It’s become quite fashionable recently to say that there’s no best way to teach because what works depends on the context in which you teach. This is a considerable improvement on asserting that [insert half-baked, debunked practice of your choosing] is the best way and then penalising teachers for not doing it, but it’s still a bit of a cop-out.

I’m not claiming context doesn’t matter – of course it does – but it isn’t nearly as important as some would have us believe. Clearly, the context of schooling in different countries varies greatly and most right-thinking people acknowledge that ‘policy tourism is, by and large, a bad thing. What works in South Korea might only work because of the Hagwon industry in which for-profit institutions play on social pressures for children to academically succeed whatever the cost. We might want their maths results but we’re probably happy enough to do without their teen suicide rate!

But that said, as Lucy Crehan points out in her excellent new book, Cleverlands, there are clear indications of policies that appear to work well in every context. She identifies the following five:

  • Get children ready for formal learning
  • Design curricula concepts for mastery (and context for motivation)
  • Support children to take on challenges, rather than making concessions
  • Treat teachers as professionals
  • Combine school accountability with support (rather than sanctions)

Each of these are explored in detail in the book, and I really recommend buying a copy and taking time to assimilate the lessons we might learn from considering different educational contexts.

But what about different contexts in England? Are schools sufficiently different that we can’t usefully generalise about what works best? We know, for instance, that there’s no credible support for Learning Styles, but might there be a context in which they’re a good idea?

There’s considerable research supporting the study strategies John Dunlosky discusses here. He asks, “…why aren’t students learning about the best strategies?” He speculates that part of the reason is that “in large part, the current textbooks do not adequately cover the strategies; some omit discussion of the most effective ones, and most do not provide guidelines on how to use them in the class-room or on how to teach students to use them.” Is that because the context of a school might mean that students there learn different from the rest of humanity? Seems improbably, doesn’t it?

In fact, in England we’ve acknowledged that in the case of reading, context is irrelevant and that all schools are required to use systematic synthetic phonics, regardless of whether teachers feel their students are different and that there context is special. We take a similar approach to all sorts of things: for instance, no matter what an individual headteacher believes, they will not be allowed to introduce a system of corporal punishment, even if they think it would benefit the children in their particular context.

It’s sometimes said that nothing works everywhere and everything works somewhere, and this may be true, if trivially so. I would accept that pretty much anything can be made to work, but as John Hattie helpfully pointed out in Visible Learning, it’s not whether an intervention works, but how well in comparison to other interventions. Although there are real problems with the type of meta-analyses favoured by Hattie, they do at least provide useful sign posts. When it comes to the best way to teach there are no certainties, but there are some pretty clear probabilities. For instance, explicit instruction appears much more effective than discovery learning for novice learners. Interestingly, the converse is also true: discovery learning appears more effective than explicit instruction for expert learners.

That vast majority of school students are, currently, novices. Explicit instruction is very likely be the most effective way for them to be taught. Context has very little to say on this matter. Not nothing, but very little. If, for example, you want to pay for your child to attend Bedales, then that’s fine. You’re making a clear choice, as is every other parent. The fact that you can afford the fees means that your children will almost certainly be fine, no matter how they’re educated.

In fact, coming from an advantaged background means you are far more likely to get more from a discovery approach than a child from a less advantaged background. This is why Greg Ashman refers to discovery approaches as, a pedagogy of privilege.

In most contexts we would do well not to blithely ignore the weight of evidence and try ever so hard not to let our prejudices undermine disadvantaged children chances of academic success.