Is there really no best way to teach?

Whenever child-centred educationalists are in the ascendency, they use their authority to try to impose teaching methods. We have seen this in the U.K. with Ofsted, in North America through various iterations of the standards movements and initiatives such as Productive Pedagogies in Australia. I am even required by the Victorian state exam board to set my Year 12 students open-ended investigations.

To an extent, this is perfectly reasonable. Child-centred educators have a set of beliefs and, when they get the chance, they seek to put them into practice. Others might disagree with these beliefs and practices and so a debate may be had that will test these ideas. This is the stuff of democracy.

Unfortunately, not everyone sees it this way. There are those who would stifle debate. As I understand it, teachers in New South Wales government schools are effectively prohibited from engaging in these kind of discussions by their social media policy. And I’ve heard stories of complaints being lodged with teachers’ employers. 

A few child-centred educationalists remain proudly partisan yet what we see from others is perhaps a little less honest. These are those who, when presented with evidence that contradicts their positions, assert that there is nothing to debate: there is no best way to teach and it all depends on context.

Here are a few thoughts:

Context matters to an extent 

I don’t think anyone argues that we should teach in one mode only. I tend to refer people to Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction as a concise account of explicit instruction: Students are led through a modelled then guided then independent set of tasks. The key factor in changing the mode of learning is the students’ increasing knowledge. 

Cognitive scientists will point to research that shows that experts tend to benefit from different tasks to novices. This means that accurate assessment is critical to instructional decision making.

So, yes, context does matter. But if all we mean when we assert this is that we must change our methods to reflect the increasing expertise of our students, then this hardly seems a point worth making because it is a point on which everyone already agrees. 

Apart from prior knowledge, learners are very similar

Although the pace of learning may vary, students learn in pretty similar ways. A task that is optimal for one novice learner is likely to be optimal for another and, with the aid of cognitive science, it is possible to draw-up some key principles for the design of these tasks.

If this were not the case, we would be able to point to evidence that showed that Child 1 learnt more from Task A than Task B but Child 2 learnt more from Task B than Task A. Apart from differences in prior knowledge between the children, I am aware of no body of evidence to show such different effects of tasks. In fact, it was a lack of such evidence that convinced the scientific community that learning styles was a junk theory.

How does context matter?

Let’s take this argument on face value. Let’s assume that there is no best way to teach and that everything works in a particular context. And let’s take a example from Productive Pedagogies – the description of tasks that involve ‘lower order thinking’.

“…which occurred when students were simply asked to receive or recite factual information or to employ rules and algorithms in repetitive routines. In such instances students were given pre-specified knowledge, ranging from simple facts and information to more complex concepts. Often this involves knowledge being conveyed to students through readings, worksheets, lectures or another direct teaching medium.”

What contextual cues would lead us to teach for lower order thinking? What signs would we observe in our students that would suggest that this is appropriate? How would we make this decision? In what way would students differ so that we would decide that one group needed lower order thinking and another needed higher order thinking?

Obviously, from the way it is framed, we are supposed to conclude that the teaching techniques associated with ‘lower order thinking’ are generally inferior to the ones that the authors prefer.

And that’s fine. Let’s just be honest about it. If you want to take teaching methods that I think are effective and label them as ‘lower order thinking’ then so be it. Bring it on. Let’s have the discussion and see whose ideas withstand the scrutiny.

But let’s be grown-ups. Let’s not pretend there’s nothing to discuss. Let’s not try to censor teachers. 

The truth will out.

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3 Comments on “Is there really no best way to teach?”

  1. dkenley says:

    Does Hattie’s research have a role to play in this discussion?

  2. barryg99 says:

    Vern Williams, who teaches in a traditional manner, and was a member of the National Math Advisory Panel in the US (which convened in 2006-7) is often criticized by those on the math reform side in the manner you describe in your post. He had this to say about it:

    “I have always stated that if a reform minded teacher produces competent, intellectually passionate students, they will absolutely escape any criticism on my part. But the opposite seems never to occur. Regardless of stellar results, the traditional teacher will always be criticized for being a self centered sage on the stage, controlling student learning and running a draconian classroom. Their students may be the happiest most accomplished students of all time but the teacher will never be good and pure until they cross over to the reform side.”


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