Toolkit for better teaching

Experts have drawn up a toolkit that sets out what works and what doesn’t for improved pupil attainment. Lee Elliot Major, leader of the project, asks why some schools resist this approach.

Teacher helping two students with their workHow do you know what works best in your classroom to improve the attainment of your pupils? I've been challenging seasoned school heads and teachers with this question for over two years now, in the course of presenting our toolkit summarising the best bets for improving learning. A Which? style guide ranking different approaches according to their impact on results, the toolkit was designed to be an accessible resource for busy teachers, summarising research carried out across the world.

I keep asking the question today because many of the approaches that do work best on average are not currently being prioritised in schools. Not only this, there is not enough robust evaluation in classrooms of what is most effective at improving children's results.

The Sutton Trust originally published the toolkit in 2011, on the basis of work by Durham University academics, to help teachers spend their Pupil Premium funding effectively. The guide has subsequently been developed by the Education Endowment Foundation into its central vehicle for disseminating knowledge on what works. Two years on from its release, around two-fifths of school heads claim to have now used it, and the Sutton Trust and EEF have been designated by the Government as the 'What Works Centre' for education.

And yet when I tour schools across the country, my impression is that a lot of time is still being spent on what have largely proved to be false promises to boost attainment: smaller class sizes, new types of schools and more (untrained) teaching assistants, to name a few.

The central finding of the toolkit is that by far the best hope for better results is to improve the quality of teaching in the classroom. What matters most is the interaction between teacher and pupil. This is unsurprising perhaps, but is not acted upon as it should be.

Reducing class sizes has in fact little impact on learning, unless the pupil to teacher ratio is dramatically reduced. Overall, teaching assistants (TAs) add zero to the attainment of children; this is largely not the fault of TAs, many of whom are poorly deployed, trained or managed in schools.

Ability grouping in class also has little impact on overall results: the gains of children in high ability groups are outweighed by the losses of those in low ability groups. This is not to say teachers should not group by ability. But if they do, they should make sure that learning in the lower groups does not suffer. Parents also have some humbling news: homework during primary school has little or no impact on attainment (although it does during secondary school). One-to-one tuition works but is relatively expensive. Better to try one-to-three tuition, cheaper and just as effective.

On the other hand, ‘effective feedback’, if delivered well, can boost learning by an extra nine months in an academic year, according to the toolkit. By effective feedback, what the researchers are really talking about is the quality of teaching in the classroom: understanding where their pupils are in relation to learning goals, adapting their teaching in response, and planning how to plug the learning gaps.

Another top performer of the toolkit is peer-to-peer tutoring – enabling children to teach other children on focused tasks in maths and English. Managed well by the teacher, both tutee and tutor can see significant gains in learning. Another promising approach is to make learning strategies more explicit for children by spelling out the goals of lessons more clearly.

The key message underlying the toolkit is not to tell teachers what to do, but to get them to think about the research evidence, and make informed judgments about what to pilot in their own school.

The challenge is how to take these tips and turn them into sustainable change. This is one of the key aims of the Education Endowment Foundation, which has also produced a DIY evaluation guide for schools.

The goal is to build on the toolkit's evidence by trialling innovative schemes for poorer pupils in English schools and evaluating them to see whether they work and how they should best be implemented. The hope is that teachers in future will be able to answer my challenging question, by quoting their own evidence – and in doing so, improve the learning in the classroom.

Dr Lee Elliot Major is Director for Research and Policy at the Sutton Trust, and chair of the evaluation advisory panel for the Education Endowment Foundation. He commissioned and co-authored the Sutton-EEF toolkit.

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