To improve practices, focus on teacher-student interactions, study says

Kindergarten teacher helping student with reading skillsAsk students to describe their best teachers and they’ll almost always have a fairly simple answer: their best teachers are supportive, nice, amusing and helpful.

Much of the latest research on what makes a teacher great has produced a bounty of specific practices any teacher can adopt in the classroom. What’s missing in these prescribed lists of effective practices is a theoretical framework to help teachers organize their efforts to improve, says a new study in The Elementary School Journal. The study tests a 3-domain framework of teacher-student interactions that can serve as an organizing principle for improvement, the authors write.

Effective teaching has many moving parts, including the knowledge, practices and beliefs of teachers. The “Teaching through Interaction” framework categorizes classroom practices in the domains of emotional support, classroom organization and management and instructional support.

“Although we recognize that there are many things that teachers do that may make them effective (e.g., provide assignments and homework, assess their students, and collaborate with parents and other teachers), we focus exclusively on the nature and quality of their interactions with students for several reasons,” the authors write.

“Developmental theory and research provides strong support for the idea that it is the daily interactions that children and adolescents have with adults and peers that drive learning and development.”

Researchers analyzed data from 4,341 preschool to 6th-grade classrooms across the U.S. gathered as part of 7 national and regional studies to test the Teaching through Interaction framework. The 7 studies covered a broad array of student and classroom characteristics. The  video of teacher observations from these studies were reviewed to sort classroom practices into the domains. Researchers concluded that their framework “fit” the data. They note that in this study the framework was not validated against student outcomes.

Many of the studies made use of the observational measure, Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS), developed to evaluate teacher-student interactions. Another measure of teacher-student interactions, the Classroom Observation System, was also used in some of the studies. In CLASS, teachers are rated on all the different dimensions in the 3 domains. For example, the domain of Emotional Support has 4 dimensions—positive climate, negative climate, teacher sensitivity and regard for student perspectives. Teachers are rated on behavioral markers (physical proximity, shared activities, matched affect and social conversation) with a 7-point rating scale.

Providing emotional support is a critical part of teaching that may be neglected as beginning teachers focus on improving their classroom organization and management. As they gain experience, teachers improve in their classroom organization and management skills, but a different pattern is found for emotional support. Initial increases are followed by declines over time, suggesting teachers may be affected by the stress and demands of their jobs.

“The teaching through Interactions framework offers only one window into teacher effectiveness,” the authors write. “However, we argue that interactions among teachers and students are among the most important aspects of teachers’ jobs.”

“Teaching through Interactions: Testing a Developmental Framework of Teacher Effectiveness in over 4,000 Classrooms,” Bridger Hamre et al., The Elementary School Journal, 2013, Volume 113, Number 4, pp. 461-487.

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