What’s the best (and easiest) way to teach?

//What’s the best (and easiest) way to teach?

I thought I’d said all I ever wanted to say about group until, responding to a tweet from an education professor exhorting all teachers to add group work to their teaching repertoires, I unwisely suggested that maybe that wasn’t such great advice.

In all honesty, I really don’t care that much about whether teachers have their students work in groups or not; what annoys me is the idea that teachers should get their students to work in groups. But in the responses to that tweet, Dylan Wiliam popped up to remind us about Robert Slavin’s finding that if the purpose of group work is to improve the learning of every member then it will require both group goals and individual accountability. Teachers are generally good at creating group goals but less good at ensuring each member of a group is individually accountable. Selecting a student to report back to the class before the work is finished is a bad error. It means that only one group member is accountable and that everyone else can muck about. If, however, you don’t say who will be reporting until after the task is completed everybody is on their toes. With this sort of tweaking you can do much to ensure that many of the ills of group work are avoided.

Against my better judgement I waded into a discussion about teaching methods that is, perhaps, only the third or fourth most important consideration for schools and teachers.

Does avoiding negatives mean that students working collaboratively is a good thing? Well, that’s an empirical question. To answer it we need to first agree the aims of teaching. If, as I believe, the purpose of teaching is to expand children’s knowledge base to enable them to think new thoughts then my instinct is that we are best served by interactive whole class instruction. If instead you believe teaching should aim to produce some other, more nebulous aim that results in important but hard-to-see benefits then the onus is on you to say what those benefits are and how we would know whether teaching has an effect.

The 2015 PISA results provide a useful data source. According to students’ self reports, teaching is far more likely to be teacher directed than to involve enquiry-based methods (into which category I would place group work and collaborative learning). Even in systems which report far less teacher direction, the ratio is still about 2:1 and in some territories the ratio is closer to 4:1. In the highest performing systems the ratio is about 3:1. McKinsey’s analysis suggests this is the sweet spot and the best approach “combines teacher directed instruction is most to all classes and inquiry based learning in some.”

The more lessons focus on inquiry-based methods the lower student attainment becomes. These findings are also born out by a variety of other sources. Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction (Begin a lesson with a short review of previous learning; present new material in small steps with student practice after each step; ask a large number of questions and check the responses of all students; provide models; guide student practice; check for student understanding; obtain a high success rate; provide scaffolds for difficult tasks; require and monitor independent practice; engage students in weekly and monthly review.) are all hallmarks of fully guided instruction and largely absent from most iterations of collaborative learning. As Rosenshine points out, his principles are derived from “three different sources: research on how the mind acquires and uses information, the instructional procedures that are used by the most successful teachers, and the procedures invented by researchers to help students learn difficult tasks.” He goes on:

Even though these principles come from three different sources, the instructional procedures that are taken from one source do not conflict with the instructional procedures that are taken from another source. Instead, the ideas from each of the sources overlap and add to each other. This overlap gives us faith that we are developing a valid and research-based understanding of the art of teaching.

This article by Richard Clarke, Paul Kirschner and John Sweller provides yet more support for fully guided instruction.

Added to this we also have the incredible success of Engelmann’s Direction Instruction model. DI is a very specific method of both teaching and curriculum design. It takes as its starting premise that if children struggle to learn, this should be seen as a problem with the instructional design rather than evidence that the child is incapable of learning. Engelmann sought to eliminate anything in his instructional sequences that could be considered ambiguous or misleading with the result that his scripted programmes could be faithfully reproduced by any teacher anywhere.

Project Follow Through, the largest, most expensive education study ever conducted involving over 70,000 students in 180 schools across the US ran from 1967-1995. Follow Through pitted various approaches to teaching against each other in a straight horse race with Direct Instruction the clear winner in all categories. Not only was it the most effective programme at improving students’ literacy and maths skills, it also outperformed all other models for more generic cognitive skills and other affective areas such as self-esteem and student engagement.
screen-shot-2016-12-02-at-22-46-01As we all know, Direct Instruction did not go on to conquer the world as the most effective method for teaching children. In fact, as Douglas Carnine observed:

[DI] was not specially promoted or encouraged in any way…federal dollars were directed toward less effective models in an effort to improve their results…. [S]chools that attempted to use DI —particularly in the early grades, when DI is especially effective—were…discouraged by education organizations.

The fact that few teachers in the UK are even aware of what DI actually is, let alone use it in the classroom speaks volumes. Despite this, teacher-directed instruction seems to be far more common than student centred approaches. I reckon the reason most teachers gravitate towards whole class teaching is that it’s easier. Getting group work right is hard. As one teacher recently observed:

This is certainly my experience. Just telling kids things is usually whole lot simpler than expecting them to work together to find them out. Dylan Wiliam gets to the crux of this debate in saying, even if I were right that fully guided instruction produces optimal results, “the more important issue is which is easier to get teachers to do effectively: well-designed interactive whole-class teaching or good cooperative learning. I don’t know, but my money’s on the latter.”

This surprised me as my money’s very much on the former. so, it’s on! First, we need to know which approach produces the greatest gains in learning and second, which is easier to implement. If you have any suggestions for falsifiable criteria which can be tested in a controlled experiment I’d be very grateful if you would leave them in the comments below. If Dylan and I can agree on those criteria then the next step will be to persuade someone to help design and run a trial. 

2018-09-25T13:25:50+00:00September 25th, 2018|Featured|


  1. Mayan September 25, 2018 at 10:47 pm - Reply

    Another direct instruction programme which we’re currently implementing in my school is Sounds-Write. As opposed to the phonics instruction used in my previous school, this is a scripted, teacher-led programme and I can already see how much more effective it is.

  2. Michael Pye September 25, 2018 at 11:32 pm - Reply

    Dylan is right if you lack subject knowledge (or haven’t practiced breaking down for others) or have to teach without support (good resources and well designed curriculum). It is the Einstellung effect, one solution to rule them all. (And yes you can have awesome knowledge and still use group work). When I used to try this stuff I spent hours designing activities now I spend hours breaking down idea into smaller ideas. Project follow through worked because it did most of this heavily lifting in advance. When I teach outside my expertise (which happens a lot as I work with SEN so apparently anyone can teach the Horticulture or pottery) I revert to group work and explorative methods. I recently acquired AS in Eng Lang has at least allowed me to add some more structured reading and writing activities.

  3. Michael Pye September 25, 2018 at 11:33 pm - Reply

    Forgot to ask. Does anyone know what the y-axis of that graph should be labeled as?

  4. Adam Pryce September 26, 2018 at 7:21 pm - Reply

    My questions comes from ignorance of educational terminology: why is group work the same as student-directed instruction?

    In a previous post, you note the 4 stages of effective instruction (Explaining, Modelling, Scaffolding, Practice) (https://learningspy.co.uk/featured/great-teaching-happens-in-cycles/): it seems the danger comes from group activities used to supplant the first two stages, because they prevent students from receiving necessary knowledge from the teacher.

    But what about activities which review or practice content already taught? Would you describe e.g. peer quizzing (https://engagedscholarship.csuohio.edu/u_poster_2018/33/) as “group work”?

    • David Didau September 26, 2018 at 8:57 pm - Reply

      In the 2015, PISA asked students who sat the science test a series of questions which they grouped together as “enquiry based learning”. They were as follows:
      -Students are given opportunities to explain their ideas
      -Students spend time in the laboratory doing practical experiments
      -Students are required to argue about science questions
      -Students are asked to draw conclusions from an experiment they have conducted
      -The teacher explains how a science idea can be applied to a number of different phenomena
      -Students are allowed to design their own experiments
      -There is a class debate about investigations
      The teacher clearly explains the relevance of science concepts to our lives
      -Students are asked to do an investigation to test ideas

      In 2012, they asked essentially the same questions to students who sat the maths paper but instead called them “student centred instruction”. It would appear that (at least to PISA) the two phrases are synonymous.

      I don’t think most people would call peer quizzing groupwork, but if I guess if we’re willing to make the term elastic enough them I’m sure we can find a definition I can buy into

  5. Allan Katz October 1, 2018 at 10:03 pm - Reply

    by the way , the conclusions of the Harvard Educational review ( House et al,pp 130’156) because of numerous problems the (ancient ) study does not demonstrate that models emphazing basic skills are superior to other models. But as you say , it is more about teacher goals – raising test scores in school factory settings or having the courage to engage student thinking .

  6. gerald October 7, 2018 at 6:07 am - Reply

    Ignore all of the above. Teach by instinct. Create an emotional connection with your class and while keeping an eye on individuals and how they learn keep the class learning as a group.

  7. Mark Patterson November 18, 2018 at 8:26 am - Reply

    Gerald, if we agree that teaching is a craft that can be learned and developed (I think most educationalists would say that is so), ‘Teach by instinct’ isn’t the most helpful way to think about what we do. Would we want a doctor or a pilot to work by instinct?
    Teaching is a messy business for sure, but if we accept that generally some things work better than others in teaching, then surely finding out what those things are and doing them is a good idea? Most people agree that telling learners what they need to know, clearly, regular low-stakes testing, checking that everyone is getting it, clarity about what is to be learned, frequent retrieval practice and so on are good things. I’ve seen lots of teachers improve their craft over time by doing things that work, for most learners most of the time.

Constructive feedback is always appreciated

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