The Biggest Single Factor in Improving Learning
Volumes and volumes of opinion exist as to what gets results in education. A rapid consultation of newspapers, political statements, even discussions with educational professionals, usually results in this list of preferred reforms (in no particular order):
• new head teachers
• new types of schools
• smaller class sizes
• more homework
• more teaching assistants
• more money for schools
But a recent comprehensive study finds that none of these are the key to success.
That’s right - none.
Attainment is boosted not by changing school leadership, reorganising a school, reducing numbers in classes, handing out more homework, or even by what seem clearly successful actions like increasing the number of teaching assistants or giving schools more money.
Educational standards have remained largely unchanged for decades - despite the extra billions poured into schools, despite the huge increase in teaching assistants, despite more homework and all the rest of it.
So what is the biggest single factor in improving learning?
The quality of teaching in the classroom; the interaction between the teacher and the student.
This isn’t opinion; it’s based on something called the Pupil Premium toolkit, devised by Professor Steve Higgins and colleagues at Durham University and published by the Sutton Trust. It’s a detailed guide outlining which broad approaches work best at actually improving the attainment of students. Most of its findings apply to all children.
Higgins set out to review in depth educational research from around the world, with focus on the cost-effectiveness of the many different approaches available. Written in an easy-to-understand way, these approaches are compared in the guide to see what works when they are adopted and delivered effectively. The findings seem to fly in the face of conventional wisdom: reducing class sizes has in fact little impact on learning, unless student to teacher ratios are dramatically reduced. Perhaps the most surprising thing is the negligible value of teaching assistants: statistics reveal that they have no discernible effect on school results.
Things like ability grouping in classes also have little impact on overall results: though some children do better in higher ability groups, many more do worse in lower ability groups.
At primary level, homework has little or no impact on attainment.
The thing that comes out on top is what the toolkit calls ‘effective feedback’.
Understanding exactly where an individual student is ‘at’ in relation to a subject and its parts, adapting lessons accordingly and then helping with communications back to the students which address precisely what needs to be addressed for each individual can boost learning by an extra nine months in an academic year.
This has been subjected to a fundamental misconception: teachers broadly have conceived of communication in the classroom as being chiefly from them to the students. It turns out that the most valuable information is to be found when students communicate back to teachers.
Other good performers in the toolkit include peer-to-peer tutoring and ‘learning to learn’ - in other words, getting students to put some attention on the process of how they are studying and what works and doesn’t work for them.
What it all boils down to is better communication: teachers have to be willing to listen and adapt and to recognise that, for learning to be truly effective, communication has to be two-way.