The Great Teaching Toolkit: one year on

A year ago, we published the Great Teaching Toolkit: Evidence Review (GTT:ER). The year since then has been extraordinary in many ways, many of them negative. However, one very positive and exciting thing that has been quietly happening this year here at EBE is the development of the tools and courses that will comprise the first part of the wider Great Teaching Toolkit. The response we have had so far from the schools who are working with us – and the results we are beginning to see – make it hard not to feel the anticipation. In this blog, we explore the developments since the Evidence Review, and what’s next for the Great Teaching Toolkit. You can also find the companion audio interview by scrolling to the bottom of this post, or by searching “The Evidence Based Education Podcast” in your podcast app of choice. 

In the GTT:ER, we summarised the evidence about what makes a difference to students’ outcomes: the things that teachers do, know or believe. The Review identified 17 such ‘Elements’ of Great Teaching, which we grouped into four broad Dimensions. They are all linked by robust evidence showing that, in classrooms where these Elements (the skills, knowledge, beliefs, behaviours and habits of the teacher) are present, students learn more.   

We presented our framework as a curriculum for teacher learning: the set of things that teachers should be trying to get better at. We tried to make it clear that this does not imply that the rich and wonderful complexity of great teaching can be reduced to a list of techniques. But, as with any curriculum that leads to mastery of a complex domain, breaking down the steps is a necessary part of helping people to learn it.  

Nor, just to be clear, is there any suggestion that the status quo represents any kind of deficit. There is Great Teaching happening in pretty much every school in the land, every single day. Our children are truly lucky to have such a dedicated, skilled, professional bunch of teachers as show up every day to make a difference to their lives. That said, education and social justice are such powerful forces for empowerment and life outcomes: with the stakes this high, every teacher owes it to those children to be the best they can possibly be. Related to this, my definition of a Great Teacher is one who is willing to do what it takes to be demonstrably more effective next year than this: it is not about how good you are today, but the journey you are on and the commitment to relentless improvement.  

We made the case that a focus on everyday classroom teaching – great teaching, in every lesson, from every teacher, every day – is our most powerful lever for driving improvement at system-wide level. The top priority for all school leaders and teachers should be to enhance the quality of the teaching and learning interactions that happen in their classrooms every day. In an educational setting, nothing else matters as much as this; nothing else will make as much difference to the outcomes and equity of the children and young people we serve.  

 

What have we done since June 2020?

The Evidence Review provided some hints about the wider Great Teaching Toolkit project and our plans for its development. One year on, what have we done and how has our thinking changed?  

First and foremost, we spent a lot of time researching and talking to teachers about the barriers and opportunities around professional learning, and in promoting and maintaining everyday Great Teaching. Through this process, we identified three key challenges:  

  1. What to work on? It is difficult for teachers and school leaders to determine the how to get the biggest return on their investment when it comes to improvement;
  2. The challenge of change. Changing everyday teaching practices is actually really, really hard; and
  3. Is it working? Reliable feedback and evaluation (knowing whether what you are doing is working) is often absent or misleading (in both classroom teaching and school leadership). 

The Great Teaching Toolkit is now focused on addressing these challenges directly, over time.  

 

What to work on? (And is it working?)

Publishing the Great Teaching Toolkit: Evidence Review was, in itself, a response to the first of these challenges. By setting out, in practical and rigorous terms, the Elements of practice that make a difference to student outcomes, we hoped to provide some clarity. However, there is another limitation that applies to any attempt to clarify what Great Teaching is: definitions alone do not define the thing. The same argument applies to defining a curriculum or learning aim for students: describing it in words is necessary – it is a good starting point – but words alone cannot define it well enough to avoid confusion.  

The same level of rigour that is required to define a learning aim for students should be applied to our attempts to define professional learning aims for teachers. We have to specify a process for determining how far the learning has been achieved.   

This is one of the reasons why the main workstream for the GTT this year has been the development of measures of the Elements of Great Teaching. If we want teachers to focus on a specific aspect of their practice and to really understand what success looks like in relation to improving it, we need to give them the tools to operationalise it, to make that element explicit, visible and real. 

Of course, creating high-quality measures of Great Teaching was never going to be easy. Perhaps the most obvious, and most widely used, measures of teaching quality depend on lesson observation. But doing this well (as I wrote in a blog in 2014) is harder than you think.  

To generate new insight, we have been developing student surveys. There is a good body of research that supports the validity of using student surveys as a measure of teaching quality (e.g., Marsh and Roche, 1997; Gates Foundation, 2012; Spooren et al, 2013). We reviewed this work and developed our own surveys, structured around the Elements of the GTT identified in the Evidence Review. We currently have a good selection of teachers and schools whose classes have completed our surveys and are amassing evidence of their validity. We built a prototype platform and have received good feedback from users. We began with versions for secondary age pupils, but are now also working with primary schools; over time, we will extend the range of surveys. 

While developing such reliable and valid measures is no easy task, early indications and analyses are very positive. If these hold firm as we continue the trialling process, teachers using the Great Teaching Toolkit will also be able to address the third of our challenges: is what I have been doing working? After identifying an Element to work on, and implementing a strategy for a period of time, has my practice improved? Are my students benefiting from even greater teaching? 

 

The challenge of change 

Put simply, changing everyday teaching practices is actually really, really hard. This is unlikely to be too controversial. A large body of research and experience establishes that teachers’ practices are determined and constrained by traditions, norms and expectations, teacher values, beliefs and theories, teachers’ skills and knowledge and, of course, habits – routine, automatic behaviours typically below the level of conscious awareness (Hobbiss et al., 2020). 

If we want to help teachers to change these practices then, mostly, it is about teacher learning. Helping teachers to gain new knowledge, to develop insights and understandings of relevant underpinning theory, to build skills and techniques, and to acquire and embed new habits, can all be thought of as a learning process. That means we are squarely in the territory of applying what we know about the conditions that optimise learning (the principles of the Great Teaching framework) to a special case of professional learning.   

This comparison between the ways we routinely help pupils to learn hard ideas or processes and the things we do to support teachers’ professional learning provides a useful check on any strategy for CPD: for any approach to professional development, would the same method work for pupil learning? 

Another useful comparison is with learning practical skills such as golf, tennis, football, piano, guitar, cookery, or cabinet-making. Here typical approaches involve coaching by an expert, often one-to-one or in a small group, with an emphasis on spending a lot of time in ‘deliberate practice’ of the skill (Ericsson and Pool, 2016). If you think you can learn to be a better teacher by reading books and blogs, attending presentations and conferences, reflecting and having intense conversations with colleagues, could you see a similar approach working to improve your skill in darts, yoga or chess? These reflective activities may be useful, but you would likely need to do a few other things as well.  

 

Try and learn

We need to build expertise deliberately and systematically if we want to see the faithful realisation of ‘research-based’ practices. The Great Teaching Toolkit must follow more of an engineering test-and-learn approach than a grand design. Although we certainly start with a strong rationale and design, the success of our project will depend less on the initial ideas than on our responsiveness to what we learn in the process. There are too many cases when the best available research is just not good enough to tell us what we need to know with certainty. The complexities and interdependencies of schools and classrooms are such that our current theories cannot predict how things will play out in practice.  

For me, the most exciting part of the Great Teaching Toolkit is what we hope to learn. Is it possible to create valid measures of the important elements of teaching quality that can be used at scale? Can the feedback from such measures help teachers and school leaders to evaluate how well they are doing, to understand what great practice looks like and to focus their efforts to maximise improvement? Can we provide them with the structures and support to make this learning easy and inevitable? Can we identify, for individual teachers, the high-leverage skills and practices whose development will make the most difference to their students’ outcomes?  

The answer to any of these questions may, of course, be no. But the more work we do on this, the more I believe we really can do it. While there is a chance it could be yes, my colleagues and I will do everything we can to find a way – and to feel excited about the prospect. 

 

References 

Coe, R. (2014, January 9). Classroom observation: It’s harder than you think. CEM Blog. http://www.cem.org/blog/414/   

Ericsson, K. A. & Pool, R. (2016). Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 

Gates Foundation (2012) Asking Students about Teaching: Student Perception Surveys and Their Implementation. MET Project Policy and Practice Brief. Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, September, 2012.  https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED566384   

Hobbiss, M., Sims, S., & Allen, R. (2020). Habit formation limits growth in teacher effectiveness: A review of converging evidence from neuroscience and social science. Review of Education, rev3.3226.  

Marsh, H. W., Roche, L A. (1997). Making students’ evaluations of teaching effectiveness effective: The critical issues of validity, bias and utility. American Psychologist, 52, 1187–1197.  

Spooren, P., Brockx, B., & Mortelmans, D. (2013). On the validity of student evaluation of teaching: The state of the art. Review of Educational Research, 83(4), 598-642.  

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