Entering the “black box”: Teachers’ and students’ views on classroom practices

by Pablo Fraser 
Analyst, Directorate for Education and Skills
Noémie Le Donné
Analyst, Directorate for Education and Skills


“What happened in school today?” is a question that many parents across the world ask their children when they get home. Many parents also attend school meetings in order to understand how their child’s learning is developing. They talk with both children and teachers because they know that they are the best (and often only) source of information about what is happening in the classroom. At the same time, many teachers would like to know about how other teachers teach, both in their own country and abroad.

The truth is that what happens in the classrooms still often remains an open question for those outside it.  Research has shown that the practices used in the classroom are the most important factor affecting students’ outcomes. In other words, it is the interactions between teachers and students that, ultimately, shape the learning environment. Thus, it becomes crucial to know, “What are the teaching strategies that help create quality classroom practices?”

However, classrooms are often described as a “black box”; we know that certain things go into the box (e.g. learning materials, time and human resources, school tests) and we expect certain things to come out (e.g. the development of students’ skills, the reinforcement of their well-being, and an increase in teachers’ job satisfaction). But what about the complex interactions that take place within the black box that are responsible for the alchemy that transforms inputs into outputs? Who better than teachers and students to tell us about these interactions?

Teachers with their professional training and knowledge are experts on various instructional approaches, methods and lesson features. Since students are exposed to a variety of teachers in different subjects over an extended period of time, they can also be considered experts on different modes of teaching. Both opinions provide a rich and complex picture of what happens in the classroom… and can be seen as two faces of the same coin.

The TALIS-PISA link data present a unique opportunity to enter the “black box” by listening to the voices of teachers and students. The latest Teaching in Focus reveals some enlightening findings.

Almost all mathematics teachers use clear and structured teaching practices, according to both teachers and students. On average across participating countries, at least 97% of teachers report either explicitly citing learning goals, letting students practice until they understand the subject matter, or presenting a summary of recently learned content. Since these structuring practices aim to deliver an orderly and clear lesson, they could be seen as the necessary foundation to the development of other, more innovative, practices, such as student-oriented practices and enhanced activities. This would explain why they are so predominant in the teaching strategies implemented by teachers and that, contrary to widespread ideas, they are not used by Asian countries alone.

Student-oriented practices, such as giving different work to students depending on their understanding or having them work in small groups, are less often used than structuring practices, especially according to students. They are still commonly used, with around 90% of teachers and 60% of students reporting their use. However, teachers do not use these practices to the same extent across countries, and one type of enhanced activity, having students work on week-long projects, is subject to particularly large cross-country variations: 20% of Finnish teachers report using this practice versus 86% of Mexican teachers. The same pattern is found when looking at student feedback.

In all participating countries, mathematics teachers tend to report, more often than students do, that they use a given practice in their classroom. However, the gap between what teachers and students report is relatively small; it is largest when pertaining to the use of student-oriented practices. This may be because teachers find these practices particularly efficient and have a tendency to over- report their use, or that, because they are less conventional and more innovative, students fail to recognise them. Either way, further support of teachers’ and students’ engagement in student-centred activities is needed to ensure that a variety of practices are used in the classroom. PISA results have shown that students benefit from teachers applying a range of different practices, so it is crucial to help teachers acquire those that foster a quality learning environment.

Links
Teaching in Focus No. 18: How do teachers teach? Insights from teachers and students

Join our OECD Teacher Community on Edmodo

Photo credit: @Shutterstock

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