There is no right way to teach everything

12th September 2014

When I was learning to drive I had an instructor. He sat next to me in the car and told me what to do until I knew enough to take the test and go out on my own.

This method worked, but it took me two years. I was a very lazy student.

I don’t believe, however, that giving me the keys and telling me to discover how to do it be myself would have been a better method. Honestly, I would probably have ended up crashing and killing someone.

I also doubt teaching me using a textbook would have prepared me any better. I might have known a lot ‘about’ driving (if I’d paid attention), but knowing ‘how’ to drive would have remained a complete mystery. To learn ‘how’ to drive I needed to get in the car and push the pedals with my (infinitely patient) instructor sitting beside me giving me support and guidance. This is how most people learn how to drive. It’s the best approach because the teaching and learning method (supervised practise) matches the curriculum.

And, what’s true for learning to drive is also true for other kinds of learning.

If you work in a primary school the curriculum is large and diverse and involves a wide variety of different skills and subjects.

These skills and subjects are not all of the same kind but fall into two broadly defined categories – sign systems and knowledge domains. Sign systems are those areas that deal with communication in its different forms – spoken and written language, drawing, mathematical notation etc. Knowledge domains are fields of knowledge that are used to structure and organise human understanding about the world – science, literature, history, geography etc.

In primary education there is an emphasis on three specific areas of learning: literacy, numeracy, and social skills. These take precedence over all others.

However, the foundational tool of all learning is language and, although there is an emphasis on the three areas above, no areas of the curriculum can be developed successfully without also developing children’s skills in speaking and listening.

This is why successful primary education ensures children get frequent and sustained opportunities to practice speaking and listening in structured and unstructured ways.

Much like my instructor giving me time to drive, children need opportunities to use and apply their developing language skills. Not all the time (is anyone suggesting that?), but frequently and sustained across the curriculum, since no ones learns how to use language by just sitting, listening and answering questions.

Some sign systems, like phonics, grammar, mathematical computation, are best taught using instructional methods. But not too much, for too long: there may be a temptation to do this but it will be a waste of time. The law of diminishing returns kicks in pretty quick with young learners and after about fifteen minutes of direct instruction you’ll be talking to yourself.

The mantra when teaching new skills and knowledge through direct instruction is ‘little and often’. Followed by diverse opportunities for students to use and apply their new learning in meaningful and engaging ways (engaging because they are far more likely to remember what they doing and stay focused on the activity if it’s something they are enjoying).

Learning involves acquisition, application, and development. New skills, especially the sign systems, often take a considerable amount of time and effort. They are not learned easily or quickly, and many children find them difficult. For this reason it is important to explain to your class why they are learning these difficult skills and how they are useful in the real world.

Teaching strategies fall into three broad categories: transmission, discovery, and inquiry. None are effective at teaching the whole of the curriculum on their own.

Most teachers use all three in an effort to match learning to the best teaching method. Many teach grammar, phonics, and mathematical computation through transmission methods (including chanting, for times tables, spelling etc), while using discovery for using and applying, developing social skills and practising speaking and listening, and inquiry for more structured collaborative investigations.

We all recognise teaching and learning is a complex business. There are many diverse and often competing elements to take into account, including the interests and drives of thirty young minds, and bringing them all into successful balance is a constant struggle. There is no magic bullet, no single solution, no grand approach that will solve all our worries and send every student in our class on an upward curve of progress. So why limit our options? Use the best teaching method you find for teaching your students. And be flexible, change if need be, not all classes are the same, and a method that works with one group of students might not work well with another.

A note on using mantle of the expert

Teachers using mantle of the expert contextualise the curriculum (both knowledge domains and sign systems) using a fictional narrative or frame. They don’t include all the curriculum, only those areas that fit in coherently and only those areas best taught using the approach. Other areas of the curriculum are taught discreetly. It is a practical and mixed approach that focuses on learning and making curriculum study meaningful and uses all three teaching methods at different times – transmission, discovery, and inquiry.


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