I’ve read a lot of blogosphere twaddle about why students don’t learn effectively in groups and the only effective method for teaching is direct instruction. My view is there needs to balance in all things and using one teaching strategy to the exclusions of all others is a bad mistake.

I think it’s worth reproducing this fairly lengthy quote from, John Hattie in full:

Various successful methods of teaching were identified in Visible Learning, but the book also identified the importance of not rushing to implement only the top strategies; rather it is important to understand the underlying reasons for the success of the strategies and use this as the basis for making decisions about teaching methods. The programs that  had the most success were acceleration (d=0.88), reciprocal teaching (d=0.72), problem solving teaching (d=0.61), and self verbalisation/self-questioning (d=0.64). These top methods rely on the influence of peers, feedback, transparent learning intentions and success criteria, teaching multiple strategies or teaching using various strategies, and attending to both surface and deep knowing. The least effective methods seem not to involve peers, to focus too much on deep to the detriment of first attending to surface knowledge or skill development, to overemphasize technologies, and to fail to take into account similarities, instead of overemphasizing differences. 

Visible Learning for Teachers page 84

Learning is fundamentally social. We don’t just learn facts, we learn from the context in which we encounter those facts. By discussing, experimenting and dealing with failures we learn how to use the skills and knowledge we have acquired. Getting students to explore ideas in groups encourages them to talk about problems and try to solve them together. Hattie quotes Nuthall’s finding that 25% of what students learn they learn from each other. Obviously this can, and often does, mean that what they learn is wrong. This is equally the case when students try to decode what teachers tell them. Group work doesn’t mean that students will make more mistakes but it does means that there is more of an opportunity for teachers to be aware of these misapprehensions and to try to correct them because, hopefully, they’re active in observing the activities they’ve set up.

Spelling is a great example. We need to give students sufficient knowledge about language to recognise common patterns and to be able to identify unlikely combinations of words in English. But, if I tell a student how to spell ‘coherent’ or ‘microcosm’ (two that came up last week) and they dutifully copy it down, what have they learnt? Only that if they get stuck I will do the work for them. Much better to ask questions which will give them some ownership of the spelling. Almost always with spelling students get most of the word right, the trick is in them discovering which bit they struggle with and applying a rule to remember it in the future.

I challenged the fact that this was an effective way to demolish the efficacy of discovery learning and was sent a paper called Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching. Trips off the tongue, doesn’t it?

It’s full of all sorts of wonderful evidence about why it’s not a good idea not to tell anybody anything. Well, duh! Of course it’s not. What I fail to understand is why teachers believe that constructivism and direct instruction have to be mutually exclusive. The report above goes wrong in it’s introduction when it states,

On one side of this argument are those advocating the hypothesis that people learn best in an unguided or minimally guided environment, generally defined as one in which learners, rather than being presented with essential information, must discover or construct essential information for themselves. On the other side are those suggesting that novice learners should be provided with direct instructional guidance on the concepts and procedures required by a particular discipline and should not be left to discover those procedures by themselves.

I guess it’s true that educationalists really have argued the toss over this, but why? It seems clear to me that any teacher worth their salt will begin by sharing (in some form) the information students need to know and then let them engage with it in all sorts of interesting and exciting ways. I love lessons where I introduce a concept or skill and then encourage students to ‘break’ it. If  students have an opportunity to discover whether or not it’s true it seems clear that they’re more likely to learn it than if I simply assure them it is.

But don’t take my word on it: test it out for yourself. That, after all is why we can’t just pick up a book and deliver great lessons; we have to tinker with the ideas and make them work for us.