The quality of teaching is by far the biggest factor within schools that impacts on the achievement of children. Drawing on over 200 pieces of research, What Makes Great Teaching, a report published by the Sutton Trust and authored by Professor Rob Coe of Durham University, sheds light on a range of working misconceptions that have somehow insinuated themselves into the national understanding of what teaching should be.
Whilst there is clear acknowledgement in the report that teachers’ knowledge of their subjects and the quality of their instruction have a positive effect on results, the report places equally high value on the warmth, respect and enthusiasm in classrooms, as well as a teacher’s sensitivity to children’s needs and regard for their perspectives. Our experience at Wandsworth Prep has always been that good relationships between staff and children are a prerequisite for effective learning.
Another heartening finding in the report is the high value placed on the importance of a teacher’s judgment in making decisions about how to interact with a class. There is, it seems, no single infallible recipe for success in the classroom, and it appears that successful teaching is as much an art as it is a science.
What surprises me, however, is lack of evidence in the research to prove that praise works. Low self-belief is like a cancer in the classroom which, if left unchallenged, can grow until it seems almost incurable and act as the root cause of barriers to learning. Teachers will often challenge this with praise for the simple reason that they know it works. At Wandsworth Prep, I have seen children flourish in lessons when teachers surgically insert a seemingly hyperbolic positive comment into a conversation with a child. I have seen some teachers go further and lavishly praise children for achievements and behaviour that seem mundane or trivial; if you are a child for whom low self-belief is entrenched, this type of praise can help to break the cycle.
Care does need to be taken in ensuring that praise does not stifle aspiration. Using praise as a tool to raise self- belief, is not the same as celebrating mediocrity. It is about creating an environment where children know they can succeed.