The Research Files Episode 80: Beginning teachers and teaching quality

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Hello and thanks for listening to this episode of The Research Files by Teacher magazine, I’m Rebecca Vukovic.

New research from the University of Newcastle has found that early career teachers deliver the same quality of teaching as their more experienced colleagues. In fact, when the researchers in this study looked at lessons delivered by teachers with experience ranging from less than one year in the classroom to more than 24 years, they found no statistically significant differences in teaching quality. In today’s episode we’re joined by the lead researcher on this project and Director of the Teachers and Teaching Research Centre at the University of Newcastle, Laureate Professor Jenny Gore. You may remember that Jenny has been a guest on a previous podcast episode and has written several articles for Teacher. In today’s episode though, she joins me to talk all about this study on the relationship between years of experience and quality teaching, why they decided to do this research in the first place, and how the findings are both surprising and counterintuitive. Let’s jump in.

Rebecca Vukovic: Professor Jenny Gore, welcome back to the Teacher magazine podcast. Thanks for joining me today.

Jenny Gore: Absolute pleasure Rebecca, thank you.

RV: We’re here today to talk about your research that explores the fundamental relationship between teachers’ years of experience and the quality of their teaching. The findings to come from this study are really fascinating and we’ll chat a lot more about them later in the episode. To begin though, why did you and your colleagues decide to do this research in the first place? What was the impetus?

JG: We’ve been really interested over many years in the constant barrage of political opinion and media opinion about the inadequacy of initial teacher education and the preparedness of beginning teachers to kind of come out and hit the ground running. And there’s a lot of, I guess, assumptions made there that beginning teachers are really underprepared for the classroom or not ready to begin their careers.

Because we’ve been doing a whole lot of large-scale research studies with let’s say ‘mountains of data’ we were in a really good position to look at this question quite systematically: what is that relationship between years of experience and the quality of teaching? And there’s a fair bit to unpack in that because of course how we understand the quality of teaching needs to be addressed and even how we understand what a beginning teacher is needs to be addressed. But we thought, let’s put a stop to some of the speculation and the opinion-based views and provide some really rigorous evidence about that relationship.

RV: I understand that to do this study you analysed 990 lessons taught by year 3 and 4 teachers in New South Wales public schools, but I’d love to get a bit more detail on how you actually went about conducting this research. Could you tell us about the method you used?

JG: We were actually doing randomised-controlled trials where we were looking at the effects of Quality Teaching Rounds, which is a particular approach to teacher professional development. But as part of those studies, we were looking at the quality of teaching before and after teachers participated in an intervention. In this study we were only looking at the baseline data, so it wasn’t affected by any particular form of professional development and we actually went into classrooms, we watched entire lessons. And when I say ‘we’ it was the researchers involved but also a team of trained research assistants and we have really high inter-rater reliability scores and so on, which means that we can be quite certain that the data that we gathered is high quality data, that the observations are reliable, that other people coded them in the same way.

So, our researchers watched entire lessons and coded them with the Quality Teaching Model. Now, the Quality Teaching Model is a three-dimensional model of good teaching. There’s 18 elements within the model and each element is coded on a 1-5 scale. So that enabled us to actually compare the lessons taught by teachers across the whole experience spectrum. You probably want me to explain the Quality Teaching Model, Rebecca.

RV: Yeah I’m just thinking, for any listeners perhaps who are unfamiliar with the model, could you tell them what it is and how it works?

JG: Yeah, so it’s really a model or a representation of good teaching that’s been derived from all the research literature on what is effective practice and from thousands of hours of observation in Australian classrooms. And so there are 3 key ideas. We’re basically arguing, on the basis of all of this prior research, that every lesson should be attentive to intellectual quality or you can say, intellectual challenge or rigour. What we mean there is that there is a focus on developing a deep understanding of important knowledge, important ideas. The second key dimension of the Quality Teaching Model is we establish a quality learning environment. In some schools, the focus is on supporting students and we would argue we also have to support their learning, and so it’s ensuring that the classrooms are positive places to be and that they’re boosting student learning.

And then the third dimension is significance, and this is about making lessons relevant to students’ lives and to the wider world. And the research shows that when students receive pedagogical or teaching experiences where intellectual quality, the quality learning environment and the significance are all high, they get better outcomes, better academic outcomes. So that’s kind of in a nutshell, the model. And that’s what was used to make this determination about, or to measure if you like, quality teaching for this particular study.

RV: Yeah fantastic. Let’s dive deep into those findings now. Jenny, what were the key findings to come from this research?

JG: So, the main thing – and it is somewhat surprising – is that we found no statistically significant differences in the average quality of teaching across all of the years of experience categories that were involved in the study. So, we had teachers who were in their first year, right through to teachers who had been teaching for more than 24 years. And however we analysed the data – so, for example building on prior research, some people define beginning teachers as those in their first year, some say in their first 3 years, some say in their first 5 years – so whichever way we analysed the data we found that there was no significant difference in teaching quality as measured by that model, the Quality Teaching Model, across the experience categories.

RV: Wow, so like you just said the results from this study were both surprising and also somewhat counterintuitive, and I’m sure they got a lot of people talking. What has been the response from teachers and the wider education community since you published the paper?

JG: We’ve had really widespread engagement. So The Conversation piece that was published has had more than 25,000 readers in a really short space of time and the academic paper published has also had lots of readers and lots of engagement. People are talking about it a lot, obviously, and are interested in this finding and people are trying to understand why? And so, within the paper we talk about 2 main possible explanations for this result.

The first is that actually initial teacher programs are not doing too badly at all in terms of preparing graduates who are ready to get into classrooms and start making a difference and deliver good quality teaching. And so we do challenge that assumption that there’s a problem with initial teacher education. And I will just say, one of my passions throughout my career has been the reform of teacher education, so I don’t believe it’s perfect and of course it can continue to improve, but I think blaming teacher education and blaming beginning teachers for some of the ills of the education system is probably not, well definitely not the most productive way forward. We need to do some other things. But, anyway, that’s the first explanation – teacher ed isn’t so bad.

The second explanation, and I think it’s also quite powerful, is that most teachers don’t receive professional development that fundamentally impacts on their pedagogy, on how they teach. So, we know that all teachers in Australia, pretty much all, engage in professional development every year. We know that there is a huge investment in professional development financially, as well as taking up teachers’ time. A lot of that professional development is about curriculum, assessment, reporting, the new syllabuses, it’s about bullying and cyberbullying, mindfulness, even the basic and really important health-related things like anaphylaxis training. But, in terms of professional development that really impacts on the way teachers go about their work in the classroom and what they’re trying to achieve, I think that it’s been quite limited.

And so this approach to professional development actually transforms for many teachers how they understand good teaching. And if I might give you an example, there was a deputy principal I interviewed and he said after engaging with the Quality Teaching Model, he was probably 40 so we’re talking about an experienced teacher, he said ‘this is the first time in my career I feel I’m actually teaching students. Until now, I’ve just been giving them work to do’. So it’s quite a profound transformation of how engagement with the Quality Teaching Model gave him a new sense of what it means to teach, and we find that is a really consistent experience for teachers who engage in the Quality Teaching Model.

So I think, to some extent, the finding is surprising but on the other hand, it’s not. It’s not when you understand that teacher ed isn’t so bad and that most teachers are not getting a lot of professional development. And I think the one other caveat that I want to convey is that, of course, we were just looking at the quality of teaching in lessons. We weren’t looking at all of teachers’ work and we know that teachers’ work is much bigger than the quality of teaching in the classroom. It’s just that we also know that the quality of teaching in the classroom is the thing that makes the greatest difference for kids’ outcomes and unfortunately with all the noise and everything that’s going on in schools, often teachers have limited time to talk with each other and to work on that really important side of things, which is that work in the classroom.

Instead, we know that teachers are overburdened often with administrative functions and a whole lot of other demands on their time. So it’s a very interesting result and I think it just highlights also that experience and expertise are not the same thing. We all know that you can have, as one of my colleagues many years ago used to say, ‘you can have one years’ experience many times over’ or you can have things that really do transform how you understand your work and how you go about your practice.

RV: Well it certainly is really interesting research and you have got a lot of people talking about this issue. So, for now, Professor Jenny Gore, thanks for sharing your research and your insights with Teacher magazine.

JG: You’re very welcome, Rebecca. Thank you.

That’s all for this episode. You’ll find links to the research paper we spoke about in the transcript published on the Teacher magazine website. Don’t forget to subscribe to our podcast channel on Spotify or Apple podcasts, and if you’d like to leave us a rating or a review, it really helps us out. We’ll be back with a brand-new episode very soon.

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Gore, J., Rosser, B., Jaremus, F., Miller, A., & Harris, J. (2023). Fresh evidence on the relationship between years of experience and teaching quality. The Australian Educational Researcher, 1-24.

Think about your initial teacher training program. Do you think it adequately prepared you for what your face every day in the classroom? Did you feel ready to start making a difference and deliver good quality teaching?

Think about the professional development you’ve participated in recently. Do you believe it fundamentally impacted on your pedagogy? What did it teach you about quality classroom practice?