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Teaching teachers

By Peter Chaban

Whenever policy or rules change in education, the goal is always the same: improve student outcomes. Recently, Ministries of Education have identified a need to reduce the achievement gap between the struggling segment of the student population and those who succeed. Interventions have included structural changes, such as smaller class sizes and multiple curriculum pathways, and accountability measures, like the use of standardized testing.

Few of these efforts have addressed a key component – that of teacher practice. Yet, researchers have long known that outside of a student’s own natural cognitive ability, teachers have the most dominant effect on achievement. More than parent economic status, the quality of school attended, or peer group influence. And for students whose successful learning truly is a challenge, good teaching is even more crucial.

What makes a good teacher?

Good teaching is not innate, nor does it come through experience; it is the result of good training. When expertise is measured against experience, well-trained teachers get better outcomes from their students than do teachers with many years of experience but little training. Teachers with many years of practice may have a better grasp of a curriculum’s content, but it’s the expertly trained teacher who is able to translate content into learning.

So, what do good teachers look like? They display a mix of personal traits and appropriate training. They are tenacious when it comes to helping struggling students. They are more likely to search out solutions and problem solve until they see marked improvement. As a result, they don’t give up on struggling students. They don’t accept student failure as an outcome measure. They appear to be more flexible in delivering the curriculum. They are able to contextualize the content to reflect the life experience of their students. They monitor their students’ learning and give quick and appropriate feedback. All these qualities contribute to good teachers’ sensitivity towards all their students and fluidity in instructing them.

This is quite a laundry list of necessary traits however, even these are not sufficient. Successful teachers also need to have expertise in core knowledge of the curriculum they deliver. This is especially important in areas of reading, writing, math, and language. They also need to use instructional practices that work and are evidence based. Finally, they need to have a good understanding of how all their students’ develop and learn, especially those who are at risk because of special needs.

Making better teachers

Producing expert teachers presents a challenge to the educational profession. Teacher development occurs in two ways. First, through initial training at university faculties of education.  To date, this method of teacher development has not shown great promise, especially in identifying natural teachers and training them in evidence-based instruction.

The second method is through professional development (PD) once teachers are in practice. Historically, professional development has had poor results.  It is often disconnected from the classroom experience and imposed on the teaching staff by external administration. There is little evidence that knowledge acquired through PD sessions translates into classroom practice.

Recently, the use of professional learning communities, in which teachers define and control their learning goals, has shown promise. These learning communities are school-specific and highly successful when they collaborate with partners who introduce evidence-based practices, and who help coach them through the implementation.

The Teach ADHD experience

One example of such a training intervention was TeachADHD. The goal of this project was to bridge new research about ADHD in the field of neurosciences with classroom practice in the hopes of increasing the confidence of teachers and improving the learning outcomes for students with ADHD. 

Specifically, the intent was to help teachers re-conceptualize ADHD as a neurodevelopmental disorder in which students have problems with executive control functions that manifest themselves as academic problems. This would give teachers a better understanding of the external behaviours/symptoms associated this group of students within a cognitive science construct.

As well, it would help teachers understand that ADHD is not a homogeneous disorder and therefore not managed through a single recipe of interventions. Rather, what is needed is a good understanding of student strengths and weakness, followed by appropriately matched teaching practices and accommodations.

Successfully implementing a new intervention is not an easy task. It involves changing human behavior. Most professionals are receptive to new information, but putting that information into practice is a challenge. Research has shown that access to information alone is not enough. This is why PD has often fallen short as a method to improve teaching.

But, when training includes in-classroom coaching, implementation rates go way up.  The adage that information is only enhanced through use makes sense. The challenge for TeachADHD was to make this possible in a large and diverse school system.

In addition to all the comprehensive, up to date and evidence-based materials supplied to teachers, TeachADHD included a training program. Teacher participated three face-to-face workshops and two video conferences, and had email access to the workshop leaders. Training was spread throughout the school year, allowing for constant feedback from teachers. During workshops, teachers were grouped according to grade taught, rather than school, encouraging greater exchange of specific classroom ideas and practices. 

Perhaps not surprisingly, results showed some strikingly positive changes. Classes were described as well managed, lessons were well organized, and teacher instructional practices appeared clear and coherent. Measures for student behavior and learning showed more engagement, including for those students who had been identified by teachers as at-risk. Finally, teachers expressed more confidence in their instructional decisions and perceived student performance for their most inattentive students to have improved.

The same positive data was not seen in classes taught by teachers who did not receive the training.  

The experience of implementing the TeachADHD program shows that teachers are able to develop expert skills when given the necessary tools. But, information alone is not enough. Ongoing support and coaching is essential. It builds up confidence, allowing teachers to review and adjust their teaching strategies according to student needs.And, most importantly, it has a positive impact on student academic performance.

Peter Chaban is a teacher researcher, head of the School Liaison Team, Community Health Systems Resource Group at the Hospital for Sick Children, and learning disabilities representative for the Ontario Minister's Advisory Council on Special Education.

Learning & Education columns by Peter Chaban