Teaching proficiency It’s the teachers that matter!

Teacher in the classroom
Teacher in the classroom | © Goethe-Institut/Sonja Tobias

Teachers play a crucial role in determining whether their students learn successfully. Professor Hans-Jürgen Krumm describes the skills that teachers require and whether and how such teaching proficiency can be learnt.

The focus on student-centred learning over the past twenty years has marginalized teachers in research and methodology. John Hattie’s Visible Learning study (2009) has helped considerably to shift attention back to the important role they play in terms of student achievement.
The pie chart illustrates the relative influence of various factors on student achievement (Hattie 2003: 3). The pie chart illustrates the relative influence of various factors on student achievement (Hattie 2003: 3). | © John Hattie
Roughly 50% of student achievement – claims Hattie – depends on what students bring to the table (2003: 3). For lessons to be successful, teachers have to take students seriously as individuals with knowledge, language skills and (language learning) experience and must also pick up on these during lesson time. Among those factors determined by the institution (on the left-hand side of the pie chart), it is teachers who have the greatest influence, contributing roughly 30% to student achievement. It is therefore the teachers that matter (“Teachers matter!” or “Teachers make a difference” are the phrases used by Hattie to summarize the findings of his meta-analyses; cf. Hattie 2003).
However, theoretical knowledge is no more a guarantee of good teaching than pre-formulated teaching formulae. After all, it is not the expert knowledge of teachers that makes them a “success factor” but rather their specific attitude towards teaching and the students themselves. In this context, terms such as “professional growth” and “reflective teaching” have come to be used.

Knowledge and/or ability – what determines teaching proficiency?

Teaching proficiency means the knowledge, skills, abilities and attitudes which teachers need to have in order to promote learning processes and design lessons (cf. Reinmann 2011). It refers to a combination of expert and didactical knowledge, practical teaching experience, skills that have been learnt and practised, insights and attitudes, above all with respect to interaction with students and the teacher’s own role. What counts are the attitudes a teacher has towards teaching, the stance he or she adopts towards students, and their willingness to adapt lessons to the conditions, abilities and expectations of the students. In this context, Duxa talks about “the ability to act in a way that is appropriate to a specific situation” (2001: 66).
Hattie describes this teaching proficiency as follows: “It is the teachers who are open to experience, learn from errors, seek and learn from feedback from students and who foster effort, clarity and engagement in learning“ (2009: 35).
This requires a willingness and ability to reflect time and time again on one’s approach to teaching and is not simply knowledge  that can be learnt. It evolves as teachers consciously design their lessons to the needs of the students and their specific dispositions and then watch carefully how their students respond. The teachers communicate with their students and repeatedly adjust their lessons to the latter’s needs and learning progress. In their further and continuing education module Teaching Proficiency and Lesson Design (Unit 1 of Deutsch Lehren Lernen, 2012), Michael Schart and Michael Legutke present three ways in which to develop this kind of reflection ability (2012: chapter 3):
  • combine theory and practice using the knowledge that comes with experience;
  • “explore” their own classroom;
  • plan and implement practical research projects.

Making teaching proficiency learnable

Teacher training at universities focuses primarily on imparting expert knowledge. This gives rise to dissatisfaction that has spawned projects outside universities which identify and describe educational teaching skills and make these available in training programmes. In their educational programmes, the Council of Europe and the European Union have repeatedly emphasized the need for well-trained language teachers and promoted such projects, including the European Portfolio for Student Teachers of Languages (EPOSTL, 2007) and the European Profiling Grid for Languages Teachers (EPG, 2013).
Both place the focus on descriptions of teaching proficiency and regard themselves as tools of reflection and training in training and continuing education. Teaching proficiency cannot be illustrated in catalogues that describe what material has been studied at university or what knowledge a person has demonstrated in an examination. Instead, both projects describe it in the first personal singular, much in the same way as the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR, 2001) does: e.g. “I can plan activities which link grammar and vocabulary with communication” (EPOSTL: 37).
In the chapter Self-Assessment, the European Portfolio for Student Teachers of Languages lists 193 teaching skills that are regarded as core skills for budding language teachers (EPOSTL: 87). They are grouped into seven fields of action:
  • Context (curriculum, aims and needs, role of the language teacher)
  • Methodology
  • Resources
  • Lesson Planning (identification of learning objectives, lesson content, organization)
  • Conducting a Lesson
  • Independent Learning
  • Assessment of Learning
The European Profiling Grid for Languages Teachers is designed for practising teachers. It sets out teaching skills in four areas, some of which are further subdivided:
  • Language and culture (ability of teachers in the target language, language awareness and intercultural skills)
  • Qualifications and teaching experience (training and qualifications, quality and duration of teaching experience)
  • Key teaching competences (methodology/knowledge and skills, lesson and course planning, interaction, management and monitoring, performance measurement, work with digital media)
  • Professional conduct (professionalism, administration)
The descriptions of skills are arranged in six development levels that build upon each other, allowing teachers to assess the level of their own proficiency.
The following examples from various categories of the profiling grid show how these descriptors help teachers to design teaching as a reflective process:
  • “when observing more experienced teachers, can understand why they have chosen the techniques and materials they are using” (Methodology/knowledge and skills 1.1)
  • “can identify the theoretical principles behind teaching techniques and materials” (Methodology/knowledge and skills 2.2)
  • “can ensure coherence between lessons by taking account of the outcomes of previous lessons in planning the next” (Lesson and course planning 1.2)
There is no “best method” for teaching. Teaching proficiency, that is to say a combination of knowledge, skills, abilities and attitudes, comes about when teachers regard the language teaching and learning process as a joint project for teachers and students, as the result of reflection, supervision and teamwork, and thus see themselves as members of a learning community.

Further reading

Susanne Duxa: Fortbildungsveranstaltungen für DaZ-Kursleiter in der Weiterbildung und ihre Wirkung auf das professionelle Selbst der Lehrenden (i.e. Further Education Events for Teachers of German as a Second Language in Continuing Education and their Impact on the Professionalism of Teachers), Deutsch als Fremdsprache 57. FaDaF, 2001
Nathaniel Gage: Unterrichten – Kunst oder Wissenschaft? (i.e. Teaching – An Art or a Science?) Urban und Schwarzenberg, 1979
John Hattie: Teachers make a difference: What is the research evidence? Australian Council for Educational Research Annual Conference. University of Auckland, 2003
John Hattie: Visible Learning. London, 2009
Gabi Reinmann: Förderung von Lehrkompetenz in der wissenschaftlichen Weiterbildung: Ausgangslage, Anforderungen und erste Ideen (i.e. Promoting Teaching Proficiency in Academic Continuing Education: Initial Situation, Requirements and First Ideas), Preprint, 2011
Michael Schart / Michael Legutke: Lehrkompetenz und Unterrichtsgestaltung (i.e. Teaching Proficiency and Lesson Design), Deutsch Lehren Lernen 1. Langenscheidt, 2012