In this article I’m going to provide the briefest of briefing notes on some teaching styles.
Some you may have heard of, some you may dismiss as fads and buzzwords. I’ve included them because I think they have merit in a balanced teaching tool kit. If I hear a teacher talk about them I take it as a positive sign. That teacher is thinking about how best to help their pupils to learn. There’s no one best way for all pupils, and there’s no one best way for any subject. It’s not a comprehensive list but it is one I intend to add to over time.
I’m starting with knowledge-based and skills-based curriculum, flipped learning, differentiated teaching, Mastery, Singapore maths, Growth Mindset. My focus is on teaching styles rather than curriculum content, which I wrote about here.
Knowledge-based v skills-based teaching styles
Presented as polar opposite teaching styles they are the subject of intense debate between “traditionalists” and “progressives”.
Knowledge-based teaching styles require pupils to learn facts and information. With that foundation pupils can learn more facts, solve problems and develop skills. A pupil gains confidence and self-esteem from what they know. A knowledge-based curriculum teacher asks “What activity can I use to help teach long multiplication?” The parody of this teaching style is a pupil learning by rote for exams, and knowing only how to follow instructions.
Skills-based teaching styles require pupils to develop and gain skills, and through the experience of doing, acquire facts and information. A pupil gains confidence from acquiring life skills such as initiative, independence, resilience and risk taking. A skills-based curriculum teacher asks “is long multiplication the right activity to teach collaboration and teamwork?” The parody of this teaching style is an unfocussed committee of ideas where nothing gets done.
Most curricula, quite rightly, acknowledge the merits of both. Knowledge and skills are both valuable and inseparable.
Flipped learning refers to the relationship between classwork and homework. Traditionally, learning takes place in the classroom. The teacher provides instruction so that the information flow is from the teacher to the pupils. Pupils then practice their new-found knowledge during homework with essays and problem-solving exercises.
In a flipped learning style, all the instruction takes place at home. For homework pupils prepare and learn content from texts and online resources. In the classroom pupils discuss and explore what they have learned. The information flow is more pupil to pupil with the teacher in a facilitator role.
Differentiated teaching styles v Mastery
By definition, pupils in a mixed ability class have different needs, aptitudes and preferred styles of learning. So teachers differentiate their teaching techniques accordingly. They may divide the class into smaller groups based on ability. The groups may have different tasks, use different methods, and have different objectives and end points. But each pupil must progress from their starting point. Only one thing is constant and that is the length of the lesson.
Differentiated teaching is common in schools and is difficult to get right, as discussed in this article.
Mastery takes a different approach. Mastery is a teaching style that fixes the objective for the whole class, not the time available to do it. The premise is that every child can master a topic, but the time required varies per child.
The technique takes individual tuition as its start point. If a teacher had only one pupil, they would tailor teaching time to what that pupil found easier and harder. Less time on the easier parts and more on the more challenging parts.
Because all pupils achieve the same objective (say 80% in a test) teachers have similar achievement expectations for all pupils. This results in higher levels motivation and engagement since no pupil feels inferior.
Work is broken up into modules, and importantly, each pupil can only progress once each module is mastered. The second advantage, therefore, is that Mastery encourages better study habits rather than end of course cramming.
The teacher devotes more time, in class or outside, to those who need more instruction than those who don’t. As a result, a more able pupil may receive less tuition. It could also lead to a class spending more time on particular subjects at the expense of others. Or even the three year GCSE course instead of two.
Singaporean pupils do very well in international rankings for maths. From an early age they appear to have a deeper understanding of maths and number manipulation than their international peers. The reason is due to the method for teaching maths at primary school.
In Singapore children first learn maths by counting and subtracting objects. Not using numbers and symbols. A “5-3=?” problem is represented as (say) five oranges and physically removing three. The next stage of learning is to use pictures instead of objects for the same problem. Children get used to the idea of a pictoral representation of a physical object. After that, rectangles are drawn around the objects. A longer rectangle represents more objects. And then, numbers and symbols are introduced with the rectangles and objects so that the association is made. The next stage is to start removing, in turn, the drawings and rectangles so that only the numbers and symbols remain.
The theory is that people learn in three stages; by handling real objects, through pictures, and then through symbols. In the West we have jumped straight to the symbols for maths. In Singapore, they take the progression more slowly.
In 2006 Professor Carol Dweck published a book in which she proposed the importance of mental attitude to success. She labelled those who believe that success is down to innate ability as having a “fixed mindset”. Those who believe that success is due to hard work, learning and perseverance as having a “growth mindset”.
A fixed mindset person treats failure as a reflection of their own lack of ability. They will be risk averse. A growth mindset person takes risk and accepts failure as a step in learning and ultimately achieving.
Its more than just a positive attitude, it’s also language. “Well done, you are very clever” is a fixed mindset statement. It suggests an innate ability which a pupil has a measurable amount of. “Well done, you must have worked hard” is a growth mindset statement because it acknowledges success through effort. In a similar way there’s a difference between “You didn’t pass” and “You haven’t passed yet”.
A growth mindset promotes learning and resilience. And its popular with teachers because, if anything else, it promote a positive message. But there’s no evidence its effectiveness, yet.