This morning I read an excellent blog post by Martin Robinson (@SurrealAnarchy), writer of ‘Trivium 21c‘ – see here. I was particularly struck by this sage statement:
“Our need is not to fashion an easy answer but to hold the competing ideologies together in an awkward contradictory balance, as we do in liberal democracies, for education is human and it belongs to all, whether conservative or radical, and it is frail, flawed and fantastic because of it.”
It was an excellent counterpoint to the debates over teaching methods that characterise much of the discourse on Twitter, in universities and beyond. I find this battle of ideas and methods useful because at least it indicates that a great deal of thought and interest is being invested in how we instruct our students so that may learn best and succeed. I have written before about how I am averse to binary thinking that refuses to countenance all the complexities of the minefield that is the real classroom. Ultimately, each school and each classroom has its own unique context and therefore any pronouncements about research into the effectiveness of methods of instruction should be treated as useful guidance and not didactic commands.
Ideology and theory usually doesn’t translate easily into ‘real’ practice.
A really useful summary of the research into teacher effectiveness, conducted by the CfBT Education Trust, provides a concise and excellent summary of the debate between constructivist and direct instruction methods. These are the two warring faction of teaching and theories of instruction (put simply: direct instruction puts the teacher at the centre of instruction, whereas constructivism puts the student at the centre). The report can be found here. Once more, specific elements of the report struck home, reiterating the message of Martin Robinson, about the often contradictory, but not mutually exclusive, balance between different methods of teaching and learning. I have selected the following quotation from the report as it best articulates my position in the debate:
“The relative utility of direct instruction and constructivist approaches to teaching and learning are neither mutually exclusive nor independent. Both approaches have merit in their own right, provided that students have the basic knowledge and skills (best provided initially by direct instruction) before engagement in ‘rich’ constructivist learning activities. The problem arises when constructivist learning activities precede explicit teaching, or replace it, with the assumption that students have adequate knowledge and skills to efficiently and effectively engage with constructivist learning activities designed to generate new learning.” (Rowe 2006)
from page 24 of the CfBT report.
The report highlights the importance of teacher led approaches, particularly for younger students, who are effectively novices, and particularly disadvantaged groups of students. Dr Ken Rowe, an Australian educational researcher (who tragically died in the bush fires of 2009), explored this issue with interesting findings.The following research in this area is suggested by the report: Galton et al. (1980); Mortimore et al. (1988); Muijs & Reynolds (2000); Rowe (2006). This appeals to my educated intuition that students who are novices require much more direct instruction, before reaching a stage of some expertise, at which point learner centred activities (such as assessment for learning strategies or constructivist methods, like co-construction) can be integrated into our teaching methods with success.
My personal example would be the difference between my current year 8 SEN group and my year 13 English Language A level group. I teach my year 8 students with a great deal of direct instruction. They are consistently reliant on my guidance. There is lots of teacher led writing- modelled and scaffolded appropriately. That being said, I have them working in pairs regularly, such as finding word definitions for Beowulf, and their combined efforts have proven constructive and successful (with carefully chosen pairings!). Individual students work with the TA in being ‘meaning moles’ finding tricky new words as we read, before ‘teaching’ the class their meanings.
With my year 12 group we have recently started Child Language Acquisition. I am very much taking a predominantly direct instruction approach in the early stages to develop their knowledge; however, I will encourage constructivist independent research and presentations on aspects of CLA to ensure students have the capacity to undertake independent study (of course, this is essential for any further education they undertake). We will also move to some reciprocal teaching strategies, with students leading on teaching the revision of aspects of CLA. It works well and sees successful results.
For each lesson there is an appropriate strategy, for every scheme of learning there is a combination of methods required. The most effective teachers have a strong grasp of a range of teaching methods and they have the agility to negotiable between different strategies for different groups and individuals.
Every group is, of course, different. I don’t think any pure method of instruction wholly translates to the complicated and nuanced range teaching and learning that characterises the typical classroom. Englemann’s pure Direct Instruction, with lesson scripts and quick fire questioning etc., does not translate to the needs of my A level class; whereas a project learned based approach for my year 8s would still require a serious amount of direct instruction and would have to be teacher directed to succeed. Pure theorising about teaching approaches becomes a limitation on teachers trying to do the best for their students.
We should continue the debate, we should undertake research, conduct research and synthesise the best of evidence, but we should be wary of every finding a ‘answer‘ or ‘solution‘ to the most effective method of teaching. Teaching and learning is far too “frail, flawed and fantastic.”