk through thinking together is likely to be useful for formative peer assessment because it involves pupils who can reason effectively through discussion (Black, 2007).
The most supportive classrooms focus directly on student motivation. Students who are motivated to study, learn, engage and succeed are more likely to do so. Self-determination theory (Deci and Ryan, 2008) prioritises the kinds of motivation that support an individual’s wellbeing and development as much as their task performance. When considering its application to education (Guay et al., 2008), self-determination theory distinguishes between two kinds of motivation: autonomous (which is characterised by a feeling of volition and, hence, is desirable) and controlled (which is characterised by feeling pressure to think, feel, or behave in particular ways or by feelings such as guilt or shame).
Autonomous motivation is promoted when individuals feel that three basic needs are met: autonomy, competence and relatedness. Autonomy refers to feeling that they choose their behaviour and that it is aligned with their values and interests. Competence means feeling capable of producing desired outcomes and avoiding undesirable ones. Relatedness means feeling connected with and mutually supported by other people.
Highly effective teachers also galvanise motivation by means of an efficient use of time and resources. Great teachers plan activities and resources so that everything works smoothly. Settling down time at the start of a lesson or after a transition is minimised – students get started on meaningful work straight away and work right up to the end of the lesson. Part of this is about giving students clear and simple instructions so they know exactly what they should be doing. Routines are also an aspect of galvanising motivation, explicitly teaching students a pattern of behaviour that will be used regularly.
The quality of learning interactions between teachers and students is central to the learning process. Interactions are a form of feedback, and again there are two distinct purposes here: feedback to teachers that informs their decisions (see ‘Assessing Understanding’), and offering feedback to students that helps them learn. Although we know that feedback can enhance learning powerfully (Hattie and Timperley, 2007), we also know that the mediating effects of different combinations of kinds of feedback, learner and task characteristics and different ways of giving feedback are extremely complex. There is no simple recipe for giving powerful feedback.
Feedback can help by clarifying or emphasising goals or success criteria (‘Where am I going?’), thus directing students’ attention to productive goals (Hattie and Timperley, 2007). It may draw attention to a gap between actual and desired levels of performance (‘How am I going?’), which, again, may be positive if goals are challenging, accepted and accompanied by feelings of self-efficacy (Locke and Latham, 2002). It may cue attributions for success or failure to reasons the student can control (‘How well am I going?’), such as effort or strategy choice (Dweck, 2000). Or it may indicate productive next steps (‘Where to next?’), which involves a complex interaction between what the learner knows already, what they need to know and their readiness to do what is required to bridge the gap (Hattie and Timperley, 2007). Such feedback requires an expert judgement about the kinds of actionable next steps that are most likely to deliver the most learning, given all these variables. Great teachers have enough knowledge and experience of similar situations to develop sound intuition about what is likely to work best (Hogarth, 2001), but such intuition is hard to capture in simple rules.
Resilience is about the process of ‘becoming’, which students understand once they develop a firm belief about their place in the world. When students believe that they are worthy and capable of overcoming challenges, they become resilient. Resilience can be seen as a combination of social competence, optimism, purpose, an effective coping style and positive self-image (Cahill et al., 2014). It is an ability to develop positive bonds with peers, manage small challenges, and trust one’s responsibility. Together, these traits help students deal with unforeseen circumstances linked to change, challenge, and adversity (Bernard, 2004).
Great teachers possess and in-depth knowledge of student thinking and, in particular, the misconceptions, typical errors and types of strategies students exhibit. Student misconceptions around particular ideas are predictable and inevitable. Highly effective teachers design their lessons and learning activities to anticipate and address these misconceptions directly and explicitly, both by exposing and challenging the misconception and by presenting the correct conception clearly and directly.
The best teachers help students to become independent by planning, regulating and monitoring their own learning. Activating, and in particular promoting, student metacognition, is a feature of many research-based frameworks (for example, Ko et al., 2013; Praetorius et al., 2018; van de Grift et al., 2017). When teachers introduce new ideas, it is appropriate to be directive: presenting structured content explicitly, directly teaching what needs to be understood. However, for most educators, the larger aim is to wean students off this dependency on the teacher, encouraging them to become independent, self-actualised learners. This contrast is sometimes presented as a polarised opposition between ‘traditional’, teacher-led, didactic approaches on the one hand, and, on the other, ‘progressive’, student-focused, constructivist methods and beliefs. In part at least, this division reflects a misunderstanding of the complexity of teaching: different approaches work best at different times, with different students, according to different learning aims and at different stages in the learning process. One approach doesn’t fit all.
Interventions to promote the use of metacognitive strategies are among those with the largest effects on attainment, and strategies to help students plan, monitor and evaluate should be explicitly taught and supported (EEF, 2018). Students of all ages should be explicitly taught strategies to plan, monitor and evaluate their learning, ideally in the context of the specific content they are learning. Great teachers also draw attention to their own planning and self-regulation when they model the process of completing complex tasks, and similarly encourage students to ‘self-explain’ their thinking.
Information from questioning is the basis of assessing understanding. Of course, it is how the teacher responds to the feedback from questioning that matters. First of all, teachers have to understand and interpret the assessment result appropriately. They may need to check or verify that their interpretations are correct. They also need to appraise the context accurately, being sensitive to the needs, history and dispositions of the students involved. Then they need to identify and decide among a set of options for action. Each will have trade-offs between, for example, time, effort and reward. If some students need more time and help with a topic while others are ready to move on, for example, this may be a hard choice. Finally, they need to implement the chosen option effectively to achieve the desired learning.
In questioning designed for assessing understanding, the focus is on eliciting and checking student thinking, knowledge and understanding. Asking questions, or providing prompts, that provide clear insight into whether students have grasped the required knowledge and understanding is hard; it is in the nature of assessment (and indeed all human communication) that student responses are always equivocal, and interpretations should be probabilistic rather than certain. Questioning that is interactive may go some way to overcome this if follow-ups and prompts are used skilfully to clarify. Great teachers also have strategies for checking the responses of all students. Asking meaningful and appropriate questions that target essential learning, collecting and interpreting a response from every student, and responding to the results, all in real time in the flow of a lesson, is hard to do well, but highly effective teachers do it and it is a skill that can be learnt.
Whether questions are asked interactively or as part of a fixed assessment process, starting with great questions that provide maximum information is key. When used for the purpose of assessing understanding, questions should be seen as tools to elicit insights into students’ thinking. Questions provide information if they discriminate between those who know and those who don’t yet. Whether an assessment is a single question or a formal examination, great teachers understand the amount of information it provides, how much weight it carries and what inferences and decisions it can support. They understand that what has been learnt is not the same as what has been taught (Nuthall, 2007) and that assessment is the only tool we have to make the former visible, albeit ‘through a glass, darkly’. Crucially, they plan and adapt their teaching to respond to what assessment tells them.
One of the features of great teaching is that disruption is not seen, but this is often because the teacher has successfully anticipated and prevented it happening. Kern and Clemens (2007) endorse ‘antecedent strategies’: whole-class and individually-targeted strategies that teachers can use to “establish a classroom environment that is positive, orderly, predictable and motivating” as a way of preventing disruption and managing student behaviour. The term ‘withitness’ was coined by Kounin (1977) to describe a teacher’s awareness of what is happening in the classroom, even when their attention appears to be elsewhere. Great teachers do not have eyes in the back of their head, but their students may think they do. A key part of this skill is that the teacher signals their awareness, perhaps with just a look or movement, so students feel they are being constantly observed.
Highly effective teachers also use carefully considered praise and positive reinforcement to support desired behaviour (Calderella et al., 2020). When disruption or disorder does occur, teachers respond firmly and appropriately to minimise the effect on learning. Great teachers draw on targeted approaches that are tailored to the individual needs of students with a history of challenging behaviour.
The importance of embedding skills, like all learning, rests on the insight from cognitive load theory that memory is not just a storage facility for facts that could just as easily be looked up: the schemas that we use to organise knowledge in memory are the very things we use to think with and to connect new learning to (Sweller, 1994). One of the ways great teachers embed skills is by ensuring that students practise the skills that are required to be fluent. A large body of psychological research shows that ‘overlearning’ (continuing to practise after performance has reached a specified standard) can be important for producing learning that is durable and flexible (Soderstrom and Bjork, 2015). This is why every lesson, for all ages and abilities, must be seen as an opportunity to practise literacy, numeracy and digital competence and why every teacher is a skills teacher.
The cross-curricular skills of literacy, numeracy and digital competence are essential to all learning and the ability to unlock knowledge. They enable students to access the breadth of our curriculum and the wealth of opportunities it offers, equipping them with the lifelong skills to realise the three intentions and four purposes of the school’s mission. These are skills that can be transferred to the world of work, enabling students to adapt and thrive in the modern world.
Highly effective teachers show love and compassion to students because they desire them to have it, not necessarily because they have done anything earn it. This sort of undeserved and unmerited respect is characterised by the sensitivity that teachers show towards the individual needs, emotions, cultures and beliefs of students. That respect should also be reciprocated: teachers should behave in ways that promote student respect for the integrity and authority of the teacher. Teachers should convey care, empathy and warmth towards their students and avoid negative emotional behaviours, such as using sarcasm, shouting or humiliation.
The requirement for respect and sensitivity towards students’ individual needs is amplified in both importance and difficulty when those needs are more diverse or extreme. Developing good relationships of trust and respect with students with additional learning needs, corporate parenting, neurodiversity or disabilities often requires specific knowledge and adaptation. Great teachers know their students well as individuals, are well informed about the nature and requirements of their students’ specific needs and have strategies to accommodate them.
Another key tenet of embodying grace is the need for teaching to be ‘culturally relevant’ (Ladson-Billings, 1995). The best teachers are aware of, respectful towards and responsive to the cultural identities of their students. This is particularly important when the students’ culture differs from, and has the potential to conflict with, that of the teacher or school. Teachers must ensure that good relationships and academic success are compatible with students honouring their cultural competences, values and identities.
In the most effective classrooms, teachers demand high standards of work and behaviour from all students, being careful not to convey lower expectations for any subgroup, especially one where a common stereotype may be negative. Even when lower expectations are indirectly conveyed with good intentions (for example, praising students for poor work to encourage them, avoiding asking challenging questions to students who seem less confident or helping them sooner when they are stuck), it may still undermine their learning. Most importantly, when goals are ambitious and demands are high, learners must feel safe to have a go and take a risk, without feeling pressured or controlled. This requires an environment of trust. And whether students succeed or fail, what matters is how they account for it: attributing success or failure to things they can change (such as how hard they worked or the strategies they used) is more adaptive for future success than attributing results to things that are out of their control (like luck, ‘ability’, or not having been taught it).
Maintaining a classroom environment of trust also depends on student interactions and relationships. Classrooms where students respect and pay attention to each other’s thoughts, and feel safe to express their own thoughts, are more productive for learning. Where students cooperate with each other effectively, they are able to benefit from learning interactions with their peers. By contrast, in classrooms where relationships between students are characterised by aggression, hostility, belittling or disrespect, learning is impeded. The teacher plays a role in promoting these positive student relationships and interactions (Praetorius et al., 2018; Creemers and Kyriakides, 2011; Pianta et al., 2012).
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