In high income countries, 9 out of 10 children can read by the age of 10, but in low-income countries 9 out of 10 cannot. This is unacceptable. The reasons for this shockingly low achievement are many and complex, but one critical barrier is the poor quality of teaching that far too many already disadvantaged children experience. We believe, based on evidence and experience, that if we deliberately and systematically focus on understanding how best to support teachers to improve their teaching, we will have a much better chance of making sustained progress in improving learning outcomes for children around the world.

What distinguishes your best teacher? Responses to this question are often emotional, rooted in how they made you feel, as opposed to what they taught you. Perhaps a more objective question is what distinguishes more effective from less effective teaching[1]? Gaining a better understanding of what constitutes effective instruction and how to improve it will help illuminate the pathway to improved learning.

Teaching is an art: at any given time, teachers are making numerous decisions: What is the best way to teach this point? How do I help this child to overcome this particular learning issue? Do I ignore this behavioural infraction, or does it deserve a drop-everything full-on response? This decision-making complexity is what makes teaching engaging, challenging and rewarding. Yet it is important to remember that teaching is also a science: while each child is unique, we have increasing evidence about features of effective teaching that likely has wide application to facilitate students’ learning, such as the teaching of reading.

The Science of Teaching program, led by RTI International, is supported by an advisory board comprising donors, implementers, and researchers. This program aims to increase awareness and understanding of features of effective instruction, and articulate practical steps to improve teaching and learning, encouraging debates about effective ways to teach, for example, comprehension or numeracy. The Science of Teaching program will do three things:

  1. Synthesize existing evidence about key pedagogical issues in accessible, user-friendly formats for use by those advising governments and implementers of literacy and numeracy programs.
  2. Generate new evidence on pedagogical issues where knowledge is limited, by conducting applied research in existing programs to answers questions such as: what are effective ways of improving teachers’ questioning skills and their use of formative assessment?
  3. Disseminate this evidence by sharing the tools and evidence produced by the program, and by providing small-scale technical assistance to bring the evidence to life in particular contexts, conducting pedagogical reviews to identify what is working well and what could be improved. 

The program will build on existing work and collaborate with a range of global and national academic experts, practitioners and funders. The evidence and research that comes out will be localized, refined and updated by national experts, including teachers, to strengthen and advance the evidence base on effective teaching. Launching on January 28, 2021 the first evidence synthesis, a series of how-to guides for implementing structured pedagogy programs, will detail how these interventions achieve significant improvements in learning, at scale. They are intended to be a practical starting point for those seeking to do the same. In these syntheses, you will likely find some ideas you are familiar with, others that are new, and some questions that remain so please share your feedback and ideas for the Science of Teaching program to explore.

We do not have a shared vocabulary to articulate what effective teaching looks like, and without it we cannot articulate a vision for reform at the classroom level.

One advantage we have in seeking to understand what works is that the evidence is expanding, revealing some commonalities between systems that have made systemic and substantial leaps in improving foundational literacy and numeracy outcomes. A recent paper describes how programs that made these leaps include three key phases: 1. why (the motivation for reform); 2. what (the focus on improving subject teaching); and 3. how (the implementation mechanisms for scale). However, having experience of high-income country educational reform background, we have always been struck by the thinness of the description of the ‘what’ phase in the global education space, i.e., what it is we want to scale. We do not have a shared vocabulary to articulate what effective teaching looks like, and without it we cannot articulate a vision for reform at the classroom level. This means that it is more difficult for us to support teachers to adopt these practices or measure progress to see if things are improving.

There are principles and teaching practices, rooted in learning science research, that all teachers should know about and have in their toolkit. These don’t have to be complex interventions and there are some strategies that apply in any content. From factoring in ‘wait time’ after asking a question to give students time to access prior knowledge to giving students opportunity to practice tasks to help build automaticity and including time in each lesson to review previous learning.

As a mathematics teacher (Asyia), when confronted with a child who did not understand, I would assure them:  "You will say ‘Ohhh’ in a moment", before talking the problem through with them. The ‘Ohh!’ moment is when the light goes on and the student suddenly gets it (we teachers love this moment). The key point here is that this moment can be anticipated: aspects of teaching are predictable and there are patterns that effective teachers employ that can be identified, codified and replicated. Our challenge is that far too many children are sitting in classrooms where teachers are not aware of these strategies or are not supported to enact them, and we are not intentional enough about ensuring that they do.

In addition to the Science of Teaching program, the Learning at Scale report implemented with the support of the Center for Global Development, due to be published in early 2021, will further seek to highlight effective instructional practices, and how they were scaled, in seven countries. Whatever our respective views on the purpose of education, we surely agree that by age 10 children should be able to read, write and do basic maths, and their teacher should be able to teach them to do so. Join us in the endeavour to have a more systematic and intentional focus on teaching to improve learning; suggest areas for pedagogical attention; share resources you have created; and use and refine those created by this program.

To kick-off this conversation, please join us for the launch of Science of Teaching at 9:00am EST on 28 January 2021 by registering for the webinar.  

The Science of Teaching Program is based on research funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. 

This post is co-authored by Dr. Asyia Kazmi (Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation) and Dr. Benjamin Piper (RTI International).

Dr. Asyia Kazmi is the Global Education Policy Lead at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Dr Kazmi’s 25-year career in education began as a mathematics teacher in the United Kingdom. Before joining the Gates Foundation, she was in PwC leading the Girls’ Education Challenge, a £800m fund set up by the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) to support the education of 1.5 million girls in 17 countries. Dr Kazmi has worked in three UK Government departments: as a senior education adviser in DFID stationed in Pakistan, a senior Her Majesty’s Inspector in Ofsted and a project director in the Department for Education. Her areas of expertise include teaching, learning and assessment; school improvement; and large-scale programme management. She has a Masters in Applied Mathematics from Imperial College London and a Doctorate in Education on teaching and learning mathematics from Institute of Education, University College London

Cover photo (c) RTI International



[1] Practices deployed by teachers who, given similar starting points among students, deliver much higher outcomes.

About the Expert

Ben Piper's picture
Dr. Benjamin Piper is Senior Director of Africa Education, based in Nairobi, Kenya. He was previously Chief of Party for the national scale Tusome Early Grade Reading Activity and the Primary Mathematics and Reading Initiatives, funded by USAID and by DFID in Kenya. Dr. Piper has experience in quantitative research, including longitudinal data analysis, randomized controlled trial designs, and mixed methods designs, and he is interested in the transitions between primary and secondary education, as well as secondary and tertiary education, and evaluation of programs targeting various portions of educational quality.