The five ingredients of outstanding teaching


A new study has sought to identify the characteristics of excellent teaching and excellent teachers. Tony McAleavy looks at the five common traits of outstanding teaching.

Decades of research into school effectiveness tells us, unsurprisingly, that teaching excellence is a universal characteristic of high performing schools. You simply cannot have a great school without great teaching. 

There are of course other factors which contribute to school effectiveness – for example, leadership and the relationship with parents – but it is the quality of teaching that is the overriding factor.

While headteachers and teachers are aware of this, it can often be difficult to recognise what excellent teaching involves , and know what supporting structures need to be in place to allow excellent teaching to thrive. 

A new report by CfBT Education Trust – To the Next Level: Improving secondary school teaching to outstanding – has explored the question of teaching excellence through observation in schools that have been on a journey towards excellence, together with interviews with experienced university teacher educators and a review of existing literature.

We considered the common characteristics demonstrated by excellent teachers in their classrooms on a day-to-day basis. In our school observations we have identified five common traits that were seen in all cases.

Respond and adapt

The first is the ability to respond and adapt planned lessons to meet the needs of the learners. All lessons observed were carefully planned, but the teachers were skilled enough to “improvise” where necessary, adjusting the lesson plan according to learner reactions while also maintaining focus on the planned learning outcomes.

At The BRIT School in Croydon, students were aware that the ultimate outcome would be a final performance for assessment. But in the development process expert practitioners directed a series of practical activities designed to introduce the skills needed for the final performance but that also had the flexibility for the students to follow their own ideas to deepen their understanding of the art.

Subject and pedagogy

Excellent subject knowledge is another common characteristic among the best secondary school teachers. However, this isn’t just excellent knowledge of the subject in itself, it is a pedagogical subject knowledge that recognises how to engage students with the subject. A great teacher should know how to use their subject expertise in a way that connects with the students’ level of understanding to foster genuine enthusiasm for the subject.

Relating to students

This ties into the third common characteristic that was identified in school observations; teacher ability to relate to students. Excellent teachers come in many different forms but they all genuinely enjoy the company of young people. They recognise them as individual learners and are therefore able to make the subject feel relevant to what is going on in their lives.

Use of assessment for learning in class is valuable here, as evidenced at Stoke Demerel Community College in Plymouth. Here good-humoured but purposeful relationships between the teacher and students were observed. Assessment for learning was an integral part of the lesson, used to identify areas where students may be struggling to grasp a certain concept – whether it is in ICT or chemistry.

The teachers would then clearly communicate how that particular concept relates to the real world, emphasising why that particular piece of knowledge or skill matters. The students our researchers spoke to said that this approach was “bringing the learning to their level”.

Striking the right balance

The two final characteristics relate to the balance of teacher input and independent learning, and pacing the lesson for both engagement and reflection. The profession has moved beyond the idea that great teaching should be “student-centred” and not “teacher-centred”. This is a false dichotomy. 

The best teachers are able to strike an appropriate balance between opportunities to work independently, to use focused collaboration in groups or pairs and for direct input from the teacher. There is no “ideal” lesson formula, what is important is that the balance of activities works to achieve the learning outcomes. 

Similarly there also needs to be a balance in the pace of the lesson, one that maintains energy but also allows time for reflection. Energetic and high-octane teaching can be impressive but there is a danger that opportunities for reflection – and hence learning – are missed in the pursuit of pace. 

These final two points identified in the research were both demonstrated by a year 7 science lesson we observed at Aldersley High School in Wolverhampton. The lesson was looking at the effects of light. The class had varying levels of existing knowledge, as well as having students with SEN or English as an additional language. 

The lesson involved: a card-sorting exercise to match definitions to terms working in pairs; an independent writing task; a whole-class discussion of example scripts alongside criteria for Level 4 and 5 answers; and a small group practical investigation into angles of incidence and reflection with the teacher circulating the class to support any groups which were struggling. 

The subtle alternation of challenge and support, independent, pair and group work, differentiation, and active and quiet work was all seamlessly managed and explicitly documented in the detailed planning of the lesson.

Supporting great teaching

Our report concludes with practical comments on how schools can assist great teaching. To allow all teachers to develop their practice and introduce all of these characteristics into their teaching there needs to be a supporting whole-school culture. 

To kick-start an emphasis on excellent teaching a school requires purposeful leadership aimed at motivating and engaging all staff. Once the focus on excellent teaching is well-established and accepted, the school leaders can look to a more devolved leadership model, delegating responsibility for overseeing teaching standards down and giving individual teachers more responsibility.

At the start of the process the leader needs to make clear what excellent teaching looks like so that everyone has the same expectations of quality. Once everyone is singing from the same hymn sheet in terms of what makes an excellent lesson at that school, then departments can start to drill-down and customise this understanding within their own subject.

All schools placing excellent teaching at the heart of their improvement strategy should ensure that teachers are accountable for the school’s success. Introducing regular lesson observations as a form of professional development can really help to emphasise this accountability while also ensuring that teachers feel supported. 

In a school that has consistent levels of excellent teaching, you are likely to find that lesson observation as shared enquiry has become the norm. In the schools that we observed, the best improvement came when CPD was developed in-house and targeted on specific areas likely to have direct impact in the classroom.

The challenge is to ensure that CPD is always on the agenda and is constantly followed up through workshop sessions, lesson observation or mentoring.

  • Tony McAleavy is education director of the CfBT Education Trust.

Further information
The CfBT Education Trust report – To the Next Level: Improving secondary school teaching to outstanding – is available to download for free at


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