Raising everybody’s game: Teacher quality essential for effective learning

The most significant impact on student achievement is teacher quality. From the many hundred of research studies focusing on the importance of teachers for student achievement, two key findings emerge*:

  1. Teachers are very important; no other aspect of schools is nearly as important in determining student achievement
  2. It has not been possible to identify any specific characteristics of teachers that are reliably related to student outcomes. From this international study this includes: salary rates, experience (After about five years in the profession), certification or qualifications.

Dylan Wiliam believes that teaching could be improved through very simple methods, as reported in The Guardian** this week.

Instead of relying on grandiose policy initiatives we should be raising teachers’ skills. Wiliam, “teaching guru”. He doesn’t mean:

–        Recruiting better qualified teachers, since there is no correlation between effectiveness and qualifications

–        Weeding out a small minority if “incompetent teachers”, which wouldn’t affect most children’s education

Instead, raise everybody’s game. The most effective changes are cheap, low-tech changes that will improve teachers’ lessons.

Wiliam’s ideas were presented in a two-hour peak time documentary The Classroom Experiment which was broadcast on BBC 2 in September 2010, and described as “utterly gripping”. The program contained the elements of his educational thinking, product of 25 years research. These include:

Ban “Hands up”: answers always come from the same students and the teacher has no idea whether the others understand anything. http://bit.ly/i7J9PM, http://bit.ly/hIAo2g


–        Write each child’s name on a lollipop stick (Aus: paddlepop stick, US: popsicle stick) and pick at random the ones to answer the question

–        Tell students to hold up answers on mini-whiteboards which give a snapshot of what the whole class is doing

–        Hand out green, amber and red paper cups. Children can hold up to show that they understand what you’re telling them, find it difficult or haven’t a clue. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z3roLPsTipI

Stop awarding grades each time a student hands in work: Make constructive comments to ensure children read and act on them. http://bit.ly/i3Caku

“We’re addicted to grades. I’ve got nothing against grades at the end of the school year. But telling students after every piece of work that they are at levels 5 or 6 or whatever, is bizarre, perverse.  The national curriculum levels were meant to be descriptions of the totality of achievement over an entire key stage, not judgement on individual pieces of work.”

Assessments should be part of a conversation with students that helps teachers decide where the lesson should go next. It should be “assessment for learning” not “assessment of learning”.

Assessment: “I was talking to a teacher recently who, instead of putting comments on students’ essays, wrote them on strips of paper, got the students in groups and them asked them to match the comments to the essays. A delightful twist, which re-engages students in their learning. I’m constantly surprised by teachers’ ingenuity.

Teacher-based learning communities: Teachers meet regularly to discuss the development of formative assessment and related ideas, putting together the right combinations of ideas and support for teachers. It can’t be done at teacher training as it involves high-level pedagogical skills, which can only be developed when controlling a classroom.

Looking at things from the learner’s point of view: “I’ll buy video equipment to shoot things in classrooms. I want to train students to do videos from the learner’s point of view. I envisage students and teachers working collaboratively on school improvement, rather than treating it as something teachers do to students.”

Who is Dylan Wiliam?

He was a semi-professional musician who dedicated himself to teaching after he realised he couldn’t make a living from occasional gigs in pubs. He found he was then enjoying teaching more. Because he taught maths, a “shortage subject”, Wiliam enjoyed a rapid rise. From Deputy Head of Maths to research at Chelsea College, London. A lectureship in mathematics education followed, then became Dean of the school of education. Until recently Deputy Director at the London University Institute.

Now that “I can match my present salary on just 40 days consultancy a year” Wiliam can envisage a future as a freelance, self-financing academic.



*The Economic Value of Higher Teacher Quality, Eric A Hanushek, National Bureau of Economic Research, Dec 2010

** The Teaching Guru us Optimistic About Education, The Guardian, 18 January 2011. For the full article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2011/jan/18/teaching-methods-government-reforms


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