Rosenshine and why teacher effectiveness research still makes sense, but isn’t the full story.

Rosenshine’s (2012) principles of instruction are deservedly having a bit of a moment in education. This is good news, as they are firmly grounded teacher effectiveness research. This, now quite venerable, field has been one of the more successful parts of educational research in providing valid and reliable findings of relevance to practice. 

Historically, teacher effectiveness research emerged in the 1960’s as a result of the failure of previous attempts to link teacher personality to pupil attainment. Following the breakthrough of behavioural learning theory in psychology in the 1950’s and 1960’s researchers in education sought to apply some of the methods and insights of these theories to teaching practise. While the experimental designs that had characterised behaviourist psychology were not deemed suitable to study classroom practise, many other elements of behaviourist theory and methodology were adopted.  One key aspect was the rejection of ‘mentalism’, the study of mental conditions which could not be objectively accessed in favour of the study of measurable behaviours, while the other was an emphasis on finding those behaviours that could act as reinforcers of student behaviours and attainment (Borich, 1996; Muijs, 2012).   Researchers turned to teacher behaviours as predictors of student achievement in order to build up a knowledge base on effective teaching. This research led to the identification of a range of behaviours that are positively related to student achievement (e.g. Brophy & Good, 1986; Creemers, 1994; Galton, 1987; Muijs & Reynolds, 2000). They also provided clear evidence for the use of explicit teaching methods such as Direct Instruction, which foreground the teacher teaching the class, using a whole-class interactive approach (Muijs et al, 2014). 

Rosenshine’s principles follow from this body of work, and are essentially a summary of the American research base (which is of course very similar to findings elsewhere). While based on research that is now in many cases quite old, the principles have held steady, and the findings from this research are still found to be widely applicable. Indeed, part of the renewed popularity of Rosenshine’s principles is due to the extent to which they fit with the findings from cognitive psychology (see e.g. Willingham, 2010; Dehaene, 2020), which have similarly emphasised the role of the teacher and the importance of explicit instruction, for example through attention to cognitive load. 

It is interesting that this more recent scientific research, using very different approaches and coming from a different research tradition, tends to fit so well with the older teacher effectiveness research. But when we look more closely at how the two research traditions work it is perhaps less surprising, as what unites them is a basis in an empirical tradition that emphasises rigour. It would appear that more rigorous methodologies lead to convergent findings on the importance of explicit instruction.  

That use of Rosenshine’s principles is a positive is therefore clear. There is, however, always a danger of reifying particular approaches, and we need to beware of taking a tick-box approach to the complex action of teaching and learning. Any single set of recommendations or principles has its limits, and that is true of Rosenshine as well. Some things which are worth considering when we engage with the principles, or with explicit instruction more generally are:

  • Don’t forget the school level. While it is a truism that the classroom and the teacher matter more to pupil attainment than the school the pupil attends, the school is nevertheless important (Reynolds et al, 2014). It is also clear that pupils benefit most when they are taught by a succession of effective teachers (Sanders & Rivers, 1996). Effective teaching flourishes in a supportive and effective school environment in which professional development is foregrounded.
  • Rosenshine’s principles, and both teacher effectiveness research and most of the work in cognitive science, are primarily concerned with the how of teaching and learning. That is of course important, but we mustn’t forget the what. What pupils learn matters, and while using effective teaching strategies will obviously allow pupils to learn content better, it is of course equally possible to use these methods to teach an impoverished curriculum, misconceptions, or even extremist content. Curriculum matters!
  • An emphasis on direct instruction and Rosenshine’s principles should also not blind us to other effective strategies and processes. There is a rich research base on developing pupils’ metacognition, for example, which is both rigorous and broad in scope (Muijs & Bokhove, 2020). It is important that we develop the self-regulation of pupils, and developing metacognition is a key part of that effort. The strategies that work in developing metacognition don’t contradict Rosenshine’s principles, but do add some additional elements to our teaching repertoire. 
  • We also need to make sure that we look closely at developments such as blended and online learning. These are probably not as transformational as the more heated enthusiasts sometimes propose (and there is certainly no evidence that pupils can learn by themselves if you put them in front of a computer, as some have proposed). Yet there are still aspects of blended learning that could improve educational outcomes, and are therefore worth exploring further, such as the opportunities afforded to pupils to revisit content asynchronously at their own speed. 

The combination of research from cognitive science and teacher effectiveness provides us with the strongest evidence base for teaching practice to date, but we need to continue to have an open mind when it comes to emerging research and evidence, for example on metacognition and blended learning. An effective approach must include Rosenshine’s principles and direct instruction, but needs to look as much at what as how we teach. 

Borich, G. D. (1996) Effective teaching methods. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall. 

Brophy, J., & Good, T. L. (1986). Teacher behavior and student achievement. In M. C. Wittrock (Ed.), Handbook of research on teaching (3rd ed., pp. 328–375). New York, NY: Macmillan. 

Creemers, B. P. M. (1994). The effective classroom. London: Cassell.

Dehaene, S. (2020). How We Learn: The New Science of Education and the Brain. London: Penguin

Galton, M. (1987). An ORACLE chronicle: A decade of classroom research. Teaching and Teacher Education, 3, 299–313. 

Muijs, D. (2012). Understanding how pupils learn: Theories of learning and intelligence. In V. Brooks, I. Abbott, & P. Huddleston (Eds.), Preparing to teach in secondary school (3rd ed., pp. 41–58). Maidenhead: McGraw-Hill. 

Muijs, D., & Reynolds, D. (2000). School effectiveness and teacher effectiveness in mathematics: Some preliminary findings from the evaluation of the mathematics enhancement program (primary). School Effectiveness and School Improvement, 11, 273–303. 

Muijs, D., Kyriakides, L., van der Werf, G., Creemers, B., Timperley H. & Earl, L. (2014) State of the art – teacher effectiveness and professional learning, School Effectiveness and School Improvement, 25:2, 231-256.

Muijs, D. & Bokhove, C. (2020). Metacognition and Self-regulation: Evidence Review. London: Education Endowment Foundation.

Reynolds, D., Sammons, P., De Fraine, B., Van Damme, J., Townsend, T., Teddlie, C. & Stringfield, S. (2014) Educational effectiveness research (EER): a state-of-the-art review, School Effectiveness and School Improvement, 25:2, 197-230

Rosenshine, B. (2012). Principles of Instruction. Research-Based Strategies That All Teachers Should Know. American Educator, Spring 2012, 12-19 

Sanders, W. L., & Rivers, J. C. (1996). Cumulative and residual effects of teachers on future student academic achievement(Research Progress Report). Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Value-Added Research and Assessment Center.

Willingham, D. (2010). Why don’t students like school? San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

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