Does teaching style really matter?

In the debate between more traditional and progressive approaches to teaching, one of the factors that serves to polarise positions are the unfair stereotypes of teaching style. Those favouring direct instruction are frequently painted as promoting ‘Gradgrind’ style rote-learning – which they are not. Those favouring discovery learning are often portrayed as endorsing a ‘free-for-all’ unstructured style of teaching – which they are not.

The case against entirely unstructured learning – the kind of ‘discovery’ learning often attributed to Piaget’s ideas about education- is convincingly made by the likes of Kirschner et al. Minimally-guided instruction was also something the vast majority of teachers (whether they call themselves traditional or progressive) found extremely hard to do and – in the main – instinctively rejected. We can infer that minimally-guided instruction wasn’t natural or popular with (the majority of) classroom teachers by the increasingly extreme measures taken to enforce it. The war on teacher talk and OFSTED pushing to see independence in every lesson can be interpreted as desperate methods to force teachers to adopt styles of teaching they didn’t think actually worked (or simply didn’t have the time and resources they thought might make it work).

In real classrooms effective teachers (whether they call themselves traditional or progressive) create structured opportunities to learn and apply new ideas. From my experience in teaching, most teachers use a mixture of methods – depending on the subject, the topic, the class, etc. Some teachers have a style that leans towards using more direct instruction, others more towards some kind of structured discovery learning. Perhaps a more fair way to contrast these styles of teaching (in science at least) is whether the concept is delivered ‘up-front’ (Direct Instruction) or ‘discovered’ through scaffolded activities that lead to the same idea (Inquiry).

So, if we reject the stereotyped extremes of traditional and progressive styles of teaching – what difference does it make to learning when these two, more realistic, styles are compared?

According to at least one RCT, it appears maybe not a lot.

Cobern, William W., et al. “Experimental comparison of inquiry and direct instruction in science.” Research in Science & Technological Education 28.1 (2010): 81-96.

Reports a fairly well-controlled RCT looking at precisely this question:

“Our research question is whether an inquiry approach or a direct approach to experientially-based instruction is more effective for science concept development, when both approaches are expertly designed and well executed.”

The research took place over a summer programme, which allowed random assignment of students to direct instruction and inquiry based teaching groups. The teachers practised the lessons in advance and were evaluated for fidelity to the teaching method they were assigned to. They used a standardised assessment to test conceptual understanding and the ability to apply the key ideas. Pre- and post-tests were compared to measure the efficacy of each teaching method.

“Results indicate that inquiry and direct methods led to comparable science conceptual understanding in roughly equal instructional times. Gain differences between instructional modes were not statistically significant within the observed natural variation of students and teachers.”

So … it didn’t appear to make any measurable difference. As long as students have access to teachers who are well-prepared and have structured opportunities to engage with the material, they make gains.

Now it’s clear that the authors favour inquiry methods – they say things like:

“Most science educators feel that Inquiry Instruction, by its very nature, provides crucial added value, in having students ‘do’ science for themselves. For Direct Instruction, given our finding that it does not lead to a better grasp of the basics, it is not as clear what other grounds there might be on which to argue superiority. It may be easier or less time consuming for the teacher, or less demanding for weaker students, at least initially. However, direct instruction risks sending the message that science is simply a body of knowledge to be learned.”

I think they answer their own question, but their concerns are just opinion. What their results show is that both direct and inquiry instruction helped children learn and apply the key concepts involved in two areas of science:

“Given the composite nature of all good lessons, and the realities of implementation in classrooms, we see that common claims for superior concept acquisition by either direct or inquiry instruction may be viewed as overstated. Our study shows that good direct and inquiry instruction led to similar understanding of science concepts and principles in comparable times.”

What does this tell us about the importance of teaching style?

“… as far as science concept understanding is concerned, our conclusion is that expertly designed instructional units, sound active-engagement lessons, and good teaching are as important as whether a lesson is cast as inquiry or direct.”

That it may not matter all that much after all.

In the end, forcing teachers to adopt instructional styles which oblige them to teach in ways they find unnatural may be counter-productive. What’s probably more important than teaching style is the substance of their lessons: their expertise in a subject area, their ability to structure the learning within a unit, their ability not to be eye-wateringly boring all the time and their ability to explain or guide students towards accurate conceptions of the scientific ideas.

Perhaps Michael Wilshaw has it right – ‘what works is good’ – and we shouldn’t be too hung up about ‘traditional’ or ‘progressive’ teaching styles.

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5 Responses to Does teaching style really matter?

  1. ChrisN says:

    Having read the study, 3 problems immediately spring to mind.

    1. The two sets of physics concepts selected to be taught in the experiment both strike me as particularly appropriate for discovery techniques, in contrast to, for example, concepts in chemistry or biology. Because of that, I would be very wary of generalising from the study’s results.
    2. There is no mention of socioeconomic status of the students. This is relevant because there are indications that lower SES students may have greater difficulty with discovery methods.
    3. The study does not address the issue that designing and presenting “good” discovery lessons may well be more difficult for teachers. I suppose we could hope, however, that given a free choice, less competent teachers would opt for the direct instruction route.

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    • Hi – thanks for leaving a comment.

      1. Yes, some topics may lend themselves to an inquiry approach better than others, I agree. However, it shows that at least for some topics, neither approach can has superior outcomes. Therefore, I think it supports the view that we should leave it to a teacher’s professional judgement about which technique they want to use when teaching a topic.
      2. True – though I’m not aware of any evidence supporting the claim that DI is more effective for working-class students – can you point me to some? If you mean DI may be more effective for students who have less prior knowledge, then I can tentatively agree.
      3. Teaching – whatever the style – requires expertise and practice to be effective. I guess my point is that teaching style is one of such a large number of factors that affect student outcomes, that unless evidence strongly supports the view that one style is consistently superior in terms of outcomes, that it should be left to the professional judgement of the teacher. From what I can see, it’s only minimal-guidance learning that appears ineffective compared to well structured, guided learning.
      I’m not aware of any evidence that suggests that DI methods require less competence, however. There was no indication that the Inquiry Instruction required more training, for instance.

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  2. ChrisN says:

    Thanks for responding!

    1. “Therefore, I think it supports the view that we should leave it to a teacher’s professional judgement about which technique they want to use when teaching a topic.”

    I am very wary of this argument, because of the substantial problems with confirmation bias and other cognitive biases that exist in all professions at the level of the individual practitioner. Kahneman has some interesting stuff to say about this in Thinking Fast and Slow – I believe it’s in chapter 22. Similarly the psychologist Carol Travis in her book “Mistakes were made-but not by me”. My view here would be “better safe than sorry”.

    2. Sorry, yes that’s right. I’ve been writing today about the problem with non-phonics methods adversely impacting lower SES kids when it comes to learning to read, and getting muddled! Thanks for correcting me.

    3. This is an opinion I’ve read many times over the years, primarily from teachers. The argument tends to go that it is harder to ensure that 30 students working in small groups actually reach the correct conclusions, and don’t end up with misconceptions, and also to ensure that they actually stay on task. It seems to make sense, intuitively, that the more “independence” you give to students in what they are doing, the more difficult to ensure a good outcome. Of course, that could possibly be overcome by using pre-designed and tested discovery lessons.

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  3. Interesting replies – thanks.

    1. “I am very wary of this argument, because of the substantial problems with confirmation bias and other cognitive biases that exist in all professions at the level of the individual practitioner.”

    These biases affect everyone, professional or no, but you’re right that confirmation bias and expectancy effects can easily distort a teacher’s self-evaluation of instructional efficacy. However, this wasn’t a self-evaluation, but a random-allocation, single-blind, controlled trial – and it showed no significant advantages for DI or Inquiry instruction. Therefore, I suggest, unless there comes to light evidence suggesting that some topics are taught more effectively using one method or another, I see no good reason why we should over-ride professional judgement. Experience may not be perfect, but in the absence of evidence one way or another, it is preferable to ideology – surely?

    3. “It seems to make sense, intuitively, that the more “independence” you give to students in what they are doing, the more difficult to ensure a good outcome.”

    That may be the confirmation bias talking, of course 😉 The study trained teachers in both DI and Inquiry instruction techniques. The teaching took the same amount of time to complete. The students were tested on conceptual understanding – so if a child had a major misconception one might reasonably expect them to do worse. They didn’t – implying that both techniques were equally successful in that regard.

    Teachers (like students) get better at things through practice. I agree that pre-designed and tested lessons will be more effective than untested or improvised lessons – but I think that’s as true for effective Direct Instruction as it is for Inquiry learning.

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