Is teaching a ‘natural ability’?

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:

Eyes ToM test

Source of image

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?


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19 Responses to Is teaching a ‘natural ability’?

  1. I enjoyed reading this, thank you. A few thoughts on what teachers need to learn.

    Firstly, some form of teaching comes naturally to most people, but that doesn’t mean that the version that comes most naturally is always most effective. Taking just the elements you mention, any single one could be done more or less effectively and you wouldn’t expect everyone to stumble across the most effective ways.

    An effective teacher has to learn a number of different strategies for demonstration, guidance, checking for understanding. They have technical knowledge about different types of students in front of them – how the curriculum knowledge is layered and built up, how misconceptions arise, for example – and use this to select and vary their teaching on the fly.

    The act of teaching you describe is spontaneous. However, school teachers need to learn to plan – something that doesn’t come naturally as anyone who has worked with a beginning teacher can attest. This requires knowledge of curriculum, of timings, of resources available. It requires an understanding of how individual students and classes of students learn. It requires an understanding about motivation, engagement. Teachers who plan need to consider different tiers of vocabulary and the acquisition of skills of reading, speaking and writing. They need to consider behavioural issues and plan and deliver lessons which allow them to combine individual and group interventions with effective teaching.

    Teachers need to understand different categories of special educational need, how it affects instructions, different strategies. This must be applied during planning, delivery and also drawn upon while assessing.

    Teacher needs to draw upon resources, research and evidence. This requires a technical understanding of methodology, of different types of evidence and where to find sources, of how to search, of how to compare. They also need to engage in evaluation of their own work, and of others. This requires some understanding of validity, reliability, some statistics, and a host of other concepts and ideas.

    Some teachers will be involved in curriculum design, which is a detailed technical skill, while others will create exams and tests, which is yet another. Some may get involved in mentoring new teachers, and others in planning and delivering training. All of these layer on more and more required knowledge and skill that we expect of teachers. Many teachers will be required to lead a group or team, and some may become leaders. Once again, large amounts of skill and knowledge required which doesn’t just appear.

    What I’ve written is really just the tip of the iceberg. Effective teacher learning requires the integration of theory and technical knowledge with practical learning and trying things out. It requires curriculum and assessment knowledge as well as an understanding of how students learn.

    So, lots of technical and professional knowledge right there, and that’s just for starters! In most professions, the acquisition of this is significantly more formalised and then you achieve recognition for having learned it. You also get the options to delve into more specialist areas and receive well-planned learning and the opportunity to be recognised for that. This helps professions both build, recognise and then use the knowledge – easier to identify who to turn to for advice if there is a better system for recognising expertise.

    Of course you could argue that teaching is unique in that there isn’t consensus so we can’t codify any knowledge. However, I’d argue that every profession has started with the same issue. It’s only through a deliberate act of coming together, through dialogue and debate and through the attempts to create and explore consensus that we manage to achieve it and elevate a divided, fractured profession into a one that is more systematically effective at finding, sharing and using the ways to be better at helping those that we teach.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The best CPD might be trying to unpick the damage done by other CPD

    Liked by 1 person

  3. David says:

    I’m currently reading Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking–I wonder if introversion makes a better teacher.


    • Actually the study I cited found a small, non-significant relationship with extraversion. Most people are “ambiverts” – i.e. possessing a mixture of introvert and extravert traits. I also think human behaviour is much more contextual (i.e. adaptable) than personality tests imply.


  4. 4c3d says:

    A summary of over 360 comments and 37+ contributors to a question posted on LinkedIn. “Do experts make good teachers?” The short answer is NO! What also followed where the characteristics, abilities etc that make a good teacher. This is a list that may go some way to helping identify those who would “naturally” make good teachers and those who would have to work at it.



  5. BD says:

    Just exactly what I have been saying for years!! Yet the government still insist on forcing high qualification criteria entry requirements on teaching courses. Like needing a 1st in their degree and making them work towards Masters credits while doing their PGCE. Thus employing a fantastically well qualified workforce on paper! Well done MP’s, you can now boast about how well qualified the teaching workforce is. Unfortunately, most of them are un able to ‘teach’ and will leave the profession within 3 years. All the fantastic teachers with an inate ability to teach and empathise with children with a 2:2 degree, are all turned away. What a waste….


  6. julietgreen says:

    I’m intrigued:

    “They suggested that a teacher’s ability to identify students’ common misconceptions was also required for students to make gains” – is the suggestion that there were teachers with great subject knowledge, unable to spot misconceptions?

    “(even then this only helped where children had strong prior maths and reading ability).” – isn’t that all about, dare I say it, intelligence on the part of the pupils?

    If the thesis is correct, then some people are naturally better “teachers” than others. That doesn’t mean, of course, that the quality of what they teach is any better – just that they are better at doing it. If it’s a natural ability, then CPD on how to teach better may be somewhat wasted. It would make more sense to invest in what can be improved, i.e. the teacher’s subject knowledge. Perhaps the workforce is “fantastically well qualified” as BD suggests above, but in my experience, in primary education, that means very little in terms of secure and in-depth knowledge of the subjects being taught.


    • I don’t exclude the possibility that there’s explicit knowledge or skills which teachers require to be effective teachers. Subject knowledge – for instance – appears not sufficient for great teaching – but it’s still necessary. However, arguing that pedagogy is a natural ability begs the interesting question – I think – what should our profession be learning about 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Pingback: The ‘artificiality’ of teaching | Evidence into Practice

  8. Two things.

    For one, many behaviours are based on innate ability that increases with age but even some of the simplest ones can be dramatically enhanced by coaching, by self-motivated enquiry and systematic practice and by formal study of some basic principles. LIke playing football or a violin. Why would this not also apply to teaching?

    For a second, ability to teach is strongly influenced by context. Subject leaders might have significant amounts of ready-made planning for novices to use, with opportunities to share teaching and discuss strategies for resolving problems. Others might leave newcomers to fend for themselves (or even be more or less one-person departments). A whole school staff is a kind of team which can enhance, or disrupt, whatever levels of effectiveness any one teacher has brought with them (whether innate or recently acquired).

    So if (let’s say) a Head or a Secretary of State were looking to improve school outcomes (however they might construe that slippery word) both the innate qualities of the teacher (careful selection of the “best” entrants might become possible) and systematic improvements to the collaborative contexts of teaching might be given adequate resources. Continuous professional development that honoured each of its three words would be a sine qua non.

    The temptation at this point to go for the full League Table analogy of schools as football teams has to be resisted, The whole point of football teams is to beat as many of the other teams as possible. The whole point of education might aspire to be the mutual success of all. Maybe the orchestra might be a better analogy.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Pingback: The ‘artificial science’ of teaching: System vs Individual competence | Evidence into Practice

  10. Steal away! Thanks for the kind comment.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Pingback: Can anyone teach? Well, that depends on what you believe education is for | David Didau: The Learning Spy

  12. Pingback: Observations of teaching are probably biased | Evidence into Practice

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