Any observer of a primary school classroom will see a number of different teaching strategies in use during the course of the day. Many are planned to suit the topic in hand and many spontaneously arrive as particular circumstances arise.
Imagine this as a long continuum stretching with gradations from didactic styles of teaching to the maieutic. Between the two extremes, there are hundreds of techniques. In days past, folk would refer to the use of ‘traditional’ techniques [the left-hand end of the continuum] or ‘progressive’ [right-hand]. Such suggestions rudely implied that a teacher was only good at one style or the other. It was a mindless distinction, and gave little credit to those who were skilled at particular groups of strategies located anywhere on the continuum.
Try this. Visit a school on a Sunday or any day. One will be able to identify the prevailing strategies used in each classroom. If all desks face in orderly rows towards a chalkboard, you can be assured that adult-controlled didactic strategies prevail. Think twice about sending your children to a school that has all its desks facing a chalkboard. This statement is not intended to rubbish the technique itself. It indicates that didactic chalk-talk methods, overloaded with boredom, are used for most of the day. Didactic strategies have to be used at some stage during the course of the day; when the teacher needs to be dominant or needs to explain matters in a general fashion or has to use the chalkboard. As a constant or prolonged pupilling device, however, such methods are limited in their effectiveness.
The left-hand extreme features the sermonising strategy. Priests and Ministers use this technique regularly during their weekly instruction, when they talk to a large group of people. A good test of its efficacy is to stand outside a church on a Sunday morning at the completion of a service, and ask members of the congregation what the sermon was about. Sermonising is a legitimate didactic-teaching technique nevertheless, and some are better than others at using it. Instructional techniques at this end of the spectrum are favoured where there is a large group to be taught or when one is preparing a class for a blanket-type test. On such occasions, there is little choice. It has to be a ‘jug to mug’ process of instruction.
It can be improved upon as a teaching technique if a chalkboard is used or an OHP or a Power-point presentation or some other appropriate teaching-aid. Just listening has limitations; so, as one moves along the continuum, sincere learning-attention is increased. Eyes and hands join the ears.
In my own time as a student-teacher, we were instructed in ‘school method’. All were didactic techniques; and the textbooks of the time emphasized only adult-controlled methods. We were obliged to practise our blackboard writing as often as possible. We were instructed on how to write on the black-board while keeping alert for misdemeanours that might be committed behind our backs. We also learned not to repeat the reply to our questions because children must learn to remember what we tell them. I don’t recall learning much more than this from our lecturers. We learned more practical useful tricks of the trade from teachers at our practising schools, but ‘teaching strategies and their application’ were never part of any academic offerings. They should be. When the study of the use of all teaching strategies is combined with the knowledge of teaching and learning research as revealed by Dunkin by Gage by Biddle and others [i.e. what really happens in the teacher-pupil exchanges], the topics become ones of high academic calibre and of prolonged practice-based study.
As one describes teaching techniques, moving from left to right one can also see that teachers move off the stage and pupils start to believe that they have control over their learning. As group practices are brought into play, pupils are allowed to talk to each other and learn from each other. There is an enormous number of group settings [5. Learning in Small Groups] and, as we move along further, the teacher’s role starts to become one of confidence trickster. They ‘set up’ the learning exchanges. As we move more to the right, pupils undertake learning with greater enthusiasm because they start to believe that they have some control and they want to learn more about the issue and share personal achievements with their teacher, because the learning has become theirs. The desire to learn is a natural thing for pupils. When they feel that they have control over the choice of what they are learning, the world is theirs. As for teachers, they are teaching learnacy at the same time as they are pupilling knowledge when they use child-centred techniques in particular.
As they move along the continuum of teaching strategies towards the more maieutic, the strategies become much more complex and demanding but much more effective. The school day usually provides a healthy mix.
Consider the maieutic, keeping in mind that true learning resides in each individual. It has to emerge. It cannot be forced with the likes of fear of examination failure and other crippling personal distortions. Its emergence through true learnacy techniques is paramount. The teacher’s pupilling task is to draw it out and refine it.
Maieutic strategies convey widwifery roles to teachers and the strategies towards the right-hand end of the continuum imply that a child’s natural desire to learn is helped to manifest itself as the child develops. Learnacy is part of a child’s psyche from birth and its development is the real business of a midwife-teacher. The pupilling processes accelerate the development. As one moves to the right along the continuum, towards ultimate Emile-type activities, the methods become more inter-active, more pupil centred. The pupil starts to take centre-stage. Since there has to be close one-to-one contact as much as possible, this style of interaction requires intense effort. It is a physically demanding and mentally challenging . The smaller the class, the greater the interaction and more purposeful the learning and sharing of effort. Smaller does not mean easier. The closer one gets to one-on-one pupilling the greater the learning outcomes. Q.E.D.
While pupils seldom select topics that they want to learn about during the course of the day, there are schools that try to operate on this premise. It’s a version of confidence trickery. When pupils feel that they are learning what they want to learn, the world is their oyster, so the classroom becomes learning-attractive in every sense. I only ever visited one school that verged on the extreme right-hand maieutic strategy. It was a splendid infant school in a suburb of Bristol, England where quality teachers performed extraordinary confidence tricks. The children really believed that they were doing what they wanted to do. The learning atmosphere was thick and it felt good.
Some people used to think that the term ‘open education’ referred to these child-centred activities to the right and, because some classrooms appeared as if there was chaos and too much freedom, they did not like it. The term ‘open’ however applied only to school architecture , in places where teachers shared large spaces. The use of ‘open’ as an learning description was a monumental blunder of the time, and its connection with ‘traditional’ and ‘progressive’ teaching styles became a sterile discussion. Critics meant ‘didactic’ versus ‘maieutic’ and did not appreciate the distinction nor the use of the terms nor what was happening in the schools that they seldom visited.