Mix to match needs

21st June 1996 at 01:00
Kate Townshend says teachers use a variety of methods

The Chief Inspector says that a variety of teaching methods is needed to promote effective learning. But how will teachers and parents hear this message about diversity and balance amid the loud clamour for good, solid, old-fashioned, back-to-basics methods promoted by Mr Woodhead himself - a new emphasis on whole-class teaching in particular?

It's an understatement to say that good teachers are insulted. Good teachers instinctively balance a range of teaching styles which reflect clearly stated objectives.

Whole class teaching is very much the topic of the moment. Yet a different preoccupation, the need to "develop pupils as independent learners" is a phrase which crops up in report after report from the Office for Standards in Education. This means encouraging pupils to think for themselves and to ask pertinent questions: skills some secondary schools, which have a stronger focus on didactic teaching, have perhaps neglected.

If OFSTED recommends nurturing our pupils as independent learners so does the National Commission on Education. It lists 10 features of successful schools, one of which is that "pupils share responsibility for learning". If the teacher teaches from the front of the classroom, they simply won't do this. It's a mystery how in subjects such as maths and foreign languages, where pupils need to learn, assimilate and then practise in new contexts, teachers could teach successfully without additional, supporting work in groups and pairs. And what about subjects which depend upon investigation and research?

Today's learners don't need so much whole-class teaching when they can search for information themselves using the growing number of CD-Rom packages. They can and will use the Internet to get hold of information, to understand categorisation as well as to communicate with other adults and young people. It's daft to waste time lamenting the passing of didactic teaching when we should focus our energies on using new technology to best effect. Independent learning, for which we have some superb national models, supported by computer technology - is at its best - a sensible, and cost-effective way of teaching and often of motivating reluctant learners. We should be investing far more in developing and understanding how to apply these techniques.

Claus Moser has pointed out the wrong-headedness of this debate, "now ludicrously polarised between those who favour whole-class talk-and-chalk methods and those preferring the often-derided progressive methods. In truth there exists a range of methods which exist side by side."

The banality of the current discussion misses the point: we no longer revere learning. Policy makers also have to learn that this problem won't be solved by simple top-down engineering or by strategies which undermine the confidence of our teachers.

We don't live in a fossilised society and our curriculum and teaching methods must not fossilise either. We may well learn some useful lessons from other countries and it's important that teachers don't adopt a blinkered approach to their craft. But it is also important to recognise that we are not a newly-industrialised Pacific Rim country and we must not lose faith in our own ways by attempting to mimic them. If we want those foreign fixes, let's make sure that we look at relevant models.

Kate Townshend is head of modern languages at Moorside School, Stoke on Trent

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