What’s in a name?
Imagine you are an advocate for a failed teaching method. What should you do? Change the name and carry on.
There are plenty of methods to choose from and they do have their own emphases. Some will prioritise authentic problems, others will focus on cognitive conflict, still others are more subject specific; for instance, the approaches to history teaching that stress source analysis. These interesting facets aside, the main axis along which teaching methods vary is the level of explicitness.
I advocate explicit instruction in which concepts are fully explained to students before they are asked to use or apply them. This is appropriate for school students learning new ideas because it manages cognitive load. However, it is not fashionable and only has two names that I can think of: explicit or direct instruction.
There is a plethora of less explicit teaching methods. At one end of the scale is pure discovery learning. Virtually nobody promotes pure discovery because it so manifestly doesn’t work. Instead, implicit approaches have to add in scaffolds and guidance to manage the load and this tends to make them inefficient.
Now you might be wondering why I’ve started to sound like an accountant: Why should we be concerned with efficiency? Education is about growth and development; it’s about becoming more fully human. What kind of heartless monster bangs on about efficiency?
Well, think of it this way: If you have an inefficient teaching method then you are going to have to spend more time in the superficial and the trivial; you are going to have to attend to lots of irrelevant details. If you have an efficient approach then you can get to the deep structure and conceptual understandings much more directly. You can ask and answer bigger questions.
So it is a really bad idea for an implicit approach such as inquiry learning to crowd out proper subjects in primary schools. It’s a dreadful waste of opportunity.
Explicit teachers know this and they know that the evidence supports their position. Yet we haven’t won the argument yet. Why is that?
One issue is the name game. Whatever evidence you present, people will claim it doesn’t apply to a slightly different approach that they happen to favour. For instance, Tim Taylor has tried to draw a distinction between inquiry learning and discovery learning. No doubt this is because he is a promoter of Mantle of the Expert, an inquiry learning programme where children pretend to be experts.
And it’s also true that implicit educators have cornered some names that are hard to argue against. Who, for instance, could oppose ‘balanced literacy’? What kind of contrarianis against balance? And what does it make you if you disapprove of ‘child-centred’ education? Do you hate children or something?
So here’s a thought. Let’s rename explicit instruction as ‘learning-focused education’. It’s a pretty accurate description and, well, who could possibly be opposed to learning?