Why it is Annoying to Discuss Teaching Methods

January 3, 2011

For some time now I have been planning to discuss teaching methods. In particular I hope to identify which of the many ideas pushed to teachers are worth avoiding. However, any discussion of a worthless teaching method tends to suffer from a constant moving of the goalposts. So for instance, if an education expert were to recommend that students learn best by spending the first fifteen minutes of every lesson picking their noses (only marginally sillier than APP and actually more plausible than Brain Gym) then the discussion would go something like this:

Expert: The latest scientific evidence from the new science of mind and brain shows us the effectiveness of nose-picking as a method of cognitive enhancement. The finger creates pressure on the brain strengthening the connections between neurons.

Sceptic: I have reviewed the evidence from neuroscience and cognitive psychology and it is firmly established that there is no known benefit to learning or thinking from nose-picking.

Expert: Well,educational experts have conducted a number of pilot programmes showing the effectiveness of the Nose-Picking 4 Kids (NP4K ™) programme in promoting learning.

Sceptic: If we limit our analysis to published, peer-reviewed research based on statistically significant samples, then we see quite clearly that nose-pickers do no better in tests of learning than non-nose pickers.

Expert: Okay,but tests and exams only really test how well they remembered something on a particular day. The NP4K™ programme helps students with more important academic goals like understanding, creativity, thinking skills and a love for learning.

Sceptic: If this was true then we would expect them to show greater academic achievements in the long term. None of the research evidence shows any academic benefit whatsoever to nose-picking.

Expert: You shouldn’t judge things by a narrow academic focus. Education isn’t just about the so called “academic” skills. The NP4K™ programme increases self-esteem, motivation, positive thinking, emotional intelligence, empathy, tolerance, anger-management and social skills. These won’t show up in tests but these are the marks of a well-rounded individual.

Sceptic: Psychologists have invented ways to measure these things. It is highly debateable that they are all always good qualities to have or generic abilities that can be used in any situation. More importantly, there is no evidence that any of them are actually aided by nose-picking.

Expert: Well employers and universitieswant employees and students who are well-practised in the 21st century skill of nose-picking.

Sceptic: No, they don’t. Really.

Expert: Well,your educational ideas are obviously out of date and overly traditional. I suppose you’d rather their fingers were gripping pens, writing down “facts”. This is a Victorian model of education. The whole point of a good education is to experience quality nose-picking time.

Sceptic: I don’t think it is.

Expert: We’ll just have to agree to disagree about that. Excuse me while I go off and roll around in my money.

The problem is that in any discussion of teaching methods then the aims of teaching can be changed. They become broader, vaguer, less academic, and finally the teaching method becomes an aim in itself. We should teach students in groups because the point of lessons is to work in groups. We should give them projects to complete because the purpose of schooling is to complete projects. We should entertain students in lessons because schools are there so children can have fun. We should let the students do whatever they like because the point of education is to do whatever you like.

In order to discuss teaching methods we are going to have to identify what the point of teaching, and education more generally, is.

I have attempted to discuss this issue a number of times before.

Back in 2006, I listed some of the main aims of education and observed that they would all be much better met than they currently are if students were to leave school literate, numerate and capable of self-control. With hindsight, I think I was guilty of an appalling lack of aspiration. I later added to this entry a quotation from Cardinal Newman:

… If a healthy body is a good in itself, why is not a healthy intellect? and if a College of Physicians is a useful institution, because it contemplates bodily health, why is not an Academical Body, though it were simply and solely engaged in imparting vigour and beauty and grasp to the intellectual portion of our nature?

Newman (1873)

I explored this idea in more detail in this post. It provides I think the clearest idea of the point of education. Educational insitutions exist to improve the intellect in the same way that a hospital exists to improve health or a gym exists to improve fitness. That still leaves quite a lot of debate to be had about what it means to improve the intellect, but it at least helps us to distinguish between essential and non-essential aims of education. Roughly speaking, the essential aims are those which can be considered academic, while non-essential aims, which do not explicitly improve the intellect, tend to be those relating to:

All of these are desirable ends. All of these should result from a successful education. All of these are among the virtues of good schools. The problem is with the idea that these ends can be taught directly in lessons as an explicit part of the curriculum and directly monitored and managed, instead of resulting as a by-product from the process of education; that is from intellectual improvement, and the experience of being part of a community devoted to intellectual improvement. A curriculum which loses sight of academic aims is inevitably a dumbed-down curriculum. Worse still is the idea that these aims, rather than the aim of intellectual improvement, can be used to justify our choice of teaching method. Reforming the curriculum with non-academic aims in minds can dumb down education; reforming teaching so that it will not achieve academic goals can destroy it.

In the next few posts I intend to discuss each of these aims of education and explain how they have influenced recent debate and developments. In the longer term (i.e. in coming months), I also intend to flesh out what the aim of education actually is and to discuss teaching methods in detail.

Updated 2/5/2012: Now here’s the perfect example.


Newman, John Henry, The Idea of a University, 1873



  1. Have you read Visible Learning by John Hattie? He does a meta-analysis of 50,000 studies, using only those focused on achievement and testing the statistical significance of the difference certain teaching methods make. He moderates for the fact that almost *anything* you do in a classroom will appear to have a positive effect just because children are naturally developing anyway. He therefore looks for methods providing a difference greater than expected by development. He also reports the standard deviation and sample for each method for analysis of the stability of the results.

    He finds some things similar to your thoughts, e.g. A focus on character education has no greater results than a focus on anything else, this is also true for learning style planning. He also values ‘direct teaching’ showing it can have a strong impact on learning. But he also shows that, among other things, planning ways to outwardly demonstrating meta-thinking processes, working on student motivation, peer teaching or staggered assessments also have significant effects.

    Obviously a sceptic could always reject the outcomes and find ways to criticise the method, this is true for most science endeavours. But hattie’s work is rigorous, and it at least provides ways to discuss what methods are effective rather than having teachers shut their classroom doors and merely ‘hope’ they are doing the right thing.

    • I have read it. There’s a lot of good stuff in there. However, there are a number of places where the categorisation seems dubious. A couple of examples:

      1) the evidence for the effectiveness of fast-tracking the most able students is separated from the evidence for the effectiveness of setting by ability

      2) “metacognition” appears to largely consist of basic study skills

      There’s also an issue as to whether everything he analyses is “an intervention” or not and, therefore, amenable to his methodology. That said I think there are a number of results he comes up with that are very useful when faced with bogus claims of effectiveness, I just feel that his work takes more interpretation and evaluation than he implies.

  2. I shall look forward to it, Oldandrew, and shall recommend it to Eureka :)

  3. Hold on Lily, *my* New Year’s Resolutions included a vow not to make life harder for hard working bloggers like OA.

    Still, he’s a big grown-up boy now, he can probably look after himself.

  4. Couldn’t agree more. The ‘means’ to the ‘end’ has taken over as being the aim or goal. The ‘end’ has almost become the elephant in the room. Looking forward to your analysis.

  5. I discovered “Scenes from the Battleground” a few months ago and have since become a regular reader. It’s a great blog! It brought back memories of my horrible year in a PGCE, when I encountered the woolly thinking and institutionalized anti-intellectualism that this blog so cogently attacks. My time in those schools now seems like a bad dream, but “Scenes from the Battleground” reminds me that contempt and folly are alive and well in schools.

    Readers of this blog may be interested in an essay I wrote on my PGCE experience, “Scenes from a PGCE”:




    • Gabriella, I’ve read your essay and (at the risk of sounding like a sarky teacher commenting on something he didn’t really agree with) found it interesting. There’s a fair amount I’d argue the toss with you about and other things that I could happily agree with you on, but it sounds like a thoroughly dispiriting experience.

      Did you, in fact, end up becoming an English teacher? I hope so: it sounds like you’ve got a passion for it.

      • I have taught English, Latin and Italian. This year I’m teaching Latin, but my ideal would be to teach English and Latin.

        Thank you for reading my essay!

  6. I heard of, (i.e. someone told me down the pub on a Friday), that a study has shown that any teaching method will work as long as the teacher believes the method will work.

    Really like your blog by the way.

    Cheers, Philip

  7. I like that one, Philip. In my last proper job I had a HoD who, like me, believed that the best way to transmit knowledge and skills to the kind of kid we had was to make them sit down, shut up, listen and practise it. He left me alone to do it My Way and only expected me to surprise the kids with a three-part lesson including dimwit distractions if an out-of-dept observation was impending.

    • Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it – just letting you get on with teaching?

  8. Philip – I agree with you to an extent. I think if people have really thought through their method and it has a purpose for the student (rather than just the adult) then it works. Some subjects, and some students, work brilliantly through silent practice – e.g. hand-writing practice in primary schools is something that necessarily needs to be done alone and preferably with high levels of concentration (though some students will engage in asking questions of other students and observing their peers in order to be better handwriters). In other schools, e.g. were there are a high number of english as a second language students, then activities that encourage conversation before writing will be important (for example, many EAL students struggle with writing causal connectives in the right order, speaking out loud first helps with this).

    But I agree that the method is less important than really thinking through why the method will work and then being confident that you have selected the right path to the intended outcome.

  9. 1. What do I want them to learn?
    2. Here’s how I do it.
    3. Did they learn it?
    4. Job’s a good ‘un.

  10. […] Nose-Picking 4 Kids.  I kid you not.Go to this site, and read all about it – it's a hoot! Posted: Wednesday, January 12, 2011 6:21 PM by […]

  11. Miss, can I be excused? I’ve got a nose-bleed…

  12. “It’s a great blog! It brought back memories of my horrible year in a PGCE” — Gabriella. Is that a compliment? Genius. For me, the feeling I was left with is more closely comparable to the nagging back pain from which I am currently suffering.

  13. *tongue-in-cheek warning* There is a 100% correlation between good teachers and good teaching outcomes (by definition). So, for a guaranteed improvement year-on-year in educational standards, lets just fire the worst 1% of teachers. Ultimate evidence-based policy?

  14. Presumably this expert is your bogeyman.

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