8 reasons to ditch traditional teaching methods

I advocate explicit instruction. Explicit instruction takes the traditional or default approach to teaching and modifies it to make it even more explicit and highly interactive.

This method has its origins in research from the 1960s and 1970s into the behaviours of the most effective teachers and it has been verified since then across a range of different study designs and subjects. You can read more here.

Yet you won’t hear much about explicit teaching if you wander into a education school seminar or a professional development workshop. You won’t read much about it on popular websites for teachers. Instead, you are likely to be encouraged to adopt an implicit or ‘child-centered’ approach. These come in many guises but the common ingredient is that the teacher takes a step back and the students are expected to make some key decisions or figure out some of the concepts for themselves.

Proponents of ‘child-centered’ education are evangelical. They don’t ask us to modify our practice, they ask us to ditch traditional methods entirely in favour of something quite different.

Unlike explicit instruction, implicit teaching is largely unsupported by large-scale correlational or experimental evidence. So what are the reasons people use to try to persuade us to adopt implicit approaches? I’ve collected a few.

1. Motivation

The argument: Traditional teaching is boring and switches students off. If we want to encourage more students to learn maths, science, English or whatever the academic subject may be then we need to first motivate them so that they see the value of investing the required amount of time and effort. Motivation is enhanced by giving students options and by implicit forms of teaching.

The flaws in the argument: It is not clear that it works this way. In one study of elementary mathematics students, achievement predicted later motivation but motivation did not predict later achievement. Sure, we can generate ‘situational’ interest by hitting students with a funky activity but it seems likely that, in the long run, becoming better at something is the key factor in motivation and so we should focus on teaching methods that maximise learning. It is also quite possible to imagine interesting traditional lessons and really boring investigative ones.

2. Critical Thinking

The argument: Explicit instruction does not allow students to develop as critical thinkers. It places them as the unquestioning receivers of knowledge from a higher authority. If we want students to question and analyse then we need to use implicit forms of teaching.

The flaws in the argument: Setting aside the unfair caricature of explicit instruction, the key response is that critical thinking is mostly a function of what you know. To paraphrase Dan Willingham, we may exhort our students to see an issue from multiple perspectives but, in order to do that, they need to know quite a lot of detail about what these perspectives are and why they arise. Knowledge is not the enemy of critical thinking, it is its foundation.

3. Jobs that don’t exist yet

The argument: Despite them not existing yet, we know that the jobs of the future will require very different types of skills to the jobs of today. These include; collaboration, critical thinking, problem solving, taking initiative and so on. We therefore need to ensure that we develop these skills in students. Implicit, inquiry-oriented teaching methods do this best.

The flaws in the argument: Yes, employers will say that they want these things but most of these skills are not skills at all. They are bundles of attributes and personality traits that cannot be trained in a discrete way. For instance, solving a problem in a warehouse has everything to do with your intelligence, your knowledge of the warehouse and of solving previous warehouse-related problems and almost nothing at all to do with solving a maths problem. It is doubtful whether general problem solving strategies exist aside from those that we all naturally possess.

4. Self-esteem

The argument: Traditional instruction is bad for students’ self esteem. Implicit forms of instruction are better for self-esteem.

The flaws in the argument: You don’t hear this argument so much these days since Carol Dweck busted the myth that self-esteem was a goal worth pursuing at all costs in her “Mindset” research. Yet in my last post I noted how this claim was very much alive in 2000 when Jeanne Chall wrote, “The Academic Achievement Challenge”. This is surprising, given the evidence. In Project Follow Through it was a form of direct instruction that led to large growth in students’ self-esteem and, by contrast, many implicit forms of teaching actually did worse than the control condition on this outcome measure.

5. Mindset

The argument (mostly made about maths): Traditional approaches encourage a fixed mindset. Carol Dweck has demonstrated that this impedes learning. Implicit approaches promote a growth mindset.

The flaws in this argument: It is reasonable to note the number of students demonstrating a fixed mindset with respect to mathematics. However, it is a non sequitur to conclude we need to use implicit methods. Where is the evidence that this works any better? In the absence of this evidence, does the argument even make sense? We may engage students in investigatory activities but if they don’t actually learn the maths then this could set them up for an even bigger fall later. If students are anxious about timed tests then do you remove timed tests or do you help them cope with the timed tests? How would you help someone overcome a fear of mice?

6. Something about brain scans

The argument: [Something about brain scans]. [Something about areas of the brain lighting up]. We need to use implicit teaching methods.

The flaws in the argument: Neuroscience is still in its early stages. Images of brains ‘lighting up’ are often composites from many brains with varied responses. Even if the evidence were solid, it’s not clear what the educational implication are, although we do know that people find arguments based on neuroscience to be convincing. Jo Boaler famously found herself tangled up with a neuroscience argument that proved little.

7. Social justice

The argument: This is similar to the critical thinking argument and the two are often linked. However, the social justice argument often takes a overtly political, often Marxist tone in fields such as ‘critical pedagogy’ or ‘critical literacy’, deploying high rhetoric. Paolo Freire, the founder of critical pedagogy, argued in his 1968 book, “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”, that traditional education – which he called the ‘banking concept’ because it was about depositing knowledge in students – oppresses people by teaching them only to conform, maintains the status quo, inhibits creativity by teaching ‘necrophily’, dichotomises everything, doesn’t teach students to think and causes suffering by preventing people from becoming more human. Instead, we need implicit teaching methods.

The flaws in this argument: Ironically, in presenting a caricature of traditional education, Freire sets up his own false dichotomy. Clearly, traditional education does teach children to think and many who have been taught concepts at school will go on to question and challenge them. Indeed, a knowledge base is essential for critical thinking as we have already seen. Traditional education relies on students already possessing the prerequisite knowledge required for whatever new idea is being taught, making absurd Freire’s claim that, “In the banking concept of education, knowledge is a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgeable upon those whom they consider to know nothing.” The call for implicit teaching is self-defeating because it will produce students who know less and are disadvantaged because of this and so the aim of social justice is badly served.

8. Direct instruction turns children into criminals

The argument: Longitudinal research on students who have been taught by Direct Instruction (which is not exactly traditional but is a transmissive model in the same way that traditional approaches tend to be) shows that they are more likely to engage in criminal behaviour as teenagers and young adults. There is something fundamentally wrong with the this method because it doesn’t nurture students as well-balanced people. Instead, we need implicit teaching.

The flaws in the argument: Despite being widely repeated as fact, the research behind this argument has been largely debunked.


It seems as if implicit teaching methods are an answer in search of a question. This suggests that, for most of its proponents, the rightness of implicit teaching is their starting point and the justifications are later additions bolted on to this position. I am likely to have missed some of the arguments that have been used in this way – this post is long enough but feel free to add any that you have spotted in the comments.

We can be sure of one thing: new reasons will keep appearing for ditching traditional teaching methods in favour implicit ones. So be aware.

Embed from Getty Images

13 thoughts on “8 reasons to ditch traditional teaching methods

  1. Jonathan says:

    You missed a very common one (and a very appealing one it seems to me). That learning X should be the same as doing X. E.g., maths is all about inquiry, discovery and exploration, so learning maths should take this form as well.

    Rebuttal (which I think I’ve read on your blog before): this mixes up methodology with pedagogy. Before you can start really doing maths (I.e. exploration/discovery etc.), you need to have amassed quite a lot of basic knowledge. So whilst discovery-type methods might work for experts, it’s not going to be effective for novices.

  2. Stan says:

    You could also add as a counter argument in a few places that there is no free lunch or as an economist would say there is always an opportunity cost.

    So if you adjust teach methods to produce better collaborators you may get this but trade off some level of math proficiency. Here the better collaboration would be measured by less time spent by the students on the project as they divide the task even though this means some do none of the mathematics. That would be fine if that was the accepted outcome. In general it is not. New goals are added without considering their negative impact on other goals.

    You might also add that teachers are possibly a very bad group to attempt to improve collaboration in others. They are a profession that to a larger extent than most does their work in relative isolation.

  3. Mike says:

    Outstanding post, Greg.

    The Freire fanboys (or fanmiddleagedwomen, more often) had an absolute stranglehold on the education department where I did my Dip.Ed. in the late nineties, and the wide-eyed 18-year-olds in the course lapped it all up, while mature-agers like myself and a few others couldn’t believe the absurd nonsense we were hearing. It’s amazing that a thesis that defies the most elementary common sense has become holy writ in education academia. And from what I’ve heard, its reputation hasn’t been dented one bit in the past couple of decades.

  4. Andrew says:

    Another aspect of this is that the further away from public exams you are the more the teacher feels at liberty to teach implicitly and ‘work round’ the topic in a discursive way. The closer you get to the exam the more teacher wants to say, ‘enough of that, just be quiet and listen to what I’m telling you’. An exaggeration perhaps, but what you say about ‘knowledge base’ resonates with me big time and teachers, myself include’ get this the wrong way round. Start with the knowledge and then promote meta cognitive skills afterwards.

  5. Kerry says:

    Thanks so much for this article! It reaffirms everything I experienced and felt in my own 35 year teaching career. Now retired, I feel FREE… free to tutor (and speak) in the ways you describe as effective in your article. I always did teach that way, but the sense of freedom and joy was always spoiled by the constant flow of “implicit is best” propaganda coming at me from above. So glad that I accidentally bumped into your article. I’m printing it off and recommending it in the next reading workshop I give for teachers! Maybe the tide is turning? Maybe more teachers are beginning to think critically? Let’s hope those newer teachers (brought up with “implicit is best ” and educated that way themselves! CAN think critically!)

  6. Jacob Burnette says:

    This would have been more helpful if it would have included an argument for explicit learning instead of only the faults in implicit.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.