What is the best way to teach? After so many millennia, why are we still studying it? You would think that it would all be figured out by now. There still seems to be significant confusion. We will attempt to clarify the various schools of thought and see if there is a way through all the articles and journals. A clarification: while we talk a lot about teaching, the objective is of course great learning. We will assume here that great teaching is defined by the degree to which children learn.

We begin with Learning Styles. In Learning Concepts: Concept and Evidence by Harold Pashler, Mark McDaniel, Doug Rohrer, and Robert Bjork (2009), the researchers attempted to find a connection between learning styles assessments and student learning. They acknowledged the difficulty of finding research studies that had a strong enough “experimental methodology” to be able to actually locate and measure the impact of style. They also identified that while teachers stated that they were paying attention to learning styles, their practice was uneven at best: “we found virtually no evidence for the interaction pattern mentioned above, which was judged to be a precondition for validating the educational applications of learning styles”. Their conclusion, recognizing that maybe further research might upend their findings, is that money is better spent focusing on practices that have better research backing: “at present, there is no ad-equate evidence base to justify incorporating learning-styles assessments into general educational practice”. They do not deny that, when asked, students will readily state that they prefer to learn in a particular way. However, this does not seem to translate into educational outcome differences that are significant. In other words, while the student may prefer to learn in a distinct way, that does not mean that the teacher should pay attention to that in how they teach. This seems counter-intuitive. The fact of the matter is that there are many other more important ways for teachers to think about teaching that are buttressed by solid research.

It appears that the beliefs of both students and teachers impact how teaching takes place but doesn’t necessarily improve great learning. In the same study cited above, the authors write: “Part of the problem is that conditions that make performance improve rapidly during instruction or training, such as blocking or temporal massing of practice, can fail to support long-term retention and transfer, whereas conditions that introduce difficulties for learners and appear to slow the learning process, such as interleaving different types of problems, or employing temporal spacing of practice on what is to be learned, often enhance long-term retention and transfer. As learners, we can also be fooled by subjective impressions, such as the ease or sense of familiarity we gain on reading expository text or how readily some information comes to mind, both of which can be products of factors unrelated to actual comprehension or understanding. There is growing evidence that people hold beliefs about how they learn that are faulty in various ways, which frequently lead people to manage their own learning and teach others in non-optimal ways. This fact makes it clear that research—not intuition or standard practices—needs to be the foundation for upgrading teaching and learning”. What does research suggest?

Cognitive psychology has been interested for several decades now how children frame their own experiences and the results those frames have on their performance in a variety of settings e.g. educational, social, personal. Martin Seligman first spoke about these findings in Learned Optimism (1990 – 2006) where he wrote: “I think talent is vastly overrated. Not only is talent imperfectly measured, not only is it an imperfect predictor of success, but also the traditional wisdom is wrong …. I have come to think that the notion of potential, without the notion of optimism, has very little meaning”. Carol Dweck popularized this concept in Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (2007) talking about a fixed and growth mindset. The fixed mindset assumes a fixed ability – it’s the way I am. The growth mindset believes that you can be what you want since ability is connected to what you do, not who you are i.e. intelligence is malleable. The New Science of Wise Psychological Interventions (2014) by Gregory Walton of Stanford University reported his research into what makes a difference in learning outcomes with what he calls ‘wise interventions’. The table below speaks to the amazing ways in which we can influence what happens in academic endeavors. Clearly, great teaching has to connect to the research psychological understandings that we have implicating, creating environments in which every student can believe and achieve great learning.

The organization Evidence Based Teaching (evidencebasedteaching.org) reports on John Hattie’s meta analyses of those techniques / approaches that result in the best learning outcomes. They identify the top 10 as:

  1. Provide clear lesson goals
  2. Tell them what they need to know and show them how to do it
  3. Check for understanding throughout the lesson
  4. Summarize new learning in a graphical way thus identifying connections
  5. A lot of spaced practice
  6. Give students lots of feedback – everything is formative (for the teacher too!)
  7. Keep the learning goals the same and give students varying time to succeed
  8. Productive group / collaborative work
  9. Teach strategies (process), not just content
  10. Nurture meta-cognition

There’s interestingly nothing here about style of teaching, whether Montessori, Harkness table, classical Christian, problem-based learning, essential questions, understanding by design and more. Insofar as these teaching styles utilize these techniques/approaches, they will be successful.

Of course, all the above discussions tend to assume that intelligence can be measured, that there are developmental benchmarks that can be identified and attached to age / grade, that various forms of testing can provide accurate diagnosis, and that the concept of low and high ability has usefulness in thinking about teaching. All of these assumptions are disputed by what are considered the radical side of learning and teaching represented by, for example, the Alternative Education Resource Organization (educationrevolution.org). An early exponent of child-centered education, John Holt, wrote in How Children Fail (1964), “But the ideas of order of all too many schools are that order should, must can only rest on fear, threat, punishment. They would rather have systems of order based on fear, even when they don’t work (italics in the original) than systems of order based on the children’s cooperation – that work”. This can’t be explored further here – it is important to appreciate that a significant part of the educational community makes very different assumptions about learning / teaching.

So not only can we say with some certainty that students’ learning styles are not the essence of learning, we can also say that teaching styles are also not the essence of teaching. In the teachers’ control are the psychological determinants of potential. In the teachers’ control are also the approaches that will drive learning the most irrespective of style. It is good to know that we have that control and that we can use it in any school that we are in.