What makes a great teacher? (Part One)

In his book, The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle says: “Master coaches aren’t like heads of state. They aren’t like captains who steer us across the unmarked sea, or preachers on a pulpit, ringing out the good news.”

Instead, their personality is “more like that of a farmer than a president or preacher: they are down-to-earth and disciplined”.

And so it is with great teachers.

Like master coaches, great teachers “possess vast, deep frameworks of knowledge, which they apply to the steady, incremental work of” – what Coyle calls – “growing skill circuits” (or what we might more colloquially term helping our students to develop their knowledge and skills, to get better at something), which “they ultimately don’t control”.

In other words, the best teachers teach in chunks: they show students the end result then break it up into its constituent parts. They work through each part in turn, following a process of explanation, demonstration, imitation, correction and repetition.

Great teachers don’t expect their students to make vast progress overnight, they look for gradual improvements and suggest minor tweaks, they encourage their students to take one day at a time, to draft and re-draft, to slowly and incrementally get better.

Great teachers understand the importance of repetition, of doing something – practising a skill, drilling for knowledge – over and over again until it becomes automatic. They get their students involved and encourage them to see that they both need and want additional information.

Great teaching exists in the space between the teacher and the students, in language, gesture and expression. To quote Coyle, it is “a long, intimate conversation, a series of signals and responses that move towards a shared goal”.

A teacher’s true skill consists not in some universally applicable wisdom that he can communicate to all, but rather in the supple ability to locate what Professor Robert Bjork calls the “sweet spot” – the point on the edge of each individual student’s ability – and to send the right signals to help the student reach towards the right goal over and over.

Robert Collier once said that success is “the sum of small efforts repeated day-in, day-out” and success in teaching is no exception. After all, great teaching, as with any complex skill, is a combination of several different qualities – what Coyle calls “the four virtues”.

Virtue 1: Matrix

The first of Coyle’s four virtues is the “matrix”, a term Coyle learnt from Ron Gallimore, one of the master coaches he observed in action. The matrix is, according to Coyle, the “vast grid of task-specific knowledge” that distinguishes the best teachers and allows them to “creatively and effectively respond to a student’s efforts”.

Gallimore, meanwhile, explains the matrix as follows: A great teacher has “the capacity to always take it deeper, to see the learning the student is capable of and to go there”. It keeps going deeper and deeper because the teacher can think about “the material in so many different ways, and because there’s an endless number of connections they can make”.

According to Coyle: “Years of work go into myelinating a (great teacher’s) circuitry (in other words, strengthening their skills), which is a mysterious amalgam of technical knowledge, strategy, experience, and practised instinct ready to be put to instant use to locate and understand where the students are and where they need to go.

“In short, the matrix is (a master teacher’s) killer application.”

Virtue 2: Perceptiveness

According to Coyle, when it comes to being perceptive “the eyes are the giveaway … they are usually sharp and warm and are deployed in long, unblinking gazes”.

Several master coaches Coyle interviewed told him they trained their eyes to be like cameras and great teachers do likewise: although their gaze can be friendly, it is not about friendship, it is about information, about assessing a student.

Almost all the master coaches Coyle met wanted to know about each student so they could customise their communications to fit the larger patterns in a student’s life. On the macro level, great teachers approach new students with “the curiosity of an investigative reporter”. They seek out details about their personal lives, finding out about family, relationships, motivation.

And on the micro level, they constantly monitor “the student’s reaction to their (teaching), checking whether their message (is) being absorbed”. This leads to a tell-tale rhythm of speech. Great teachers “deliver a chunk of information, then pause, hawk-eyeing the listener as if watching the needle of a Geiger counter”.

Virtue 3: The GPS reflex

The third virtue is the so-called GPS reflex – the ability to deliver information to students in a series of short, vivid, highly focused bursts.

Great teachers don’t start their sentences with “Please, would you try to…”, “Do you think you could…” or “Have you thought about…” – rather, they speak in short imperatives, such as “Now do this…” and “Do that…”.

Great teachers don’t necessarily speak in a dictatorial tone but they do deliver their instructions in a way that sounds urgent and clinical – to use Coyle’s simile, “as if they were being emitted by a particularly compelling GPS unit navigating through a maze of city streets: turn left, turn right, go straight, arrival complete”.

Great teachers also display strategic impatience – as soon as students accomplish one skill, the teacher quickly adds the next layer of complexity or challenge.

They use the same clinical tone as above: “Good, now do this…” or “Good, now do it faster…” or “Good, now do the next level…”. Great teachers, in their strategic impatience, regard each small success as a stepping stone towards the bigger prize.

Virtue 4: Theatrical honesty

To quote Ron Gallimore again, “moral honesty is at the core of the (teacher’s) job description – character in the deeper sense of the word”. Theatrical honesty works best when teachers are pointing out errors. They use their character and personality to great effect.

Some more views

In Visible Learning for Teachers, meanwhile, Professor John Hattie argues that the effect of high-impact teachers compared with low-impact teachers is about d = 0.25 – which means a student in a high-impact teacher’s classroom has almost a year’s advantage over his or her peers in a lower-impact teacher’s classroom and, Prof Hattie says, the differences between a high-impact and low-impact teacher are primarily related to the attitudes and expectations that those teachers have. In other words, it is their belief system that truly makes the difference.

Expert teachers

Expert teachers, according to Prof Hattie, have “high levels of knowledge and (an) understanding of the subjects that they teach”. Expert teachers “can guide learning to desirable surface and deep outcomes, can successfully monitor learning, and provide feedback that assists students to progress”.

Expert teachers “can attend to the more attitudinal attributes of learning (especially developing self-efficacy and mastery motivation), and can provide defensible evidence of (the) positive impacts of (their) teaching on student learning”.

Prof Hattie goes on to say that expert teachers and experienced teachers do not differ in the amount of knowledge that they have about curriculum matters or the knowledge they have about teaching strategies. Instead, expert teachers and experienced teachers differ in the way in which they organise and use this content knowledge.

“Experts possess knowledge that is more integrated, in that they combine the introduction of new subject knowledge with students’ prior knowledge; they can relate current lesson content to other subjects in the curriculum; and they make lessons uniquely their own by changing, combining and adding to the lessons according to their students’ needs and their own teaching goal.”

Expert teachers can also “detect and concentrate more on information that has (the) most relevance”, they can “make better predictions based on their representations about the classroom”, and they can “identify a greater store of strategies that students might use when solving a particular problem”.

They are therefore able to predict and determine the types of errors that students might make, and this means that they can be much more responsive to students.

Expert teachers “seek negative evidence about their impact (who has not learnt, who is not making progress, etc) in the hurly-burly of the classroom, and they then use this evidence in order to make adaptations and to problem-solve”.

Expert teachers have the ability to be flexible and to improvise ways in which students can master the learning intentions. This means that they need to be “excellent seekers and users of feedback information about their teaching – that is, of feedback about the effect they as teachers are having on learning”.

Expert teachers create classroom environments which have “an atmosphere of trust”; they foster a climate in which it is understood that it is okay to make mistakes because mistakes are the essence of learning.

Expert teachers believe that all students can achieve the success criteria. They believe that intelligence is changeable rather than fixed. They have “high respect for their students and show a passion that all can indeed attain success”. And, ultimately, expert teachers have the ability to have a positive influence on student outcomes. They get results.

What students want

Whenever students are polled on what they want their teachers to be like, they say they want teachers who respect them, who are knowledgeable in their subjects, who are friendly, approachable and willing to listen, who are positive, enthusiastic and have a sense of humour, who encourage and help them to succeed, and who set work that is both interesting and challenging.

Great teachers are relentless in their pursuit of excellence and their language with students is infused with this sense of urgency and drive. They need not argue about expected standards of behaviour. They achieve this in different ways – sometimes through the gravitas of maturity and experience, sometimes through warm, interpersonal interactions with every student. They have the ability to explain complex concepts in ways that make sense, they ask good questions and give really good feedback – however it is done, students feel that they are learning, they know where they stand and feel confident about the process.

In part two of this article, which will publish next month, I will examine 10 features of being a professional teacher and explore the importance of being adaptable by knowing all your students’ needs.

Follow me on Twitter: @mj_bromley

8 thoughts on “What makes a great teacher? (Part One)

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