Why traditional teaching will no longer cut it

So the other day I read this post about the ‘Khanification’ of education, and the question posed by the author Will Richardson was “what is our value as classroom teachers in a world suddenly filled with teachers?” Now, the author obviously knows the answer and he’s not really asking for a response. However, this connects in with some of the things I’ve been observing on my trip and I have been reflecting on what it means to be a good teacher, so I’m going to respond anyway.

I think that, in essence, teaching practices can be classed as one of two types. I know that many people would argue that this is a gross generalisation of the wide range of ways teachers teach (which constantly have new names, methods, and strategies) but bear with me for a little bit while I explain.

The first type of teaching is traditional teaching. This is the mode in which the content is delivered and then students use this content. This would be the ‘chalk and talk’ method; however, although ‘chalk and talk’ drums up an image of a white haired old man lecturing at a blackboard, the reality is that this approach actually comes in variety of forms, some of which look far more ‘new’ and appealing than that image suggests. The content can be delivered in variety of ways, but it ultimately stems from a knowledgable source (the teacher, textbook, a video etc.). Students can use the content in different ways – conducting experiments, answering questions, creating their own content, etc. The important thing is the content comes from above not below.

In reality, this is still the dominant mode of teaching today, even from many good, interesting and innovative teachers. What I call traditional teaching comes in many non-traditional disguises. An example is the current trend is for ‘flipped’ classrooms and video instruction followed by answering questions in class. Isn’t that really just a new version of chalk and talk? Sure, the kids are working on problems in class rather than at home, but ultimately the learning has not changed. There isn’t any real innovative there, aside from the use of technology. And as I have discussed before, we need to ask “what is that technology adding?” In this case, I would say not much.

I am not suggesting that those who teach traditionally are bad teachers. They are not. There are many excellent, fascinating teacher who teach in this way. They may make learning fun, incorporate real-world examples, develop strong relationships, create a supportive learning environment, ask great questions and all the other things which great teachers do.

And this sort of instruction has some distinct advantages. It works, to some extent. At least, it works to train students for traditional assessment, which is what most students sit. It takes a lot less time than the alternatives, which can be difficult when a curriculum specifies the content covered.However, I wonder what students are truly learning from this. How to answer questions, sure. But are they learning how to problem solve? How to think creatively and independently? Are they truly learning the skills they need for the modern world?

The alternative? Student-centred, constructivist learning when students create their own understanding. The examples I’ve been looking at are Modeling Instruction and Project Based Learning, although just like traditional instruction this comes in many forms. However, whatever name you would like to put on it, the point is that the process is reverse from traditional teaching. The content does not come from above (a teacher, textbook, online resource) but from the students own examination of the material itself (the phenomena, the idea, the text).

In this form of learning, although teachers are not the fountain of knowlege, we are indispensible. We are the guides on the student journey of learning, the problem posers, the assistants, the refocusers, the people who tease out misconceptions. We bright to light the issues so that students can examine them. In the process, they become people who can carry out their own investigations of the world around them and who can think critically of information presented to them, rather than accepting it at face value.

This idea is not new, it has been around as constructivist pedagogy for decades. However, all too often the concepts behind how students learn gets forgotten in the race to adopt new technologies and new teaching ideas. I know that I need to regularly re-evaluate my teaching and ask, “how are the students really learning from this?” It’s all too easy to fall back on traditional teaching methods due to external influences, be they other teachers, student expectations, or the drive to cover content.

We need to not be fooled by the shiny new labels or slight modifications to old approaches. Unless we are teaching students to think, our job is superfluous in the modern world.

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One response to “Why traditional teaching will no longer cut it

  1. I would respectfully disagree with the basic division you make here. What my journey is teaching me over the last couple of years is that the division is not “traditional/top down” vs. “constructivist/bottom up”. Instead, it seems to me that the correct way to sort out teaching styles or methods is “teaching that respects students” vs. “teaching that disrespects students”.

    I flipped my classes (Chem. and Physics) two years ago and my kids experienced success. My students were definitely learning to think. As many of the leaders in the flipped movement have been constantly pointing out, the magic, if there is any, of the flip is not in the videos–they’re just an efficient way to give direct instruction to those students who want it (which turns out, in my experience to be quite a lot of them). The real benefit to the flipped classroom is the individual attention the teacher can now give each student. In Chemistry, flipping my classroom has been a godsend for both me and my students. The abstract concepts really seem to require explanation, once you get beyond the very basic ideas.

    In physics, I learned that the videos were much less helpful and I have now cut them way back to just a few videos. I finally was able to get to my first modeling workshop this summer and left with two very strong impressions: (1) “Holy cow! This is pretty much what I’ve been doing all along.” and (2) “This is every bit as top-down as a good, interactive lecture/demo classroom.” I was expecting something completely different than anything I had seen before, based on how vehemently modeling advocates put down traditional teaching, but wow…the teacher sets the stage and the kids construct pretty much exactly the models the teacher is planning for them to construct. Don’t get me wrong. I learned a ton about managing a constructivist workspace and about doing a better job of ferreting out misconceptions. What I learned at that workshop has changed forever how I teach physics. But it didn’t change it as much as I expected it to.

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