Mary James, the Teaching and Learning Research Programme (TLRP) deputy director, describes the most important messages that have arisen out of this national multi-faceted exploration of teaching and learning practice

It is difficult to ignore the cascade of government initiatives that have been publicised in recent years, but schools may be less aware that working hard in the background has been has been the biggest programme of coordinated research in teaching and learning that the UK has ever known. Costing about £40m spread over 12 years (2000-12), the total number of projects within the Teaching and Learning Research Programme (TLRP) is likely to exceed 70. Projects cover contexts of learning across the entire lifecourse, from early years to old age, and involve research teams from all parts of the UK.

Serious research takes time and it is only now that we can begin to see clear messages emerging from the accumulating evidence. Projects based in schools were among the first to be set up and most are now complete and publishing their individual results. So this is an appropriate time to take stock of what we have learned about learning and teaching in schools more generally. This is not easy because projects were not selected to cover the field in a comprehensive way. The policy of the steering committee was to select the ‘best’ bids on the strength of their scientific quality and the extent to which they engaged with potential users, eg policymakers and practitioners. Thus a rather diverse group of projects were funded: some dealing with learning in specific areas of the curriculum, some on learning across the curriculum, and others investigating environments for learning or school conditions for improvement. Twenty schools projects were funded in total and a further three, funded from other sources, have been added as associate projects. Of these, four projects focused particularly on secondary education and nine projects spanned school phases.

TLRP projects working with secondary schools

Secondary education:

  • EPSE: Towards Evidence-based Practice in Science Education (Director: Prof Robin Millar)
  • InterActive Education: Teaching and Learning in the Information Age (Director: Prof Ros Sutherland)
  • From Black Boxes to Glass Boxes: Computerised Concept Mapping in Schools (Director: Robin Bevan)
  • Facilitating Teacher Engagement in More Inclusive Practices (Director: Dr Sue Davies)

Across school phases:

  • Consulting Pupils about Teaching and Learning (Director: Prof Jean Rudduck)
  • Understanding and Developing Inclusive Practices in Schools (Director: Prof. Mel Ainscow)
  • SPRinG: Improving the Effectiveness of Pupil Groups in Classrooms (Director: Prof Maurice Galton for the secondary element)
  • LHTL: Learning How to Learn, in Classrooms, Schools and Networks (Director: Prof Mary James)
  • Lessons for Learning: Using Research Study Lessons to Innovate and Transfer Metapedagogy (Director: Pete Dudley)
  • 5-14 Mathematics in Scotland: The Relevance of Intensive Quantities (Director: Prof Christine Howe)
  • CPAL: Consulting Pupils on the Assessment of their Learning (Director: Dr Ruth Leitch)
  • The Use of ICT to Improve Learning and Attainment through Interactive Teaching (Director: Dr Steve Kennewell)
  • VITAE: Variations in Teachers’ Work and Lives and their Effects on Pupils (Director: Prof Chris Day)

In 2006, the TLRP coordinating team began work on looking across project findings to see whether any overarching messages were emerging. A TLRP Commentary entitled Improving Teaching and Learning in Schools was the first statement of our tentative conclusions. Fifteen thousand copies have been distributed and more than 60,000 have been downloaded from the TLRP website.

At the heart of this publication are 10 principles for effective teaching and learning. Some of these will be familiar to teachers but the important point is that TLRP projects provide sound evidence for them. We have also ‘tested’ their validity in discussion with various audiences. They seem to stand up pretty well, so, in 2007, we published them again as a poster inside a magazine called Principles into Practice: A Teacher’s Guide. This has been sent out, with a DVD, to every school in the UK.

Each of the 10 principles is first expressed as a simple statement beginning with the stem: ‘Effective teaching and learning…’ It is then expanded in a description of the practices that are seen as important. Each principle was also mapped against the evidence that supported it. Such evidence comes from across school sectors but, in the account on the two following pages, we concentrate on the evidence from secondary schools.

Ten principles for effective learning and teaching

1. Effective teaching and learning equips learners for life in its broadest sense
Learning should aim to help individuals and groups to develop the intellectual, personal and social resources that will enable them to participate as active citizens, contribute to economic development and flourish as individuals in a diverse and changing society. This may mean expanding conceptions of worthwhile learning outcomes and taking seriously issues of equity and social justice for all. 

As the first and most important aim of TLRP, all projects were expected to work to improve outcomes for learners. In the early days it was mostly assumed that this meant increasing attainment on tests and examinations. As the work progressed, researchers sought to broaden the concept of outcomes beyond those defined by the current standards agenda. The need to do this was emphasised by the work of the Inclusion projects, which saw engagement with learning as crucial. The project on group work (SPRinG), researched the affective dimension as an outcome of learning as well as a precondition for academic success. Research at KS3 found gains in social-emotional relationships, behaviour and participation, as well as higher conceptual learning. The Learning How to Learn (LHTL) project concluded that a capacity for autonomous learning is possibly the most important outcome for students who will live and work in the fast moving world of the 21st century.

2. Effective teaching and learning engages with valued forms of knowledge
Teaching and learning should engage learners with the big ideas, key processes, modes of discourse and narratives of subjects so that they understand what constitutes quality and standards in particular domains.

TLRP projects that focused on particular subjects showed that teachers need to possess both a good understanding of the subjects they teach and of the best ways to teach them. The project on evidence-based practice in science education (EPSE) identified nine key themes that should be taught as part of the school curriculum. It also showed that insights from research were readily used by teachers when they were transformed into worked examples. This was also a key finding of the Intensive Quantities Project in Scotland.

3. Effective teaching and learning recognises the importance of prior experience and learning
Teaching and learning should take account of what the learner knows already in order to plan their next steps. This includes building on prior learning but also taking account of the personal and cultural experiences of different groups of learners.

Pressures for ‘delivery’ and ‘coverage’ can work against the promotion of deep and secure learning, and enhanced motivation. Teachers need time to diagnose learning difficulties and help pupils to improve. This was a foundation principle of the LHTL project, which built on assessment for learning practice; it also underpinned the focus on developing diagnostic questions in science in the EPSE project. The Inclusion projects encouraged teachers to challenge their taken-for-granted assumptions about the prior knowledge and experience of certain groups of children.

4. Effective teaching and learning requires the teacher to scaffold learning
Teachers should provide activities and structures of intellectual, social and emotional support to help learners to move forward in their learning so that when these supports are removed the learning is secure.

The way teachers plan and structure activities in the classroom, and the role of classroom dialogue in scaffolding, was a theme in a number of projects. The InterActive project found scaffolding learning, by teachers, to be crucial across the whole range of school subjects because it promoted sustained, mindful engagement. The role of mediating tools, such as computers, need to be understood in this context. The ‘Glass Boxes’ study showed that concept-mapping software used to support collaborative dialogue, resulted in gains in both learning and achievement.

5. Effective teaching and learning needs assessment to be congruent with learning
Assessment should be designed and implemented with the goal of achieving maximum validity both in terms of learning outcomes and learning processes. It should help to advance learning as well as determine whether learning has occurred.

The EPSE Project found that testing focused on factual recall often overestimates students’ understanding of key concepts. The team concluded that that understanding cannot be measured by a single question. Similarly the attempt to construct a simple ‘test’ of ‘learning how to learn’ proved problematic. Complex learning behaviours and outcomes need more subtle measures which require observation over time and across different contexts. This is an argument for a greater role for teachers in summative assessment, as well as formative assessment.

6. Effective teaching and learning promotes the active engagement of the learner
A chief goal of teaching and learning should be the promotion of learners’ independence and autonomy. This involves acquiring a repertoire of learning strategies and practices, developing positive learning dispositions, and having the will and confidence to become agents in their own learning.

Most TLRP schools projects emphasised the importance of developing learning awareness, explicit learning practices, positive learning dispositions, and learning autonomy.  However, the LHTL Project found that, while teachers want to promote learning autonomy in their pupils, they find it difficult. Those who were most successful were those who took responsibility for what happened in their classrooms, and reflected on what they could do to improve matters, rather than blame external pressures or pupil characteristics. 

7. Effective teaching and learning fosters both individual and social processes and outcomes
Learners should be encouraged and helped to build relationships and communication with others for learning purposes, in order to assist the mutual construction of knowledge and enhance the achievements of individuals and groups. Consulting learners about their learning and giving them a voice is both an expectation and a right.

The SPRinG Project demonstrated the benefits of efforts to improve the quality of group work and students’ mastery of cooperation and collaboration. Pupils involved in these developments made significant academic gains, which were stable across schools in different social contexts. This confirms the importance of dialogue. Other projects examined the benefits of making space for teachers to consult students about their learning. The Consulting Pupils Project found that taking students’ views seriously enhances self-esteem and agency and improves learning opportunities. However, these researchers also found that in the ‘acoustic of the classroom’ some pupils have more communicative competence, and are ‘heard’, more than others. Teachers need to be alert to social class and gender differences. The CPAL Project, which extended these themes, used the concepts of space, voice, audience and influence, from the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (Article 12), as a framework for understanding the possibilities and challenges of encouraging student participation and consultation.

8. Effective teaching and learning recognises the significance of informal learning
Informal learning, such as learning out of school, should be recognised as at least as significant as formal learning and should therefore be valued and appropriately utilised in formal processes.

At classroom level, teachers can be encouraged and helped to value and build on informal learning. For example, projects investigating ICT in schools found that schools sometimes underestimate the extent of computer expertise derived out of school.

9.  Effective teaching and learning depends on teacher learning
The need for teachers to learn continuously in order to develop their knowledge and skill, and adapt and develop their roles, especially through classroom inquiry, should be recognised and supported.

TLRP has produced substantial evidence on the needs and character of teachers’ professional development. That students’ learning depends substantially on teachers’ learning is perhaps the overriding finding from TLRP schools projects. In subject areas, as in relation to more generic approaches to learning, teachers were found to need opportunities to develop their own knowledge, beliefs and values, as well as their practical skills.

The LHTL Project found that teachers need to possess frameworks of concepts and principles to guide the decisions they make in the unpredictable situations they often encounter in classrooms. Without this there is a danger of practice becoming ritualised and mechanistic. TLRP evidence suggests that this development is best achieved through teachers’ critical inquiry, with colleagues, in classrooms contexts. The Research Lesson Study Project researched a model for CPD that is school-based, longer term, collaborative and inquiry-based. The Inclusive Project, noted that visits from teachers in other schools was valued for questioning assumptions, although the Facilitating Teacher Engagement in More Inclusive Practices Project found that teachers have to deal with uncertainty in changing their practice. Schools with cultures of participation and inquiry, and professional networks, are in a good position to support this but they benefit from help from local and national providers.

Specific, targeted professional development materials and courses were also valued. For example, the SPRinG, LHTL, EPSE and Intensive Quantities Projects found that offering teachers practical strategies, based on principles and evidence, provided much-needed support for setting up, managing and improving the effectiveness of innovations in everyday classroom settings.

10. Effective teaching and learning demands consistent policy frameworks with support for teaching and learning as their primary focus
Institutional and system-level policies need to recognise the fundamental importance of teaching and learning and be designed to create effective learning environments for all learners. 

A number of TLRP projects investigated the impact of policy on teaching and learning. Most noted that when senior management support innovation it becomes sustainable. However, LHTL Project headteachers revealed their concerns about leading learning in their schools within the context of prescriptive government policy. The greater the external pressure, the greater was the desire for flexibility, diversification and agency.

Further information:
Detailed information on the TLRP, its projects and publications, including downloads, can be found at www.tlrp.org. To receive information and be informed of findings please register your interests at www.tlrp.org/register.html