Should teachers choose to learn a particular teaching style?

I have recently been reading Doug Lemov’s various works on teaching teachers. The books and videos will be familiar to many and, although some of the Americanisms jar on my British sensibilities, I nevertheless find the books a persuasive and cohesive whole. What you have in Lemov’s work is a clearly-defined style of teaching.

The problem, of course, is that to teach a teacher in the ‘Lemov School’ requires a considerable time investment. There are lots of strategies to learn and, above all, they need a great deal of practice. You couldn’t introduce someone to the ‘Lemov School’ in an afternoon professional studies session: I reckon it would take at least a year of constant practice and feedback to get to a stage where you are teaching well in that style.

And this is probably true of many teaching styles. The ‘Heathcote School’, making wide use of inquiry and role-play, cannot be learnt in a single training session: I suspect it requires lots and lots of practice to get to a point where you are doing it well.

Yet, in the real world, teachers do not focus on mastering a particular teaching style. Instead they regularly get large numbers of strategies thrown at them, some of which are contradictory or mutually exclusive, and they end up building up their own style from scratch. This is one reason why passing judgements on a teacher’s ability is so personal: it is an attack not just on how well a teacher is teaching in a particular style, but also on the very style that the teacher has created for him- or herself.

A further problem of the current status quo is that is makes it quite difficult for teachers to talk to one another about pedagogy: the purpose and meaning of any given teaching strategy will depend enormously on the wider style in which it is embedded. Teacher instruction is a central component of both the ‘Lemov’ and ‘Heathcote’ schools, yet it would be difficult indeed for teachers teaching in those two styles to meaningfully compare notes on teacher instruction. Indeed, this is part of the reason why doing empirical studies into the effectiveness of different teaching approaches is so difficult.

All of this leads me to the position where I think that, pedagogically, it is better to focus on learning a particular teaching style, and learning to do it well. This does not mean being unaware of other styles, but rather making a conscious choice to focus on developing the one that you find most attractive.

Such a line of argument does however have implications for both initial teacher education and later professional development. For one, it would require training institutions to be upfront about what ‘style’ they focus on in their training. As a new teacher you would need to take some time to look at the different styles on offer and to make some choices about which would most appeal to you. Schools would need to make a decision about whether they wanted to employ teachers who follow the same style, or whether they want to have diversity.

I suspect that this suggestion will be highly unpopular, not least because the romantic vision of the creative teacher forging his or her own practice is enticing and pervasive, and any sniff of standardisation, common practices or coherency brings about cries of teachers as robots, machines and drones.

Yet it might be the case that what we gain from having a clearer sense of different teaching styles might outweigh what we lose.


7 Comments on Should teachers choose to learn a particular teaching style?

  1. An interesting idea, well worth consideration.

    I have to report that I do focus on a particular teaching style myself, it is my own teaching style. I have developed this approach over a number of years and it contains some of Doug Lemov’s techniques and I dare say a few ideas of Dorothy Heathcote. I believe Doug’s approach (style is probably not the best term to use) is a mish mash of a number of tips rather than a style and I use a number of the methods he recommends although this is not as a result of reading his book.

    My approach is that I explain it, kids remember it and/or practice it and then the kids use it to solve problems. That is it really. I feel that the rest is just distraction.

    I will be interested to red the comments that appear.

  2. Do you think certain styles suit certain subjects better? And, in your opinion, which style do you think is best suited to History?

  3. I think more focus during ITE courses is probably a good idea but unless operating in a large and very cohesive group of schools, more radical models like Doug Lemov’s present some logistical difficulties. A lot of ITE choices are geographical – made by people with roots down in a particular area rather than a particular educational vision – and a fair proportion of applicants don’t have much understanding of the differences between e.g. UL and SD, so helping them to make informed decisions is another possible difficulty. It will be interesting to see if the ‘centres of excellence’ and/or the core content encourages or discourages this kind of cohesive and distinctive training package.

  4. Ellie Russell // 19 April 2016 at 19:55 // Reply

    Fascinating blog post. I am glad that I had the support of excellent mentors when I trained to teach and in my early years too. They supported me when I wanted to try different methods and helped me reflect on what was worth the effort put in for outcome! Of course all children differ and sometimes ideas and approaches that seemed to work well with one group were a hopeless waste of time with another. It has taken me far too long to recognise my ‘style’ and not feel guilty about exploring other styles that work well for other colleagues. I jobshare with a colleague and we’ve made a good team for years. We work to our strengths, but have plenty in common too. I think it is important that trainee teachers explore different teaching methods while they have the support of another colleague in the room. I work hard to find the balance of letting them try things out for themselves and giving them advice. This is their chance to experiment..within reason!

  5. chrismwparsons // 20 April 2016 at 19:57 // Reply

    This appeals to me. I certainly think that a school insisting on teachers adopting the same approach, because research shows that on average to be more effective at producing a particular educational outcome, is a poor strategy (though if it results in them attracting teachers who want to teach that way, then fair enough).

    I think that matching a teaching approach to the natural qualities of a teacher as well as their preferences/convictions is also helpful if possible (of course these things often go hand in hand, though not always). An interesting analogy can be made with the figures of Carl Rogers and Albert Ellis, who in the 1950s developed their ‘Client Centred’ and ‘Rational Emotive’ therapies respectively – two very different approaches to psychotherapy. Both men emerged from a professional background in Psychoanalysis, and both were considerably successful in their personal practice using their respective approaches (in as much as the success of therapy can be measured). The thing is though, their style of therapy very much matched their characters. Rogers was a big bear of a man who exuded warmth and made it safe to come out, and Ellis was a meticulous, precise kind of person, who seemed to see right behind your defences and drag the truth out into the open. If they had tried to adopt each other’s approaches, then quite likely they both would have been pretty unsuccessful.

    Likewise in my school it is easy to spot characters who are brilliant, dynamic whole class teachers, for whom explicit instruction is a natural approach, but who flounder if trying to facilitate independent learning. There is also the opposite – those who love organising inquiry sessions who are frankly dull when it comes to whole class exposition.

    Teachers teach best when teaching in the style that fits best with their characters, their experiences and their beliefs.

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