What makes teaching and learning effective?

An introductory video stresses the importance of relationships to learning.

Two videos introduce this consideration of what makes teaching and learning effective. The first is set in a traditional Chinese classroom. The second is the first of a television series in which Chinese teachers come to teach their methods in the UK. The thought piece is research about the how schools and school systems improve globally.

Reflection on the key lessons from this report encourages us to consider where we are at in the journey from poor to fair, fair to good, good to great and great to excellent. How can a school leader discover where their school sits on this continuum? Pasi Sahlberg’s blog and articles unpack why the Finnish educational system is so successful. What lessons should we be learning from them?

Professional inquiry

  • What is effective teaching and learning? How does a school leader decide what is effective? Are definitions culturally relative? What does research tell us?
  • Where is a school on the road from ‘poor’ to ‘excellent’ in its quality of teaching and learning? What does international research in different educational jurisdictions tell us about this journey? What impact can a school leader have on the school journey to excellence? What leadership behaviors do they need to exhibit? How should school leaders intervene?


Quality relationships are important for learning to takes place as Rita Pierson (2013) illustrates in her widely viewed TED talk.


  • “No significant learning can occur without a significant relationship.” George Washington Carver.


  • “All learning is understanding relationships.” Dr. James Comer [Leave No Child Behind: Preparing Today’s Youth for Tomorrow’s World, 2004.
  • “Every child deserves a champion, an adult who will never give up on them, who understands the power of connection, and insists that they become the best that they can possibly be.”

Defining ‘effective’ teaching and learning

Activity 1: Cultural interpretations 

Before we look at what research has to tell us it is informative to consider how different cultures might interpret what effective teaching and learning looks like.

  • Watch the following One short videos showing classrooms different cultures: China and the UK.
  • How do the models differ?
  • How might interpretations of ‘effective’ differ?
  • How might a leader in an IB school manage these differences?

English Lesson in China (China vs. U.S. Education)  

How do we raise the quality of     teaching?

In the following video Professor Tim Brighouse quotes the American researcher Judith Little when she says that in outstanding schools:

  • Teachers talk about teaching.
  • Teachers observe each other’s’ practice.
  • Teachers plan, organize and evaluate their work together rather than separately.
  • Teachers teach each other.

What research tells us

How does a school move from being poor to excellent? In 2010 McKinsey published their report How the world’s most improved school systems keep getting better, in which they gave the results of their research into 20 educational jurisdictions around the world, all of whom were improving but at different levels of performance. They were researching into how each of these jurisdictions had achieved sustained student gains as measured against international and national assessments. The report identifies the educational reforms that schools need to implement as they move on their journey from poor to fair to good to excellent.

Key findings 

  • Schools and school systems can make significant improvement from wherever their starting point is.
  • Improve the learning experience by interventions: changing school structures or resources and especially by improving the way teachers teach and principals lead (as opposed to content of the teaching).
  • Different types of interventions depending on the level of achievement a school is at: the journey from poor to fair or from fair to good, or good to great or great to excellent. Note a school can’t continue to improve by doing more of the same.
  • Context will determine HOW change / improvement is brought about.
  • There are six common interventions at all stages: (1) building instructional skills of teachers and management skills of principals, (2) assessing students, (3) improving data systems, (4) facilitating improvement through policy, (5) revising standards and curriculum, and (6) ensuring appropriate remuneration for teachers and principals.
  • Greater teacher autonomy the more a school improves.
  • Leadership continuity is essential.

Activity: Teaching and Learning Policy

Use the material on this page to help write or revise your Teaching and Learning Policy. The policy should include what you know about good practice.

Dig deeper:

What makes great teaching? Review of the underpinning research, Coe,R., Aloisi,C.,Higgins,S.,& Major, L.E., CEM, Durham University & The Sutton Trust (2014). This report reviews over 200 pieces of research to identify the elements of teaching with the strongest evidence of improving attainment. It finds some common practices can be harmful to learning and have no grounding in research. Specific practices which are supported by good evidence of their effectiveness are also examined and six key factors that contribute to great teaching are identified. The elements of effective teaching come down to: the teacher’s content knowledge; the quality of instruction; classroom climate (including relationships and expectations); classroom management (including student behaviour); teachers’ academic and pedagogical beliefs, and professional behaviours (including reflection and participation in communities of practice). The report also analyses different methods of evaluating teaching including: using ‘value-added’ results from student test scores; observing classroom teaching; and getting students to rate the quality of their teaching.

Teaching and Learning Toolkit. The Sutton Trust-EEF Teaching and Learning Toolkit is an independent resource which provides guidance for teachers and schools on how to use their resources to improve the attainment of disadvantaged pupils. The Toolkit is an accessible summary of educational research. It currently covers 21 topics, each summarised in terms of their potential impact on attainment, the strength of the evidence supporting them, their cost, and their applicability. As they say in the toolkit “Just as doctors would not be expected to prescribe treatments without access to medical research, we believe that teachers should be supported with information about what has worked – and, just as important, what has not – in England and around the world. We hope that the Toolkit will help schools to identify which approaches are the ‘best bets’ for increasing the attainment of disadvantaged students and which approaches offer less promising chances of success.”

IB Approaches to Learning

The IB approaches to learning are a set of strategies and skills. They pay especial attention on how students’ learn as opposed to merely the content of the learning. These approaches are intrinsically linked with the IB learner profile attributes.

This page provides you with a number of activities that you can use with your pedagogical leadership team and your teachers to professionally inquire into the five approaches to learning skills. Together they can form a in-school workshop which can be used when you are a Candidate School preparing for authorization, or as part of the process of reviewing your Teaching and Learning Policy, or as part of the five year self-evaluation review.

The five sets of learning skills are: thinking skills, communication skills, social skills, self- management skills and research skills.

Learning to Learn 

UNESCO have identified the following four pillars of learning:

  • Learning to know
  • Learning to do
  • Learning to be
  • Learning to live together

Learning to know is all about providing “the cognitive tools required to better comprehend the world and its complexities, and to provide an appropriate and adequate foundation for future learning.” This section of the website will focus on how we learn to learn by exploring the IB DP’s approaches to learning. Each of the following pages explores one of these approaches to learning and provides a framework for teachers to collate resources for developing the particular skill within their subject base.

Activity 1: How do you learn?

  • How do you like to learn (individually, cooperatively, visually, reading, etc.)?
  • How do you like to teach (how are you most comfortable with in terms of teaching style)?
  • What do you think makes a “good” student?
  • What makes a “good” teacher?
  • What skills does a teacher need to have to be more effective in order to effectively promote intercultural understanding in the classroom?

Activity 2: What does learning look like?

Use a Market Place activity to explore the nature of learning. You will need three flipcharts around the room on which colleagues can post their response to the following inquiry question:

  • What counts as evidence of “learning” when it happens? What do you see, hear and feel?

IB approaches to learning

There are a number of aims of the IB approaches to learning:

  • encourages teachers to be teachers of learning as well as teachers of content
  • encourages teachers to create strategies to develop learning in which students are more more meaningfully engaged in structured inquiry and greater critical and creative thinking
  • develops a set of learning skills for life
  • develops skills which can be used in a whole variety of subjects, as opposed to subject specific attention.

Activity 3: Understanding the approaches – Thinking Routine

You need five groups for this activity, with each group focusing on one of the five approaches to learning. Each group is responsible for reading, discussing and sharing information from the guide on a particular skill.

  • Choose (i) a sentence, (ii) a phrase and (iii) a word which encapsulates the essence of the paper.
  • Then: discuss ways in which the assigned skill is expressed and used in classrooms and any challenges that arises in developing this skill.
  • Each group share their thoughts with the larger group. What is highlighted? What questions remain?

Activity 4: Visible Thinking

The following videos look at aspects of the learning skills. Assign a skill to a group, asking them to carry out research into the topic using the video. In each case:

  • Identify key argument
  • Generate inquiry questions based on the content
  • What issues does the video raise for how we develop our approaches to learning?
  • Be willing to share in plenary with all the group

Thinking skills: Watch Dr.Derek Cabera’s TED Talk ‘How Thinking Works’. Derek Cabera is an internationally recognized expert in metacognition (thinking about thinking), epistemology (the study of knowledge), human and organizational learning and education.

Communication skills, Is everything an argument? 

Social skills. This 2007 footage of Alexis’s classroom shows how Spider Web Discussion gets students to think critically, work collaboratively, and behave ethically – entirely on their own. (Produced and edited by Grant Wiggins) 

Self-management skills. Richard Burnett is co-founder of the Mindfulness in Schools Project. “Our mental health and well-being are profoundly affected by where and how  we place our attention”. In this talk, Richard shares his experience of teaching mindfulness in schools. He reveals some of the benefits of being more aware of how we respond to our everyday experiences. 

Research skills. As web companies strive to tailor their services (including news and search results) to our personal tastes, there’s a dangerous unintended consequence: We get trapped in a “filter bubble” and don’t get exposed to information that could challenge or broaden our worldview. So how do we carry out research? 

Activity 5: Sharing Practice

  • Use a web based tool – a Padlet or wiki – to collect and share examples of each of how you as a school develop these approaches to learning.
  • Link each approaches to learning skill to 1 or more learner profile attributes. Develop a brief explanation for each linkage.

Activity 6: Where are we?

  • Use the self-reflection tool to identify aspects of your approaches to learning that needs developing.
  • Examine the area in context and brainstorm solutions.
  • Develop a preliminary action plan. Remember to think about such matters as: Who does what? When? How will improvement be measured?

IB Approaches to Teaching 

An introduction to the key pedagogical principles underlying the IB approaches to teaching.

This page provides you with a number of activities that you can use with your pedagogical leadership team and your teachers to professionally inquire into the six approaches to teaching skills. Together they can form an in-school workshop which can be used when you are a Candidate School preparing for authorization, or as part of the process of reviewing your Teaching and Learning Policy, or as part of the five year self-evaluation review.

Context – what are we teaching for?

This is how Jihad Kawas’ Tedex talk is introduced. It provides the context for us to think about what and how we teach.

“In the age of wikipedia & online learning, what do kids want from school these days? This 17-year-old entrepreneur shares his thoughts and raises questions that any student can rightly ask: What if what I love to do counted in school? Wouldn’t that change the way we spend time in school? Is school doomed to stay at the margin of my life? Jihad has already founded three companies and won four local and international business competitions. He currently runs his latest company “Saily,” the social marketplace app.” 

Activity 1: Key Mantras

Reflect on the video: what resonates? What are the key messages for you and your school? How does your school need to change? Capture your thinking in the form of key mantras that need to be embedded in your school culture for this change to happen.

Example: Here is one groups’ mantras arising out of reflection on this video.

  • We create not replicate.
  • We feed passions and interests.
  • We make it relevant.
  • We fail well.
  • We imagine possibilities.
  • We celebrate diversity.
  • We learn for ourselves and others.


The IB Approaches to Teaching and Learning are a set of strategies and skills. The approaches to teaching pay especial attention on how teachers can influence how students’ learn as opposed to merely teaching the content of an academic course.

In the six sets of skills teaching is defined as: based on inquiry, focused on conceptual understanding, developed in local and global contexts, focused on effective teamwork and collaboration, differentiated to meet the needs of learners and informed by formative and summative assessment.

What do we believe about teaching?

  • Watch the following short video.
  • How might this inspire your approach to teaching?

Inspired by this clip one school came up with the following essential agreement for their pedagogical team. 

Activity 3: Our essential agreement about teaching

As a pedagogical team work collaboratively to write your own essential agreement for your team.

Use the Essential Agreement protocol. You may like to consider the following questions:

  • What are your goals?
  • What do you believe about best practice in teaching?
  • Who are you inspired by?
  • Why do you teach in the way you do?

What is the IB approach to teaching? 

The DP has adopted a broadly constructivist and student-centred approach, emphasizing the importance of connectedness and concurrency of learning. There are six key principles that underpin all IB programmes. Teaching in IB programmes is:

  • based on inquiry
  • focused on conceptual understanding
  • developed in local and global contexts
  • focused on effective teamwork and collaboration differentiated to meet the needs of all learners 6.informed by assessment (formative and summative).

Activity 4: IB approaches to teaching skills

  • Jigsaw the IB documentation on approaches to teaching skills by using groups of leaders and staff to focus on one of the six teaching skills. Click on each skill below to access the IB website which contains a description of each skills, and supporting videos and case studies.
  • Each person individually reads the documentation and then discusses their skill with the group.
  • In groups, please come up with (a) a summary of the content; (b) a visual metaphor for the key idea, and then sketch it on a piece of paper; and (c) a key quote or phrase from the guide that exemplifies the symbol chosen. Write it below the visual metaphor.
  • How could a school leader move a teacher from a non-understanding of an Approach to Teaching into a position where they fully endorsed it and passionately modeled it?

Inquiry based

Watch the following video clip in which Grant Wiggins uses essential questions for developing inquiry. As you watch, consider what might be the essential questions in your subject group 

Inquiry-based teaching is explored elsewhere on this website. The following activity uses the Genius Hour protocol as a way of introducing inquiry based learning. Note that this activity will take around one hour and should not be rushed.

Activity 5: Our own professional inquiry

  • Ask colleagues to engage in a Genius Hour to carry out a professional inquiry into an area of their choice.
  • Each person must use this time to create something (e.g. a list of top tips, an action plan of next steps, a stimulus for teaching etc.)
  • Before starting out on the inquiry frame an inquiry question and pitch it to colleagues in your department etc.
  • Provide time to carry out the research and learn as much as they can on any given topic (within their subject group or a passion they have outside school) and pull together a one minute presentation of it for all participants.
  • They can spend their time reading, researching on the web, watching a tutorial online or learning from another person.
  • Once they have had time to research provide time for them to collect together their ideas and start framing their presentation.
  • Finally participants present to each other and/or whole group.

Focused on conceptual understanding 

The webpage Concept-based teaching and learning provides activities and thought pieces to explore what is meant by concept-based teaching. The following video is a helpful introduction providing quotes and information from Erikson’s work. 

Developed in local and global contexts 

In the following TED Talk Maths teacher Dan Meyer explores how Maths has to be applied to real life situations in order for it to make sense of the world. 

Activity 6: How do you relate your subject to local and global contexts?

  • What issues does Dan Meyer raise?
  • Brainstorm as many ways as you can for teaching your subject in local and global contexts.

Developing a collaborative culture

Activity 7:

Access a Teaching Channel video on collaborative learning, called Collaborating to Design and Build Stable Structures.

  • good ideas to encourage collaboration
  • challenges with regard to collaboration
  • possible solutions to these challenges

Activity 8: What does effective collaboration look like?

Standard C1 of the Diploma Programme Standards and Practices focuses on the importance of a culture of collaboration within the school in the delivery of the curriculum. An IB World School is expected to demonstrate that collaborative planning takes place regularly and addresses the IB Learner Profile in order to ensure standardization of expectations, differentiation for learning styles, assessment of student learning and recognize that all teachers are responsible for language development. It is also important to demonstrate collaborative planning in the delivery of TOK so that it is delivered within each subject as well, maybe as a single course.But what does it mean for a teacher to focus on effective collaboration and communication?

  • Create a list of top tips for developing effective collaboration and good communication in a school.
  • What behaviors should a teacher who wants to communicate and collaborate effectively cultivate? What are the dos and don’ts’?
  • Consider what your school needs to do to implement the kinds of collaboration the IB calls for.

What is differentiation?

In her TED Talk The world needs all kinds of mind, Temple Grandin, diagnosed with autism as a child, talks about how her mind works — sharing her ability to “think in pictures,” which helps her solve problems that neurotypical brains might miss. She makes the case that the world needs people on the autism spectrum: visual thinkers, pattern thinkers, verbal thinkers, and all kinds of smart geeky kids. 

Activity 9: How do we differentiate to meet the needs of all learners?

  • Discuss your impressions of Temple Grandin’s TED Talk.
  • How do you define ‘need’?
  • Make a list of things your school does to address students’ needs.
  • What strategies do you use to differentiate and meet the needs of all learners?

Informed by assessment 

Activity 10: The importance of formative assessment for learning

  • An article by Dylan Wiliam in which he explores the link or bridge between what a teacher teaches and what a student learns. It is a helpful introduction to the power of formative assessment.
  • Use the Compass points protocol to reflect on the article and to provide feedback.
  • East – Excited (What excited you in the reading?)
  • West – Worried (What worried you?)
  • North – Needs (What support do you need to move forward?)
  • South – Suggestions for moving forward (What steps do you need to take?)


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