Do Teachers Make a Difference?

Depressingly, for those of us who care passionately about teaching,

this is a tricky question.

Firstly there is what Edward de Bono calls ‘The Gateway Phenomenon’.

The “gateway” is the way into a prestigious educational institution.  Because this institution is seen as prestigious it gets to select the best students.  And, you guessed it, it can then boast it has the best graduates.  It then claims these students’ ability as its own, by saying that “we produce the best graduates”.  If they truly believed they were the best educators then they could choose the worst students and turn them into the best graduates: I have yet to see an educational institution adopt this policy.

Secondly its hard to find out.

If you wanted to find from rigorous research whether teachers made a difference you’d have to do something quite complicated.  You’d need very similar groups of students, studying the same curriculum and taught in the same way.  You would then test the two groups to see what difference the teacher made.  You would probably need to do this for several thousand students across different ages and different subjects.  This kind of research just hasn’t been done.

Thirdly, even if we did this difficult research it may not be the teacher. 

It is students who need to get the grades – not the teachers.  I think we can all remember times when we have succeeded despite the teaching rather than because of it.  For the research to be on the teachers, it would have to be they who got the results and not the students.  It seems very unlikely that this kind of thing will ever be done.

The upshot is we rely on what we know from our own experiences of teaching, plus the bits of partial research that have been done.  This boils down, for me, to a three simple things:

  • 1. Teachers need to know their subject (I remember one of my teachers in acupuncture college getting wrong a couple of the basic kidney points.  I knew little acupuncture and even I knew she was wrong.  She corrected herself in the next class, without admitting her error.  I thought then and think now that this is simply unacceptable.)
  • 2. Teachers need to be able to relate to their students.  (Things like understanding the question being asked, having examples that relate well, being able to explain  technical terms and why things are done in a particular way.  I’m sure we can all remember teachers who were speaking to themselves and not to the students.)
  • 3. Teachers need to be able to present the material in a suitable way to their students.  (This means being able to break it down into bite-size chunks.  Learning something is not knowing ‘about it’, it is knowing it.  This means that teaching is not presenting an analysis – you know the sort of thing: this is the subject, it is divided into these parts, it has this many aspects, blah blah blah – but is graduated exposure to the whole thing.  We learn by doing and the skill is finding tasks (not too easy, not too hard) to start doing the thing – in philosophy, writing a small essay; in teaching, doing a five minute class; in building, laying bricks in a straight line – whatever it is, doing a small meaningful part of what you are learning.)

For me, good teaching has made all the difference.  All the difference to looking forward to learning, to feeling that I know the subject, to enjoying what I’m doing.

What are your experiences of good and bad teaching?

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