Last week, Paul Garvey (@PaulGarvey4 – Talk for Teaching) asked me on Twitter if I thought there was a “best way to teach”. It is a question he likes to ask people and one that is hard to answer in a tweet of 140 characters. The question “Is there a best way to teach?” first needs some unpicking.
Teach – This is perhaps the simplest part of the question to define. Let’s have “Narrowing the gap between what pupils can do/know/understand and what we want them to be able to do/know/understand”.
Best – Now we have something more complex as we need a criteria. If I were to ask a group of runners for the “best” pair of trainers we could be here all day (the correct answer is Inov-8 RaceUltra 290 by the way). I would suggest that the criteria for teaching needs to firstly be that it is effective – it needs to actually narrow that gap. I would also suggest that the best way of teaching needs to be efficient. It is all well and good if a way of teaching works but if it takes hours of planning, hours more of resources and then relies on hours of feedback it is not efficient. We need to find something else that is effective but that takes less time.
Way – This causes some confusion. Way doesn’t mean method or strategy. I have yet to encounter anyone who actually says the best way of teaching everything is to lecture the pupil for an hour and do nothing else. I have yet to see anyone claim that the pupils should learn everything from a process of discovery with the teacher staying mute throughout. I think a way of teaching is an approach. A series of things that you do. You can see a way teaching in Ron Berger’s Ethic of Excellence or Shaun Allison and Andy Tharby’s wonderful Making Every Lesson Count.
The question then becomes “Is there a most effective and efficient approach to narrowing the gap between what pupils can know/do/understand and what we want them to?” To which I would give a hesitant “yes”.
My approach is to “Teach like nobody’s watching”; to strip out the things we do because we think it is what another audience wants. In years of observing people teach and wandering around schools nosing into classrooms I have seen that when you leave teachers alone they tend to fall back into a common, effective and efficient, way of teaching.
Retrieval – Start the lesson by linking it to previous work. A quick quiz, discussion, prompt image. Something that puts the lesson into the context of the wider curriculum. It is far easier to learn something that fits into an existing schema than something that connects to nothing. This also acts as a hook for the lesson and can be used to create a need to know.
Input – New information. This could be through direct Instruction, a text, a video clip, live modelling and demonstration. There is usually lots of questioning in this stage to constantly check for understanding and to connect ideas.
Application – The pupils do something with the information. If they have been shown how to draw a climate graph they now draw it, if they have been given information about the Battle of Hastings they now use the information to answer a question. This practice and application makes them think hard and “memory is the residue of thought” (D T Willingham).
Test – At some point we need to find out what the pupils have learnt. We need to identify gaps to both get and give feedback. We need to make sure that this feedback is effective and efficient and could take many forms but I favour a combination of low stakes quizzes (as a form of retrieval) and whole class feedback on written work. I also find it more effective and efficient to give feedback verbally than written marking.
So yes, I do think it is possible to find a best approach to teaching. It starts by thinking “what would I do if no one was watching?” And “what is the most effective and efficient way of doing this”. As funding cuts bite and workloads increase these questions have never been so important. We can’t afford to jump from gimmick to gimmick or introduce the latest brainwave from an ambitious assistant head. We need to teach like nobody’s watching and trust in our professional craft.