Sutton Trust report highlights common teaching practices that lack grounding in research

Sutton Trust Report

The Sutton Trust, a foundation set up in 1997 to improve social mobility through education, has released a report that warns ‘many popular teaching practices are ineffective’.

Following previous Sutton Trust research revealing quality of teaching as the biggest factor within schools that impacts on the achievement of children from poorer backgrounds, reporting that great teaching can produce a whole year’s extra learning, this new report claims to offer an outline of effective teaching based on ‘behaviours, approaches and classroom practices that are well-defined, easy to implement and show good evidence of improvements in student outcomes’.

The traps of ineffective teaching that the Sutton Trust report as ‘not supported by evidence’ include: lavish praise for students; encouraging learners to discover key ideas for themselves; grouping students by ability; encouraging re-reading and highlighting for the purpose of memorisation; presenting information in the students’ preferred learning style; active rather than passive-listening; and addressing low confidence and aspirations before teaching content. The report reviews over 200 research papers on developing great teaching practices.

What Makes Great Teaching, by Professor Rob Coe and colleagues at Durham University, cautions that several common practices can actually be ‘harmful to learning and have no grounding in research’. Professor Robert Coe said: “Great teaching cannot be achieved by following a recipe, but there are some clear pointers in the research to approaches that are most likely to be effective, and to others, sometimes quite popular, that are not. Teachers need to understand why, when and how a particular approach is likely to enhance students’ learning and be given time and support to embed it in their practice. “Given the complexity of teaching, it is surprisingly difficult for anyone watching a teacher to judge how effectively students are learning. We all think we can do it, but the research evidence shows that we can’t. Anyone who wants to judge the quality of teaching needs to be very cautious.”

On the flip side, some other approaches to teaching are evidenced to be highly effective, including challenging students to identify the reason why an activity is taking place; asking a high volume of questions and checking the responses of all students; spacing-out study of topics with purposeful gaps in between for forgetting; and setting tests before material has been taught. The two factors reported to have the strongest evidence in improving student outcomes are content knowledge and quality of instruction. Dr Lee Elliot Major, Director of Policy and Development at the Sutton Trust said: “It’s a scandal that we are so concerned with the learning of pupils, yet neglect the professional development of teachers themselves. Good quality teachers are the agents of social mobility – able to transform the achievement of pupils from poorer backgrounds. This research review debunks many of the teaching myths but also reveals the core lessons for schools to help them develop great teachers.” Click here for the full press release.

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