The Importance of Learning

I’ve just published a short essay in Teach First’s Policy First Publication. The paper outlines 10 policy recommendations to overcome key barriers to student learning in the 30% most disadvantaged schools in the country (as measured on the IDACI). My chapter suggests that teachers should be required to carry out a piece of action research as a core part of their annual practice.


“Every teacher [must], by regarding every imperfection in the pupil’s comprehension not as a defect of the pupil, but as a defect of his instruction, endeavour to develop in himself the ability of discovering new methods.”

Leo Tolstoy

I agree with the new government. Teaching is important.[1] But it is only important insofar as it facilitates pupil learning. It is pupil learning that is really important.[2] This insight can become lost in observation frameworks, teacher rubrics and professional development plans, where the focus is overwhelmingly on the actions of the teacher. We need a means of overtly re-inscribing pupil learning – and by this I mean rigorous, ambitious, evidenced learning across a full year – at the heart of teaching, schools and education policy.

The recommendation is conceptually quite simple, requires little investment and also serves the twin goals of granting further autonomy to teachers, and building their professionalism.

  • At the beginning of the year the teacher sets an annual summative learning goal for a specific class or group of pupils
  • They design a method for regularly evaluating pupil progress towards this goal (qualitative or quantitative, but rigorous) and plan the year-long learning experiences to help them meet it
  • Regular reflection (an hour or more per week) on the progress of the pupils is carried out with a mentor or peer who observes the target group to provide formative feedback
  • This analysis is use to drive the professional development of the teacher, so that teacher actions are intentionally framed in relation to pupil learning
  • An end of year evaluation of pupil outcomes is produced and the implications for the future practice of the teacher outlined

How will it overcome one or more barriers?

The most effective teachers that I work with ask themselves where their students are now, where they need to be by the end of the year and what needs to be done to get them there. A teacher who thinks in this way and who is supported in the right way to develop their capacity doesn’t think of bad behaviour, boring lessons or low pupil motivation as discreet barriers to be removed, but strives to tackle them in an integrated manner as it fits with their continual and strategic pursuit of increased pupil learning. The most successful Teach First teachers do this (full classes of their pupils achieving progress up to 3 times the national average expected progress), as do teachers in the highest performing school systems in Finland and China.[3] The barriers are overcome in the process.

International research shows that teacher quality is the decisive factor in student learning: the better the teacher, the more students learn. I think this is a tautology. Rather we should say that the more students learn, the better we know the teacher is. This measure would remove multiple barriers through eliminating a culture of taking means for ends – as is common with pursuit of GCSE league tables, Ofsted grades or observation scores.

Who is the recommendation aimed at?

Policy-makers and school leaders have the autonomy and powers to inscribe pupil learning over time at the heart of teaching and teacher training and development by:

  • Making it a statutory annual requirement for teachers to produce a rigorous evaluation of pupil learning and implications for practice including in ITT and NQT years
  • Ensuring career progression is dependent on providing evidence of pupil learning and aligned reflections – with the nature and design of this evidence at the teacher’s discretion
  • Evaluating teacher quality in the first instance on the evidence of pupil progress over time in their classroom, and secondarily on student indicators and teacher actions in the classroom

Teachers should also use the tenets of this recommendation to shape their own practice and professional development. Although observation scores are important, they are secondary to the core priority of student learning. Teachers should pursue these questions: where are my students now? Where do they need to be? What do they, and I, need to do to get there?

[1] The Importance of Teaching (2010), DFE

[2] PISA 2009: what students know and can do (2010), OECD

[3] The Case for Change (2010), DFE

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