There is more than one way to teach. These can be summarized into four categories:
Naturalistic teaching is when the environment teaches us as we interact with it. This can include both the physical environment and the social environment. For example, if a child shares with other children, they find that they make more friends and that play is generally more extended and more enjoyable. By listening to the speech of others, and experimenting with sounds, the child also learns that words have meaning and certain words will help them to achieve specific things. Naturalistic learning can go on throughout life as we move into new environments and situations: when we start a new job, for example, or we learn to negotiate the idiosyncracies of the workings of a new kitchen.
Incidental teaching takes advantage of particular situations to communicate ideas and to shape responses. For example, when the child wants some food, we remind them to say ‘please’. After a few occasions, we expect the child to know what to say, and we prompt them: “What’s the magic word?” Incidental teaching is what we do when we come to a pedestrian crossing and point to the light: “Now we wait for the green man.” It is also what we do in classrooms when we seize the ‘teachable moment’ and an occasion gives rise to an opportunity to demonstrate, explain or practise: discussing the nature of lightning during a thunderstorm, or learning the mechanics of sprint starts during the Olympics, or choosing a poem to complement an event in the news.
Guided learning occurs when we arrange elements of the environment and create opportunities for students to interact with these so that they learn a set of ideas or skills. The teacher may, for example, set out different containers and some water and other objects, so that students learn through play and discovery about volume and displacement. Or the teacher may set out an attractive display of books, with intriguing quotations and images on the walls, to encourage students to explore, discuss and write in response. What students learn will depend on the path that they take and the extent to which the teacher provides ‘guidance’; ideally, the teacher is well aware of each student’s learning needs and ensures through individual attention that priorities are addressed.
Sequenced instruction requires a detailed plan (a ‘curriculum’). The end goals are decided, and then analysed for the necessary prerequisite skills and knowledge. Appropriate instructional formats are utilized according to the specific knowledge or skill. A well-constructed sequence will enable students to progress rapidly in small steps, accumulating and integrating skills as they move through the curriculum. Students will practise skills to mastery, so that they are able to retain and generalize what they have learnt.
It will be apparent to anyone who has been involved in education that naturalistic and incidental teaching, while important elements of all children’s lives, are not enough to ensure that students learn at school. This is because schools are institutions set up for the purpose of education, and given the time and capital involved, society expects that students’ learning will be substantial and useful. Guided learning is widespread in western education, and has been so for half a century, so much so that now it is effectively prescribed. Such teaching fits well with popular philosophical assumptions about the nature of knowledge, the nature of learning, the importance of autonomy and the undesirability of authority.
Guided learning can in fact be very pleasant, and students do learn things. What these things are, how useful they are, and how well they are retained or generalized, tends to vary and is difficult to predict. However, as we have pointed out elsewhere, when it comes to essential skills like reading, writing and mathematics, at least 20% of students leaving primary school have not yet achieved an adequate level of proficiency. Given the fairly soft targets set by the (outgoing) curriculum levels, the level of weakness is almost certainly much worse.
Sequenced teaching is often opposed on the basis of the same assumptions that have made guided learning more popular: it is authoritarian, narrow, prescriptive, limits children’s autonomy, and emphasizes knowledge over a ‘lifelong love of learning’. These objections need to be understood primarily as philosophical rather than pragmatic; they rely on perceptions and language for their impact. They have to: the objective evidence is strongly in favour of systematic and explicit instruction, not only for proficiency in essential skills, but also for more advanced cognitive skills and for student self-esteem and self-concept.
At some point, possibly too late for western economic and social cohesion, we will accept that there is simply no alternative to a clearly sequenced curriculum delivered through pragmatically effective methods of teaching. What opposes this admission is a two-headed snake: first, a romantic obsession with notions of learning that have limited utility; and secondly, the level of challenge required for educators in producing properly designed and delivered curricula.
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