Thursday, 28 April 2011

Chris Port Blog #241. What Makes An Effective Teacher?

© Chris Port, Central School of Speech and Drama, 2000


It is difficult to see how we can discuss what makes an effective teacher as if there was some definitive Platonic quality of ‘effectiveness’. An object can only be ‘effective’ in relation to something else. The question of what makes an effective drama teacher can only be answered in relation to a subsidiary set of questions:

  1. What is the purpose of drama in education?
  2. How do drama students learn, and do they learn in different ways?
  3. Which methodologies best promote the teacher’s purpose in relation to the students’ different learning abilities?

In order to answer these subsidiary questions we will focus our discussion in the following three areas:

  1. What is the purpose of drama education?
  2. How do drama students learn?
  3. What methodologies are effective in promoting our purpose?

Our discussion will contextualise these three areas within both theoretical reading and experience at the placement school.

i) What is the purpose of drama education?

'Education is not a product: mark, diploma, job, money - in that order; it is a process, a never-ending one.' (Bel Kaufman cited in Tripp 1976:277).

The current emphasis on the purpose of education in general is that of achievement by raising measurable standards (c.f. Excellence in Schools 1997; Teachers Meeting the Challenge of Change 1998; The Arts Inspected: Good Teaching in Art, Dance, Drama, Music 1998; All Our Futures: Creativity, Culture & Education 1999).

Peter Abbs (1994) locates this dominant discourse under the fallacy of Catoism (a reductionist philosophy based on utility). He argues that the debate should be decentred to include the generic community of the arts as subjects for aesthetic study in their own right without recourse to utilitarian terms:

'If teachers attempt to justify the various disciplines of investigation and expression - the disciplines of the Arts, Sciences and Humanities - in utilitarian terms, they have already begun to betray them. (Abbs 1994:16).

The question then is can a teacher be ‘effective’ without reference to the utilitarian terms of measurement and ‘excellence’ as a means of providing social and vocational mobility.

Given the current neo-positivist climate, although it is difficult to find a single contemporary article on the arts which does not praise creativity, it is equally difficult to find an article which does not praise it as a precursor to raising achievement levels in some way.

Myers (1994) discusses the improvement of pupils’ performance in relation to achievement criteria (targets) set out in the 1984 Improving Secondary Schools report to ILEA. She notes that the media have focused increasingly on the most testable aspect (that of remembering and using facts) and less on the least measurable aspects (personal and social skills, motivation and self-confidence). Myers recommends various strategies to raise achievement levels in the less measurable aspects and explains the various problems involved in measuring progress from ‘raw’ league tables which do not start from a level playing field. 

There is nothing contentious in her principles or strategies if you accept that education is about raising educational standards. However, in the final analysis, she is still trapped in the language game of measuring progress by achievement levels (albeit within a wider consultative framework).

Myers’ (and others’) wider consultative frameworks appear to be undefined consensual arrangements based on getting the best results in utilitarian terms (what is ‘good’ is anything which achieves the greatest happiness of the greatest number; utilitarianism is, if nothing else, a philosophy which lends itself to numbers and empirical data).

If we cannot easily locate ‘effective teaching’ within an aesthetic discourse, can we at least locate it in the realms of empiricism?

It seems that, in the closing days of the twentieth century, educational, sociological and late global capitalist assessment methodologies are still using nineteenth century verification models (citing data from a third person perspective as proof) instead of Karl Popper’s falsification model (no theory is ‘scientific’ unless it makes predictions which are capable of being falsified by observation and experiment) (c.f. Searle 1996:11; McNiff 1993).

In essence, we are dealing with unfalsifiable models of effective teaching:

  • effective teaching is measured by progress in achievement levels;
  • progress in achievement levels is measured by exam results;
  • this model of effective teaching cannot be falsified, only verified.

Even if a student fails to attain a predicted grade, this does not falsify the theory. Either the teacher’s measurement was inaccurate or the student failed to ‘perform’ to target due to a range of possible invalidating factors (for example: ‘ineffective’ teaching; sociological factors such as parents or peer groups or poverty, or personal characteristics such as sheer laziness - although this may again be attributed to a lack of engagement due to ‘ineffective’ teaching). The theory itself remains uncompromised and thus cannot be regarded as scientific or empirical within any meaningful definition of these terms.

An ‘effective teacher’ is, tautologously, one who demonstrates, when assessed, the competencies prescribed in Standards for the Award of Qualified Teacher Status (DfEE 1998). The purpose of drama in education, it follows, is to fulfill the prescribed Qualified Teacher competencies by the simple expedient (simple in principle, complicated in practice) of raising pupils’ standards of achievement while allowing for differentiation of ability.

Unless or until there is a paradigm shift in our society’s attitudes towards aesthetics (a situation not yet foreseeable) then an effective drama teacher is one whose pupils demonstrate progression in attainment targets and (where appropriate) improvement in behaviour (falling under social skills). Effective teaching, in our current paradigm, is verifiable but not falsifiable.

In the context of the placement school for phases A to C, there is a great emphasis on ‘middle-management’ strategies to improve exam results. The proportion of pupils passing at least five GCSEs at grades A-C over past four years in the placement school was as follows: 


(Source: Clare 1999:20). 

The attainment target for 1999 was 50% (a shortfall of 14%). The main middle-management strategy implemented has been a banding system for Years 7 to 9 based on previous attainment levels (opposed by some teachers in school, including the Drama, Dance and Music Departments, on the grounds that it creates unmanageable ‘sink’ groups, often with a high concentration of pupils with Special Educational Needs).

There has also been an increase in teachers’ extra-curricular, supervisory and reporting duties in an attempt to promote a better ‘corporate image’.

It is notable that, of the Performing Arts Department incorporating Drama, Dance and Music, all of the previous staff left last year, some through stress-induced illnesses.

It is also notable that, of the 6 new staff employed as a ‘new start’ Performing Arts Department, one has already resigned, one has opted not to renew his contract, and a third has notified the Headteacher that they intend to leave regardless of their contractual obligation.

It is notable, on a daily basis, that the Performing Arts teachers are exhausted, frequently working 12 hour shifts before taking several hours of paperwork home.

For example:

  • covering early morning peripatetic lessons;
  • timetabled lessons;
  • cover lessons;
  • breaktime and lunch time supervision;
  • after-school meetings;
  • rehearsals and concerts;
  • taking marking home.

A common observation is that, if a teacher is exhausted, their energy levels are low; and if the teacher’s energy levels are low, their ability to motivate or enthuse their students is notably low. It is not a definable quality within the context of a document for qualified teacher status, but there is a noticeably high (focused) ‘energy level’ in the room when both teacher and students are on-task, and a noticeably low (unfocused) ‘energy level’ when students are bored or off-task. If effective learning is dependent upon a high ‘energy level’ (whatever that may mean), then anything which saps that energy (for example, overwork, bureaucracy and low morale) will tend to make a teacher ineffective.

Unfortunately, this extra-sensory perception of ‘energy levels’ is a purely intersubjective phenomenon based on variables such as whether the students ‘like’ or ‘respect’ the teacher or have a particular ‘passion’ for the subject, and does not readily lend itself to teaching strategies per se

A final observation on this point is that the increasing use of corporate language does not seem to enthuse teachers who thought they had gone into education rather than business.

The current emphasis on recording, monitoring and assessment (and the comparative lack of ICT resources and supplementary administration staff) make for an inefficient bureaucracy. An inefficient bureaucrat does not seem a particularly good model for an effective teacher.

It is interesting to note that the Department of Education and Employment has recently issued a document entitled Bureaucracy Cutting Toolkit (c.f. Lightfoot 1999:6) which advises teachers to refuse to do paperwork or perform extra-curricular duties unless they are required by law. Such developments seem promising but, in a late capitalism global economy market place, such attitudes might be regarded by a teacher’s employer as ‘unhelpful’.

In the final analysis, an effective teacher at the placement school may simply be one who can stay in employment and cope with the stresses of work.

ii) How do drama students learn?

'The whole art of teaching is only the art of awakening the natural curiosity of young minds for the purpose of satisfying it afterwards.' (Anatole France cited in Tripp 1976:959).

There is a saying that ‘Children love to learn but hate to be taught’ (Yasha Frank cited in Goldberg 1974:15). This implies that there may be some antagonism between learning and teaching.

Teaching strategies in post-war education have been influenced by 4 models of learning:

  1. Piaget’s constructivist model of learning as ordered structural change, a complex interaction between new thoughts and previous experiences (c.f. Boden 1994);
  2. Bruner’s interactive model of learning as the 'sharing and testing of intersubjective meanings and the negotiation of interpretations through interaction and the exercise of empathy’ (Cooper and McIntyre 1996:116).
  3. Vygotsky’s social constructivist  model, analogous to ‘scaffolding’ where ‘the zone of proximal development [the child’s cognitive ability to learn is] ... highly dependent on socio-cultural influences’ (Cooper and McIntyre 1996:117).
  4. Howard Gardner’s theory of Multiple Intelligences as a ‘pluralized way of understanding the intellect’ (Calvin 1998:1).

Of the above models of learning, Gardner (1993) appears to be in the ascendant in teaching methodologies. The theory of multiple intelligences seems to allow for more complex assessments of intelligence and learning ability than simple intelligence quotients (which have an inherent mathematical bias). It also concurs with the common-sense perception that different people seem to have differing levels of ability while not being noticeably more or less intelligent than each other. Whether  Gardner’s model has been incorporated into teaching strategies in any great depth is another matter though.

Although some concession is made for differentiation, and pupils with Special Educational Needs are identified through Individual Educational Plans, this is not usually evidenced in teachers' lesson plans (preparations for the recent OFSTED audit being the exception rather than the rule).

The recent introduction of banding (with a high concentration of pupils with Special Educational Needs in the lower band groups) means that schemes of work and lesson plans tend to be pitched at distinct group levels. The qualified teacher’s familiarity with individual student behavioural traits allows for more complex differentiation in the numerous undocumented interactions which constitute the majority of teaching. Detailed documentary evidence of differentiation is prevalent in the Beginning Teacher’s lesson plans (identified by the Mentor as ‘overplanning’) but this is simply a consequence of demonstrating competencies. Given the amount of paperwork generated by monitoring, assessment and reporting duties, the level of lesson planning needed to evidence differentiation is regarded by qualified teachers as ‘unrealistic’.

Differentiation in teaching and learning strategies for qualified teachers seems to be more intuitive than planned, based on experience rather than exposition, aimed at the general group level then occasionally adapted for the individual child. Gardner’s model of multiple intelligence, in the context of the placement school, would simply be too time-consuming in terms of planning and assessment. Vygotsky’s social constructivist model seems to be a closer match to practice. 

As Brian Simon (1999) argues:

'To develop effective pedagogy means starting from the opposite standpoint [to that of individual differentiation], from what children have in common as members of the human species; to establish the general principles of teaching and, in the light of these, to determine what modifications of  practice are necessary to meet specific individual needs.' (Simon 1999:42).

iii) What methodologies are effective in promoting our purpose?

'Higher education is booming in the United States; the Gross National Mind is mounting along with the Gross National Product.' (Malcolm Muggeridge cited in Tripp 1976:277).

Myers (1996) cites research that:

'...conflict and personality clashes were a source of significant problems in less effective departments and in the senior management teams of less effective schools.' (Myers 1996:2).

In the placement school, while staff relations within the Performing Arts Department are excellent, relations between the Department and the Headteacher are more problematic.

As an example, the new Department inherited a deeply problematic situation from the previous regime (little or no records on student assessment and attainment; an apparent lack of any consistent teaching over the previous year). Such problems could justifiably be attributed to a failure of senior management.

During the recent OFSTED audit, the inspector praised the standard of teaching in the Performing Arts Department with a caveat to senior management that the staff were overworked and exhausted. A few days later, the Headteacher remarked that the Department was ‘wallowing in misery instead of getting on with the job’.

An unfortunate example of poor personnel management, but not an isolated one (it resulted in a member of staff  demanding to be released from their contract). A failure of bureaucracy had led to ineffective teaching, overwork, exhaustion, and ultimately the loss of the whole of the previous Department and the imminent loss of half of the new one.

Is such a lamentable state of affairs due to the personalities involved? Or is it symptomatic of a deeper malaise identified by Schön (1995), that of a crisis of confidence in professional knowledge? Although Schön is primarily discussing the American professional model, his observations transpose remarkably easily to the British educational scene when he claims that:

'Practitioners are frequently embroiled in conflicts of values, goals, purposes, and interests. Teachers are faced with pressures for increased efficiency in the context of contracting budgets, demands that they rigorously “teach the basics,” exhortations to encourage creativity, build citizenship, help students to examine their values.'
(Schön 1995:20).

Schön goes on to review a Teacher’s Project in American public schools where he observes that teachers are subject to a similar system of controls to that of their students and are ‘monitored... rewarded or punished, according to the measures of their student’s progress'. (Schön 1995:330). Assessment methodologies can be subverted by students who ‘turn off’ or discover test techniques without absorbing knowledge in any depth.

Schön also ponders what happens when a teacher begins to think about such problems as a reflective practitioner and concludes that such reflection poses ‘a potential threat to the dynamically conservative system...’ (Schön 1995:332).

He proposes a shift from centrally administered measures of student progress toward the teacher’s qualitative judgments, acknowledging that the teacher’s reflection-in-action may bring them into conflict with school orthodoxies.

He concludes that:

An institution congenial to reflective practices would require a learning system within which individuals could surface conflicts and dilemmas and subject them to productive public inquiry, a learning system conducive to the continual criticism and restructuring of organizational principles and values. (Schön 1995:335-336).

It is unlikely in the extreme that the placement school would tolerate a learning system conducive to continual criticism of its organization principles. Also, given the general pressure on schools to maintain their corporate images and attract new students and funding, it is hard to envisage any schools surfacing their conflicts and dilemmas. If an effective teacher is to be a reflective practitioner, they had best keep their reflections to themself in our current educational system.

In conclusion, what methodologies are effective in promoting the purpose of drama education? The short answer is: those methods which achieve the best exam results. The longer answer is: those methods which generate more of the same methods.

The French Postmodernist philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard observes that research tends to legitimize itself through performativity (c.f. Powell 1998:31). Those methodologies which generate more research attract more funding. The criterion for successful research thus becomes whether it can generate more research of the same kind. The current vogue for research into how creativity might be used to raise educational standards as evidenced through attainment targets is probably the most successful line of research at the moment.

Therefore, an effective teacher in drama education will promote their subject as a specific artform with demonstrable attainment targets as well as extra-curricular benefits such as promoting the school’s corporate image and improving pupils’ social skills as preparation for the workplace.

The successful Beginning Teacher will use the competencies set out in Standards for the Award of Qualified Teacher Status as a template for effective teaching through the tautologous expedient that these standards are a verification of their effectiveness.


Abbs, P. (1994) The Educational Imperative: A Defence of Socratic and Aesthetic Learning, London, The Falmer Press.

Boden, M. (1994) Piaget, London, Fontana Press.

Calvin, A. (1998) ‘Dr. Howard Gardner: Multiple Intelligences Theory’ in EdWeb: Exploring Technology and School Reform,  pp1-2,

Clare, J. (1999) ‘School Performance Tables: Rural comprehensive is the star’ in The Daily Telegraph, 25 November 1999, pp 19-20.

Cooper, P. and McIntyre, D. (1996) Effective Teaching and Learning, Buckingham, Open University Press.

Department for Education and Employment (1997) Excellence in Schools, London, DfEE Publications.

Department for Education and Employment (1998) Standards for the Award of Qualified Teacher Status, London, DfEE.

Department for Education and Employment (1998) Teachers Meeting the Challenge of Change, London, DfEE Publications.

Department for Education and Employment (1999) All Our Futures: Creativity, Culture and Education, Sudbury, DfEE Publications.

Gardner, H. (1993) Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, London, Fontana Press.

Goldberg, M. (1974) Children’s Theatre: A Philosophy and a Method, New Jersey, Prentice-Hall Inc.

Lightfoot, L. (1999) ‘Teachers are told to dig in over red tape’ in The Daily Telegraph, 20 November 1999, p6.

McNiff, J. (1993) Teaching as Learning: An Action Research Project, London, Routledge.

Myers (1994) ‘Plain truths about higher fliers’, in TESNET - The Times Educational
Supplement, 4 November 1994, pp 1-8,

Myers (1996) ‘The route to effective teaching’, in TESNET - The Times Educational Supplement, 29 November 1996, pp 1-4,

Office for Standards in Education (1998) The Arts Inspected: Good Teaching in Art, Dance, Drama, Music, Oxford, Heinemann Educational Publishers.

Powell, J. (1998) Postmodernism for Beginners, London, Writers and Readers Ltd.

Schon, D.A. (1995) The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action, Hants, Ashgate Publishing Company.

Searle, J. (1996) ‘Contemporary Philosophy in the United States’, in The Blackwell Companion to Philosophy, (Eds.) Bunnin, N. and Tsui-James, E.P., Oxford, Blackwell Publishers Ltd.

Simon, B. (1999) ‘Why  No Pedagogy in England?’, in Learners and Pedagogy, (Eds.) Leach, J. and Moon, B., London, Paul Chapman Publishing Ltd.

Tripp, R.T. (Ed.) (1976) The International Thesaurus of Quotations, London, Penguin Books Ltd.

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