A recent report by the Sutton Trust and Durham University recommends that we need to weed out discredited teaching practices from the classroom. But what practices are they talking about?
The answer may surprise you.
Many of the discredited teaching practices are quite popular, but the evidence behind them is anecdotal and selective. It’s like trotting out a 100-year-old man who has smoked all his life to prove that smoking is good for you.
Hard research consistently shows that these discredited teaching practices don’t work.
5 Examples of Discredited Teaching Practices
The report highlights 5 examples of discredited teaching practices.
Discredited Teaching Practice 1: Unconditional Praise
Many teachers believe that praising students helps to build their self-confidence, which in turn helps the students to achieve better results. As a result, they give lavish praise to students, regardless of how well they do.
While this sounds logical, it is simply not true. The report highlights the sobering reality that self-confidence comes from experiencing real success.
When you praise mediocrity or failure, you end up with students who feel entitled to easy work.
What’s worse, you send a subtle but potent message that mediocrity and failure is all that you expect from those students.
Discredited Teaching Practice 2: Streaming
Large numbers of schools continue to stream their students. Streaming involves organising whole classes based on ability.
In the senior years, this involves elevating the status of some subjects within a single subject area (e.g. Maths C, Physics). In the junior high, it is more likely to involve teaching everyone the same subject, but altering the pacing, focus and depth of what each class learns. Streaming also occurs in primary schools, but it is often limited to English and Mathematics, or even to aspects of those two subjects (e.g. reading, problem-solving).
Yet, research shows that streaming has virtually no impact on students’ results, and it can even have adverse effects. In fact, one of the keys to Finland’s success is that they removed streaming until the senior secondary years.
Discredited Teaching Practice 3: The Learning Pyramid
The underlying claim is that students learn more by doing than they do by watching and listening. The pyramid itself adds detail to the claim, yet the percentages it quotes are pure fiction.
When done well, strategies such as teaching others and practice are quite effective. However, they are far more useful when students have been told what they needed to know (lecture) and shown what they needed to do (demonstration).
The learning pyramid implies that direct teaching is inferior to more active learning, which (despite popular opinion), is not the case at all.
Discredited Teaching Practice 4: Discovery Learning
There is a well-entrenched belief among many teachers that students learn better when they have to discover things for themselves.
This belief underpins specific teaching approaches such as problem-based learning and inductive teaching – where teachers act as a guide on the side. It also underpins more general philosophies such as constructivism, which assert that students learn best when they construct their own understandings and glean their own insights from classroom activities.
Yet, research shows that students learn best when you tell what they need to know, show them what they must be able to do, and connect this to what they have already learned.
Armed with this foundation, you can then help students to develop a deeper understanding of what they have learned. However, leaving kids to discover things for themselves is ineffective, if not negligent.
Discredited Teaching Practice 5: Learning Styles
A recent survey revealed that 90% of teachers believe that students prefer to learn in different ways, with some students being visual learners, some being auditory learners and others being kinaesthetic learners – and that they will learn more if you present information in their preferred style.
There is absolutely no psychological or educational evidence to support this claim.
Learning styles has as much scientific basis as the magic crystals you can buy in the King Arthur shop in Glastonbury.
Yet the belief continues to influence how teachers go about their work.
I warned against some of these discredited teaching practices, plus others, in the last part of our Crash Course In Evidence Based Teaching.