A Window into the classroom

Dirk Van Damme
by Division Head, Innovation and Measuring Progress (IMEP) and Head of Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI)

An excellent teacher is what makes students learn and succeed in school. Everything else – standards, curricula, assessments, resources, school leadership – come second. Yet, what do we actually know about what teachers are doing?

Classrooms seem to be the ‘black boxes’ of the education system. There is not an awful lot of research on classroom teaching practices, but TALIS 2008 provides some self-reported data on teaching practices and professional activities including participation in collaborative learning with colleagues. The main TALIS report, published in 2009, compared the relative preference for three different teaching practices – structuring, student oriented and enhanced activities – across the 23 different countries that participated in the survey. The report showed differences between countries regarding the extent to which teachers are favouring directive and teacher-directed practices over more activating and learner-centred ones. These TALIS results were received as rather disappointing signals, suggesting that the teaching profession was relatively resistant to change in many countries.

In collaboration with the TALIS programme and as part of its Innovative Teaching for Effective Learning project the OECD’s Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI) has just released a research report which delves deeper in the TALIS data on teaching practices in classrooms and schools. Based on some advanced analytical tools (multilevel latent profile analysis), this new book called Teaching Practices and Pedagogical Innovations: Evidence from TALIS  identifies underlying profiles in teachers’ classroom practices. A large set of variables about teachers, such as gender, training, subjects taught, but also their pedagogical beliefs, the degree of professional development, the amount of feedback and appraisal received, etc., were brought together and in each country different profiles of teachers were distinguished.

The scientific and policy implications of this research are huge. Many learning researchers and education policy makers strongly – and rightly so – believe in the benefits of more student-oriented, self-regulating approaches to teaching and learning. This suggests that a particular form of teaching is outdated and should be replaced by a more innovative one. Consequently, this report now suggests that we should not look at the quality of what happens in classrooms in an ‘either-or’ way. While it is true that the best teachers differ from their colleagues in their relative use of activating, student-oriented ways of teaching, they also use more structuring, teacher-driven forms of classroom practice. Teaching quality is a matter of diversity of practices, not of one set of practices against the other. Excellent teachers are those teachers who master a large repertoire of teaching practices, which they can deploy according to learners’ needs and varying classroom conditions. Those teachers are also the ones who actively advance their own professional competence by professional development and who feel more satisfied and effective about their own work.

A final important finding is that there is also a clear difference between these teacher profiles in the degree of co-operation with other colleagues and engagement in collaborative learning communities in and outside schools. Excellent teachers view teaching as a collective responsibility within the profession, not as an individualised thing happening behind closed doors. They open the doors of their classrooms, inviting colleagues to engage in what they are doing but also disclosing what happens in classrooms to the outside world. It is that kind of teachers we need to work with our kids.

Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI) Activities
OECD Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS)
Teaching in Focus Briefs
Photo credit: © By happy via


Kevin Hewitson said…
Whilst I agree and support your descriptions of the nature and behaviour of the excellent teacher you must also consider the environment in which that or any other teacher operates. An excellent teacher can be limited by the environment in which they work and suffer greatly as a result, perhaps to the extent of not being recognised as an excellent teacher! Place a creative, innovative teacher into a highly regulated, prescriptive and consequence based environment as you will be rewarded with a mediocre teacher at best and an ineffective teacher in the worst case.

As for teachers reluctant to change practices consider the fact that some take their responsibility very seriously, after all they face the consequences each day. If you saw a systematic dismantling and ineffective change of the system in which you had invested your professional career would you not be reluctant to open your doors? You would, I believe, seek to protect what you had, to what worked and be resistant to change where you saw no benefit.

I mention these two points because I have personal experience of what the environment can do to and for excellent teachers. The key to recognising and promoting excellent teaching is to create the right environment. Perhaps a reflection on the research available to CERI etc may help identify the key elements to providing an environment in which teachers and teaching can flourish. Even without this research I am sure most teachers would give you a list. The next obvious step would be to explore and record the environments in which teachers operate and to compare this with the numbers of excellent teachers within each.

As for what makes an excellent teacher I extracted a little intellectual capital from an online discussion, you will find the link below, in which this very question was debated and evidence suggested. If you do visit Prezi please leave a comment to add to the debate, after all is it not an aspect of collective responsibility to enhance teaching!


Kevin Hewitson
Advocating Creativity in Education
Dirk Van Damme said…
Thank you for this very useful comment. You're absolutely right: high-quality teaching is not only a matter of individual competences and attributes, but is equally determined by the interaction of the individual with the environment. Schools and school leadreship need to create the right environment for teachers to flourish. While I fully agree with your comments, I think it is also important not to use the school environment as a scapegoat argument, dismissing the individual professional responsibilities of teachers. Strong teachers also shape the environment themselves, they are not passively subjected to an unchangeable environment.
CERI indeed is looking into these issues as well, as in the Innovative Learning Environments project (see our website for more info www.oecd.org/edu/ceri). And TALIS is including a school level approach in its 2013 survey as well, which will help us understand much better the interaction between teacher quality on the one hand and school environments and school leadership on the other.
Dirk Van Damme

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