Should teaching methods be prescribed?

Arendt’s observation that ‘the most radical revolutionary will become a conservative the day after the revolution’ is pertinent in a number of contexts, and we can see it very clearly in terms of how attitudes to teaching have shifted in England over the last five years or so. When your particular approach to teaching is in the ascendency, then you have no incentive for wanting things to change, and indeed granting greater ‘freedoms’ to teachers to teach as they wish is a threat to you, for it might be the first step in a shift away from the practices that you value. Contrastingly, if your favoured teaching approach is languishing at the bottom of Fortune’s wheel, then you probably want greater freedom, as this will allow you to get on with what you think is the right approach to the job, even if the tide is against you. The strength of your support for or opposition against teacher freedom is likely to be linked to whether your own methods are currently in vogue.

We should be clear here that this is a spectrum and not a binary choice. At one end of the spectrum is complete teacher freedom, and at the other is no freedom at all. Very few people indeed would place themselves at one extreme or the other, and indeed these extremes are often used to caricature people on different sides of the debate. Almost no one would complain if a teacher got in trouble for letting his children play Call of Duty for six weeks or if he just told the pupils to read from the textbook for the whole lesson, every lesson. Most of us would probably say that this teacher’s Head of Department or Headteacher, or an inspector, should criticise this teacher for doing this. Equally, at the other end of the spectrum, there are few who would argue that every word a teacher says should be read from a script and that a teacher should not be able to exercise professional judgement in choosing when to spend longer on an explanation or how to answer a pupil’s question. The question is not whether you support teacher freedom: it’s to what extent you support teacher freedom.

I think the arguments against giving teachers too many freedoms are well rehearsed, and comparisons often get made with airline pilots and doctors that take the form ‘I do not want my pilot to be an innovative maverick’. I would not want to take this argument too far, but I do at least understand the reasoning behind it. One argument against teacher individualism I do not hear often enough is the potential impact that this freedom has on colleagues. Pupils build expectations, and it undermines fellow teachers if pupils arrive at a lesson demanding a style of teaching that another teacher in the school provides. If one teacher lets pupils have their phones out and another does not, then life is being made more difficult for the one who says no. The same is true of listening to music on headphones, being allowed to chatter whilst doing individual work, or setting homework each week. Whilst I might broadly argue for teachers to be allowed to make professional judgements about their own classrooms, I think this must be done with the professional mind-set that our classrooms do not exist in vacuums, and that we owe it to our colleagues to agree on some basic rules that we all follow, even if we happen to disagree with them. I have written on this before in terms of what it means to be a pragmatist in teaching.

The arguments in favour of teacher freedoms are I think usually presented more weakly, often centred around platitudes about professionalism or simplistic soundbites such as “no best way” or “everything works somewhere and nothing works everywhere”. Such arguments are weak primarily because they work to inhibit debate and discussion: even if my argument about how to teach is tightly reasoned and based on extensive evidence, you can always come back with “yes, but there’s no best way”. Perversely, this kind of thinking works to de-professionalise teachers by making it difficult to establish common reference points and broadly accepted conclusions: even if those points and conclusions can always be contested, we nevertheless need ideas on which to build our professional discourse.

I think instead that there are much stronger arguments to be advanced in favour of teacher professional freedoms. For one, a good idea can always be corrupted in practice by those who do not understand or buy into it. Advocates of using drama or group work to teach history or literature suffer from this, in that, for every case of someone doing it well, there are many cases of it being done badly. The same is true of teacher-led instruction: this can be done very well, but it can also be done badly. Where a teaching method is being done poorly because it has not been properly understood, good coaching and teacher education can mitigate the problem. It is a much harder job, however, to persuade a teacher who is ideologically opposed to a method to use it well. Where accountability measures are light, such a teacher will probably just roll out the mandated methods for an observation or inspection, and hide his or her true approaches behind a closed classroom door. Where accountability measures are invasive, the teacher would probably leave the school for one where he or she feels more welcome, or, perhaps, leave teaching completely. In the former case, we lose opportunities for professional debate and discussion, for the teacher who disagrees with the mandated model will most probably remain silent, which only helps to re-inforce the beliefs held by school and system leaders that they are doing the right thing. In the latter case, we end up with disillusioned teachers and high turnover in the profession. If we are working in schools where teachers are saying one thing to their managers and then doing something else behind a closed classroom door, then the system is not working.

Another problem with prescribing methods is that it constantly pulls us away from the subject-specific and towards the generic. What we teach has a significant influence on how we teach: I would, for example, thoroughly support using group exercises to teach a rugby team how to form a scrum. When teaching methods are mandated, they are nearly always generic in character, and it is probably wrong to assume that what works well in a mathematics lesson is the same as what works well in a literature lesson. Even if a school does decide to establish a set of common teaching principles it expects all staff to follow, scope needs to be made to allow that not all principles apply to all subjects. This is where we see some of the worst shoe-horning, where teachers do something because they are being told to do it, rather than because it is right for that subject.

This is why it is a good thing that Ofsted has backed-off in terms of judging teaching methods. The leaders of the inspectorate could not have made it clearer that they do not desire a particular teaching style. Senior leaders have to attend to institutional norms and expectations for the reasons I have outlined above, but my position would be to lean more towards professional freedom than professional prescription. I do however try to operate with a couple of closely-linked principles, and I would encourage senior leaders to do the same when evaluating teaching methods in their schools.

  1. Get them thinking about what you want them to learn
  2. Don’t waste time

That’s it. If a teacher is acting in such a way that pupils are thinking about what the teacher wants them to learn, and time is not being wasted, then I would suggest letting him or her get on with it. If, in contrast, pupils are not focusing on what is to be learnt (e.g. if the task is a distraction from what is being learnt) or time is being wasted, then I would want the teacher to do something differently. In effect, what these two principles do is move the focus from methods as standalone actions to methods in the context of curriculum. As teachers, we should be ambitious in the scope of our curricula, and we want pupils to think about what we want them to learn. As long as they are thinking about what we want them to learn (and not something else), then I think we should be satisfied that teachers are doing a reasonable job. Closely related to this is the idea of not wasting time. Money is not the most precious resource in schools: it is time. If time is being wasted, and the first principle is being met, then I would question whether the curriculum is sufficiently ambitious.

In this post I have focused entirely on teaching methods, and I hope I have made clear that I probably sit towards the middle of the spectrum on the extent to which teachers ought to have freedom to use whatever methods they see fit. Where a great deal of confusion lies is in the fact that somethings can be both teaching methods and curricular aims. There is a fundamental difference between ‘using group work to learn x’ and ‘learning to work in a group’. This confusion runs deep in the debate, and I shall attempt to return to it in a future post.

 

 

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12 Comments on Should teaching methods be prescribed?

  1. Hmmm, if we’re just saying the middle ground is ok, and that teachers should just make sure that children are thinking about what they want them to learn…….what if a teacher only wants children to think abut working collaboratively on a project about rap music? Further, many primary teachers only ever see, hear or read about teaching practice that is associated with progressive educational philosophy, so are not even in a position to choose or make comparisons.

    • But this is the point about curriculum. If a teacher can afford to spend hours working on a project on rap music, then the curriculum being taught probably isn’t good enough. Also, I’d argue that exposure to a wider range of ideas is exactly what training, CPD etc ought to be about (and there’s still a long way to go on that front).

      • I think I’ve had about 2 days of specific CPD in 3 years of being employed as a teacher!

      • Actually I do think teachers need to be made aware of the research that shows that direct instruction works best and it’s also important to understand how some teaching methods actually undermine other teaching methods because they undermine respect for authority as well as undermine self-discipline that may have been taught by traditional/tiger teachers and traditional parenting styles

      • I’m comfortable with this – the question is whether, having made teachers aware of this, SLTs insist those teachers use these methods in the classroom. For example, at WLFS we have the following principles, but these still allow a lot of flexibility for teachers. http://www.wlfs.org/docs/10_Teaching_Principles_.pdf

  2. Really insightful, and clearly written post. I love your writing-style!

    Question: If there was a science teacher, for example, who ardently favoured discovery-based learning, insisting that time pupils spend discovering, is developing their ability to problem-solve, would you use the evidence that direct/explicit instruction suggests this is time-inefficient, in order to encourage this teacher to change their practice?

    By extension, what I am suggesting is, are there not some teaching practices which are sufficiently well-evidenced to be prescribed over others for defined contexts? E.g. interleaved retrieval practice over massed practice?

    • Well, I would think so, and I would certainly want to encourage this science teacher to take this approach. But I would be concerned that the teacher who then begins to implement a form of direct instruction poorly would only be re-inforced in his or her views that it does not work… So in short I’d be advocating all of this in CPD, but I would feel uncomfortable forcing the teacher to use the approach, if that makes sense?

  3. In an ideal world I would see clear behaviour expectations set at whole-school level and teachers aligning with these being considered a professional expectation. Then I would see setting both the curriculum details and the subject-specific pedagogy set, to some extent collaboratively, at departmental level. So, in science there are logistical reasons why some work needs to be done in groups (practical) and there are curriculum reasons why this is the case in, say, dance, drama and PE. These departments should perhaps be very explicit about this requirement and the ways in which teachers approach working in this way. At the same time, the history and maths departments might be just as explicit about why they rarely/never do collaborative work and have desks set out in rows, or whatever. This explicitness means that children (and new teachers) can be clear what is expected, and why that might differ from class to class.
    There are obvious difficulties where established teachers within departments fundamentally disagree about the best approach. In the long-term this is about making appointment decisions that fit the department; in the short-term, if an experienced teacher seems to be reasonably effective, then encouragement to change is fine but coercion is not – you’d just break them.
    There is the obvious possibility that a department might choose to work in a less effective way, but as you’ve pointed out, enthusiastic and competent teaching in a sub-optimal approach almost certainly beats miserable and incompetent teaching in an optimal one. If a department is sure of itself and can demonstrate decent outcomes then maybe let sleeping dogs lie until eventually staffing changes present a better opportunity for reform. They might even turn out to have been right all along.
    Best wishes

  4. Teaching provision can be helped by the simple idea of ‘fit-for-purpose’ and this varies according to the subject, the learners and their needs (age, stage) – and being mindful of the results/outcomes achieved accordingly.

  5. Interesting topic… as a teacher without many freedoms, I actually enjoy not having to worry about what I will be teaching! We use direct instruction. Have you heard of it? Check out my post about Direct Instruction at https://courtneylivin.wordpress.com/2017/03/01/direct-instruction/

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