Teachers told praise can hamper pupils’ learning

Praise can convince pupils that teachers have low expectations. Picture: Getty
Praise can convince pupils that teachers have low expectations. Picture: Getty
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LAVISH praise and the grouping of pupils by ability can actually be harmful to teaching, a study has warned.

Seven popular teaching practices have been identified as being detrimental to learning and have no grounding in ­research, according to a report by education think-tank the ­Sutton Trust.

What Makes Great Teaching by Professor Rob Coe and ­colleagues at Durham University, reviewed more than 200 pieces of research on how to ­develop great teachers.

Praise which is meant to be encouraging and protective of low-achieving students can give a message of the teacher’s low expectations.

The evidence also showed if children are congratulated for performing well at an easy task, they can see this as proof that a teacher has low expectations of their ability.

Conversely, in some cases, if children are criticised for doing badly in a project, they can take this as an indication that their teacher believes in their abilities.

Researchers also found there is little evidence that grouping students by ability, either by putting students in different classes, or separating them within lessons, makes a difference to their results.

They suggested that encouraging pupils to reread and highlight key information to memorise ideas has little impact.

However, the study said there are some teaching methods that have been shown to be useful, such as challenging pupils to identify the reason why they are doing an activity in a lesson; the teacher asking many questions and checking the answers of all students; and making youngsters take tests, or give answers even before they have been taught the information.

Teachers with strong subject knowledge and understanding make a bigger impact on students’ learning, making this one of the key ways of improving ­results. The other is the quality of teaching, which includes good assessment of pupils’ work.

This tallies with previous ­Sutton Trust research, which found the quality of teaching is by far the biggest factor within schools that impacts on the achievement of children from poorer backgrounds.

It found that over a school year, poorer pupils gain 18 months’ worth of learning with very effective teachers, compared to just six months with poorly-performing teachers. In other words, a good teacher can produce a year’s extra learning.

Dr Lee Elliot Major, director of policy and development at the Sutton Trust, said: “It’s a scandal that we are so concerned with the learning of pupils, yet ­neglect the professional development of teachers themselves.

“Good-quality teachers are the agents of social mobility – able to transform the achievement of pupils from poorer backgrounds. This research review debunks many of the teaching myths but also reveals the core lessons for schools to help them develop great teachers.”

Prof Coe added: “Great teaching cannot be achieved by following a recipe, but there are some clear pointers in the ­research to approaches that are most likely to be effective, and to others, sometimes quite popular, that are not. Given the complexity of teaching, it is surprisingly difficult for anyone watching a teacher to judge how effectively students are learning. We all think we can do it, but the research evidence shows that we can’t.”

Christine Blower, general-secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said: “The NUT notes the authors of this report have argued that effective teaching cannot be achieved by following a recipe. Teachers are all too ­familiar with the fads and fashions regularly promoted as the latest ‘formula’ to improve teaching and learning, only to see them debunked and ­replaced by some other magic solution shortly ­afterwards.

“The fact is that teachers themselves are the professionals that best know their children and their students. They should be trusted to organise their classrooms.”