The best methods of teaching children

Disclosure statement Dr Kevin Donnelly was recently commissioned by the Commonwealth Government to review the Australian national curriculum. Victoria State Government provides funding as a strategic partner of The Conversation The best methods of teaching children. Australian Catholic University provides funding as a member of The Conversation AU. The Conversation UK receives funding from Hefce, Hefcw, SAGE, SFC, RCUK, The Nuffield Foundation, The Ogden Trust, The Royal Society, The Wellcome Trust, Esmée Fairbairn Foundation and The Alliance for Useful Evidence, as well as sixty five university members.

Seventy teachers from the UK were sent to Shanghai to study classroom methods to investigate why Chinese students perform so well. UK, US, Australia and New Zealand have been moving away from this direct form of teaching to a more collaborative form of learning where students take greater control. Given China’s success in international tests such as PISA, TIMSS and PIRLS, it seems we have been misguided in abandoning the traditional, teacher-directed method of learning where the teacher spends more time standing at the front of the class, directing learning and controlling classroom activities. Direct instruction vs inquiry learning Debates about direct instruction versus inquiry learning have been ongoing for many years. Traditionally, classrooms have been organised with children sitting in rows with the teacher at the front of the room, directing learning and ensuring a disciplined classroom environment. This is known as direct instruction.

70s, teachers began to experiment with more innovative and experimental styles of teaching. These included basing learning on children’s interests, giving them more control over what happened in the classroom and getting rid of memorising times tables and doing mental arithmetic. This approach is known as inquiry or discovery learning. Based on this recent study of classrooms in the UK and China and a recent UK report titled What makes great teaching? Enthusiasm for discovery learning is not supported by research evidence, which broadly favours direct instruction. Especially during the early primary school years in areas like English and mathematics, teachers need to be explicit about what they teach and make better use of whole-class teaching. Initial instruction when dealing with new information should be explicit and direct.

Many in Australian education believe children are only really learning when they are active. As a result, teachers are told it is wrong to sit children at their desks and ask them to listen to what is being taught. The UK report suggests that even when sitting and listening children are internalising what is being taught. New teaching methods involve discussions and enquiries rather than just telling.

UK report and other research suggests that memorisation and rote learning are important classroom strategies, which all teachers should be familiar with. Trying to cater to everyone has no effect One of the education fads prevalent across Australian classrooms, and classrooms in most of the English-speaking world, involves the concept that all children have different levels of intelligence and their own unique learning styles. For example, some children learn best by looking at pictures, by being physically active, by hands-on, tactile learning or by simply reading the printed page. The psychological evidence is clear that there are no benefits for learning from trying to present information to learners in their preferred learning style.