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.
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.