Tony Gurr


In The Paradigm Debate on 18/02/2011 at 11:00 pm

It is what teachers think, what teachers do, and what teachers are at the level of the classroom that ultimately shapes the kind of learning that young people get.  

Andy Hargreaves and Michael Fullan

It’s a relatively self-evident truth that teaching and learning are two sides of the same coin. However, and as a growing body of evidence and research is demonstrating, most learning in the world takes place without any form of formal teaching.

We all know there is a great deal of teaching taking place across classrooms (in every corner of the world) without much learning happening!

So, is teaching important? What makes an “effective” teacher?

Research on teacher effectiveness consistently shows that the formal education and learning of students is greatly dependent on the quality of teachers, the teaching they receive and the level of student engagement created by teachers. The “teacher effect”, as it goes, is higher than that of curriculum renewal, textbooks and materials, and (even) school leaders.

In studies, for example, where students have been assigned to “ineffective teachers”, students have significantly lower achievement and learning than those assigned to “effective teachers” – TRUE but,  WTH would even set up this type of study?

So, what is an “effective teacher”?

Everything we come across suggests effective teachers do exhibit a number of common personal qualities and instructional skills:

  • Treat students with respect and a caring attitude
  • Present themselves in class as “real people”
  • Spend more time working with small groups throughout the day
  • Provide a variety of opportunities for students to apply and use knowledge and skills in different learning situations
  • Use active, hands-on student learning
  • Vary instructional practices and modes of teaching
  • Offer real-world, practical examples

For many of us teaching is, in essence, about believing that all students can learn and doing anything and everything to help and encourage students to grow and develop as whole people. Teaching is about engagement and designing learning opportunities and environments that focus on what students can do with what they learn – and giving learners control, not trying to control learning.

One of my favourite reads on this topic is Bain’s book “What the Best College Teachers Do” (which won the Virginia and Warren Stone Prize for outstanding book on education and society) and while a review of individual studies on teaching effectiveness reveals no commonly agreed definition of teacher effectiveness, Bain’s book provides an excellent conceptual model for what is it that makes a teacher “effective”.

He bases this on a series of questions:

Bain’s work suggests that the most effective teaching is not a question of  age or experience or expertise in a given discipline (although a sound knowledge of the subject-matter of a specific discipline is a given) but rather the result of a number of attitudes, conceptualisations and practices – these are typical of teachers who “take a learning perspective”.

Indeed, many of the understandings and practices of these teachers are very similar to those practices of highly effective institutions investigated through Project DEEP – and stress the importance of:

  • A “living” mission and a “lived” educational philosophy
  • An “unshakeable” focus on student learning

Teachers that take a learning perspective also extend these ideas to their own understanding of themselves as professionals, and the ways in which effective teachers work to learn and grow include:

  • Reflecting on their own performance in order to improve
  • Using feedback from students and others to assess and improve their teaching

BUT, and this is where I throw LEARNING back into the ring, we said that teaching and learning are two sides of the same coin.

I would propose that we keep Bain’s approach but modify some of his questions a little –

  • What do effective teachers know and understand about learning and teaching?
  • What do they do with what they know and understand about learning and teaching?
  • What do they do to improve what they do with what they know and understand about learning and teaching?

That last one is a bit of a mouthful!

Some different questions like these might help us really get to the heart of what makes a truly effective teacher. How would you answer these questions?


What the Best College Teachers Do by Ken Bain

Learning That Lasts: Integrating Learning, Development and Performance in College and Beyond by Marcia Mentkowski & Associates (Alverno)

Student Success in College: Creating Conditions That Matter by George D. Kuh, et al

  1. What the Best College Teachers Do
    16th Annual International Summer Institute: New York City Area
    June 22-24, 2011

    Enrollment Limited – Early Registration Advised

    A Three-day institute based on Ken Bain’s award-winning and best selling book What the Best College Teachers Do* (Harvard University Press, 2004), and featuring author Ken Bain from Montclair University and some of the subjects of the 15-year study of excellence in college education. Institute combines resources of Northwestern University, University of Texas, Rhode Island School of Design, and Vanderbilt University.

    *winner of the Virginia and Warren Stone Prize for an Outstanding Book on Education and Society


    What do the best teachers do to captivate and motivate students, to help them reach unusually high levels of accomplishment? Participants in this highly interactive institute will explore and use findings from a fifteen-year inquiry into the practices and insights of highly successful teachers, those people with phenomenal success in helping their students achieve remarkable learning results. The program will emphasize both improving one’s teaching and developing ways to share insights with colleagues back home. Enrollment is limited. The workshop will begin at 11 am on Wednesday, June 22, 2011, and end in the early afternoon on Friday, June 24, 2011, and will take place in the scenic suburbs of New York City, approximately 12 miles west of Manhattan.

    Enrollment Limited: Program has filled rapidly in past years. Early Bird Enrollment Deadline: April 1, 2011.

    Go to for additional information and application form. Or call 973-847-9049 or write for additional information.

    Some of the outstanding teachers:
    Charlie Cannon, Professor of Design, Rhode Island School of Design, and Columbia University
    Jeanette Norden, Professor of Cell Biology and Neuroscience, Vanderbilt University
    Chad Richardson, Professor of Sociology, Director of BorderLife Project, University of Texas-Pan American
    Ann Woodworth, Charles Deering McCormick Professor of Teaching Excellence, and Associate Professor of Theatre, Northwestern University
    Diana Thomas, Professor of Mathematics, Montclair State University

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