college of education | fall 2003

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Terrific Teaching's Triad
Research by Michael Pressley Yields Insights into the Practices of Effective Educators


Ask Michael Pressley what great primary school teachers do in their classrooms and he will invariably tell you how they effectively balance approaches to literacy instruction, constantly motivate their students, and effectively manage their classrooms.

For Pressley, great teaching is that simple—and that hard.

“We have analyzed teaching up, down, and around and I cannot imagine how anything could be more demanding than teaching first grade well,” says Pressley, a professor in the Department of Teacher Education and among the nation’s leading literacy scholars. “I can tell you that it is much harder than flying a 747 or being a graduate school professor.”

It is that respect and appreciation for the complex and demanding acts of teaching and learning that have driven Pressley throughout his distinguished and prolific career, and has led him to zero in on what works when it comes to effective instruction.

Over the course of his 25 years as a researcher, he and his doctoral students have spent countless hours in elementary school classrooms, observing teachers and students in an effort to decipher what practices lead to increased learning.

What his research has documented is a fascinating portrait of what great teachers do in their classrooms to engage their students in the process of learning to read and write.

The first lesson his research has taught him is that great teachers in the early grades use what he refers to as balanced literacy instruction. For years, the world of literacy was cleaved by the so-called “reading wars,” with one camp favoring phonics and the other holding to a whole-language approach.

Pressley and others have led the charge over the years for instruction that blends the best of both worlds. His numerous studies in schools led him to realize early on that phonics had much of value, as did whole language instruction. His research and that of others has made clear that effective teachers do not choose one or the other, but use elements of both.

“More and more, it isn’t a conceptual battle,” Pressley says. “It’s a political battle. It used to be a conceptual battle. Then we went out and saw how really good teachers teach and what they do is use a balanced approach. That was our conclusion.

“So, conceptually, mostly people now are on board with that view. The battle now is purely a political one.”
The second insight into the nature of highly effective teachers took Pressley a bit by surprise. Even though he is an educational psychologist by training, Pressley had not spent much time on the subject of motivation. Yet it became apparent to him and his team that great teachers were great motivators.
“The issue really hit us in the face,” he says. “We realized that this motivational component was huge.”

That prompted him to focus on academic motivation, publishing Motivating Primary-Grade Students (Guilford Press, 2003) with his doctoral students. Pressley points out that great teachers flood their classes with motivation. Virtually every minute, a student is motivated by an effective teacher to accomplish or take on an educational goal or task.

The teacher might praise something a student has done, help another student select a book that will be of interest (and thus increase motivation), adjust a challenge on a task to make it more doable, and so on. Pressley says that to observe a great early elementary teacher is to witness someone engaged in the act of motivation almost nonstop.
“Every single minute, these teachers are working on motivating students.”

Michael Pressley (center) has a long history of working with teachers like Tammy Shorna (left) and mentoring doctoral students such as Lisa Raphael (right).

The third component of great teachers involves classroom management. It becomes quickly apparent, Pressley says, that great teachers have great control of their classrooms. They are highly effective in keeping students on task, something that can be quite a challenge in the early grades.

In the classes of less effective teachers, Pressley observed that young students lost focus because of the teacher’s inability to maintain order in the classroom. Without the ability to manage the classroom properly and effectively, it becomes difficult—if not impossible—to implement effective instructional and motivational practices.

“I think what we are starting to see is a very strong convergence—a lot of data—that balancing the lower order and the higher order skills is key, that a lot of motivation is key, and that great classroom management is essential,” Pressley says.

“If you put those things together, you get a very good classroom. We have seen that time and time again.”

Although we now better understand the nature of effective teaching, Pressley says that the problem is that there are too many ineffective teachers. He estimates that up to a third of the teachers he has observed over the years are weak when it comes to literacy instruction.

Thus, when he addresses teachers and administrators, he is direct. He tells them that teaching is difficult and demanding. Some can do it well and others can’t. Society can’t afford ineffective teachers, especially in the crucial early grades. “I tell them that the people who can’t teach well need to be doing something else in life, and we need to find people who can do it better.”

His insights into effective teaching are an important step forward in helping produce great teachers. Other scholars also have begun to find the same variables in highly effective teachers. Pressley’s most current research involves examining how effective teachers at the middle school level teach, and early data indicate that those educators also use the same three components in their classrooms.

For Pressley, the growing evidence about effective teaching may eventually lead to a general theory of effective teaching.
“I have to say that in the primary grades you can’t have a good primary classroom if you don't have those three components,” Pressley says. “You have to have a strong balance of skills and holistic approaches, you have to have over-the-top motivation, and you have to have classroom management that is just unbelievable.

“That is the formula that works in elementary schools.”

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