The Sutton Trust Report – great teaching?

The Sutton Trust Report was published recently in the United Kingdom. Watching its Twitter feed reminds me that education in the United Kingdom is charged with the politics of Left and the Right. Nevertheless it is an important report with some interesting conclusions.


Before reading the Report or looking at the many summaries of it to be found online (a nice one here from The Guardian), it is important to understand what the Sutton Trust is.

I will do this via two quotations from their website

 “We are particularly concerned with breaking the link between educational opportunities and family background, and in realising a system in which young people are given the chance to prosper, regardless of their family background, school or neighbourhood.”

 “It found that over a school year, poorer pupils gain 1.5 years’ worth of learning with very effective teachers, compared with 0.5 years with poorly performing teachers. In other words, a great teacher can produce a whole year’s extra learning.”

Thus their concern in the title of their Report What makes great teaching?”  It is important to note that the subtitle is – Review of the underpinning research. Four authors are cited with Professor Robert Coe of Durham University as the lead.

The authors argue that there are six common components to great teaching. These are all nuanced with a deeper commentary in the document.

1. (Pedagogical) content knowledge (Strong evidence of impact on student outcomes)

2. Quality of instruction (Strong evidence of impact on student outcomes)

3. Classroom climate (Moderate evidence of impact on student outcomes)

4. Classroom management (Moderate evidence of impact on student outcomes)

5. Teacher beliefs (Some evidence of impact on student outcomes)

6. Professional behaviours (Some evidence of impact on student outcomes)

I am only going to deal with one idea from the Report found on page seventeen. It is in the context of “Examples of effective practices” in the particular case with evidence from cognitive psychology using the research of Bjork and Bjork (2011). The title of the cited article is instructive: Making things hard on yourself, but in a good way: Creating desirable difficulties to enhance learning. Bjork and Bjork argue four points

  1.  …varying the learning context, types of task or practice, rather than keeping them constant and predictable, improves later retention, even though it makes learning harder in the short term.
  2. …the same amount of time spent reviewing or practising leads to much greater long-term retention if it is spread out, with gaps in between to allow forgetting.
  3.  …interleaving [learning] with other tasks or topics leads to better long-term retention and transfer of skills.
  4.  …any time that you, as a learner, look up an answer or have somebody tell or show you something that you could, drawing on current cues and your past knowledge, generate instead, you rob yourself of a powerful learning opportunity.

I particularly agree with their first point about making learning harder. One of the challenges to us, who favour the integration of technology in learning and teaching, is that some say is it to make things easier for students.

Absolutely not.

William Rankin argued exactly the same at the recent National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals Conference in Galway, Ireland. He appealed to the Sudoku players in the audience and asked how many would like their game to get easier. None! Similarly for children and adults immersed in the gaming culture. One of my favourite questions as a teacher, when introducing a new way of doing things via technology was “why do we have to do it this way?” when the student perceived an easier (less challenging) way.

I believe effective learning at any level is challenging, demanding and difficult. It needs to be scaffolded by a skilled teacher, who has got a good grasp of their subject matter and an understanding of how it is made meaningful for the myriad of young minds in front of them.

There is a lot in the Sutton Report. It is not an easy read – it is a serious literature review, but nonetheless worth having a look into.

What Makes Great Teaching by Professor Robert Coe (Durham University), Cesare Aloisi (Durham University),Dr Lee Elliot Major (Sutton Trust) and Professor Steve Higgins (Durham University)

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