In so many discussions about the elements of effective practice in teaching, I feel it’s important to move away from thinking in absolute terms about whether certain approaches are more effective than others towards considering what the optimum combination of approaches with different qualities might be. I’ve made this case in various blogs before including this one where I use the diet metaphor more explicitly: A Balanced Diet for Learning and Teaching. I have also developed the very simple Mode A: Mode B concept to capture the mix of instructional teaching and other forms of learning that constitute a sensible balance.
A diet in this context suggests that there are a range of approaches we could or should deploy, each of which has value provided that they are used in the right proportion. I find this idea helps to move away from rigid simplistic reactions:
- ‘No hands up’ or cold calling is a good approach – but this doesn’t mean ‘hands up’ is weirdly forbidden.
- Teacher-led instruction is a highly effective default approach and in many contexts should probably dominate – but that doesn’t mean group work or student-led learning strategies have no place.
- Whole-class feedback is a great approach that can be used liberally – but that doesn’t mean that there is no need ever for deep teacher marking of certain pieces of work.
Within a diet model, the ‘opportunity cost’ argument has limits. Even if a strategy is very highly effective, it might be weakened if students never experience anything else – we just can’t be sure. Our evidence base for teaching doesn’t get anywhere near this level of analysis so we’re into professional judgement territory.
Significantly, this doesn’t mean ‘anything goes’. It’s foolish to enforce a restrictive regime onto intelligent teachers with a range of values, but it is equally foolish to misinterpret the diet concept (perhaps wilfully) so that we simply dismiss evidence that might suggest some approaches are more effective than others. Just as with a diet of food, sometimes an approach only needs to be present in a small amount for it to have an impact even if most of our intake comprises certain staples. We might talk about avoiding over-use of a strategy rather than outlawing it; we might promote a particular strategy without mandating it.
Some diets that I often talk about include the following :
A diet of questioning techniques within a sequence of lessons: Cold calling, checking for understanding, think-pair-share, probing, mini-whiteboards.
A diet of feedback over a period of weeks. Lots of verbal feedback, lots of whole-class feedback, some self-marked quizzes, some deep teacher marking of selected pieces, some tick and flick book check marking, some peer critique, an occasional grade of numerical mark, a bit of www/ebi.
A diet of curriculum experiences over the course of a year and across all subjects: lots of teacher instruction, some trips, some practical work, some presentations or teach-the-class opportunities, a group project, an extended individual project, a performance, some recitation, more practice, lots of silent work, lots of paired discussion, a debate….
A diet of homework: lots of reading, lots of practice, some research, occasional extended pieces, some ‘flipped learning’, some open-form response, some suggested museum visits or kitchen experiments, some online homework, some worksheets.
A diet of modes of practice: repetitive secure practice for fluency; challenge practice – learning to struggle and persevere.
A diet of forms of retrieval practice: questioning, quizzing, stories, mind-maps for elaboration, factual recall, knowledge application.
I don’t think this approach is soft or fuzzy. I’d prefer to call it intelligent, nuanced, sophisticated… real! It’s about getting a good understanding of the parameters for making the selections that deliver the learning goals determined by the curriculum and by good instructional practice taking account of how memory works, the role of motivation, the role of challenge and scaffolding… the whole thing. Getting it right depends on having the discussions within teaching teams, generating alignment around some shared principles and then exploring the detail of the implementation.
And let’s not forget values. Value-systems are always at play. Sometimes we want to do things because we just do – we believe they matter. They don’t “work” as such; they’re just something we believe children should experience somewhere along the road. It’s healthy to acknowledge that up front so that we allow for evidence to challenge our values if necessary but also so that we get the best synthesis: things we do because we know they are effective and things we do that we believe in. They might overlap but given the extent of our evidence base to-date, that’s not always likely.