‘Great teaching is the opposite of what you learn in training’

The Department for Education’s former teacher in residence has claimed excellent teaching is the “direct opposite” of what he was taught during teacher training – criticising teachers who employ a “child-centred” approach.

Robert Peal, a former Teach First trainee who now teaches history at West London Free School, called for an end to teaching that gives pupils “autonomy and independence”.

While outlining his vision of great teaching during a debate at Teach 2017 today, organised by Ark academy trust, Peal said: “I think excellent teaching is the direct opposite of what was taught during teacher training.

“We have too romantic an idea of how it is that pupils learn, we value autonomy and working independence.”

Opening his speech by declaring he was going to be as “controversial as possible”, Peal said: “We get told a great teacher isn’t a ‘sage on stage’, but a ‘guide by the side’. That’s perhaps the worst advice you can give a new teacher.

“If I had my way you’d be struck off for five years from the profession.”

Peal finished a stint as the government’s ‘teacher in residence’ last year, a role where serving teachers are employed as civil servants for up to 12 months.

During his time at the department he wrote speeches for Gibb, as well as advising him on policy.

Peal added: “Year on year there is a growing body of evidence that the teacher-led, ‘sage on the stage’ model is far more effective than the child-centred approach.”

He said PISA results from 2015 found that enquiry-based teaching was correlated with worse outcomes in all 56 countries whose pupils were tested, compared to teacher-led.

“To be a great teacher you have to embrace the idea you are an authority. For behaviour, you’re a moral authority, and for subject, you’re a subject authority.

“Embrace that and don’t be afraid of it.”

Peal added there should still be questioning and discussion, with pupils having their own ideas.

But said: “This should be very deliberately sequenced and thought about… Pupils have wonderful ideas, but you always have to be aware underlying those moments are hours of hours of unglamorous, difficult and boring prompt work.”

Fellow panellist Harry Fletcher-Wood, associate dean at the Institute for Teaching, said that experience was “radically undervalued” in great teaching.

He also said that virtual reality could help reshape teaching – particularly in areas without access to great teaching.

Sir David Carter, the national schools commissioner, had opened the event earlier in the day.


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  1. Peel makes a mistake in implying that ‘child-centred’ means ‘child-led’. It isn’t. It’s education that focuses on the child. If children aren’t at the centre of education, then who or what is? Politicians? Employers? Parents?

  2. Peel lacks understanding about the importance of teaching to raise cognitive ability as the only way of increasing the proportion of pupils that can understand difficult concepts. How would he be aware of such things? He criticises teacher training, but this has increasingly involved less and less teacher education. He needs to read this article.

  3. Chris Rolph

    As well as being the authority in terms of behaviour and subject knowledge, the teacher is also the authority when it comes to pedagogy, able to decide on the most appropriate tools to use in each situation and context. Sometimes this may be a didactic approach, at others it will look more like coaching; the ability to use a “horses for courses” approach is what distinguishes a great teacher from one who simply tries to follow a formula. Such a teacher will understand what challenges and support the children need and adjust accordingly; in this sense the approach is of course centred on the child. And the development of this level of understanding, competence and confidence is the aim of our best Initial Teacher Training programmes – and ongoing teacher education and CPD.

  4. I do have a problem with people that try to tell us there is just one effective model of teaching. Personally, I love giving students a problem that they can’t solve at the beginning of the lesson but through discussion draw out of them (ellicitation) the ideas and concepts that enable them to make sense of it. I much prefer showing a Star Wars clip with lots of loud explosions and then discussing why it is scientifically incorrect. Rather than just telling them straight out that sounds needs a medium to travel through. Such an approach does not work for everything and the skill is to know when to use such an approach and when not to. Mix it up.

  5. James Mook

    “I think excellent teaching is the direct opposite of what was taught during teacher training”
    This isn’t controversial, it’s just a lie. Nearly everything he says here is opinion, which is fine, but it’s not worthy of a lead article. He makes spurious claim after spurious claim.

    1. Where is this teaching that gives pupils “autonomy and independence”? One of the greatest challenges in teaching today is to make pupils more independent – they rely on teachers for everything which is why they struggle with those exam questions that look like nothing they’ve seen before.

    2. “We get told a great teacher isn’t a ‘sage on stage’, but a ‘guide by the side’” He may have been told this but I have never heard this phrase in 25 years of teaching and five years of working deeply in ITT. In fact, I’ve never heard either phrase.

    3. Whoever claimed that child-centred was analogous to enquiry-based? He did – no one else.

    4. “…for subject, you’re a subject authority” I thought he said he was going to be controversial? Where is the controversy in saying that a (secondary?) subject teacher needs to be a subject expert. Please show me one person who has claimed the opposite to this

    5. “…you always have to be aware underlying those moments are hours of hours of unglamorous, difficult and boring prompt work” Horses for courses, my friend. I don’t find learning lists of dates boring, in fact I really like it. And, anyway, has anyone ever claimed that learning will never be difficult? Or that learning will be glamorous?!

    I think what he’s doing is called the Straw Man Fallacy.

    • Peal conflates ‘child centred’ with ‘child led’. This is disingenuous. Child-centred is not letting children loose to decide if, when, what and how they learn. That’s a myth promoted by those who wish to impose one way of teaching in England even to the extent of sacking teachers who don’t conform to Peal’s views (which just happen to be those of schools minister Nick Gibb).

      Child-centred education is one that focuses on children’s learning. That’s where it should be. As PISA recently said in the report referred to by Peal above:

      ‘Even if there is no single “best” way of teaching, students need teachers who are challenging and innovative in the way they combine different instructional practices, and who can reach all types of learners by adapting the lessons to students’ needs and knowledge’. (p36 PISA 2015 Results Volume II downloadable here:

      Note the words ‘combine different instructional practices’. That means using different methods where appropriate. This will include direct instruction as well as enquiry-based learning. The dichotomy between the two is a false one.

  6. Peel ‘ s set of assertions are just that, born of both a lack of understanding of the wide core competencies that embrace teaching, and insufficient experience across age, stage and subject dimensions. In the EYES, his approach would have him banned from teaching. In PSHEE, he’d fail to give a sufficient time for the class to understand how their diversity fits with British values. In most A level subjects, his students would not demonstrate their own skills to argue, persuade and inform. JCQ would arrive to inspect his coached cheating in MFL controlled assessments, the exam boards would check his scripts for plagiarism…and in creative, team based work such as A level drama, the audiences would be invisible…
    Pupils’ voice isn’t something to be trifled with; it sits at the heart of resilient, community based successful schools, where adults arrive du die cent children come to work together to serve each other.

  7. Sandra Clark

    Robert Peal teaches my child who is absolutely thriving, in fact she enjoys the subject he teaches so much she wants to study it. She reads extra curricular books on history because she is interested and inspired to do so by Mr Peal and judging by what her friends say (and they tend to be quite vocal on the subject of various teachers!) she’s not the only one at the school who enjoys being taught in this manner. So this sage on stage works and I feel very lucky to have him as a teacher for my child.

    • Wizzobravo

      I am sure that he is a super teacher and it is great that he is inspiring your daughter to learn history.

      However the problem I have with Mr Peal and his deliberately proactive statements is that he is falling into the trap of believing only his opinion is right. He has very limited classroom experience. I would be more prepared to take what he says as gospel if he was pontificating from thirty years in post. Also, teach first graduates learn on the job, don’t they? Is he saying Teach First is not the answer?

      Making sweeping generalisations based on dinner party conversations with people of of a similar political hue has seriously hampered good education policy in this country. Perhaps a more provocative idea could have been for him to have stated that effective teaching methods are diverse and there is little point in worrying about how learning is conveyed so long as the learner can demonstrate a love of learning, an awareness of how to learn and the requisite knowledge that one needs to achieve what one needs to achieve.

      What is shocking is that people are advising the DfE with such startling lack of qualification. God help us all. Enough with such amateurish arrogance.

  8. 25 years ago perhaps teacher training was different. In recent years (i can speak for itt in 2010) guide on the side was the rage along with differentiation, iwb, powerpoint, technology, VAK, Bloom, 3 part lessons, wenaries, behaviour management via edutainment, triple marking, not using red pens, etc. After which NQTs were put in the real world, where very little of what they were told, worked. Could this be be why experienced teachers with very different teacher training are surviving, and recent trainees are leaving in droves? Let’s actually find out what works and use those techniques, properly research new approaches, keep those that work and drop those that don’t.