At last! Commonsense in teaching

I know I’m a good teacher because I get results. My students experience ‘ah hah’ moments when something opaque suddenly becomes clear.

But my teaching methods are not new-age. I do not ‘facilitate’ learning per se because I know that anything new is scary, and students need clear, step-by-step instructions …to get the basics.

Once students have those basics, they can branch out at will, and follow their own lines of inquiry – literally learning on a need to know basis – and I’m happy to ‘facilitate’ that. Unfortunately, most people are not able to direct their own learning at the beginning, no matter what age they are. It’s like being told to get creative with a hammer and a chisel when you don’t even know how to hold the tools. -rolls eyes-

I have to pay lip service to the new age methods in order to be able to teach at all. Now, finally, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel that may, eventually, lead to more effective teaching – for both teachers and students.

The following excerpt is taken from an article that appeared on The Conversation on 24 November 2014. Written by Dr Kevin Donnelly, Senior Research Fellow – School of Education at Australian Catholic University, the article is entitled :

‘Chalk and talk’ teaching might be the best way after all

Seventy teachers from the UK were sent to Shanghai to study classroom methods to investigate why Chinese students perform so well. Upon their return, the teachers reported that much of China’s success came from teaching methods the UK has been moving away from for the past 40 years.

The Chinese favour a “chalk and talk” approach, whereas countries such as the UK, US, Australia and New Zealand have been moving away from this direct form of teaching to a more collaborative form of learning where students take greater control.

Given China’s success in international tests such as PISA, TIMSS and PIRLS, it seems we have been misguided in abandoning the traditional, teacher-directed method of learning where the teacher spends more time standing at the front of the class, directing learning and controlling classroom activities.

Direct instruction vs inquiry learning

Debates about direct instruction versus inquiry learning have been ongoing for many years. Traditionally, classrooms have been organised with children sitting in rows with the teacher at the front of the room, directing learning and ensuring a disciplined classroom environment. This is known as direct instruction.

Direct instruction is the traditional way of teaching – where a teacher stands at the front of the class and directs the learning. Shutterstock
Click to enlarge

Beginning in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, teachers began to experiment with more innovative and experimental styles of teaching. These included basing learning on children’s interests, giving them more control over what happened in the classroom and getting rid of memorising times tables and doing mental arithmetic. This approach is known as inquiry or discovery learning.

Based on this recent study of classrooms in the UK and China and a recent UK report titled What makes great teaching?, there is increasing evidence that these new-age education techniques, where teachers facilitate instead of teach and praise students on the basis that all must be winners, in open classrooms where what children learn is based on their immediate interests, lead to under-performance.

The UK report concludes that many of the approaches adopted in Australian education are counterproductive:

Enthusiasm for discovery learning is not supported by research evidence, which broadly favours direct instruction.

Especially during the early primary school years in areas like English and mathematics, teachers need to be explicit about what they teach and make better use of whole-class teaching.

As noted by John Sweller, a cognitive psychologist from the University of New South Wales in the recent Final Report of the Review of the Australian National Curriculum:

Initial instruction when dealing with new information should be explicit and direct.


You can read the rest of the article here, and I strongly recommend that you do.



About acflory

I am the kind of person who always has to know why things are the way they are so my interests range from genetics and biology to politics and what makes people tick. For fun I play online mmorpgs, read, listen to a music, dance when I get the chance and landscape my rather large block. Work is writing. When a story I am working on is going well I'm on cloud nine. On bad days I go out and dig big holes... View all posts by acflory

20 responses to “At last! Commonsense in teaching

  • quirkybooks

    I have never heard of these two different methods. I obtained my PTTLS Level 4 in 2012, and currently teach Twitter and Facebook and Blogging as an aid to recovery, for the NHS, in what I would call a direct style.


  • theblogwoman

    Hi, I am a new follower and wanted to let you know I will be back. This post was very interesting, (I’m a parent so it applies to me), easy to read and not too long…..


  • tdmckinnon

    For many, many years I’ve scratched my head at the standard (or lack thereof) of basic skills and general education acquired by the average school leaver. Having received a secondary modern education, constantly referred to by later educators as a less than adequate system that was designed for the working classes, I can only say that my general education was quite full. My general education was such that I could read well, write reasonably well, had a considerable mastery of mathematical skills, had a wide geographical understanding of the world and its political affiliations and an in-depth knowledge of the history of the world in all of its aspects, I also had a basic understanding of the arts, sciences and the cosmos. I was fifteen years old.

    I will be the first to admit that to move on to higher education from a secondary modern high school was fraught with difficulties, and had I not joined the HM Forces, as a junior leader, which automatically set me up for two years of further education, my education would have finished at fifteen years of age.

    I currently teach foundation skills (basic reading, writing arithmetic and computer) at a TAFE (polytechnic) collage to students who, for one reason or another, missed the education train in their early years; what surprises me is, not their basics standard (some don’t even have one), but their lack of general knowledge: geography, history, basic sciences et cetera; if you don’t know where you came from and what makes the world tick (outside your own town, state, country and so on) how the hell do you know where you’re going!

    One thing I do remember about my school was the teachers; they encouraged me to enquire about what I didn’t know, and I think that began with the chalk on the blackboard technique. They introduced me to respect and discipline, even if sometimes that took a caning. I certainly don’t want to sound like an old fuddy, but I agree with a lot of the comments your post has elicited here today, Meeks, and disagree with others of course. Excellent post.


    • acflory

      Another teacher! Yes. And yes to your comments about the average levels of skills in the generations -cough- younger than ours -cough-

      I remember when I was going to primary school [Catholic primary school]. One of the boys in my class was ‘slow’. We would probably call him slightly disabled? Cognitively challenged?

      However you want to describe him, the nuns refused to drop their expectations of him. He learned to read, write and do arithmetic along with the rest of us. I’m sure it was very hard for him, but he was given the skills to make something of his life.

      These days ordinary kids who just don’t get the ‘system’ are thrust into remedial classes that teach the same things in the same ways, just slower. Like yelling at a deaf person in the hope that something will get through.

      Gah…I really have to stop ranting. lol


  • EllaDee

    Very interesting, especially from the loose perspective of my training background, and that I still do a little, adhoc, on an adult level. I assume that if I’m required to teach something the student has some specific requirement/purpose/interest/reason for being there, and then go about the basic model of obtaining an understanding of the scope of that; disseminating the information; opportunity for focussed questions; exercises; demonstration via the student’s application of it; checking for understanding; getting feedback; and relevant discussion.
    Once that’s done, as far as classroom time, there’s room for discovery… I think it really depends on the environment and subject but I agree wholeheartedly with what you say about the basic skill sets… I remember my art teacher using that exact reasoning!


    • acflory

      -grin- Thank you. And yes, the program you outlined is very much like what I do with my adult students too. The nice thing is that most of /them/ actually do want to learn. 🙂


  • Jeri Walker-Bickett (@JeriWB)

    My initial training was in progressive teaching methods, and those methods worked great in a college composition classroom. Yet, when I started teaching English to high school students, such was not the case. There is a time and place for all sorts of different pedagogical approaches, but for inquiry-based learning to be most effective, students do indeed need to have the basics down. Plus, some tasks lend themselves more readily to direct instruction than others, and students are each individual learners. So much goes on in any typical classroom that most people who don’t realize. A teacher does so much more than just teach! So many informed theoretical decisions can guide practice. As much as I love coming up with creative assignments, there are times when you just gotta get down to work and sit in rows and take notes, etc. So much in education now is supposed to be about entertaining students, coddling them, and getting them to “like” various subjects. What an uphill battle that I simply had to take break from!


    • acflory

      I’ll be honest Jeri, I was worried about what your take on this would be because you’re quite a bit younger than me. I should have realised that a teacher at the coal face, so to speak, would feel much the same way.

      And yes, I thoroughly agree about different pedagogic methods for different tasks/students. My daughter always has to know ‘why’ whereas a lot of students simply want to know that something is possible if you do this, this and that.

      I truly wish that the people who came up with these theories were practical teachers who actually loved teaching. It would make life so much better for those of us who do.

      Liked by 1 person

  • dvberkom

    Interesting and thought-provoking article! I agree the basics should be taught first, probably by traditional methods since they’ve been tested and are known to get results. Can you imagine writing a novel without at least studying the form, not to mention grammar?

    I believe that telling everyone they’re a “special snowflake” does a great disservice to kids, eliminating the urge to succeed/excel or even learn new things. Yes, everyone is special, of course, but if people had told me that from a young age over and over and I experienced no consequences from failure, I wouldn’t have learned nearly as much and doubt I’d be as interested in succeeding.


    • acflory

      Great point, DV. Perhaps this is part of the reason generation whatever-the-hell-it-is feels so entitled.

      I would hate to crush any child’s self esteem but you can’t have a meritocracy – even in theory – without /merit/. And that has to be earned.


  • davidprosser

    OK, they tried something new. For years there have been complaints that children have been leaving school without some basic skills like reading. Someone should have correlated the fact that the further away we got from traditional methods, the worse the results were.

    Maybe it’s time to look at creating grammar schools again and re-introducing the 11+ exam to separate out those children who are more adept at learning and who may go on to study the sciences more, while those who work best at a slower pace and may want more vocational instructions can go to the Secondary Modern Schools we used to have.
    Teachers should be left to do what they do best, teach by direct methods.

    xxx Massive Hugs xxx


    • acflory

      I’m not familiar with how things are or were in the UK but if 11+ ‘streams’ kids into the brights vs the less brights, I’m not sure I think that’s a great idea.

      The measure of a child’s results at school does not necessarily determine their success in the world at large. However telling a kid she’s dumb [sorry had to be a bit pc here] can make her stop even trying to achieve something.

      My personal answer is better teachers – i.e. teachers with both the knowledge and the capacity to communicate passion to their students.

      Back in the Jurassic we used to called this having a ‘vocation’. Not sure how the current system would create such dedicated teachers but I think they are the starting point. [end rant]


  • Carrie Rubin

    Very interesting to read this. I would be interested in more studies and findings of a similar nature to see if this really holds true. I guess it’s kind of like clothing styles–everything old becomes new again.


    • acflory

      Hopefully it would be retro with a twist. 🙂 For example, using software programs to take some of the tedium out of repetitive work. But ultimately I really do think /teaching/ is the key. It doesn’t have to be boring. 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  • Candy Korman

    Really interesting post!
    I’m NOT a teacher and I don’t even like explaining things to my mom on the computer. LOL… but I am always a student (Tango dance classes, etc.) and once the basics, in any discipline or subject, are absorbed the other learning modes do work. It’s just that getting those basics under your belt take a great deal of time and investment on the part of both the student and the teacher. I think that one of the essential things I learned was HOW to learn — how to research, how to ask questions, how to make a fool of myself for not knowing, how to identify what I’m missing… the list goes on and on. But none of that is possible without getting my basic skill sets early on.

    Go for it teacher! Do whatever it takes to communicate and move your students along to the next stage.


    • acflory

      Yes. EXACTLY! Thank you. I too think those basic skill sets are critical. Even Picasso knew the basic before he chose to do something different. I’m not a huge fan of what he did end up producing but at least I can appreciate that it was his choice.

      We writers are in the same position – we have to know the rules before, or maybe /in order/ to be able to break them. 🙂


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