Should Teaching Methods Be Prescribed?

Magic Wand

There was some discussion yesterday about how different teachers could get results using different methods. Laura McInerney tweeted a couple of times about this, commenting that ‘If a teacher can get amazing pupil outcomes from using films, Mr Men, constant teacher talk, or rote learning, then power to their elbow.’, and ‘The idea that it’s impossible to effectively use any, or all, of these techniques is to lack imagination. Teaching comes in many guises.’

Partly in response to this, I tweeted that ‘Doubtless exceptional teachers can get results with any method. But we need to promote methods that work sustainably for ordinary people.’

Laura was deliberately listing methods associated with both sides of the educational debate, and positing that they could work for different teachers, so why be prescriptive about pedagogy?

I was trying to point out that it is helpful to highlight that some methods really do work more reliably, and they work for ordinary mortals who frequently get colds in term time and do not wish to spend every evening creating hand-crafted resources, marking mountains of exercise books, and so on.

When a more traditional approach is suggested, such as every teacher in a school using an agreed set of resources, or a preference for explicit instruction and practice rather than discovery learning, there tend to be cries of outrage about prescription and the destruction of teacher autonomy. There seems to be a general suspicion among teachers that every time Nick Gibb talks about using textbooks, he’s cooking up a plan to impose a standard set of teaching resources on the whole country, once he’s got them all under his thumb through the academisation programme.

But things like standardised resources really help. Is it really better to have every teacher laboriously creating their own work sheets and card sorts and powerpoint slides, when you could simply have materials that everyone uses, and there could be consistency, and teachers could collaborate more effectively over using these shared resources, and actually support each other? We have to think about what is actually going to help the largest number of teachers achieve the best results. Simple, traditional methods, with agreed-upon resources, are sustainable and effective.

It’s the responsibility of school leaders to make the decisions about what is going to help all pupil make progress in their schools. This is a heavy responsibility, and given that they bear this weight of accountability, they really should be at liberty to ban Mr Men and insist upon shared resources. Responsibility without authority is useless, and really torturous. The government is giving school leaders the power to exercise their authority properly, and to implement effective methods. This is what gives me hope for the future.

The best response to my tweet was Katharine Birbalsingh’s. She questioned what I meant by ‘exceptional’. Did I mean ‘magical’? She’s right. There really are methods that are so ineffective that something preternatural would be required to overcome their limitations. Letting pupils ‘discover’ when subject matter could simply be explained and then mastered through modelling and practice really is a disgraceful waste of everybody’s time.

With increasing school autonomy, it’s up to school leaders to remove ineffective methods and chaotic curricula, and build resources and pedagogy that enable every pupil to make progress under every teacher. Not just the exceptional pupils, and not just the exceptional teachers.

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7 thoughts on “Should Teaching Methods Be Prescribed?

  1. Good post and it touches upon something that I have been meaning to write about: sustainability, both in terms of teachers’ wellbeing and in terms of not using so many resources!

    Another factor against the use of all-singing-all-dancing methods by ‘exceptional’ teachers is that it does heighten children’s expectations to be entertained and this very much undermines other teachers’ ability to teach in a normal way. This is the trouble I have in primary school, where children are used to ‘fun’ lessons where subject content is easier to deliver in a ‘fun’ format, but when they get to my class and the real knuckling down has to happen, it’s a bit of a shock.

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  2. Interesting that ‘banning Mr Men ‘, or even suggesting that showing half of Frozen five times a day to bored 11 year olds at end of the Autumn term is an affront to the profession*’.

    Yet banning textbooks is fine. After all, textbooks just encourage ‘lazy teaching’.

    *Every other ‘profession’ looks to continually reduce its workload, not increase it.

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  3. I do not share your optimism that school leaders can be trusted to make the right decisions – they are often those most wedded to progressive orthodoxy (according to ASCL most leaders were dismayed at the removal of levels, for example) and they would impose progressive practices on their staff. It already happens in primary schools – how many primary teachers are free to sit children in rows? In particular, a school leader looking to move onward and upward would impose some innovative (ie. progressive) curriculum to tick a box on their CV and then move on before the damage became apparent. In any case, I think you would end up with inefficient teaching being imposed through most of the school, followed by unbearable pressure on teachers to carry out last minute interventions, impact meetings, walking talking mocks and teaching to the test in the year before public examinations.

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  4. The massive risk with standardising teaching and resources would be the question of who decides what the standard is. Having taught the first iteration of “21st Century Science”, I’m not sure I’d want to go back to that, nicely resourced though it was. Similarly, I can’t see commercial publishers moving beyond the current model of 1 or 2 textbooks per course, all matched to the exam specifications, none of them really with enough in them to work as a course book.
    However- I may have seen the future, now that printing proper books is so cheap. I’ve just got some books of revision questions produced by some experienced teachers. The books are far closer to what I think my students need than anything else I’ve seen (translation: lots more fairly routine practice of basics than most courses give), and they cost 1 pound per book. That’s for a proper bound book, not a stapled booklet.
    A quick browse on the web indicates that 1 pound per book is about the going rate for a few hundred copies of something about 100 A5 pages long- as long as you are happy with black-and-white for the text.
    I could imagine groups of teachers (not necessarily the staff of Michaela) getting together to produce something like that for entire courses. We all have the experience, in folders and memory sticks. Since the cost and profile would be low, it wouldn’t need to be perfect (or even used everywhere); it would still be a massive improvement on where we are now.

    That all sounds quite optimistic- albeit in a “let’s do the show right here!” sort of way. Must be the effect of the holidays…

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Thoughtful and reasonable discussion is always welcome.

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