What characteristics does a teacher need to be effective?
The answer appears to be elusive as various reviews find that most teacher characteristics appear to have only marginal impact on student attainment.
For example, looking at maths teaching Rockoff et al (2004) examined the relationships between student outcomes and a range of teacher characteristics including graduate education, general cognitive ability, content knowledge, personality traits (like introversion or extraversion) and self-efficacy. They found no significant relationship between graduate education and teacher effectiveness, a marginal relationship with cognitive ability, maths knowledge for teaching was more strongly related to math achievement, traits like conscientiousness and extraversion were non-significantly related, and general self-efficacy was only marginally related. All in all, the correlations between teacher characteristics and student outcomes are typically very small or non-existent.
The summary of research published by the Sutton Trust (2014) suggested that there were two main factors linked to improving student outcomes:
- teachers’ content knowledge, including their ability to understand how students think about a subject and identify common misconceptions
- quality of instruction, which includes using strategies like effective questioning and the use of assessment
Clearly, ‘content knowledge’ is a technical competence. We’re not born knowing scientific theories, the rules of grammar or mathematical laws, therefore it must be something that teachers need to develop prior to (or during) their classroom practice.
However, subject knowledge appears necessary but not sufficient. For example, looking at science teaching Sadler et al (2013) found that subject knowledge alone did not secure improved outcomes for students when the material involved common science misconceptions. They suggested that a teacher’s ability to identify students’ common misconceptions was also required for students to make gains (even then this only helped where children had strong prior maths and reading ability).
Effective teachers appear to anticipate how students think about their subject and to use this insight to ask effective questions. However, to what extent does effective teaching involve a technical or professional set of knowledge and skills, developed through professional development or classroom practice, and to what extent is it a natural ability?
Theory of Mind and the ability to teach
The ability to infer how other people think and feel is referred to by psychologists as ‘Theory of Mind’ (ToM). ToM enables a person to explain and predict the behaviour of other people by inferring the mental states which cause that behaviour. The philosopher Daniel Dennett calls this the ‘Intentional Stance’ – understanding that other people’s actions are goal-directed and arise from their beliefs or desires. From his studies of imitation in infants, Andrew Meltzoff suggests ToM is an innate understanding that others are “like me” – allowing us to recognize the physical and mental states apparent in others by relating them to our own actions, thoughts and feelings. In essence, ToM is a bit like the ability to use your own mind to simulate and predict the states of others.
Strauss, Ziv and Stein (2002) proposed that ToM is an important prerequisite for teaching. A few other animals, for example chimpanzees, appear to teach conspecifics in a limited way, but only humans appear to teach using the ability to anticipate the mental states of the individual being taught. They point to the fact that the ability to teach arises spontaneously at an early age without any apparent instruction and that it is common to all human cultures as evidence that it is an innate ability. Essentially, they suggest that despite its complexity, teaching is a natural cognition that evolved alongside our ability to learn.
They taught pre-school children how to play a board game, and then observed that child’s behaviour when teaching another child. The identified a range of teaching strategies:
- Demonstration—teacher actively shows learner what to do, e.g., moves the train on the track and stops at a station
- Specific directive — teacher tells the learner what to do right now, e.g., “Take this”
- Verbal explanation — teacher explains to the learner a rule or what he/she should be doing, e.g., “You got green. You can take the cube”
- Demonstration accompanied by a verbal explanation
- Questions aimed at checking learner’s understanding — “Do you understand”? “Remember”?
- Teacher talk about own teaching — teacher shares with the learner his/her teaching strategies, e.g., “I will now explain to you how to play”
- Responsiveness—teacher responds to utterances or actions of the learner, e.g., answers questions when a learner errs and demonstrates or verbally repeats a rule
One or more of these has likely been the basis of a CPD session you recently attended!
They also found that 5-year olds appeared to have a more advanced understanding of teaching compared to 3-year olds: Relying more on verbal explanations, more responsive to the learner’s difficulties and asking questions aimed at checking the learner’s understanding.
Firstly, if teaching is a natural ability functioning from a competent ToM, it might have implications for teacher recruitment. Given the very limited correlations with academic qualifications (beyond a degree in a relevant subject), cognitive ability and various personality traits – might some sort of advanced ToM test better predict teacher effectiveness?
ToM tests for adults on the autistic spectrum have been developed, for example Baron Cohen et al (2001). These involve identifying emotional / mental states from pictures of people’s eyes:
However, Baron Cohen has suggested that a functioning ToM involves both affective and cognitive components – the ability to emotionally respond to another’s mental states and the ability to understand another’s mental state. People likely vary on a spectrum across both of these components. Baron Cohen has suggested that psychopaths, for example, probably have a very high functioning cognitive ToM (required to be able to deceive and manipulate people) but ‘zero negative’ empathy for others.
I think great teachers probably need both: the ability to model other people’s thought processes (e.g. how students think about a subject), balanced by an empathetic concern for others.
Secondly, teaching involves the ‘impossible task’ of mind reading – not only identifying gaps in a student’s knowledge, beliefs or skills but also whether they hold incomplete or distorted ideas. In addition, great teachers make countless, unconscious inferences about students’ emotional and motivational states (are they attentive, tired, bored or confused) and react intuitively to these states. Teaching is such a complex task it is probably impossible to ‘do it consciously’.
If teaching is essentially a natural ability, then potentially a great deal of the CPD available to teachers is a waste of time! It could be argued that a great deal of teacher professional development (e.g. on questioning and providing feedback) involves developing the sorts of skills demonstrated by the average 5-year old. Perhaps this is why teachers fail to attract the sort of respect granted to other professionals! Therefore, an important question needs an answer – by ITE providers (of all types) or the proposed College of Teaching – exactly what is the ‘technical’ or ‘professional’ body of knowledge or set of skills required of an effective teacher, which can actually be taught?