What makes a good teacher?

  • A good teacher can have a transformative effect on learning – for obvious reasons.
  • However, many myths about teaching and learning persist, despite persistent debunking.
  • Schools need to be culturally sensitive, taking into account the cultures of students and teachers before jumping to standardized descriptions of what good learning is.

It’s a simple question: what makes a good teacher?

Numerous studies over the past two decades such as Hattie’s meta-analyzes, economic studies by Chetty, Friedman and Rockoff, reports from the OECD and the Rand Corporation all indicate that the teacher is the external factor in the most important to student learning.

It is important to emphasize that the teacher effect is exogenous. Students’ motivation and learning strategies are more important than any external factor. As the Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzeu said: “When the pupil is ready, the teacher appears”. If something is to be learned, even a bad teacher will not prevent it from being learned. That said, a good teacher can have a transformative effect on learning for some pretty obvious reasons.

Measuring what makes a good teacher

So the next question is: what makes a good teacher? This is where the complexity creeps in, where endless uncontrolled variables affecting every subjective learning experience muddy the waters. If the most rigorous form of research is the muscular and near-irrefutable experimental method of the double-blind randomized controlled trial, then a big problem is that it cannot be used to measure what kind of teaching really has an impact. impact.

In live classes, you cannot create serious control groups because each cohort will have a different teacher. But what are called time-series experiments can be used (that is to say that one tests successively several interventions on the same population group) but the natural growth and the influence of uncontrollable external factors will affect learning. Qualitative methods such as surveys, focus groups or interviews can be conducted but, as anyone involved in a qualitative research method knows, the extension and generalization of these results to other population groups is controversial.

Most schools use student surveys because they are easy to administer. However, careful research shows that student surveys are very problematic: they cannot be properly filtered for a multitude of biases and contain very high error rates.

Misplaced strategies

Some institutions will look at the results of massive globalized tests such as PISA, PIRLS and TIMSS, hang on to one or two best scores (Finland and Singapore for example), seek a general account of what teachers (and systems) are doing in these countries and try to duplicate these practices in their own learning ecosystems.

There are two problems with this approach. First, ranking systems based on test scores need to be understood statistically (which is complex: what is the statistical significance of PISA score intervals between first and fourth rank, for example, and who may include that ?). Second, it is dangerous to try to apply a set of practices in a country with its history, demography, culture, sociology, political framework, economy, languages ​​and agenda, to an entirely different framework.

Good education is not simply a predictable, observable and measurable fact from the outside as the social sciences would expect.

—Conrad Hughes, Campus and Secondary Director, La Grande Boissière, International School of Geneva

As educational leaders and board members are not always familiar with educational research methods and education systems are under enormous pressure, efforts to train good teachers can turn into a nightmare. absurd policies.

For example, by entering pieces of research, schools can begin to insist that every teacher start lessons in exactly the same way, stop grading students, cancel homework, or speak less in class. The ‘research shows that’ clause will be launched with eagerness, although the research has rarely been read cover to cover and, when it has been, insufficient confidence in the results and the need. further study are almost always prevalent.

Unfortunately, some myths in education persist despite a fairly substantial demystification: such as the Mozart effect, Brain Gym, learning styles, the theory of multiple intelligence and a series of misguided literacy strategies such as the technique of reading “three queues”.

Great teachers are context specific

Would teachers working in schools that rely on these theories be considered “excellent” at implementing such strategies? Here’s the real problem: teaching means something only in its defined context. This goes beyond a simplistic judgment of the positions of institutions on what is good learning and good teaching. This raises the question of whether one can really speak of excellent teaching with brush strokes so broad that the same behaviors and habits are expected in every context.

The sports coach, the thesis supervisor, the online undergraduate program teacher, the beginner language teacher, the teacher interacting with students with severe learning difficulties, the personal trainer, the grandmother telling a story, the very methodical and conscientious teacher with low voice projection and bad writing, the charismatic character, larger than life who nevertheless forgets certain tasks, the teacher who has a discussion with pupils who do not has nothing to do with the current test to decide where there is added value, each of these teachers can be a great teacher in very different ways.

In fact, so-called epistemic practices suggest that learning and teaching depend on subject matter; that the search for generalizable and transferable pedagogical practices is problematic because learning and teaching in chemistry is not the same thing as learning and teaching in visual arts or in Chinese.

Because of all these complexities, many experiences are unsatisfactory. For example, the Gates Foundation invested hundreds of millions of dollars in a tiered experiment designed to improve teaching effectiveness through traditional approaches such as classroom observations, careful recruitment, and performance bonuses. , but found that these did not create any significant gain in student learning.

So what makes a good teacher?

Numerous efforts to answer them have yielded results that make sense and appear reliable. The Sutton Trust’s 2014 analysis of 200 research identifies teachers’ subject knowledge, understanding common misconceptions, questioning, and assessment as factors that lead to great teaching while the Global group School Leaders shows how important it is for teachers to believe in their students.

Hattie’s meta-analyzes, involving millions of data points, describe what he calls the collective effectiveness of teachers as the most fundamental driver for student improvement. It means a collective belief, by a group of teachers in a school, that together they can improve student learning. Still, it’s worth noting that many argue that the quantitative research Hattie used to determine good teaching is flawed.

These results are neither radical nor counter-intuitive: who will claim that believing in students, that the teacher knows the subject or assesses well will not improve learning? Can we and should we extrapolate more?


The whole question of culture deserves to be studied. To what extent is the transactional language of “achievement”, “added value”, “results” and “scores” not so much an expression of scientific truth as of cultural prejudices? When administrators encounter different teaching styles, different accents, different ways of communicating – and these are cultural – how do they appear on an observation sheet? And what evidence from which countries involving which learners was used to determine the checklist in the first place?

Qualitative studies of Aboriginal and Torres Strait communities in Australia clearly show that culturally appropriate pedagogy is of vital importance to students. Cultural aspects such as respect for the land and the wisdom of the ancients might not fit into the Western constructivist paradigm, and why should it? A study of Chinese students showed that the ethical framework of the teacher was of paramount importance to them, which was not mentioned in the teacher appraisal literature. Students in South Africa, on the other hand, described the most important teaching factor as the ability of the teacher to engage in a supportive dialogue with the students.

School leaders need to be culturally sensitive, taking into account the cultures of students and teachers before jumping to standardized descriptions of what good learning is.

Teacher-led growth goals

In my school, we ask teachers to set their own goals. We trust them as professionals to identify something meaningful to them and their learning ecosystem. Some coaching questions can be asked to deepen the value and identity of these goals, but goals are not exogenously prescribed, they come from within. This is because good teaching is not simply a predictable, observable and measurable fact from the outside as the social sciences would expect. There are too many shades, shades of gray, areas of context.

This does not mean that we do not have requirements and standards: feedback must be given, everyone must be treated with respect, care must be given to every child. However, the exact way in which this happens cannot be formulated for every class and every subject.

As schools evolve into more culturally appropriate institutions, may they resist the urge to oversimplify what makes a great teacher and open their minds to different paradigms, so do that teaching is not always the same and that context matters.

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