The myth of didactic teaching

One of the delights of travelling is finding yourself unable to sleep in an unfamiliar bed. If you’re not careful your thoughts can start going into overdrive and sleep will elude you even further. I find myself in such a situation tonight.  Rather than fight the battle of the heavy duvet,  I’ve decided to address myself to an issue that’s been on my mind lately.  Why do so many people believe that didactic teaching is bad?

This has not always been the case. When I was at school it was the norm for teachers to ‘chalk and talk’.  Somewhere along the line, another orthodoxy has set in: that pupils learn best by doing. This myth ties in with another unstated and to my mind troubling idea: that children are unable to sit still and listen.

Let’s examine these two ideas a little bit more closely.

Is it true that we learn less when listening to a teacher talk? If you were to look at our own activities as adults,  then the inevitable conclusion would be that this is not true. University students sit in lectures where they are supposed to listen and take notes. Teachers going to CPD conferences invariably listen to a speaker standing at the front lecturing. That most ubiquitous of modern learning tools,  the TED talk,  involves you sitting down in the audience or on your computer and listening to someone talk. I don’t think anyone seriously thinks that no learning is taking place in such instances. Quite clearly,  adults can and do learn by listening to someone talk.

Now, if you were to get my 8-year old to sit through a lecture,  he would struggle somewhat. After a few minutes,  he would start to fidget.  Somewhere along the line between childhood and adulthood, our children learn how to sit still and listen for extended periods. They are already capable of doing so to a certain extent in primary school.  Children sit down in circle time and listen to the teacher reading a story. As they get older,  they learn progressively how to do this for longer and longer periods of time. At least, that is what they are supposed to do.

As behaviour in schools has become more challenging, it’s been tempting to fall into the trap of thinking children need to be entertained in lessons and that then makes it all the easier to buy in to that notion that they need to be actively doing something. Constructivism is inextricably tied to behaviour management. Finding it tough to manage your class? Give them something fun and engaging to do.

There is a time and a place for constructivism. The latest edition of ‘Teaching History‘ has an interesting article by Jim Carroll in which he describes how he uses group work to help his pupils develop their historical arguments. Anyone who’s attended a talk by Oliver Caviglioli will have probably taken part in some hands on activity.  In some instances,  the doing can be powerful and effective. But it’s not the only way to teach.

Both children and adults can learn didactically. In order for it to work,  two things need to happen. First of all,  there needs to be enough self-control to be able to sit still and listen. This is something that children need to develop over time.  Pandering to their propensity to fidget and low attention span by only giving them activities inevitably means that they will be hampered in learning this vital skill.

The second thing needed is a well pitched and interesting delivery of the content. How many of us have sat through interminably boring lessons with a teacher droning on? Same for adults. How often have we had to sit through a dull presentation by a colleague? Didactic teaching, done badly, is deadly.

In short, there is a time and a place for both didactic and discovery learning, but they have to be done well. Rather than focusing on one or the other, let’s focus on doing it well and making it appropriate to the content being learned.

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