23 January 2015

What is Effective Teaching?

The teaching staff at my school were given a copy of "The Hidden Lives of Learners" by Graham Nuthall to read over the summer before we get together for our induction. it was a challenging read but 

I agree totally with Graham Nuthall when he wrote that being "an effective teacher involves a high level of commitment to the children and young people, to their well-being and future lives."  He goes on to remind us that to really have the level of commitment required we need to have "a strong set of well-thought-out beliefs about learning and teaching as well as the ways schools can foster the well-being and development of their students. 

In the first chapter of this book, Nuthall got me thinking about my own effectiveness as a teacher, particularly with regards to the following questions: 
  • Why can't we tell a good teacher by simply observing the teacher in the classroom?
  • Why will public measurement of student achievement never lead to improved teaching?
  • How important is it that we focus on students' learning styles?

Why can't we tell a good teacher by simply observing the teacher in the classroom?

I love the way that Nuthall stated that a "busy, active classroom" may well look like an effective classroom. The children appear enthusiastic and engaged and often a teacher is rated highly if they can create and manage such learning environments.  Nuthall points out that these ratings tend to be influenced by whatever the current 'fashion in teaching' is at the time.Too much emphasis and value is placed on methods of teaching. Nuthall goes so far as to say that 'methods' should not be used as an indicator of effective teaching. What is important to effective practice is matching the kind of teaching to the specific needs and circumstances of the students that a teacher is working with. Nuthall states that effective practice is based on on-going reflection. Effective teachers constantly ask themselves:
  • are the students settled and engaged?
  • should I go back over what we did in the previous session?
  • how difficult will they find it?
  • how far can I push them?
  • do they need something different for a change?
  • should I give them another example to practise on?
  • what has happened for the learner before they arrived to this session?
and so on... These reflections and evaluations are not apparent to the observer in the classroom. 

Why will public measurement of student achievement 
never lead to improved teaching?

I wonder whether anyone has sent a copy of this book to any one of the ministers of education over time? Nuthall's refers to politically led changes in the way teachers are forced to assess children and report on their progress. It could quite possibly change the current state of national standards, test scores and averages if someone in parliament took time to read even just a few pages from this book. 

The evidence from Nuthall's research about the testing of our learners, showed clearly that the learners' outcomes was dependent on their own motivation. Having watched my own daughter go through stage one of her NCEA exams, I can indeed ratify that this is true for her. My daughter achieved excellence and merit in those subjects that she enjoyed, had good relationships with the teachers that she was working with and where she had been given great support and feedback throughout the year. The subjects that she performed not so well in were those, where the teacher was distant from this learner, had not given the necessary feedback to her so that she knew she had to work harder on certain areas or a subject area that she could not see its relevance.

Nuthall refers to the latter point also. He states that tests have little or no relevance to learners and instead of measuring what they know or, can do they simply reflect their motivation and test-taking skills. 

How important is it that we focus on learning styles?

Nuthall acknowledges that there is (at the time of publication of this book) no research evidence that validates that there is a need to adapt teaching to the learning styles of the children they are working with. He goes so far to state that "teaching to students' learning styles makes no difference to their learning. He suggests that catering for individual learning styles has become so prominent because we live in a culture that salutes individual freedom of choice. This freedom of choice is seen as a right in our culture and individuality is acknowledged in schools by allowing the learners to 'choose' how they want to learn something.

Nuthall suggests that learning styles are about motivation and management rather than the actual process of learning. He has forced to think about the times that I misconstrued a learner's motivation as learning. 

"Learning requires motivation, but motivation does not necessarily lead to learning."
Graham Nuthall