How goals affect your teaching style

Two axis model

It can be a bit of  puzzle. There is no reason why a particular curriculum should imply a specific way of teaching it. For instance, Dan Willingham has written at length of the need for a knowledge-rich curriculum and yet his statements on teaching styles are relatively few, limited to cautioning us about flashy hooks or the overuse of pure discovery learning.

Yet, on social media and when examining the way that schools enact different educational philosophies, a knowledge-rich curriculum tends to be associated with explicit instruction whereas a knowledge-lite curriculum, such as the one embodied by England’s 2007 National Curriculum, is often seen to favour for exploratory, student-directed forms of learning. This seems likely to be the reason why the Times Educational Supplement (TES) recently seized upon what it mistakenly saw as a criticism of explicit instruction by knowledge advocate, E D Hirsch Jr. They knew that the headline would be clickbait.

I don’t think means and ends are as independent as we might think. If you have a body of knowledge that you wish to communicate then, as Hirsch suggests, research and even common sense tell us that explicit methods will be more efficient. You need to learn-by-doing if you have a skill that needs practising. To traditionalists, children must first learn a body of knowledge before practising its application whereas, to progressive educators, something like scientific inquiry is itself a ‘skill’ that can be practised and refined from the outset and that builds other more ephemeral ‘skills’ in the process, such as collaboration. This means that all teachers should, or at least intend to, reach the point of independent application but that traditionalists will pay far more attention to building a body of knowledge first and they believe the best way to do this is explicitly.

Rosenshine’s principles of instruction actually includes application in part of its definition of an explicit teaching method. The recent monograph by Andrew Martin adds a lot of flesh to this idea.

There are those who love to suggest that advocates of explicit instruction are only interested in students repeating back disconnected facts that they don’t understand. But there are two problems with painting this picture. Firstly, I am not aware of anyone who is arguing for this. Secondly, explicit instruction is consistently associated with better performance on tests of application, with PISA 2015 being just the latest example.


4 thoughts on “How goals affect your teaching style

  1. David says:

    Hi Greg….I was just thinking about this due to the confluence of some things at school (strategic plan development stuff) plus my own reading.

    As a history teacher having to teach Word History and AP European History, there’s a certain level of hubris in thinking one can seriously be a content expert in ALL of history for ALL of the world’s societies or can be an expert in the political, intellectual, artistic etc. history of all of Europe from Homer to the present. Toss in that the good teacher of this ought to have thought about the historiographical debates (should one teach focusing on global connectivty, as per Wallerstein? or emphasize cultural differences, as per Huntington? Or focus on gender/class/ethnicity? Or bugger it all and just do the old Whiggish Progressive history?)…and there should be some thought given to pedagogy and how students learn too. And we’re trying to emphasize “writing across the curriculum,” so teaching grammar, style, research and citation formats are a must. Oh and by the way, one’s admin has just decided that all teachers must integrate technology into the classroom somehow, because its the 21st century.

    I think too many teachers are overwhelmed due to their training/preparation or lack thereof–in the US many teachers just have an education degree with a minor in their teaching field–so they stick to the textbook, use student-centered activities because then they can see something going on and that’s what the admin wants (“let’s make some posters on China! Now pull out you iPad and do some research on Wikipedia!”) and hope for the best.

  2. How long will it take for E.D. Hirsch Jr. to clarify the misleading (if not defamatory) representation of his views published on the front cover of the Tes?
    Clearly you have identified the problem Greg, as have I, but the bigger issue for Tes readers is to ask why the Tes chose to target Hirsch Jr. Perhaps because he is a traditionalist?

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