What really matters

Francis Gilbert's picture
Why do 95% of teachers not know about what really works in the classroom? Why are the media and politicians even more clueless? According to Mike Bell, who runs the Evidence-Based Teachers’ Network (EBTN), very few people are actually aware of the teaching techniques that are proven to work across all the age ranges and subjects. Bell feels this is because we don’t live in a culture which values evidence; we prefer to argue and disagree rather than come to a consensual point of view based on the best evidence before us.

I have to confess that, until recently, I was not aware of the full range of work that has been done which shows that there are some really effective, simple teaching techniques that consistently work. Sure, I was aware of John Hattie’s seminal research studies but I have to confess that I’d found his book Visible Learning rather heavy weather: it is full of off-putting charts and statistics and isn’t written in readily accessible language.

Fortunately, I was lucky enough to attend an EBTN training day recently and came away feeling much more enlightened. The training day was persuasive because, unlike many CPD days I have attended, Bell produces hard evidence that the teaching strategies he advocates have actually worked. Furthermore, he is an excellent communicator, in my view the best in this particular field: his approach is a bit less technical than his mentor and colleague, Geoff Petty, who has written books on evidence-based teaching.

In this short video clip of my interview with him, he explains where to find effective teaching techniques:


As he says in the interview, there are a number of strategies and policies which we know from years of evidence are ineffective. These include:
• Charter schools/academies/free schools
• Reducing class sizes
• Non-specialist information technology
• Untrained teaching assistants
• Staff development with no feedback

In his interview with me, Bell went through the things that definitely do make a difference to students’ outcomes.   You can find the main sources:  Hattie, Marzano and EEF on the EBTN website. All of the strategies which he advocates and which are proven to work are ones which play to the brain’s strengths. As Bell says, scientists are finding more and more about the human brain and are realising that are brains learn by making connections, spotting the similarities and differences between things; this is why teaching by analogy is so important. This is what effective teachers do anyway, but it is useful to know why making analogies help students learn. In this clip, bell explains why ‘Using Analogies’ comes top of Marzano’s list of effective methods.


Teachers are notorious for being overburdened by marking, but Bell says that they needn’t be. Indeed he says that teachers shouldn’t waste their time by marking too much:


It is more effective often to get students to mark their own work.  Summative Assessment should be minimised.


What teachers really need is to have time to reflect upon their own practice. Good quality staff development has one of the highest effect-sizes in education. In this clip, Bell talks about why they need this space during school time:


Indeed when teachers are encouraged to research a particular area of their teaching, they usually improve their students’ learning.  They start to see the learning through the eyes of the student:


Bell points out that there is a great deal of evidence that setting by ability does not change average results and often doesn’t work for the less able students:


What students need to do is to have the space to talk through problems in mixed-ability groups so that less able students communicate with more able students and improve their knowledge of a topic:

When teachers nurture discussion, they really manage to raise levels of achievement. This is why a “no hands-up” rule often works very well because it forces students to discuss key issues in groups.


Students also need to adopt positive attitudes towards learning and to adopt a “Growth Mindset” where they believe that can achieve if they try. Rewarding students for effort not for their innate ability is vital in this regard:

While some of these methods might seem suspiciously trendy to some more traditional teachers – no hands-up, co-operative learning, Growth Mindset –
some methods are quite old-fashioned. Bell advocates “rote-learning” where appropriate:


He also says that teachers must be giving students the big picture of a topic consistently, as well as the fine detail. This is something many teachers neglect to do.


In the interview, Bell discussed the major researchers in this area, who are: Michael Shayer and Philip AdeyJohn HattieRobert Marzano. Here he talks about how Cognitive Acceleration developed following classroom experiences in the 1970s.  It enables less able students to understand complex topics:


In this clip, he talks at greater length about the methods and approaches of the evidence-based approach:


Bell’s own video, The Case for Evidence-Based Teaching, is a good summary of all the main points he makes:


Let’s hope that teachers are given more support and training in these vital areas. Instead of wasting billions on initiatives that we know don’t work, we need to nurture a system which really helps teachers use strategies which are proven to raise standards.

You can join EBTN by following this link.  EBTN also offer training sessions either at your school/college or at an external venue.  I think they offer amazing value.
Share on Twitter Share on Facebook

Be notified by email of each new post.


Roger Titcombe's picture
Wed, 13/08/2014 - 20:09

Francis - An interesting post that addresses the issue of why pupils cannot be 'taught' to handle abstractions. This is fundamentally at the core of Piaget's developmentalism. The acquisition of abstract strategies is developmental, takes time and is therefore slow and reflective rather than high pressured and incentive driven, and crucially is general in its application.

Consider the developmental progression in English teaching from simile, through metaphor to allegory. The latter cannot be taught directly but deeper levels of comprehension can be acquired developmentally through the sort of approaches described in your post.

The R L Stevenson tale Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde can be read at many levels and by means of such exploration (best shared through peer-to-peer discussion - Vygotsky) factual concrete narrative (Piaget) can progress to formal allegory (Piaget again).

Science teachers deal in the same sorts of progressions all the time and your contributor is right that the deepest levels of scientific (and mathematical) understanding are addressed through analogy, which is just allegory explored in a lab instead of an English literature classroom.

How children learn and develop is fascinating and should be at the heart of pedagogy. It is what all teachers, but even more importantly executive SLTs, should be debating all the time.

There have probably never been as many educationalists saying much the same in different ways with so little effect on the English education system at government level.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Fri, 15/08/2014 - 17:16

Yes, your work has highlighted this point you make as well: "The acquisition of abstract strategies is developmental, takes time and is therefore slow and reflective rather than high pressured and incentive driven, and crucially is general in its application." I think this point you make is ABSOLUTELY vital!!

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 16/08/2014 - 07:20

Francis - you might be surprised (or maybe not) that a much-praised head of one of the first primary academies said academy conversion meant 'she could abandon the requirement that primary teachers have half a day a week for lesson preparation'. She said:

‘Teachers felt it was disruptive to their children and their classes'.

How much more inspiring it would have been if the head had announced teachers were going to use time to research and reflect on their practice.

Arthur Harada's picture
Thu, 14/08/2014 - 15:37

Spot on critical analysis Francis. Although teacher education via attendance for 3/4 years or via a PGCE is deservedly accused of having shortcomings, sometimes severe, to the best of my knowledge and experience as an external assesor of teacher education courses, such courses did include consideration of the work of Paiget, Bruner, Taba, Sheldon, Vygostky, Wheeler, Mager, Craft, Raynor and Cohen, Martin Shipman, Edgar Stones as examples of teaching styles and methodology. Now no longer evident in Teach First tutoring. And for those who would claim the publications of such educationalists is somewhat dated they do post-date as exemplars the teachings of the Old and New Testaments, the Koran and the Talmud which many of us still endeavour to permeate all aspects of our daily lives..

Francis Gilbert's picture
Fri, 15/08/2014 - 17:17

Yes, and it's also very important for teachers to CONTINUE having the space to study these thinkers while they are teaching. I think Bell's point about free periods are very important.

Ingenue Governor's picture
Fri, 15/08/2014 - 21:20

Happy to report that my "requires improvement" Primary School has embedded many of these principles over the last year with a significant improvement in progress.
However , we are well aware (BEGRUDGINGLY!!) that the catalyst for this drive on improvement was our OFSTED judgement of RI and the forced academisation of two nearby schools. The single measure that enabled this was the creation of a second assistant head post and release of deputy head from the classroom so free to focus on developing teaching practice along the lines in your post.

Ingenue Governor's picture
Fri, 15/08/2014 - 21:29

i.e it was not the individual teachers who did the primary research but the leadership team who then disseminated and reviewed proposals with the teaching staff. However there were two very experienced teachers who dug their heels in about developing their teaching ; they took the changes very personally as being critical of their methods ( they didn't claim to be "bullied by leadership " but it was close and there was, sadly, significant sick leave)......it's a very difficult situation when the majority of teachers "buying into change" and the progress benefits are actually the less experienced and the more experienced feel slighted.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Sat, 16/08/2014 - 09:56

Ingenue Governor - A sad story but I blame the SLT. The SLT responsibility is to inspire the teachers to think deeply about the education process, join with department meetings, preferably do some teaching. and then respond to the requests for support for change that come from the teachers as a result.

What you describe suggests that 'cascading' is the dominant professional development activity and that the school overwhelms its teachers with successive PR tsunamis of 'mission-speak management-babble and b*******.

No wonder the experienced teachers can't cope.

However I do recognise that there sometimes are recalcitrant doom spreaders and naysayers in staffrooms. These are the sorts of issues that good heads and SLTs meet and devise strategies for managing.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Sat, 16/08/2014 - 09:57

Ingenue Governor - My comments are meant generally - not in relation to your school.

Ingenue Governor's picture
Mon, 18/08/2014 - 05:55

That's Ok Roger, I am entirely confident that none of your generalisations about PR trsumis etc apply to my school ( apart from possibly the last point about naysayers)- unless of course that is how you consider the recommendations made in Francis' post . It's only the non-education sector governors that the SLT ignore ( via some pretty impressive passive-aggressive techniques actually!) !

As i read more and more articles promoting teachers using evidence based practice it becomes apparent that the promotion is not aimed at the SLT but at Roger's staffroom "naysayers" .

Andy V's picture
Mon, 18/08/2014 - 13:44

"I am entirely confident that none of your generalisations ... apply to my school", to which I would add that I have yet to meet a Primary School SLT member who doesn't have a timetable. It has also been my experience that unlike their Secondary School counterparts a significant number of Primary School Head Teachers also have timetables.

… discredited rubric for school inspections shows. Mike Bell at the Evidence Based Teachers Network estimates that 95% of teachersare not aware of which teaching techniques are proven to work in the classroom. The best research …

Add new comment

Already a member? Click here to log in before you comment. Or register with us.