What are teaching methods?

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Teaching methods are techniques to induce students to learn. There are six classes of complementary methods: information providing, inquiry oriented, active or performance based, cooperative, mastery based, and creativity inducing. Excellent instruction depends not on how well any one method is implemented, but rather on how well all the techniques can be coordinated to complement one another.
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Teaching methods are techniques to induce students to do what they need to do to learn a specific content, skill, or thinking strategy. Two underlying features of this definition—responsibility for learning and the quest for one best method—deserve further consideration.

Regarding responsibility, there is little doubt that, if learners did what they needed to do, teachers would be unnecessary. However, few learners are sufficiently self-motivated or capable of diagnosing what they need. Enter teachers: it is they who can—and must—structure a task so that students are willing to do what they do not yet understand, diagnose errors or misconceptions, provide feedback on how to improve, and encourage or motivate as needed.

For the most part, current thinking on the responsibilities of teachers can probably be traced to the book by philosopher and educator John Dewey, How We Think (1933), in which Dewey specifically equated the teaching-learning process with selling-buying. Teaching activities that do not culminate in student achievement are every bit as unsuccessful as merchant activities that do not result in a sale. The analogy is not perfect, however, because merchants succeed by selling to only a portion of their customers; teachers are held accountable for each student. Virtually all models of instruction since Dewey make learning a shared or reciprocal responsibility between teacher and student.

Regarding the “one best method” mentality, all models recommend that teachers learn and employ a wide variety of techniques so that, first, students can find different ways to engage the material and, second, students cannot overemphasize one learning strategy and allow others to atrophy. An aphorism makes the point more dramatically: If a child has only a hammer, everything looks like a nail. To get past that narrow perception requires that the child begin to use other tools. Tools of teaching are therefore most profitably conceived as ways to expand the teacher’s repertoire, which increases the probability of inducing students to do what they need to do to learn.

Types of Teaching Methods

Teaching methods can be classified in a number of ways, none of which is entirely satisfactory because of considerable overlap of purposes and procedures. For example, although lectures can be straight presentation of information with little or no active involvement by an audience, since the 1970s teachers have increasingly woven opportunities for active participation into lectures, even in very large classes. As another example, mastery learning, which requires students to demonstrate competence individually, is often successfully combined with cooperative teams.

Recognizing that overlaps exist, one can divide methods into categories according to whether they are primarily information-providing, inquiry-oriented, active or performance-based, cooperative, mastery-based, or creativity-inducing.

Information-Providing Methods

Prime exemplars of information-providing methods are lectures and demonstrations in which authoritative information is presented or a skill or a process modeled. Strengths of the lecture are not only that much information, including data too recent to be published, can be presented in a relatively short period of time but also that an expert’s ways of thinking about the topic can be displayed. Also on display is the lecturer’s excitement about the topic, as well as implicit or explicit concern for ethical issues. While many facts can be embedded in a lecture, they will be remembered better by other methods; thus, the lecture is better used to convey how an expert reflects on the chain of logic used to draw inferences about the data or events that constitute the topic.

Demonstrations have many of the same features as lectures—indeed, a lecture could be considered a demonstration of reasoning—but they display skills and performances in modalities beyond the verbal. These include physical skills, artistic performances, and scientific experiments in which experts can model effective, efficient, and aesthetic techniques.

Lectures and demonstrations are often combined to great effect, and they have the advantage of being locally recordable for later viewing or transmission to distant or very large audiences. Conversely, professionally developed videos of actual or simulated research or events—such as space exploration or an experiment involving deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA)—can be made available to students anywhere in the world. Using similar technology, teachers can present complex skills or ideas, dissecting a sports or a musical performance, or even a chemical reaction.

The primary weakness of information-providing methods is, ironically, that they are not very efficient for learning specific information. A popular saying conveys the problem: I hear, I forget; I see, I remember; I do, I understand. Research on verbal and visual elaborations in memory confirms the point that demonstrations provide imagery, which improves memory beyond that of simple verbal processing. To understand and use, which implies beginning to become truly competent, learners must construct their own examples, organize their knowledge, and practice their skills. Thus, lectures and demonstrations are most effective if they are accompanied by other methods.

Inquiry-Oriented Methods

In general, the word “inquiry” implies some systematic examination of a topic in search of information or discovery of the truth. Hence, inquiry and discovery are often used as synonyms for techniques that require students not only to solve problems but also to pose them, not only to conduct investigations but also to plan them, not only to draw inferences from data but also to elucidate the chain of logic they are using. These are higher levels of thinking, requiring such cognitive processes as planning, critical analysis, organization, and synthesis, as well as such metacognitive processes as self-reflection on “what I know and how I know it.”

Case studies—real or simulated—in which illnesses are diagnosed, problems are identified, and alternative solutions or treatments are compared and evaluated are excellent illustrations of inquiry methods. So is the search for historical antecedents or consequences of a scientific finding, sociopolitical event, or ethical-moral debate. Inquiry is integral to progress in science and the social sciences and, if education is preparation for such fields, students need to have such discovery experiences to understand these fields.

Weaknesses of inquiry/discovery learning include the extended time required, the fact that breadth of coverage of a field is sacrificed in favor of in-depth study of only a few topics, and that every student must be involved in all stages of the investigation to reap the benefit (and receive teacher feedback). In practice, therefore, teachers often use inquiry methods in combination with other techniques. For example, they save time by demonstrating an experiment or by having teams of students doing different phases of the research. To the extent that students are excluded from responsibility for various phases, however, their experience with inquiry is diluted.

Still, some practice with inquiry may be better than none, and thus it may be possible to place specific inquiry/discovery methods on a continuum from complete to none. A teacher demonstration followed by students searching for alternative explanations would be a legitimate, if partial, inquiry experience. The other end of the continuum might be a concept attainment lesson, in which elementary students are shown objects or pictures of objects and must decide why they are alike or different, and thereby discover symmetry, even before they know the concept label.

Active or Performance-Based Methods

Active methods are those in which students are continually participating in the lesson, sometimes “hands-on,” or overtly, when they are performing, always “minds-on,” or covertly, because they may be called on to contribute at any moment. Such methods are usually contrasted with passive learning, in which students just listen for extended periods of time or wait until it is their turn to perform. Examples of passive methods—which active methods were invented to supplement—include long lectures or demonstrations; classroom recitations in which, for example, one student translates a sentence from one language to another or performs a song, while other students wait their turn in sequence; and procedures in which only volunteers participate.

Active methods have long been used to supplement lectures and demonstrations, as well as to monitor learning in performance-based fields such as music or sports. In these fields, information may be provided via brief lectures or demonstrations, following which students practice with feedback and coaching. For academic subjects, lectures or demonstrations could likewise be broken into ten- to twenty-minute segments, followed by such techniques as learning by teaching, in which the teacher demonstrates, say, three concepts and each member of a three-person team teaches one of those concepts to the other two persons (perhaps also inventing their own examples); think-pair-share, in which the lecture is interrupted with a question designed to make individuals process or apply the content, which is then discussed with a partner and subsequently shared with the whole class; one-minute papers, in which students must summarize the main points or central inference to be drawn from the presentation, which can then be discussed further in class (or turned in anonymously as feedback to the instructor); or short quizzes, in which the teacher asks a few true-false, multiple-choice, or short-answer questions to be scored and discussed immediately.

To substitute for recitations in which only the performer is active, it is more desirable to ask questions of, or invent an activity for, the whole class before any individual is called on to respond. Thus, for language translation, all students may be asked to translate the sentence, then compare translations or call on two or three students. For a recital, the student audience may be assigned to assess the difficulty of the piece, find one exemplary aspect of the performance, and make one positive suggestion for improving. (Even if these are not shared with the performer, such exercises give students practice with the higher levels of thinking involved in evaluation of performances.)

Discussions can also be active methods, but not if they are dominated by only the few individuals who are willing to volunteer. At the other extreme is an inquisition-like atmosphere in which the teacher dominates by asking question after question. Somewhere between these extremes is an optimal active method, which may use techniques from other methodologies as precursors to the whole class discussion.

The main weakness of active methods is probably that, in trying to keep them brief enough to fit into the limited class time available, they tend to overemphasize lower-level thinking skills or initial performances. Thus, they need to be supplemented by other information-providing techniques and inquiry projects that can provide experiences with problem posing and sustained reasoning.

Cooperative Methods

Cooperative methods should also be included in the repertoire of active methods, but what makes them a unique category is that they were explicitly designed to teach collaborative skills as well as traditional academic objectives. They do this through what David and Roger Johnson, pioneers in cooperative teaching methods, in 1975 called cooperative goal structures. In contrast to individualistic or competitive approaches, cooperative goals require individuals to coordinate their efforts to achieve an instructional objective, so that individuals succeed only when all succeed. This is accomplished by two features that both define cooperative teams and distinguish them from the kinds of groups most people have experienced: individual accountability and positive interdependence.

Individual accountability means that, despite having a group assignment or product to complete, all students will be assessed, first, on what each was responsible for doing and, second, on his or her comprehension of the whole task. Positive interdependence means, first, that each student will have a unique role that complements the others’ roles, and, second, that each student has an incentive for assuring that all students succeed in fulfilling their roles and comprehending the material.

Using different role assignments, a math or science teacher might identify a leader, a researcher, and a presenter as roles for three-person teams (with different assignments on other days). Leaders will help define the task, distribute responsibilities, keep the group on task, and maintain records of the group’s work; researchers will bring class notes, organize and calculate data, or consult the teacher; and presenters will organize the report and present findings to the class.

Other ways of assuring positive interdependence in many subject areas were developed in the 1980s by Robert Slavin and his colleagues. For example, in jigsaw, each member of the team becomes responsible for one aspect of a complex topic and meets with corresponding members of other teams. That is, each team member is given a number from one to four; then the ones get together to study one component of the topic, the twos another, and so on. Following acquisition of expertise in this topic, they return to their groups and teach their team members.

To ensure individual accountability in these approaches, the teacher must still provide incentive for each student to care that all learn. This can be done, for example, by giving a bonus to the whole team when each member individually passes a quiz or mastery test on the material. Alternatively, the teacher can assess individual students’ fulfillment of their responsibilities, which might also include students’ self-ratings or (if done properly) students rating one another.

Mastery-Based Methods

Both a philosophy and a collection of methods, mastery learning seeks to ensure that each student achieves at least the minimum standard of knowledge or performance for each required objective. Such competencies can be defined formally, as when students will eventually be accountable for professional certifications as lawyers, physicians, and psychologists, or, less formally, as in demonstrating mastery of multiplication tables, rules of grammar, or reading comprehension. In any case, the concern of mastery methods is to teach and monitor the progress of each student’s competence in a criterion-referenced fashion—that is, in relation to established standards for the instructional objectives.

To implement mastery learning, one must divide the curriculum into critical and enrichment objectives. The former are basic concepts or skills that must be attained by all to prepare for more advanced study in the course or discipline. These critical objectives need to be divided into manageable units, perhaps two to four weeks in length, and learned to a high level (75 percent correct or higher) on conventional tests. Demonstrating mastery, whether by test or performance, is only the initial acquisition of new material and, as such, the material will surely be forgotten. Unlike poorly learned basics, however, material and skills initially mastered can be relearned quickly when needed in subsequent lessons, providing considerable savings in time overall. For students who do not demonstrate mastery, remedial instruction and retesting must be provided.

Because mastery is conceived as initial acquisition and not expert status, even perfect scores on the test must be graded as the beginning levels of skill. People pass a driver’s test or learn a new tennis stroke to begin to drive or to play tennis, not because they are finished learning. Thus, people need enrichment objectives, which provide advanced study and application of the mastered material. These are optional assignments that can be done in different ways and that carry the incentive of raising course grades above basic passing. For example, in science or history, enrichment exercises might be inquiry assignments; in English, writing a poem or critiquing an essay or book; in music, arranging a piece for the instruments just studied; in any field, tutoring students who need help with initial mastery.

Weaknesses of mastery methods are that, in emphasizing basic skills, instruction tends to be at the lowest levels of thinking and to go at the rate of the slowest learners. To avoid this, mastery must be used in combination with other methods, and only for material that all students must know to be certified as competent or to assure that prerequisite knowledge has been attained.

Creativity-Inducing Methods

While any teaching method has potential for encouraging creativity, it is easy to become dominated by the established logic and ways of thinking in a field. Edward de Bono, a longtime advocate of creativity training, calls such approaches vertical thinking to emphasize their sensible, top-to-bottom structure. While logic is necessary to solve problems and organize thinking, it is often insufficient to generate a wide variety of alternative, uncommon, and even bizarre ideas that can later be evaluated logically. He called this approach lateral thinking.

Similar to William Gordon’s synectics, lateral thinking has specific techniques for forcing familiar concepts to seem strange so that knowledge—or assumptions—may be reconsidered. For example, one may consider what life would be like if people were born old and became younger every year (De Bono’s reversibility method) or what it feels like to be the bull in a bullfight (personal analogy in synectics). While these ideas may not lead to new theories, they may help spice up essays on developmental psychology or dysfunctional families, respectively, if used as warm-up exercises. Like brainstorming, the rules include suspending judgment during the idea-generating phase. Finding fault with an idea shuts out further thinking in that direction, while praising an idea reinforces similar thinking. Evaluation comes later, when the goal shifts from generating ideas to deciding which ones to use. As De Bono made explicit in his 1985 Six Hat Thinking curriculum, people need to learn to put on different thinking caps for different purposes. Each type has weaknesses. Creative thinking is not logical, by definition, and is therefore a method to be used in combination with other methods. Furthermore, while these techniques can stimulate truly novel inventions, when used in classrooms, creativity is defined as behavior or thinking that is novel for this student. Thus, the goal is to encourage each student to avoid habitual or rigidifying thinking through exercises that expand their thinking.


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