My top three flawed teaching ideas

I sometimes wonder whether busting the myth of learning styles is useful any more. If you spend your time reading teaching blogs or following the education debate on Twitter then you may convince yourself that this particular battle is over. Perhaps learning styles is a soft, lazy target? But then, every so often, something comes along to remind you that people are still taking the idea seriously. When challenged by an education academic, I quickly found examples of schools of education pushing learning styles theories and, just this morning, The Conversation published an article by a teacher educator in Wales that promotes the idea of learning styles and provides links to further reading.

Does this matter? Yes, I think it does. The truth matters in its own right but it is also important that educators with limited time and resources do not waste them on flawed ideas. Moreover, learning styles have potentially iniquitous effects, with perhaps certain ethnic or gender groups being overly labelled as kinaesthetic learners, given less academic work to do and therefore falling behind their peers. However, rather than have another go at learning styles, I thought that I should take the opportunity point out some of the other flawed ideas that still impact our classrooms and that are less widely heralded as myth. Below are my top three. They all have a small element of truth to them but they mostly lead people into error.

1. Differentiation

The grain of truth behind differentiation is the trivial observation that all students are different and have different levels of prior knowledge (although they don’t have different learning styles). Ideally, they would be instructed individually. Unfortunately, it is usually the case that you have only one teacher and up to 30 students. Process-product research is very clear that the best compromise is to use whole-class, interactive teaching. No, this won’t be targeted at every student’s individual needs but the efficiency and coherence of the approach mitigates this. Attempts to group students within the class and give them different things to do lead to classroom management issues and an increase in managerial, administrative talk from the teacher which gets in the way of actual teaching. Furthermore, given that the teacher cannot instruct in different ways at the same time, each group will only get a fraction of the instructional time available through whole-class instruction. Proponents of differentiation will often accept that it is difficult to do and this is the reason given for the failure of a large roll-out of differentiation in the U.S. So it either doesn’t work in principle (my view) or it doesn’t work in practice (their view). Take your pick.

2. Inquiry based learning

It is true that professional scientists and mathematicians, as well as those studying for higher degrees such as doctorates, employ inquiry methods. This does not mean that this is the best way to teach ideas to school children. Paul Kirschner explains this as confusing the practice of a profession with the best way to teach it. Inquiry methods can have a place in schools once students have sufficient relevant knowledge to draw upon but they can never be an adequate basis for learning anything from scratch. They are not effective due to the way our minds tend to work. People who propose inquiry learning often don’t even bother to make the case that it is an effective way to learn, preferring to focus on the motivational value. But even then, this is hollow. Inquiry might be motivating initially (and it might not be) but if it doesn’t lead to learning then these motivational effects will wash out as students become increasingly aware of their incompetence. For instance, there is research in maths education that shows that achievement predicts later motivation but that motivation does not predict later achievement. None of this stops people promoting inquiry based learning as a great innovation.

3. Teaching ‘thinking skills’

Teaching students how to think is either something that we already do by teaching traditional subject disciplines, or a frankly absurd idea that implies that we can teach thinking in some kind of rarefied and abstract way. Yet people make this absurd claim a lot. Knowledge is what you think with and so the character of your thinking is almost entirely shaped by the character of the knowledge you possess. As Dan Willingham suggests in his American Educator article on critical thinking, young children can think critically about subjects that they know a lot about but trained scientists can fail to think critically about subjects outside their area of expertise. A recent meta-analysis showed that college students developed critical thinking skills at the same rate whether they took courses specifically aimed at increasing these skills or not. From which we can perhaps conclude that the effect of such courses is negligible.



11 thoughts on “My top three flawed teaching ideas

  1. Chester Draws says:

    One of the more amusing ironies of the education debate is that those who propose “differentiated learning” are almost always against streaming. Even though the whole point of streaming is to group people of the same level in each class so that learning in them is pretty much automatically differentiated. (I prefer teaching streamed classes for this very reason.)

    Instead we are effectively meant to stream inside classrooms not between. If students are being affected by class level streaming, it is hard to see how they are not equally affected by being put in the slow group inside a class.

    They’re not even internally consistent.

    • Mike says:

      The rushed creation of many semi-selective schools here in NSW over the past decade and a half – mostly done to avoid a number of inner-city schools from going completely feral – has always seemed to me to be an implicit admission that streaming does, erm, work after all.

    • Good point about streaming. The Netherlands is often criticised to ‘stream’ but think it serves exactly that ‘differentiating’ purpose that is purported to be the reason behind ‘setting’. I think the advantages of differentiation, set against effort, are exaggerated *but* -what’s in a name- taking prior knowledge somewhat into account makes sense e.g. if after 20 sums student A is expert at solving equations and student B isn’t, A can do something else. Maybe some wouldn’t call this differentiation.

      On the inquiry section. Agree with the gist except that the achievement->motivation is not confirmed by all research. I would say it’s bidirectional with that implication slightly stronger. I mention this because motivation does influence achievement.

      Finally, agree with the critical thinking. Yet we should not make the mistake it can’t be taught; it can but only rooted in domain knowledge, which also means transfer to other domains impossible without it.

  2. The first flag against differentiation that leaps out at me whenever I see it is that it is a synonym (as used) for discrimination. Now discrimination is not intrinsically a bad thing in education, in its most general meaning. After all, discrimination is what assessment amounts to — discriminating good work from poor, and assigning grades accordingly. But that is differentiating performance levels, which is at the heart of assessment, an essential ingredient of the educational process.

    The difference with “differentiation” as used to prescribe teaching is that, like “learning styles”, it necessitates PRE-judgement of student capability and need. Now a teacher must do this, in a whole-class setting, all the time. But that is not what differentiation is about; it is about judging students differently from each other, putting them into categories — categories which determine their exposure to learning opportunities and what kinds of help and chances they get. In other words, discrimination in all the senses that we understand to be harmful.

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  4. Andrea says:

    Hi Greg, you’ve raised many of my concerns about differentiation. Apart from questioning students, how would you advise a graduate teacher use differentiation during a lesson to show that they meet the AITSL proficient standards? Most of the examples I’ve been given involve constructivist teaching approaches. Are there effective or efficient ways in which differentiation can be used in a lesson that has a more explicit teaching approach?

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