The need for a science of teaching

July 31, 1998

Teaching is the core technology of what teachers do. It provides the most likely explanation for why educational reforms in Britain have hitherto always failed, namely that by pulling the "lever" of the school we have missed pulling the more important "lever" of the teacher.

Our ignorance in the area of teacher effectiveness is virtually total. We can find thousands of studies of teacher effectiveness from around the world but only a handful from Britain. Why?

First, there is the quaint, old-fashioned and ultimately damaging British view that teaching is an art, not an applied science, and that, therefore, teachers are born rather than made. Higher education carries much of the blame for this view, since its aim in teacher education has been to protect the interests of the artists by letting them discover their methods and become greater teachers than they would have been if they had been taught. Unfortunately, the large proportion of trainee teachers who are not born "teacher artists" have as a result not been given the technology that they need.

Higher education is also responsible for the second factor that prevents an applied science of teaching - the low status of applied and practical educational research. In British university departments of education, the most useless research has the highest status. High status goes either to those who research the outside-school determinants of pupils' achievements, about which we can do little, or who celebrate a values debate and discuss the "ends" of education.

Third, our inability to create a science of teaching reflects on our inability as an educational culture to handle the variation in teacher quality. When Michael Rutter in 1979 showed that schools made a difference to children's futures, he was greeted with a storm of abuse. When Britain's chief inspector of schools Chris Woodhead talked about the trailing edge of teachers in 1996, he too was rubbished.

This ignorance in our educational culture is costly. School effectiveness research has shown that the teacher is the most important determinant of outcomes, more important than the school.

And we are harming ourselves since our ignorance renders us unable to address the large variation between teachers' behaviours. In our own International School Effectiveness Research Project across nine countries, including heavyweights Taiwan and Hong Kong, probably the only teacher in the world who could generate 100 per cent time on task from her children was British, but Britain also evidenced teachers who scored as low as 30 per cent time on task in primary classrooms. Taiwan, by contrast, had few teachers above 96 or 97 per cent, but none below 85 per cent. We have the validity - we have excellent teachers - but lack the reliability that would deliver excellent teachers to all children.

We are impoverishing ourselves as an educational culture and harming the prospects of our children by not developing an applied science of teaching. If we look at those countries that possess this - virtually every industrialised society except Britain does - we see a codified, scientifically established body of knowledge that can guide these nations and their teachers towards better practice. What are these "effective" teacher behaviours?

They include:

* Whole class teaching (to transmit basic skills)

* Lesson clarity (lack of clarity costs time in further elaboration/exploration)

* Instructional variety (using varying styles of questioning, etc)

* Teacher's effective time management (having routines so well established that no time is lost on administration/behavioural routines)

* High student levels of time on task

* Maintaining an optimum success rate for pupils (getting 75-80 per cent of all material correct).

We need now to devote more research to the development of a similar science of teaching in the United Kingdom in order to give us the teacher behaviours that are appropriate for children of different ages, subject, catchment areas and districts. We also need to ensure that all pre-service teachers receive the technology of their profession, as would any other group of professionals.

In the short term, knowledge from other countries can help us. In the medium term, a number of British projects now under way should begin to fill the historic gap caused by the absence of any British traditions in the area of teacher effectiveness.

In neither the short nor medium term, though, should it be acceptable to continue the educational "do-it-yourself" that has characterised the training of teachers.

Professor David Reynolds, department of education, University of Newcastle upon Tyne

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