Methods, and How Research Informs My Teaching

Henri Picciotto:

According to Merriam-Webster:

Eclectic: selecting what appears to be best in various doctrines, methods, or styles

That pretty much describes my stance as an educator.

During my four-plus decades in the classroom, I’ve seen many math edu-fads come and go: new math, individualization, manipulatives, problem-solving, group work, constructivism, constructionism (yes, that’s a thing), portfolios, complex instruction, differentiation, interdisciplinary-ism, backward design, coding, rubrics, problem-based instruction, technology, Khan Academy, standards-based grading, making, three acts, flipping, inquiry learning, notice-wonder, growth mindset… not to mention various generations of standards.

It doesn’t take long for a conversation between teachers to include something sarcastic about the fad du jour. By being sarcastic, we put up an umbrella to try protect our sanity from the ideas raining on us from administrators, academics, and yes, even colleagues. I will go further, and boldly say to the proponents of the current pedagogical panacea: I’m sorry, but whatever “evidence-based” product you’re selling today, I’m not buying. The research it is based on is flawed. The anecdotes that support it only apply to specific circumstances which are not easy to replicate. In short, as I have written before: nothing works.

Graham Nuthall in The Hidden Lives of Learners:

The term “method” is a convenient shorthand for talking about teaching and about the things that teachers do. But it is dangerously misleading when people begin to think of teaching methods as the equivalent of medical treatments or agricultural fertilisers. It leads to the notion that we can compare teaching methods in the same way as we can compare the effects of different drugs of chemicals. It also leads to the recently popular demands that research on teaching should use randomised trials of the kind used in medical research.

In the realities of the classroom, methods do not exist. Every teacher adapts and modifies so-called methods. Research shows that teachers who believe they are using different methods may be doing essentially the same things, and teachers who believe they are using the same method may be doing quite different things.

John Holt in How Children Fail:

At that point Bill Hull asked me a question, one I should have asked myself, one we ought all to keep asking ourselves: “Where are you trying to get, and are you getting there?”

There are lots of things I use in my classroom that I might call “methods”:

I could name plenty more.

I believe methods are important. I would be a less effective teacher if I had fewer methods to choose from. But methods do not make me an effective teacher. Much more important are my choices of what methods to use, how I use them, and how to learn whether or not they are working.

There is, as Nuthall points out, plenty of research on methods. Much of it is conflicting. I can use those ideas to inform my teaching, but research on methods tends to be prescriptive: do this, and students will learn more. I’m skeptical of any dogmatic claims in favor of one method.

I do believe in research, but rather than research telling me how to teach, I’m interested in research on how students learn. Research can help me understand students’ beliefs about their learning, the relationship between content knowledge and problem solving, how students learn and retain new knowledge, the role of incentives and feedback, and more. None this research is prescriptive, and none of it tells me how to teach on Monday. But that body of knowledge can inform the methods I choose to use, how I use those methods, and how I understand whether or not those methods were effective, on that day, for those students.

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