What Makes a Top Teacher?

Paul A. Kirschner & Mirjam Neelen

What Makes a Top Teacher? This is a question with both a simple and a complex answer (and probably a whole spectrum in between). First, the simple answer. A top teacher is someone whose efforts inside and outside the classroom have a positive effect on a student’s learning progress, meaning an increase of knowledge and skills. The more progress, the better the teacher.

We can already hear some people mocking or expressing their anger and disgust. “Oh, dear!”, they’ll say (if they try to be polite). They’ll go on to grumble that this is such an old-fashioned thing to say and that a school in the 21st century shouldn’t teach kids ‘things’ but should rather help them to become curious, adaptive and engaged individuals with strong problem-solving and critical thinking skills, give them grit, make them flexible team workers, and so forth. They might even say that we shouldn’t use the word students as they’re citizens who need to be prepared for their future and not for the past.

To all of this grumbling, we can only say: Yes, OK. But! … It might be boring but the foundation for all these higher and overall noble goals are simply knowledge and skills. In an article from Slavi Stoyanov and Paul Kirschner (2018), on what it means to prepare youth for jobs that don’t (yet) exist, they wrote:

…there is much discussion and confusion as to what knowledge, skills, and attitudes are necessary to prepare the youth for the problems associated with the uncertainties of the labour market and the consequences thereof. What is clear is that students need a strong knowledge and skills foundation for future-proof learning which is defined as the acquisition of knowledge, skills, and attitudes necessary to continue to learn in a stable and enduring way in a rapidly changing world.

All this can be achieved by first helping students to lay a broad and robust foundation of knowledge and skills. With that foundation, they can understand the world around them and function within it. This means we need to make sure that they have the required knowledge (declarative, conceptual, procedural, and metacognitive) and skills for the future. David Didau’s taxonomy illustrates the blocks that we can build on (also see Didau’s guest blog titled ‘Thought Depends on Knowledge).

top teacher 1

An important side note. We have blogged about 21st century and (non-existing) domain-independent skills before and we just like to point out that the skills that Didau has included in his taxonomy need to be considered domain-specific and not generic. Just to make that crystal clear (also see footnote 2)!

When the foundation has been built, the next step is to bring students to a higher level of thinking and doing, so that they can experience that they can do things with what they’ve learnt. This helps them to (1) experience success and build a sense of self-efficacy[1], (2) use their acquired competencies (knowledge, skills, and attitudes), (3)  continue to learn throughout their lives, and (4) solve problems that they run into along the way. In other words, the simple answer is – again – that a top teacher is someone whose efforts both inside and outside the classroom lead to a significant increase of a student’s fundamental skills and knowledge and then helps them make proper use of them.

OK, so the next question is, what is the more complicated answer? Let’s start with an analogy. What distinguishes a cook in a regular restaurant from a top chef who works in a Michelin 3-star restaurant (Note that this is what the 3 stars in our blog refer to as well!)? An ordinary cook usually has a somewhat cursory and limited knowledge of cooking, while a top chef has deep conceptual knowledge and skills when it comes to tools (e.g., knifes, ovens, pots, pans, stoves (gas, electric, ceramic, induction), blenders, mixers, liquid nitrogen,…), techniques (e.g., steaming, convection baking, barbecuing, deep frying, freezing, cryogenic cooking…), and ingredients (e.g., vegetables, meat, grains, herbs, spices, condiments…) to plan, prepare, and serve a meal that’s delicious,  nutritious, and looks fantastic. 


Prepared by Paul A. Kirschner. Cook or Chef?

In the same way, a top teacher is someone with deep conceptual knowledge and skills when it comes to the tools, techniques, and ingredients that can be used to design, develop, and facilitate effective, efficient, and enjoyable (as in a feeling of success or satisfaction) learning experiences.

So, what are the tools, techniques, and ingredients of good quality education which the top teacher needs to know, have a deep understanding of, and implement?

The tools are the media and technologies that the teacher can use, such as a blackboard (there we go again, we’re so old fashioned!), a digital interactive whiteboard, books, e-reader, tablet, computer, lab, …

The techniques are the pedagogical-didactical instructional techniques that the teacher uses to optimise various types of learning. Think lecture (do we never stop???), discussions, argumentation, evaluation, collaboration, formative and summative assessment, feedback techniques (corrective, directive, epistemic; see our blog about feedback here), situated and contextualised learning, task-focused, …

The ingredients are the specific things that can be used to facilitate, enrich, and deepen learning. Examples are different types of questions, cues and hints, advance organisers, examples, illustrations and animations, homework, simulations, and so the list goes on. Add to these ingredients the content of the domain or domains being taught.

A top teacher needs to know when, how, and why tools, techniques, and ingredients should be used and also needs the skills to implement them into a learning situation the right way. Top teachers are masters in applying the right pedagogy at the right point in time. They’re able to ‘transfer’ the required or desired knowledge and skills in a way that truly helps students understand, remember, and apply them.[2] Only if the teacher really has the magic touch of using the tools, techniques, and ingredients, they’re able to design, develop, and facilitate effective, efficient, and enjoyable learning experiences.

However, this is only part of the story; there’s another one! John Hattie (2003) analysed the difference between expert and ‘ordinary’ teachers. He determined that they differ in 16 ways and there are three that really distinguish them if it comes to learning effectiveness. He found that experts:

  • set challenging goals for students and give them difficult tasks to challenge them;
  • have a deep conceptual knowledge of the learning content, didactics, and how people learn. As a consequence, their knowledge is better organised and they’re better able to transfer and explain the connections between new content and students’ pre knowledge. They’re also better at connecting learning content with other topics in the curriculum.
  • are better at monitoring problems that students have and give them more relevant and useful feedback.

These points were also confirmed by, Aloisi, Higgins, and Major (2014).

Another characteristic of a top teacher is that they’re authentic. Pedro De Bruyckere and Paul Kirschner (2016) have investigated what authenticity, as perceived by students, is. They’ve concluded that authenticity is a combination of perceived expertise, passion, unicity, and distance.

top teacher 4

Expertise is about current professional knowledge that teachers have which enables them to clearly and intelligently explain the topic at hand. This type of expert teachers are able to engage students, spark their interest, motivate them for the topic and collaborate with them to achieve a good result.

Passion (and enthusiasm) for the subject they teach, means that top teachers are engaged with their subject and with their students. Students believe that passion enables the authentic teacher to invest time and effort in preparing lessons, finding ways and methods to get things across, and making sure that students can keep their attention.

 Unicity relates to expertise because it allows the top teacher to ensure that each lesson has a particular character or, in other words, is unique. Students translate this aspect of authenticity as a teacher who leaves their mark on ‘being a teacher’. Unique teachers stay true to themselves, have their own way of interacting with students, hold on to their own points of view and behave consistently in that role.

Distance is another element that makes a teacher authentic. This one’s conceptually different from the previous three. It’s less about the teacher him/herself and more about the relationship between teacher and student. Top teachers show interest in their students’ and their personal life, while, at the same time, keeping a professional distance and keeping their personal lives to themselves.

Sooooo, what makes a top teacher? It’s an authentic master of the subject matter AND the tools, techniques, and ingredients to facilitate, enrich, and deepen learning. Nothing more and definitely nothing less!


Coe, R., Aloisi, C., Higgins, S., & Major, L. E. (2014). What makes great teaching? Review of the underpinning research. Retrieved from http://dro.dur.ac.uk/13747/1/13747.pdf

De Bruyckere, P., & Kirschner, P. A. (2016). Authentic teachers: Student criteria for perceiving the authenticity of teachers. Cogent Education, 3(1), 1247609. Retrieved from https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/2331186X.2016.1247609

Didau, D. (2017, April 4). The Learning Spy – Didau’s Taxonomy [Web log]. Retrieved from http://www.learningspy.co.uk/featured/didaus-taxonomy/

Hattie, J. (2003, October). Teachers make a difference: What is the research evidence? Paper presented at the Australian Council for Educational Research Annual Conference on Building Teacher Quality, Melbourne. http://www.acer.edu.au/documents/rc2003_hattie_teachersmakeadifference.pdf

Kirschner, P. A., & Stoyanov, S. (2018, accepted). Educating youth for non-existent / not yet existing professions. Educational Policy.

[1] An individual’s belief in his or her innate ability to achieve goals.

[2] Note that we don’t discuss pedagogical content knowledge as a separate entity. The reason is, that research has convincingly shown that generic skills don’t exist. The skills that are mentioned in Didau’s taxonomy, such as problem solving, collaborating, and communicating, are often perceived as being ‘generic’. The problem with this is that all these so-called generic skills can only be effectively applied in a specific domain or content area. It’s impossible to communicate effectively about things that you don’t know anything about. The same goes for solving problems. And the same goes for teaching. Of course it’s possible to learn procedures and how to execute them. However, a procedure is nothing but knowing which steps you need to take. This is called procedural knowledge. The skill is actually taking the steps effectively and for that, you need domain-specific knowledge. In other words, you can’t have the skills without the knowledge. Having the pedagogical skills automatically implies having pedagogical content knowledge.