Successful teachers

by therealityofschool



When you talk about teaching it is difficult not to sound as if you are stating the obvious.  Because….well, you are.  And yet it is obviousness of a tricky kind.

Jonathan Smith, 2000, The Learning Game.

When I started teaching, at Eton in 1977, we had little in the way of induction or training. The first lesson I taught was the first lesson I had ever taught.  New teachers found a piece of paper from the Head Master in their pigeon holes; this is it:


Teaching methods

  • Insist on good discipline:
    • Silence when you are talking
    • Hand up before speaking
    • Work handed in on time
    • Decent dress
  • Don’t ignore things if they worry you: let the boys know that you are in charge and in control.
  • Vary the lessons as much as possible. Let it be a little unpredictable, with a variety of chalk-and-talk, question and answer, reading or noting from books etc. A mistake commonly made by the beginner is to lecture rather than to teach.
  • Try to start each lesson clearly (they are silent and, if you come in, lower Forms stand up) and with a clear statement about the aims of the lessons (“today we are trying to look at one of the most important aspects of x, etc.”).
  • PRAISE IS MORE EFFECTIVE THAN BLAME. Praise as much as possible. A weak boy will improve faster if you pick out the things he does well and emphasise these. Praise individuals in public. Praise the whole class if you can.
  • Be careful not to go too fast for the average boy. On the other hand, do not underestimate potential. The aim should be to achieve a top grade for every pupil in every subject.
  • Boys are bad at long pieces of work or open-ended tasks. Avoid these by setting shorter, specific tasks as much as possible.
  • Boys respond to hands-on, practical tasks.
  • From time to time check the “in-class” notes boys have made. Are they neat? Are they organised? Insist that boys bring the notes made in previous lessons so that their notes form a coherent sequence.
  • Give frequent tests in order to see whether the boys understand what you are teaching and to help them to memorise it.
  • Make a note if a boy misses a lesson. Check to see if he caught up the notes he missed. If it was a lot, you can help by photocopying.
  • KEEP A DIARY, IN WHICH YOU LIST EACH LESSON. This will enable you to record all the things you will need to do as you go along (e.g. check Fox Pitt’s clothing, receive James Smith’s late homework, start teaching the gerund, give a test).
  • Keep a record of work handed in late so you can more easily identify persistent offenders.
  • Once you have established control, you can relax much more. Be friendly, without being too familiar.
  • Don’t allow boys to treat you casually or talk to you disrespectfully.


Be there when they arrive

When all have arrived, or the start time is well passed, explain what you are going to do. Make a map of where they are sitting. Move any boys in positions you do not like. Tell them to stay in those positions for the next x weeks. Get boys to distribute any papers, books, files, dividers and labels. Books belong to the school but should have the boys’ name written in.

Issue a syllabus sheet and any other notes you wish (it saves time if you can do any hole-punching). Now insist on silence. Go over the times of your lessons with them. Tell them the days when prep will be due in. Go over the syllabus sheet: IT IS IMPORTANT THAT ALL PUPILS HAVE A CLEAR IDEA OF THE STRUCTURE OF THE SYLLABUS FOR THE TERM AND THE YEAR. If necessary, set the first homework and/or essay. Tell them which books you want them to bring to lessons (if any).

Boys in the Lower Sixth need to be told:

  • How to make notes
  • How to write essays
  • Where to find books and magazines relevant to the course


Early days

In the early days it is important to be hard of heart. Assume that boys will try to misbehave. It is a fact that, once a pattern of misbehaviour has been established over one or two lessons, it is very hard to fully recover the situation – making teaching miserable. It is easy to relax from a position of firm discipline: boys realise you are not the monster they thought you were but the respect you established in the early lessons remains. It is difficult to go the other way – from indiscipline to control. It is possible to prove this to oneself even within the context of a single lesson.

For a young teacher, acting the part of the disciplinarian is unlikely to come naturally. The important thing to remember is that it IS acting – and the better the act, the more effective you will be.  You need to have an authoritative voice.

Personality before punishments

As far as possible use personality as a way of enforcing control. The system of punishments should be used, but only after the nasty look, quiet word, or clear warning have failed. Formal punishments are the final resort. This use of personality requires self-confidence and it will only work if the boys see you as a credible figure. They have to believe that you will punish them severely if they do not react to the “early warning signs” you should be giving.

Establishing standards

From the word go, and particularly in the first fortnight of any term, you need to establish certain standards of behaviour. In particular, you must not allow boys to talk to each other if you are trying to teach. You should not allow several boys to speak at once: if they want to say something, they ought to put up their hands. Late work is not acceptable, nor is filthy clothing. Boys who are late for a lesson should be required to explain themselves. You must decide for yourself how far you are prepared to go before you actually punish a boy EXCEPT in a case where a boy is rude to you and other boys know he has been rude: such a boy must be punished if you are to retain credibility.

Never make threats you will not carry out.


This was all wise, and easier to appreciate now than it was then. 


I went straight from university to teaching via a short spell buying and selling coconut out of a railway arch in Waterloo.  I had no intention of remaining a teacher but I realised very quickly that this was the perfect job for me.  I was an obsessively keen geographer and just loved working with my subject, learning more every day.  As the years rolled by I would spend about half the school holidays reading and preparing lessons…..bliss.


I loved the acting element. Every lesson could be a show.  Every lesson could be something incredible.
I loved the fact that I could make a huge difference.  I knew how to do well in exams and I knew how to teach my pupils to do the same.  I loved the competitive element – could my classes do better than other sets?  I loved the rapport with pupils and colleagues.
Finally I loved the fact that I was part of a good system – a very good school but more importantly a very good department.  In the 1980s over 100 boys chose A-level geography in my school each year, making it the largest such department in the country.  We were a strong team who made the subject interesting and fun.


Research shows that the most important influence on pupil progress is the quality of the teacher, as opposed to things like the school type or the brilliance of the head.  We know that with a weak teacher a pupil makes 6 months progress in a year compared to the average. With a great teacher a pupil makes 18 months progress in a year – so the difference between the two is 300% (Slater, Davies and Burgess, 2009).

It is rather devastating that it is so difficult to identify good teachers at interview. A teacher’s own educational record does not correlate well with an ability to teach. This is why it is important to see applicants for teaching jobs teach classes before they are appointed.  One of my heads of modern languages was fairly quiet and rarely engaged in conversation – it was hard to see him being an inspiring teacher.  Yet in fact he was one of the most inspiring teachers his fortunate pupils would ever come across – dynamic, animated, tough, and brilliant at his own subject.  But based solely on an interview he would have failed.

Schools often ask pupils to comment on the performance of prospective teachers’ sample lessons – possibly a mistake because pupils tend to favour sample lessons for the wrong reasons.
One important finding from research is that, while all teachers improve a bit with experience over their first five years, the best teachers after five years are the ones who were already good in their first year. Teachers can be improved, but the best way of ensuring you have good staff is to appoint the best ones in the first place.


When I started teaching I was on a two-year probationary period.  The purpose of a probationary period is for an employer to determine if a (new) employee is suitable for a job and for an employee to determine if they want to stay in the job. There is no statutory limit on the length of a probationary period but, given the purpose of probationary periods, it is expected that employers will be reasonable when determining this.

Let me echo Jonathan Smith’s words: much that one can say about teaching is obvious.  But if it is so obvious why is everyone not as good as Jonathan was as an English teacher at Tonbridge?  Because implementing the obvious is difficult.  I did woodwork O-level and love DIY so I completely understand how to make a table, but I also know that making a table is very difficult, very skilful and takes years of practice to do well.  I cannot make a table.


So what does the research tell us about teacher effectiveness?


All teacher effectiveness studies suffer from a flaw identified by Brophy (1979), among others.  After reviewing the extant research on teaching he said, “The influence of context is being recognized as more and more important. [Thus] there do not appear to be any universal teaching competencies . . . that are appropriate in any and all circumstances.”  In other words, teacher A may be better than teacher B with low ability or disruptive pupils, teacher B may be better than teacher A with able and well-behaved pupils.


Nevertheless, there are some useful pointers in the research.


Coe, R., Aloisi, C., Higgins, S. and Elliot Major, L. (2014), What makes great teaching? Review of the underpinning research, Sutton Trust.


This is a well-known meta-survey of over 200 previous pieces of research into teacher effectiveness.  The authors found that the two factors with the strongest evidence of improving pupil attainment were:


  • teachers’ content knowledge, including their ability to understand how students think about a subject and identify common misconceptions
  • the quality of instruction, which includes using strategies like effective questioning, the use of assessment, reviewing previous learning, using model answers, and giving adequate time to practice topics so that pupils firmly grasp the concepts.


Four other factors associated with good teaching were:


  • classroom climate – the quality of the relationship between the teacher and pupils, a teacher with high expectations but one who recognises pupils’ self-worth, a teacher who attributes success to effort rather than ability.


  • classroom management – a teacher who manages behaviour well, who makes efficient use of lesson time, whose rules are all aimed at maximising learning.


  • teacher beliefs – the best teachers know why they are doing things in the way they are. In maths teaching for example the best teachers know what good numeracy looks like and they know how children learn it.


  • professional behaviour – good teachers reflect on and develop professional practice, support colleagues and liaise with parents.


Specific practices which have good evidence of improving attainment include:


  • challenging students to identify the reason why an activity is taking place in the lesson
  • asking a large number of questions and checking the responses of all students
  • spacing-out study or practice on a given topic, with gaps in between for forgetting
  • making students take tests or generate answers, even before they have been taught the material


Common practices which do not improve pupil results include:


  • using praise lavishly
  • allowing pupils to discover key ideas by themselves
  • grouping students by ability
  • presenting information to students based on their “preferred learning style”
  • using re-reading and highlighting as ways to memorise material
  • ensuring pupils are active rather than listening passively if you want them to remember something
  • efforts to raise confidence and low aspirations



How does one assess teaching quality?  Coe et al suggest there are three ‘moderate validity’ methods:


1 lesson observation.  Lesson observation is used in most schools to help teachers improve.  It is also used by inspectors to gauge the quality of teaching.  If lesson observation is to be used the observers need to be trained.


Lesson observation has two weaknesses – it is quite subjective and is therefore not ideal if the results are high stakes, such as determining a teacher’s pay.  Secondly, having an adult in the room scrutinising you will inevitably affect the teacher’s performance – you are unlikely to see a ‘typical’ lesson.


2 value-added models measure progress over time.  You would never judge teachers on their raw exam results because some teachers teach subjects taken by very bright pupils (like Latin) and can expect top grades.  Another teacher may teach a bottom ability maths set and can expect relatively poor grades.


Value-added measures the progress a child makes from one year to another relative to the ability of other children who were at a similar starting point at the beginning.  So we can measure progress from Key Stage 1 (age 7) to Key Stage 2 (age 11) and so on.


Some teachers get better value-added than others but variation in value-added teacher by teacher is difficult for researchers because it requires them to obtain class lists – which is not publically available information.

The validity of value-added analysis is affected by various things:

  • the validity of the tests which measure the child’s level at the beginning and end of the chosen cycle. If the tests are badly designed, the value-added data will have less value.
  • David Berliner (2014), a professor at Arizona State University, found that individual teacher’s value-added scores were very variable according to the class they were teaching. This was because of the impact of exogenous variables such as peer classroom effects, school compositional effects and characteristics of the neighbourhoods in which students live.  Girls, for example, work harder and make more progress than boys.  So when a teacher has more girls in a class they achieve more value-added. A weak teacher with an able class may achieve more progress than a strong teacher with a low ability class.  Teachers are not the only agent affecting student achievement in their classrooms.
  • the quality of the child’s previous If the child had a brilliant previous teacher he will already be at a higher level at the start of the cycle than he ‘should be’ and this will depress the value-added score of the next teacher.  Westminster School in London sometimes has poor A-level value-added.  A-level value-added is based on progress since GCSE but in this case is hard to achieve because their excellent teachers ensure that their pupils achieve the top grades in most subjects at GCSE.
  • the size of the group being looked at. Value-added measures are not statistically significant if the group size is small. In a small class just one or two children can have a big effect on the average value-added.
  • more able children tend to get better value-added than less able.
  • another problem with appraising teachers by means of value-added measures is that this assumes that the thing which determines pupils’ learning is the teacher.  Hirsch (2016) makes the point that in English language teaching particularly, a high proportion of what children know comes from their parents.  The value-added measures are to some extent measuring the effectiveness of the child’s parents.  Teachers of middle-class children will inevitably gain much higher value-added scores.


3 student ratings.  Pupil ratings of teachers are used in increasing numbers of schools and in all universities.


Coe et al also concluded that three other methods of assessing teachers had limited validity:


1 Head teacher judgement.

2 Teacher’s self-report.

3 Analysis of lesson plans, teacher assignments and pupils’ work.




Sammons, P., Kington, A., Lindorff-Vijayendran, A. and Ortega, L, 2014, Inspiring teachers: perspectives and practices, CfBT

36 teachers nominated by their schools as being inspiring were observed to explore their practices.  17 of these were then interviewed and there was a survey of 203 pupils.

The main characteristics of inspiring teachers were found to be:

*enthusiasm for teaching.

*positive relationships with children.

*they are committed professionals who continue to learn and improve their own practice.


The main characteristics of inspiring lessons were found to be:


  • enthusiasm
  • good behaviour management
  • clear instructions
  • good lesson pace
  • gave formative feedback
  • intellectual challenge – students are stretched
  • high expectations
  • trust between the teacher and pupils so that pupils are not embarrassed to speak up
  • goal-focussed activity – they never lose sight of the aim which is making progress in the subject
  • using a wide range of teaching strategies to create variety


Other characteristics of good lessons were:


  • asking pupils questions by name and encourage all pupils to contribute
  • pupils knew what to do at the beginning and end of lessons without being reminded
  • there was a strong sense of teacher authority
  • teachers had strong subject knowledge
  • lessons were made enjoyable




Sammons, P., The EPPSE project, a lecture in Oxford, 24 May 2016


The Effective Pre-School, Primary and Secondary Education (EPPSE 3-16) project is a research study that has followed the progress of 3000+ children since 1997 from the age of 3 to 16 years.


They found that good GCSE outcomes correlate with, in rank order:


1 Schools which placed a big emphasis on learning.

2 Schools with good behaviour.

3 The amount of homework time in year 9.  25% of boys spent 1-2 hours a night compared to 32% of girls, one factor explaining the gender gap in results.

4 The qualities of the head teacher.

5 The school’s physical environment.

6 A feeling that the school valued students.


Pupils on free school meals have a less positive view of school than others: they were less happy and had less academic self-confidence.  This tended to reinforce their disadvantage.




Matthews, P., Rea, S., Hill, R., and Gu, Q, 2014, Freedom to lead: a study of outstanding primary school leadership in England, National College for Teaching and Leadership

The authors did an analysis of 20 outstanding primary schools as well as 84 Ofsted inspection reports.  The findings were:

1 The basic tenets of the best primary school heads are:

*all children can succeed – most can reach level 4 by age 11.
*primary schools determine life chances.  Children who do not reach level 4 in English and maths at 11 struggle with GCSEs.
*background should not limit outcomes.  Some schools with many disadvantaged pupils achieve excellent results.
*successful schools do the right things consistently well
*almost all teachers can be good or better.  CPD matters.
*teaching needs clear learning objectives, effective instruction for all, feedback and assessment
*school leadership is key to raising standards
*the best heads model good teaching
*the best support for teachers comes from other expert practitioners
*the quality of the curriculum makes a big contribution to the children’s interest, engagement and learning.

2 The best heads

*have a single-minded focus on teaching and learning.

*are driven, determined and committed.

*have high expectations.

*have a no-excuses policy.

*are good at communicating.

*trust and empower staff


3 What a leader needs to do depends on the stage the school is at.  An inadequate school needs rapid control of behaviour, firm action.  A requires improvement school needs to build capacity, harness good practice, raise aspirations.  A good school needs refinement – ensuring all teaching and learning is good, ensuring the needs of every pupil is met.  An excellent school needs renewal – building on outstanding practice.



Common features of outstanding teaching and learning were felt to be:

  • Stimulating and enthusiastic teaching which interests, excites and motivates pupils and accelerates their learning
  • High expectations of what pupils can do
  • Consistency in the quality of teaching across the school
  • Development of good learning habits with many opportunities for pupils to find things out for themselves
  • Highly structured approaches to reading, writing and mathematics
  • Well-planned lessons that provide for the differing needs of pupils
  • Stimulating classroom environment
  • Frequent praise and a valued reward system
  • Well-trained and deployed teaching assistants
  • A close check on learning during lessons, with effective marking and assessment
  • Clear evidence of progress




Ofsted, 2009, Twenty outstanding primary schools: excelling against the odds.

Common features of outstanding teaching in these excellent schools were:

*stimulating and enthusiastic teaching
*high expectations of what pupils can do
*they develop good learning habits with opportunities for pupils to find out things for themselves
*they have a highly structured approach to reading, writing and maths.
*well-planned lessons which provide for the differing needs of pupils
*they arrange a stimulating classroom environment
*they use praise and a valued reward system
*they use well-trained and well-deployed teaching assistants
*they closely check learning during lessons, with effective marking and assessment


Key principles of successful primary leadership were found to be:


At the start of headship:


  • Restore order and calm so that teaching and learning can take place.
  • Ensure that high expectations are set and that everyone – pupils, parents, staff and governors – is clear what they are.
  • Get the pupils and parents involved, engaged and committed so that they cannot later complain that they “did not know”.
  • Lead by example; demonstrate the behaviours you expect of others and show that you are prepared to do anything that might be asked of them.
  • Set and demonstrate high standards for teaching and learning.
  • Look early on at the curriculum, the school day and pupils’ experiences of the school.
  • Monitor and evaluate every aspect of the school’s performance.
  • Above all, gauge the ability of the staff to adopt consistent approaches in: teaching and learning, in applying policies – especially concerning behaviour – and in routines and basic practices.


Five years on, a greater emphasis is detectable on:

  • The quality of the curriculum and the learning environment;
  • All aspects of assessment for learning, especially in the setting of learning objectives, marking and feedback;
  • Regular reviews of the progress of individual pupils.



Atteberry, A., Loeb, S., Wyckoff, J., 2013, Do First Impressions Matter? Improvement in Early Career Teacher Effectiveness, National Bureau of Economic Research


Using data from New York City the authors used value-added data to measure the effectiveness of over 3000 teachers of maths and English over the first five years of their career in teaching.  They found:

  • most teachers improve with experience
  • the teachers who were most effective to start with remained the most effective after 5 years. A teacher’s performance in their first two years of teaching is a far better predictor of future performance than anything else.

This suggests that it is difficult to improve a teacher and that a beginner-teacher starts with or without the attributes necessary for success – such as subject knowledge, empathy and the ability to communicate well.



Hattie, J., 2009, Visible Learning, Routledge

Hattie, J., 2012, Visible Learning for Teachers, Routledge


John Hattie is Director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute at the University of Melbourne, Australia.  Visible Learning is a synthesis of more than 50,000 studies covering 240 million pupils.  Hattie compares the impact of many influences on students’ achievement and finds:

  • What doesn’t work? Reducing class size, individualized instruction, extra-curricular programmes, ability grouping, student control over learning, summer schools, using different learning styles
  • What’s neither bad nor good? Team teaching, open vs. traditional classes
  • What helps a bit? Enquiry-based teaching, computer-assisted instruction, homework
  • What helps a bit more? Cooperative learning, direct instruction
  • What helps a lot? Clear feedback to students, good student-teacher relationships, high expectations for each student, the teaching of study skills, the teaching of learning strategies

In Visible Learning for Teachers Hattie’s central point is that the most effective teachers are those who focus on the impact their teaching is having – they constantly assess their own work as well as that of their pupils. Most of the most effective teaching methods are not accidents: they are deliberate strategies adopted by teachers who are assessing the impact of their work.

The best teachers:

  • do not necessarily have better subject-knowledge than less good teachers but they do have a superior understanding of how to organize and use their subject knowledge. They are, for example, better able to combine new subject knowledge with pupils’ prior learning.  They are better able to relate their subject teaching to other subjects the students are studying.  They know where pupils are most likely to stumble.
  • they create a classroom atmosphere in which it is acceptable to make mistakes. This is important because pupils learn from mistakes only if they are not nervous about them.  They create a climate where pupils want to learn and do well.
  • they seek and use feedback about the effectiveness of their teaching so they know when interest is waning or when pupils do not fully grasp a concept.
  • they believe all their pupils can do well. They involve and respect their pupils.
  • they enable their pupils to not only do well in assessments but to develop deep understanding of the subject and a desire to succeed. They set challenging goals rather than ‘do your best’ goals.

The best teachers are passionate about teaching and learning.  ‘The key components of passion for the teacher and for the learner appear to be the sheer thrill of being a learner or teacher, the absorption that accompanies the process of teaching and learning, the sensations of being involved in the activity of teaching and learning…’

Hattie’s results suggest that school reform should concentrate on what is going on in the classroom and not on structural reforms.

Hattie is also completely right when he points out that reading his book will not make much difference to most teachers.  He says: ‘Talking is one thing; action is the other.  To put the ideas in this book…..into action requires having an intention to change, having knowledge of what successful change would look like, and having a safe opportunity to trial any new teaching methods. This often requires some specific coaching.’

Gates Foundation, 2010, Learning about Teaching: Initial findings from the Measures of Effective Teaching Project.

This study estimated the value-added results of 3000 teachers and also asked the students to complete surveys of their experiences in these classes.  In the classes with the most effective teachers pupils said that:

1 Teachers kept control: ‘students in this class treat the teacher with respect.’

2 Teachers care for pupils: ‘my teacher really tries to understand how students feel about things.’

3 Teachers explain things clearly.

4 Teachers raise the bar: ‘in this class we learn a lot every day.’

5 Teachers make lessons interesting.

6 Teachers allow students to speak up and share their ideas.

7 Teachers check to make sure the pupils all understand.

However, a continuation of this study (2012) found quite weak correlations between multiple measures of teacher behaviour and student test scores. For example, in mathematics, across several years, the correlation of teacher behaviour with pupil value-added scores ranged from 0.12 to 0.25. Across different classes taught in the same year by the same teacher the correlations ran from 0.16 to 0.26 – all very low.


The reason the correlation was weak was that factors other than the teacher have a big impact on pupils’ value added scores.  High ability classes nearly always make more progress than low ability, for example.  Identifying the characteristics of ‘the best’ teachers may be the holy grail, but it is extremely difficult to achieve.


Doug Lemov and pedagogy

Successful teachers do not all use the same methods with children.  However, most would agree with the pedagogical techniques described in Doug Lemov’s books Teach like a Champion and Practice Perfect.   Doug has observed hundreds of the most successful teachers in the most difficult schools in America, working out in detail what makes them so great.  He has isolated the micro-techniques which make all the difference to student learning and behaviour, such as careful routines for the distribution and collection of classroom materials.   He recommends specific drills as a way of practising these techniques.

Good teachers can become great teachers – if they practice the Lemov micro-techniques.

Many of Lemov’s techniques are used in the schools described on pages xx –xx.  All teachers should have a copy of Lemov’s books and the accompanying dvds.


Teacher training and CPD


In England there are numerous types of teacher training:


Number of trainees recruited academic year 2014/15


Post-graduate courses

Provider-led 16,986   These are universities or SCITTs (school centred initial teacher training) groups.  These are called ‘accredited providers’.

School Direct (unsalaried) 6,451 These are based in schools and pair up with universities or SCITTs.

School Direct (salaried)     2,781



Undergraduate courses  5,938


Additional Routes

Teach First              3875

Troops to Teachers 936


Total                     32 543


All types of teacher training lead to one thing: Qualified Teacher Status.  In universities the course is often called a PGCE (post-graduate certificate in education) but the PGCE gives you QTS which is what matters.


The Carter Review of teacher training (2015) found that the average quality of teacher training was quite good, although the number of different routes was confusing.  Their main concern was the absence of subject-knowledge development on some training courses – a grave omission and something which distinguishes England from countries thought to have strong teacher training like Finland and Singapore.  Teachers with a degree in a subject often lack the breadth of knowledge to cope with the national curriculum.  Primary teachers, especially, need breadth across a range of subjects.


Teacher-shortage subjects like maths and physics are often taught at secondary level by teachers with a degree in a different subject.  Such teachers need a great deal of subject-knowledge training which they often do not get at present.


Nor, the review found, is there enough emphasis on behaviour management or on child and adolescent development or on assessment methods.  Poor behaviour is a common reason why teachers leave the profession so is clearly an essential element of training.



In Beyond the Plateau (2016) Matt Hood blamed poor quality CPD for the fact that many teachers are not progressing to become the excellent teachers he claims they could be.  He argues that there are three myths that need busting.

  1. Teachers are born, not made
    Matt makes the point that successful teachers are of many types which it why it is odd to believe that it is the teacher’s inborn personality that matters. What is more, his experience shows that good training can create very effective teachers.
  2. If you know it, you can teach it
    The second myth is that if you know something you can teach it. No, you have to know how to teach a subject. Subject knowledge is not enough.
  3. Teaching isn’t hard
    No, teaching is a phenomenally hard task that takes years to master.


Compared to middle leadership, classroom teaching lacks a clear progression route to mastery; its lower status and pay progression is poorer. ‘


With these thoughts in mind he called for a new US-style institute for advanced teaching in the UK specifically for staff in challenging schools and run by successful schools in disadvantaged areas.   This would be far more effective that the current scatter-gun approach of CPD.


The question of teacher autonomy and teacher quality


When I started teaching many independent schools quite deliberately avoided applicants for jobs who had had training.  It was felt that good teachers could do the job based on their subject knowledge and pedagogy was something you could pick up as you went along.


Michaela Community School (page xx) is at the opposite end of the spectrum.  They believe that there is a specific way of teaching which is effective and that it is essential for all their teachers to teach in the same way.  So they are trained to teach in this manner.  The Michaela approach is arguably the safest – you know exactly how each teacher should be performing.  It means that you don’t have to rely of ‘outstanding’ teachers to do the job.  Outstanding teachers are thin on the ground and it is more secure to take teachers with plenty of potential but limited experience and train them in ‘the Michaela way.’  The quality of a teacher is not a permanent given.


Does this rob the teacher of autonomy?  Only to some degree.  To be a good pianist you have to be taught to read music and play the piano.  Pianists all over the world are being taught to read the notes and press the keys in a similar way.  Ultimately this releases their creativity rather than stifling it.  Michaela teachers have plenty of opportunity to express their individuality, to interact with individual pupils, to develop their subject knowledge, to delight in their pupils’ successes.


Teacher quality is not the only influence on pupils’ achievements

Chingos and Whitehurst (2012) have shown that there are two variables which determine how well pupils learn: teacher quality and the curriculum/syllabus they teach.  A good teacher asked to teach a weak syllabus may be less effective than a weaker teacher asked to teach an excellent syllabus.

In the USA some of the most successful projects designed to help young children from poor homes have been based not on teacher quality but on highly scripted, high quality syllabuses for teaching reading (Hirsch, 2016).


Independent learning – presenting pupils with complex problems and getting them to try to work out the answers – is not a good way to teach.  Pupils have to be shown explicitly what to do and then replicate it for themselves.  Highly formalised, teacher-led instruction is often the best form of teaching as Daisy Christodoulou explains in Seven Myths about Education (2014).

This is the form of teaching Winston Churchill had at Harrow:

By being so long in the lowest form I gained an immense advantage over the cleverer boys.  They all went on to learn Latin and Greek and splendid things like that. But I was taught English.  We were considered such dunces that we could learn only English.  Mr Somervell – a most delightful man, to whom my debt is great – was charged with the duty of teaching the stupidest boys the most disregarded thing – namely, to write mere English.  He knew how to do it.  He taught it as no one else has ever taught it. 

Mr Somervell had a system of his own.  He took a fairly long sentence and broke it up into its components by means of black, red, blue and green inks.  Subject, verb, object:  each had its colour and its bracket. It was a kind of drill.  We did it almost daily.  As I remained in the bottom form three times as long as anyone else, I had three times as much of it.  I learned it thoroughly.


Thus I got into my bones the essential structure of the ordinary British sentence.  And when in after years my school fellows, who had won prizes and distinction for writing such beautiful Latin poetry and pithy Greek epigrams, had to come down again to common English to earn their living, I did not feel myself at any disadvantage. 


So naturally I am biased in favour of boys learning English.  I would make them all learn English: and then I would let all the clever ones learn Latin as an honour, and Greek as a treat.  But the only thing I would whip them for would be for not knowing English.  I would whip them hard for that.


He went on to win the Nobel Prize for literature.


Nick Gibb MP said in a speech in July 2016:

One English educationist, now residing at an American university, appeared in the TES in December arguing she would “ban” times table tests, and told the Telegraph that they have nothing to do with mathematics. Earlier last year, Conrad Wolfram wrote in the Financial Times that calculation is an “obsolete skill”, thanks to technological advances of the 21st century.

That last comment reminded me of an influential pamphlet about the future of mathematics entitled ‘I do, and I understand’. This pamphlet suggests that in the age of the computer and the “simple calculating machine”, mental arithmetic has become a thing of the past. It was written in 1967. Such a romantic view was wrong then, and I believe it is wrong today.

Five decades of research into cognitive science, as reviewed by the American psychologists James Royer and Loel Tronsky, shows that there is a positive relationship between computational automaticity and complex mathematical problem-solving skills.

Drill is a dirty word outside the army and computational automaticity is not much better.  But drill is effective and can be enjoyable in the right hands.  The crucial thing is to pitch drill at the right level…..not so hard as to be impossible, nor so easy as to be simplistic.  It needs to give pupils the satisfying feeling of conquering a tricky problem.  And to be fair drill will be much more useful for a primary maths teacher than an A-level English teacher.

Why are so many people worried about drill?  Because it doesn’t allow pupils to think for themselves, it doesn’t encourage independent learning, it prevents debate, it doesn’t do all those things education should do like develop good character and conduct.  All this is true…which is why drill can only ever be part of the pedagogy.


Digital technology

In 2012 the Education Endowment Foundation in collaboration with Durham University (Higgins, Xiao, & Katsipataki, 2012) conducted a meta-analysis synthesising 48 different studies that attempted to quantify the effect of various different technology-based programmes. The different programmes had varying effect sizes ranging from -0.03 to 1.05 (-0.03 being the only negative score which of course means a negative effect). The higher the score the bigger the effect.  8 of the 48 studies had scores above 0.5, meaning the effect was relatively large. The remainder were below 0.5 meaning the effect is quite small.  The summary finding was that overall the benefits of technology are positive but there are other types of learning interventions (such as peer tutoring) that tend to enhance learning to a greater degree.

A paper by Cambridge International Exams (Elston, 2013) shows that teachers (the people that should know) have confidence in the potential of technology. The vast majority of teachers surveyed believed that technology helps to develop skills that students need in the real world and also that technology creates more confident, engaged and motivated students. They think the main benefit of technology for them is access to a wealth of content. In addition, the ability to connect classrooms around the world was a most appealing technological outcome.

However, recent PISA results (OECD, 2015), suggest that whilst limited use of computers at school may be better than not using computers at all, using them more intensively than the current OECD average tends to be associated with significantly poorer student performance. In addition the report states that students who spend more than six hours on line per weekday outside of school are particularly at risk of reporting that they feel lonely at school, and that they often arrived late for school or skipped days of school.

The School Effectiveness and Inequality Initiative in the USA (Carter, Greenberg and Walker, 2016)  conducted a study that prohibited computer devices in randomly selected classrooms of an introductory economics course at the United States Military Academy. Average final exam scores among students assigned to classrooms that allowed computers were 18% of a standard deviation lower than exam scores of students in classrooms that prohibited computers.  They found that students who were using their tablet or computer were sometimes surfing the Internet, checking email, messaging with friends, or even completing homework for that class or another class.

Mueller and Oppenheimer (2014) found that students required to use computers are not as effective at taking notes as students required to use pen and paper.  Students who took their notes by hand tended to understand and remember the lecture better than those who had typed.  Mueller suggests that this is because the students who typed mindlessly typed everything without really listening to what was said.

A leading figure in the field of research into the efficacy of computers for learning is Anne Mangen from the Reading Centre at the University of Stavanger in Norway.  Her research helps to explain why handwriting is more effective than typing when trying to learn.  When writing by hand, our brain receives feedback from our motor actions, together with the sensation of touching a pencil and paper. These kinds of feedback are inferior to those we receive when touching and typing on a keyboard.

Mangen (2016) also compared two groups of students, one of which was asked to read a story on a Kindle and one of which was asked to read the same story in booklet form.  Those who read the story in booklet form were better able to recall and sequence the plot than those who had read the story on the Kindle.

Betsy Sparrow of Columbia University (2011) demonstrated that if people think that they can look up a fact again later, they are far less likely to remember it. They do remember how or where to find the information, they just don’t remember the information itself.

The Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University published a large-scale study into the effectiveness of online school courses.  They found that the results were consistently bad.  The online schools relied on students driving their own learning and often determining the pace at which they advanced – things which progressive teachers sometimes see as huge advantages.  The biggest problem identified by the researchers was the difficulty in keeping online pupils focused on their work.  ‘Academic benefits from online schools are currently the exception rather than the rule.’ (Woodworth, 2015).

So it is difficult to conclude that technology enhances learning and development. What perhaps one can say is that implementation and other practical considerations such as cost are key to ensuring technology approaches to teaching are effective. The EEF report (Higgins et al., 2012) suggests several success factors for effective implementation:

  • Collaborative use of technology (in pairs or small groups) is usually more effective than individual use.
  • Technology can be used very effectively as a short but focused intervention to improve learning. Sustained use over a longer period is usually less effective at improving attainment.
  • Remedial and tutorial use of technology can be particularly effective for lower attaining pupils, SEN pupils or pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds.
  • Technology is best used as a supplement to normal teaching rather than as a replacement for it.
  • Technological benefits in terms of attainment tend to be greater in mathematics and science (compared with literacy for example).


BESA research (British Educational Suppliers Association, 2015) showed that a lack of suitable bandwidth remains a significant barrier to adoption of mobile technologies. In addition it suggested that 88% of primary schools regard the management and security of tablets as a barrier to adoption. In secondary schools the barriers, in order of significance, were found to be training and support (91%), funding (83%) and management and security (83%).



Maths mastery


In 2016 the Government announced that primary schools in England would move towards teaching maths using the ‘mastery’ principles found in east and south-east Asian countries such as Singapore, Japan, South Korea and China. PISA results suggest that by age 15 students from these countries are on average up to three years ahead in maths compared to 15 year olds in England.



How do they do it?  Asian teachers have an expectation that all pupils are capable of achieving high standards in mathematics.  Pupils progress through the curriculum content at the same pace, taught together from the front of the class and using textbooks which have been carefully designed.  Weaker pupils are supported and more able children are given work to deepen their understanding.  But they all move through the course together.   Pupils’ difficulties or misconceptions are identified by the teacher and addressed – commonly through individual or small group support later the same day.


Teaching is underpinned by methodical curriculum design and supported by carefully crafted lessons and excellent textbooks to foster deep conceptual knowledge. The course is taught in small steps each of which must be mastered before pupils move on to the next stage.  Pupils learn times tables at an early stage and are fluent in them.


Practice and consolidation play a central role. Carefully designed variations in questions builds fluency and understanding of mathematical concepts. Teachers use precise questioning in class to test conceptual and procedural knowledge and assess pupils regularly to identify those requiring intervention so that all pupils keep up.  So one of the key aspects of Maths mastery is taking the syllabus slowly – key concepts have to be practised a great deal before a student can move on.  Knowledge has to turn into understanding.


Maths mastery has been pioneered by the ARK schools in England and is now becoming widespread.




Treating teachers well.

When I went to teach at Holland Park School in the 1990s the first thing I noticed was that the staff were treated quite badly.  The staff room was a ghastly place with broken chairs everywhere, the staff loos were worse, and teachers had to pay for their own coffee at break.

Most schools have now grasped that this sort of behaviour is the road to ruin.  Small sums spent on staff welfare, like pastries in the staff room on a Monday, send a signal.  It is minor expenditure which will be repaid a thousand times over.

John Tomsett, the head of Huntington School, York, is good on this (Tomsett, 2015): the value of thank you notes, of free tea and coffee, of flowers sent to staff who are ill.  The value of a special staff lunches and celebrations.  Michaela School (page xx) has taken steps to review the workload of teachers and limit all those activities which generate limited returns relative to the time they take.  If individual teachers matter more than anything else, they need to be looked after.

Performance-related pay

Schools struggle with the performance-related pay, for three reasons.

1 Collegiality.  School teachers work in teams and are often good friends.  They support each other.  They dislike the idea that the head of department (often a department of just two or three staff) will be asked to make judgements about the others which will affect their take-home pay.  Because of collegiality such judgements are unlikely to be impartial any way.  The head of department regards it as her duty to defend her staff not stitch them up.

2 Motivation. As Daniel Pink describes in his book (Pink, 2009), teachers are not motivated by money.  They are motivated by the drive for autonomy, mastery and purpose.  Autonomy means allowing staff choosing for themselves the best way of achieving targets set by the school. Trying to control people too much lowers motivation.

Mastery means doing work which is demanding, which produces complete engagement, which stretches people in a way that produces a sense of focus and satisfaction.

Purpose means having a strong sense that what you are doing is worthwhile and important.

3 Bureaucracy. If performance-related pay is to be fair it requires carefully constructed systems, reliable appraisal and a great deal of discussion.  What do you do about the teacher who does little outside the classroom but gets great exam results?  Or the teacher who got brilliant results with one class, poor with another?  PRP is complicated and schools lack the resources and time to set up appropriate systems.


Things which don’t work

Here a few things which I have been told teachers should do but which don’t, in my experience, work…

1 Group work
Group work doesn’t always work for three reasons. Firstly, it assumes that children are capable of sitting in a group and seriously discussing something with limited adult supervision (if there are, say, 28 children in groups of four the teacher cannot supervise seven groups simultaneously). Boys in particular do not generally want to do school work – it is something which has to be forced upon them by the personality of the teacher or by pressure. The learning output from group work is always limited for boys.
Secondly, in any group there is quite often one person who is prepared to have a stab at doing the work. As soon as that person is identified and takes a leading role, the rest of the group just copy her. It might be claimed that the great thing about group work is that children learn from each other, but they don’t….they learn to disengage and then to chat or just cheat.
Thirdly, in a group of four sitting in a square one pupil is facing the teacher, wherever she is standing, and the rest are not. One pupil always has his back to the teacher. This makes control and communication much harder.

2 Double desks
One consequence of the need to do group work is that schools buy double desks (two children sit side by side): it is easier to organise group work if you have double desks. One double desk is also cheaper than two single desks. It takes up less space, so classrooms can be smaller. But double desks allow children to see each other’s work so they permit copying (cheating). Many less able or lazy children are able to conceal their weakness by copying, especially when the teacher sets tests.  This is why it is better to buy single desks and, if you must, push them together.

3 Differentiation and individualised learning
Ofsted used to be  keen on differentiation. Teachers were encouraged to plan different types of work and different types of question for different pupils according to their analysis of a child’s ability (defined by key stage 1 and 2 tests or GCSE results) and special educational needs (nearly a quarter of boys in school are classified as having special educational needs).
The problem with this approach is that it prevents whole-class teaching. It is a throwback to the mixed ability teaching of the 1980s which most people now know does not work. Individualised learning – giving each pupil in a class of 25-30 their own programme of work – is less effective than whole-class teaching.
The second problem is that differentiation generally implies that the teacher expects less of some pupils than others. But all the research into effective schools across the world shows that the distinguishing characteristic of the most successful systems is a belief that EVERY child can do well if they try hard enough. According to the OECD’s Teaching and Learning International Survey, differentiated teaching is not common in high-performing south-east Asian countries. This is because it reinforces the performance gap between high and low attaining pupils.  Individualised learning and differentiation is one reason why the bottom 20% of boys in England do so badly – less is being expected of them.


Of course it is not sensible to offer whole-class teaching to a very mixed ability group – especially in a subject like maths. This is why setting by ability is so important. But once setting has been put in place, whole-class teaching backed by rigorous testing and retesting for those fail is the most effective system. The key to successful teaching is high expectations of ALL pupils unconstrained by target grades.

4 Independent learning
In the past Ofsted has discouraged teachers from talking too much. Well of course a long lecture can be dull and it is hard to maintain discipline if a class is bored. But in fact some of the best teachers are more than capable of delivering high-impact, motivating chalk-and-talk and more able and motivated children LEARN FASTER this way (as they do at university).

Independent learning means working on your own. That is a good idea IF you are motivated and have the knowledge-base to work with – which many children don’t.  Independent learning too often means going through worksheets and not learning very much.

5 Powerpoint
Powerpoint presentations have their place but they suffer from common weaknesses.  If every teacher uses them (and many do) the focus is on the screen and not the teacher – and this makes Powerpoint dull.  If the Powerpoint is merely a summary of what the teacher is saying (as is often the case) then the pupil switches off and neither the teacher’s words nor the words on the screen sink in. The old-fashioned system of writing on a board can be both more creative and more engaging.




The best teachers love their subject and have excellent subject knowledge (the two go together).   It is the reason that some schools are happy to appoint an excellent graduate in a subject like Physics even if they don’t have a teaching qualification.  They are classified as ‘unqualified’, even though they may possess the most important qualities needed to teach well.  Good subject knowledge matters not only because at the top of the ability range you need to be able to stretch pupils but also because teachers with good knowledge tend to make lessons for younger children more interesting.  They have more substance to be interesting about.


Secondly, they need to have the right personality.  Teaching is partly acting and acting ability helps greatly.  The Harris Federation gives teacher trainees sessions with a voice and body language coach to help them be a powerful presence in the classroom.  Above all you need to be able to control a class, because without good discipline nothing worthwhile can be achieved.  So that means good teachers are those whom pupils will respect – and slightly fear if necessary.  They are completely in control of what’s going on around them.   Pupils know the teacher will notice if they are misbehaving or if their work is incomplete or copied from another child and will take action – punish the child, perhaps, or require the work to be redone.


But the best teachers are not disciplinarians.  They are a velvet hand in an iron glove.  Pupils come to know, over time, that they are warm and generous.  But they are not to be messed with.  Discipline had to come first.


There are other personality traits that matter too.  Good teachers are very hard working, putting a huge effort into preparing lessons, marking work and giving extra time to children who need it.  They are able to manage stress.  They are passionate about their school and their pupils, keen for all to do well.  They are driven by the moral imperative of teaching – the opportunity to transform lives.


They are highly organised, because switching in a few seconds from one class to another, keeping track of individuals, remembering which extra duties they are down for, managing record-keeping and databases – all this requires good organisation.


Teachers need to have certain classroom skills.  This is why all ‘unqualified’ teachers need some training, both before they start and throughout their two years of teaching.  They need to be shown how to deliver a lesson with pace and interest, how best to ensure good behaviour, how to use digital resources effectively, how to make use of pupil data, how to mark work and record those marks, how to write reports, how best to teach tricky concepts, how to ask questions of pupils in the most effective way, how to identify and teach pupils with special educational needs and disabilities.


Finally, they need to have high expectations of their pupils.  This is a characteristic of all the best teachers.  They are determined that every pupil will master their subject.  This attitude sets the scene for everything which follows.  Pupils who produce unsatisfactory work must be made to redo it until they achieve a good level.  Pupils will be regularly tested to see whether they have understood and learnt the work; those who do badly will be retested.  Excellent teachers believe that it is pupil effort and teaching quality which determine how well a child does, not the ability of the child.  The less able children will get there in the end.


Two huge caveats to all the above.  There are plenty of successful teachers who tick few of the boxes above.  I was taught A-level history by a man who never left his armchair and who merely lectured to us.  He would be condemned by contemporary lesson observation – yet he was most successful.  Pupils loved him and worked hard for him.  He sent a regular stream of historians to Oxbridge.  His personality, subject knowledge and reputation counted for more than his teaching methods.

Secondly, how you teach does depend on the age of your pupils and the subject you are teaching.  The challenges of teaching 5 year olds are different from those of 15 year olds.  A secondary maths teacher has more issues with pupil understanding than an English teacher.  A good design and technology teacher has different qualities to a French teacher.  A PE teacher requires skills that a chemistry teacher may not.  To some degree.