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Teaching methods – What does research tell us?

Thursday, July 4, 2019

For millennia, the earliest classrooms, as far back as ancient Greece, have been portrayed in archives and paintings as the traditional scene with the teacher in front of a class or group of students. Over the years since, many new teaching techniques and pedagogies have been tried and tested, but what really are the outcomes of the research?

The traditional scene of a teacher in front of students is often dismissively labelled as ‘chalk and talk’. Merely lecturing students from the front with little interaction is certainly less effective in a school environment, but teaching from the front - or indeed the back of the class - does not have to take this form. Take the teaching of Mathematics in Singapore or Shanghai as an example; whilst the teacher may commonly be stood at the front of a class, the practice of Mastery is a far cry from the ‘chalk and talk’ image that this may conjure in the mind’s eye. Mastery involves posing constant questions to students. The philosophy of ‘Don’t tell when you can ask’ encourages students to think more about the answers to questions and to search themselves to reason with why something may be. A philosophy summarised by Amanda Ayres at the Festival of Education this year. This promotes reasoning in students and encourages their application of understanding to new concepts.

Teaching methods that encourage audience response, open questions and quizzes have proven to be effective, through in part, improving engagement as “the act of retrieving information should benefit learning regardless of the format” as shown in DeLozier and Rhodes’ research in 2016. Ensuring that the presentation and delivery of education contains a continuous stream of well-thought through questions that elicit the understanding from students is a very effective method of teaching and learning. As a team of experienced teachers ourselves with over 200 years collective years in the classroom, this method is one we have found to be highly effective in our own teaching. It also provides the teacher with an instant gauge of student understanding. The importance of this observational assessment, whether formally recorded or not, cannot be underestimated. It enables a precise and instant evaluation of any student’s progression that can only come from working with them and through this frequent assessment and more formal marking of their work.

Limited research on group work appears to show a positive benefit to student learning and recall amongst those students who were encouraged to participate in group work, discussing questions with their classmates. In fact, there is some evidence, Alexopoulou and Driver (1996), to suggest that the larger the group, the greater the value. The size of group where the returns diminish was not tested and outside of this small study, I would hypothesise that the group dynamics would need to be carefully balanced in order not to allow some students to retract as passive observers and others to dominate.

The practice of assigning learning tasks or research (commonly pre-recorded video or readings) outside and ahead of class has the advantage of saving lesson time for activities and discussion. Whilst this may encourage valuable life skills in discipline and the responsibility for self-learning, we still aren’t sure of the benefits to education. This isn’t a particularly new phenomenon having been around in one form or another for 200 years, but it has more recently been referred to as ‘flipped’ form of learning. Dylan Wiliam @dylanwiliam summarised recent research on flipped learning as showing “little evidence about the impact on student achievement, and most studies are so poorly theorized that studies are difficult, if not impossible to compare.”

A blended learning approach may well be the most effective and the ingredients in this blend will likely vary from teacher to teacher, lesson to lesson and even student to student. Paradoxically, experienced teachers may be more able to experiment with different techniques, although they are quite possibly the least likely to implement any change or new ideas. They have had more time to become established in the methods they have found most effective. They are more confident in their approach, more resilient to failure in the classroom and there are fewer peripheral issues to deal with such as classroom management, so those open-minded to trying new things can find a broader blend of pedagogies that perhaps work better. New teachers are often very willing to try a wide range of techniques in their teaching to find out what works and what doesn’t. The first and NQT years are often ripe for experimentation, but with that often comes the fear of things going wrong, being less-equipped to deal with classroom fallout on the hoof.

Whatever delivery strategies may be built on top of the lesson structure, it is very apparent that planning is key and that a well-prepared lesson makes a significant difference to learning. Good teachers using good resources are more likely to yield better results than good teachers using poor resources. Likewise, poor teachers using good resources are more likely to deliver a more effective education than poor teachers using poor resources.

Scoring highly in the PISA tests, teachers in both Singapore and China rely on vital pre-published resources to guide and inform their planning and delivery. This is commonly in the form of a Teachers’ guide to provide a structure for teachers to adapt and adopt in their own environments.

In conclusion to these studies and our own experience, the effectiveness of a well-planned, traditional lesson, honed from techniques passed down through the millennia are most effective, particularly when blended with other techniques that best suit the age and ability of the students, and the personality of the teacher. The flipped learning approach may have some apparent benefit for some learning activities, but research has not proven this. Nor has it proven to do any harm but does it increase the likelihood of students failing to prepare adequately for a lesson and what impact might that have on them and others once the lesson begins?

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The Schoolmaster, by Bernardus van Schijndel, 1670-1709, Oil on panel.

The Schoolmaster, by Bernardus van Schijndel, 1670-1709, Oil on panel.

Springer Science+Business Media New York, Educational Psychology Review, (2017) Volume 29, Issue 1, pp141-151

DeLozier and Rhodes, (2016) Flipped Classrooms: a Review of Key Ideas and Recommendations for Practice