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From Your Executive Director: Teaching Teachers

by Paul Poore

As a new academic year sprouts from the relative relaxation of the long break between years, it’s worth taking stock of where we are as a profession so that we can go forward not blinded by our own enthusiasm—or worse—inertia.

We have learned a lot over the past decade about how ineffective many of our long-standing practices and goals in educating 5-16 year olds have been as analyzed by the Education Endowment Foundation1, for example: having students repeat a year, block scheduling, school uniforms, the perceived importance of a school’s physical environment, performance pay, encouraging children’s different learning styles, and streaming students by ability. Our schools virtually all aim to reduce class size to less than 20, to staff classes with teaching assistants, and to hire teachers with graduate degrees, yet these are expensive approaches that are only marginally impactful.

We have also managed to downplay or not implement a number of practices in spite of researched evidence that they very positively impact a child’s learning, such as: providing immediate and detailed feedback about one’s learning, metacognition (learning to learn approaches and strategies), early years’ interventions, collaborative group learning, one-on-one learning, oral language interventions, peer tutoring, incorporating digital technology, and mastery learning. The common trait of all of these approaches is that ALL require what John Hattie of the University of Melborne calls “teacher expertise.”


As Thomas Kane of Harvard University noted, “Surgeons start on cadavers, not on live patients.” Yet in education we have tended to train our teachers through “abtruse theory” rather than “intense, guided practice grounded in subject-matter knowledge and pedagogical methods.” 2 An article in the June 11, 2016 edition of The Economist contends that “Great teaching has long been seen as an innate skill. But reformers are showing that the best teachers are made, not born.” 3 Ours is “an incredibly intricate, complex and beautiful craft” that requires practice, coaching and relentless assessment “like that of a top-flight athlete.” 4 The article purports that the myth of the natural-born teacher coupled with insufficient classroom practice in college prior to teaching–compounded by a lack of accountability on the job–has resulted in our profession’s being less effective than we could otherwise be.

Teachers tend to become better at their craft in their first few years on the job, but then improvements tend to fade because “schools neglect their most important pupils: teachers themselves. Across the OE club of mostly rich countries, two-fifths of teachers say they have never had a chance to learn by sitting in on another teacher’s lessons nor have they been asked to give feedback on their peers.” 5 Our approach to professional development has to be one of working to improve teachers and teaching through exposure to new ideas followed up by ongoing coaching, feedback and clear expectations— all of which must be professionally embedded.

  1. Education Endowment Foundation. https: evidence teaching-learning-toolkit

  2. “How to make a good teacher.” The Economist 11-1 June 2016: 13.

  3. “Teaching the teachers.” The Economist 11-1 June 2016. 24.

  4.  “Teaching the teachers.” The Economist 11-1 June 2016. 24.

  5. “How to make a good teacher.” The Economist 11-1 June 2016: 13.


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