Good teachers – hard to spot in advance

Thanks to a blog at The Guardian, I’ve just come across a fascinating report from the British charity The Sutton Trust, which aims to increase social mobility through education, a goal that is badly needed in the UK and US.

In September 2011 they published an interim report called “Improving the impact of teachers on pupil achievement in the UK”. One thing stood out for me:

“It is very difficult to predict how good a teacher will be without observing them in a classroom; paper qualifications and personal characteristics tell us very little. Gender, race, teaching experience, undergraduate university attended, advanced degrees, teacher certification and tenure explain less than 8% of teacher quality.” (page 3).

Only 8%! Does that mean that good teaching (defined here at one standard deviation above the mean) is something you just stumble across? The experience of Finland suggests no, it can be taught if you put the resources in and select the best and most motivated candidates. Having a less unequal society is also very helpful, which limits the scope for just importing elements of the successful Finnish model to unequal societies like the UK and US.

My own, anecdotal impression, is that at the university level it is quite hard to tell who will be a good teacher. Some people are clearly likely to struggle because they’re unhappy being the centre of attention or just dislike having to talk. Some of us love being the centre of attention and talking, but that doesn’t guarantee good results either. Many people can become a competent teacher if they really want to, try hard and take feedback. Some are so arrogant or close-minded that they never learn. Most, at least in Cambridge, muddle along being adequate but not excellent. But that’s partly because we are paid predominantly to do research and there is little incentive to invest time in a subsidiary activity like teaching.

The UK is currently looking, like the failed US model, at more financial incentives based on student grades. I don’t hold out much hope for that working.

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