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Debating the value of direct teaching

Recently, I read an article by Kevin Donnelly from the School of Education at Australian Catholic University, who questioned the wisdom of discovery learning where teachers ‘facilitate instead of teach’. In this article entitled “ ‘Chalk and talk’ teaching may be best after all,” he notes that research  supports direct instruction, especially during the early primary education in subjects like English Language and Mathematics. Donnelly was referring to a report by a group of seventy teachers from Britain who had gone to Shanghai to study why Chinese students perform so well in the international tests. Their conclusion was that whole-class teaching and memorization were key factors in their success.

The report suggests that some things like times tables and reciting poems just need to be memorized, an approach that has been treated with much derision recently. In fact, the report concludes that adjusting teaching strategies to suit different levels of intelligence and learning styles is ‘misplaced.’

I agree that there is certainly a place for rote learning and direct instruction. However, I was somewhat surprised at the conclusion that since Shanghai has performed well at international testing and since these ‘traditional approaches’ are frequent in their classroom, therefore, these methods are the best. Sure, such forms of instruction contribute to high scores: we, in Singapore, should know that well. But, as Donnelly continues in his article, ‘teachers need various strategies’ to cater to different learning contexts and outcomes.

I’m a deep believer in a teacher’s ability to harness a repertoire of strategies.

Direct instruction, deployed consistently, facilitates a predictable, formulaic approach that does indeed contribute to good high test scores. And I certainly celebrate high test scores. But surely, a classroom is too dynamic a place to use only 1 method of teaching? Donald Schon (1983) describes the ‘messiness of the teaching as an ‘indeterminate swampy land.’ With the infinite nuances in human behavior, motivations and context, surely as professionals, teachers must exercise flexibility and adaptability in our pedagogical decisions? Different learning situations require different approaches to teaching, ranging from didactic to experiential.

Let me conclude by sharing an observation that still strikes a chord within me always: over the years, I have taken great pride in the array of strategies that I have deployed in my classroom. Many of these strategies were student-centered:  they involved inductive methods of learning, creation of diverse student products, use of novel stimuli like pop songs and visuals to elicit divergent thinking…and so on.

But when I meet my ex-students, across various cohorts, one feedback that always stands out is how they valued:

(a) my step-by-step instruction on the board (both chalk & white) and

(b) the synthesized, organized notes that I provided them.

Even the brightest benefits from didactic teaching that complements the experiential.

Posted by: Mary George Cheriyan

Director, Centre for Pedagogical Research and Learning

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