November 1, 2013
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Janet Brock, Acting Associate Superintendent, British Columbia Conference, Abbotsford, BC

Now that I am fast approaching the end of my educational career, I am taking a moment to reflect on what works and what does not work in teaching students.  Teachers have always worked with two main things: tools and methods.  In my sixty years immersed in education, I have seen a lot of things come—and some things go.
 
Tools have certainly changed over the course of my career! I don’t think anyone will argue that typewriters and mimeograph machines should make a comeback—it was good that they went.  I’m also packing-- and discarding-- books at the moment for a downsizing move from a house to a condo.  It’s so hard to part with this part of my history—yet, when was the last time I looked a word up in a dictionary that was not on my computer, or leafed through an atlas. “The world is at your fingertips” is an old phrase—but it’s never been truer than now—with a computer linked to the internet.  Yes, the tools of education have changed, and no one is going back to chalk and slates, but what about the methods of education?
 
A number of new educational ideas have come down the pike over the years I’ve been in education.  One of the earliest I remember was “whole language”.  Then there was “cooperative learning”, “thematic teaching”, “brain-based learning”, “differentiated learning”, and now all the rage is “discovery-based learning” and “personalized learning”.  But my years of experience in education have made me cautious about jumping with both feet into any new remedy or instant cure for student learning.
 
Why?  Because all of these methods of teaching have good aspects to them—but none yet has been the final definitive answer that will be the cure to make students both learn and want to learn. My best advice to teachers going out into the world is the same advice I was given by my mother, a teacher, too, many years ago.  “Find what works for you”.  Don’t jump on the latest educational bandwagon to come along—but don’t ignore it either.  Always be looking for ideas and ways of doing things that can add to your teaching repertoire.  A teacher does indeed need to be a lifelong learner.
 
Good teachers everywhere have always used a variety of methods to reach their students.  Good teachers know that one single approach does not work—and never has for all students.  Yet they also know the impossibility of crafting a different educational program for every child in their classes.  I remember well when “whole language” made its triumphal entry onto the educational scene.  My mother, a veteran Grade 1 teacher then, checked it out.  “Why, that’s what I’ve always done,” she declared, “we always use a combination of methods to teach reading—sight words, phonics, writing, grammar.” Whole language was just a fancy new term for what good teachers were already doing.
 
Take, for instance, “discovery-based” learning.  My daughter, who has just completed her teacher training, wrote a paper on the efficacy of this style of learning.  She had implemented some discovery-based learning in her practicum and had discovered some pluses and minuses to its use as the main method of learning in a classroom.  So she turned to the literature and combed through articles and journals looking for definitive answers.  What she found was that there was no definitive answer.
 
Discovery-based learning worked in certain situations and did not work so well in others.  Students who were taught with discovery methods in science labs showed better academic results than students who were taught only with direct instruction (Domin, 1999)—but students who were taught with direct instruction learned a larger body of material more quickly (Cobern et al, 2010). Another study by Kirschner et al in 2010 showed no statistical difference in student results, whether they were taught through inquiry-based learning or direct instruction.  Interestingly, Cobern et al write, “…our conclusion is that expertly designed instructional units, sound active-engagement lessons, and good teaching are as important as whether a lesson is cast as inquiry or direct.”
 
In summary, we can simply say that good teachers need to continuously search out new ideas and methods to help their students learn, but should always keep in mind that there is no one best way to teach.  A good teacher will have many tricks up his or her sleeve, and will pull out whatever is helpful to their students’ learning.  This is what makes teaching an art and not a science— good teachers know when and how to use a whole variety of tricks, depending on the particular set of students in their classroom.
 
Resources:
 
Cobern, W.W., Schuster, D., Adams, B., Applegate, B., Skjold, B., Undrieu, A., Loving, C.C., Gobert, J.D. (2010). Experimental Comparison and Direct Instruction in Science.  Research in Science & Technological Education, 28(1), 81-96. Retrieved from http://www.wmich.edu/way2go/docs/Experimental%20comparison%20of%20inquiry%20and%20direct%20instruction%20in%20.pdf
 
Domin, D. S. (1999). A Review of Laboratory Instruction Styles. Journal of Chemical Education, 76(4), 543-547. Retrieved from http://chemed.chem.purdue.edu/ACELL/Resources/Domin%20(1999)%20A%20Review%20of%20Laboratory%20Instruction%20Styles.pdf
 
Kirschner, P.A., Sweller, J., Clark, R.E. (2010). Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of the Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching. Educational Psychologist, 41(2), 75-86. Retrieved from http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1207/s15326985ep4102_1