Dame Alison Peacock recently wrote about the need to recognise – and work with – divergence among students, rather than demanding conformity in thinking, behaviour and performance. What Dame Alison says about learners could be said, mutatis mutandis, about teachers.
Just as there isn’t a template learner, neither should we yearn for cookie-cutter colleagues, bringing an identical style, approach and behaviour to their teaching.
Research has demolished the dualism between didactic, directional, old-school practice (sage on the stage), and more interactive, constructivist approaches (guide on the side). Effective teaching evidently entails both – yet, a Manichean sense of good and bad lingers.
Much research into "what works" concerns itself with tools and techniques – and is instrumentalist in every sense. It assumes that any intelligent individual, given training in and access to the teaching toolbox, will be able to deliver at least a good lesson. Yet teaching styles are as much about temperament as technique, about establishing relationships of authority, trust and respect over the long term rather than the deployment of specific techniques lesson by lesson.
Several teaching styles
Think back to those teachers who exerted the greatest influence on you. My own teachers ranged from an authoritarian didact – who, to be fair, was self-consciously anachronistic – through a "moral force" advocate who on an off-day struggled to be heard above the student voice, to an economics teacher who kept one chapter ahead of the class and who taught us the value of the oft-repeated catch-phrase. It wasn’t a great school, but it provided a great education. One reason for this was the sheer diversity of teaching.
Students experience several teaching styles in the course of a single day. Subjected to an all-singing, all-dancing, interactive extravaganza, students might conceivably be grateful for a more reflective, even a more directive, subsequent session. Otherwise, they’re likely to burn out by break-time.
Divergent teaching, reflecting divergent dispositions, makes for a more interesting experience all-round. But what about divergent effectiveness? Most students would agree that some teachers are better than others, but they would also argue that they like diversity. Every student deserves the best possible teaching, but what happens when they come across less effective examples?
Variations in teaching quality are evidently greater within than between schools. But, a weak teacher in a good school does far less damage, pro rata, than a weak teacher in a weak school. As a newly minted head of department, I was frustrated to find that holding individual teachers to account for their results was more difficult than I’d bargained for. Students who encountered a weaker teacher responded by taking on greater ownership of their learning, those dealt a better hand showed a tendency to sit back and let the teacher take the strain. This self-regulation mechanism worked – up to a point – because they all knew what great teaching was like, and adapted their approach to compensate.
Not ideal, but actually not a bad lesson for life: that conditions are sometimes sub-optimal, and require subtle calibration of responses rather than a one-size fits all approach. E pluribus unum.