Teaching methods still matter

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Two years ago, Stuart Lock posted a blog based upon a talk he had given titled, “Pedagogy is overrated.” I agree with much of what Lock wrote and the purpose of this post is not to rebut it. Particularly in England, too much focus had been placed on often gimmicky ideas about teaching and too little attention had been placed on the curriculum. This is epitomised by the invalid and unreliable practice of grading lesson observations; a practice that was ubiquitous until sustained pressure caused a change in policy by the English schools’ inspectorate, Ofsted.

However, I still believe that teaching methods are of critical importance and I wish to explain why.

Schema

The thing that really matters about education is what it is that is retained by the person being educated. We can frame this in a number of ways, but one useful way of thinking about it is: what schema have been created, grown and maintained in long-term memory? Schema are interconnected webs of ideas – think of a big and complex concept map.

As I have implied, schema are dynamic. They can grow, they can change and they can fade. Most of the business of education involves hanging things on to preexisting schema, although this may also be the cause of some significant misconceptions.

Assessment

We cannot directly observe schemas. Maybe one day we will be able to do this with some advanced form of brain imaging, but right now we have to use the proxy of assessment. If you want to find out what schemas are present in someone’s head then you need to ask them questions. However, it is not sufficient to do this once, due to the dynamic natures of schemas.

An effective educational process therefore involves assessment across a range of times, not least because assessment has a dual role in that is also helps embed the schema being assessed. When initially teaching a concept, teachers may ask questions to clarify which schema are already present, whether students are successfully assigning new concepts the the right schema, whether they actually understand what the teacher is trying to say and so on. However, just because they answer all these questions correctly, this does not mean that this schema will be present in the future. So you need regular short assessments and later synoptic assessments.

Curriculum

Lock suggested that a focus on teaching methods had resulted in a neglect of curriculum. There are efforts in England to right this wrong that are being spearheaded by a reformed Ofsted. However, curriculum alone is not enough.

Imagine two classrooms. In the first classroom, students are being directly taught concepts relating to the English Civil War. The teacher is in full story-telling mode, pausing only to ask questions of the students and clarify. In the second classroom, students are working in groups to complete a card-sort about the English Civil War. At times, they are able to connect cards due to surface features e.g. “these two statements relate to a battle”. Some of the students rely on others doing the work for them and the teacher focuses on the ‘skill’ of collaboration.

Ignoring any subsequent lessons or assessments, we can be pretty sure that the first group is likely to build better schema about the English Civil War than the second group. And yet both teachers could, to some extent, claim to have delivered the same curriculum.

This is what we see when calls for a knowledge-rich curriculum are met with, ‘But we have always taught knowledge’. It is also the tactic deployed by advocates of so-called ‘balanced literacy’ which is simply a rebranding of whole language reading instruction. In this approach, phonics is notionally a part of the curriculum, it is just that students are meant to pick it up implicitly rather than be explicitly taught letter-sound relationships. No, in this case the curriculum is certainly not identical to that of a rigorous phonics programme, but the passing reference to phonics in the balanced literacy curriculum is a useful fig leaf for those who wish to defend it.

Teaching methods

I cannot bring myself to call teaching methods ‘pedagogy’ for many of the same reasons Lock dislikes the term, but from what I have written above, you can see that I think teaching methods are pretty central. Curriculum, teaching methods and, oddly, assessment are the inputs, with assessment also being one of the outputs. Despite agreeing with Lock that teaching methods vary across subjects, there is clear evidence to favour more explicit and direct approaches. A generic skill of ‘teaching’ makes sense if we think of teaching as a biologically primary process, something that seems likely given its prevalence across all human cultures, whether formal or not.

So no, we may not be able to validly and reliably give a grade or score to teaching, but not everything that matters can be measured (or maybe not measured yet). And teaching methods still matter.

6 thoughts on “Teaching methods still matter

  1. In the Netherlands what you talk about is what we call ‘didactics’ (didactiek), often seen as a very pejorative term in Anglo-Saxon lands. Pedagogy, on the other hand, is the study of the way in which adults (parents, educators, teachers) raise young people for a specific purpose. It studies the upbringing, the stages of development, and also the relationship between the child and its environment: family members, school, friends, the built environment, media, etc. I find this a useful difference.

    1. Certainly the Anglo-Saxon definitions of these words are quite different, but I’m not altogether sure that the Dutch distinctions are all that important. The environments which people face are changing dramatically all the time, so in a way they are just as ‘artificial’ or biologically secondary as academic subjects.

      I don’t think that I’m unusual in having taught informally since childhood–the first opportunity to teach formally was in the Boy Scouts at age 13. No one has to teach us the basics of explaining, demonstrating and guiding practice until the behaviour is established in long-term memory. After all, we’ve experienced it all the time ourselves as older people teach us. Indeed we do need expertise which in whatever subject we teach, and the modern teacher needs to be de-programmed from some of the more fanciful ideas taught in training. However, until the 19th century the notion that teaching was a profession that required specialised training was far from universal. When the Massachusetts School Board was introducing teacher training colleges in 1858, they conceded that

      “For nearly two hundred years our system of free schools was sustained directly by the people, without special care or direct aid from the government…there was little completeness of detail, yet the results were worthy of all praise”.

      1. No one has to teach us the basics of explaining, demonstrating and guiding practice until the behaviour is established in long-term memory.

        I’m increasingly beginning to think that is wrong.

        People naturally teach a single skill fluently, without needing training. But as soon as gets more complicated than that, then teaching methods matter a lot.

        Most teachers are nowhere near aware enough of the importance of cycling back and revisiting old material. Many regard repeated drill as anathema. I rarely see teachers — even very experienced ones — *explicitly* set up the common mistakes in order to explicitly teach their students to avoid them. A lot of teachers talk while their students are busy working. I recently saw an experienced teacher attempt to teach two new skills at the same time.

        When teachers make elementary mistakes like that, i begin to doubt that teaching — or at least classroom teaching — is particularly natural.

        And these are teachers who at least are sympathetic to explicit teaching (although I’ve not met any who can lay out their individual philosophy in a coherent way, which means that they are all doing it without any deep consideration of the process). Once you get onto progressive-leaning teachers, you see much more problematic techniques being used or misused.

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