Discussion in my school has often turned in the past two years to the notion of didactic teaching. Didactic teaching in the classroom has, at best, been disparaged over the past twenty years or so. However, I know some colleagues in the highest performing (albeit selective) schools in the UK teach with a style that could be described as ‘didactic’. Therefore, this evening I decided to brew some strong coffee, and question my assumptions of didactic teaching, and gauge how useful it might be as a teaching tool.
What, anecdotally, is a didactic teaching style? It is one that:
a) Has the students learn by primarily listening.
b) Is taught at a high level, often at a standard beyond which the students are currently capable of realising.
c) Is largely teacher-led.
d) Can be used as a behaviour tool.
e) Requires advanced explaining and questioning skills.
f) Benefits from a charismatic approach and/or presence by the teacher.
g) Most closely aligns with learning in higher-level education (FE colleges and 18+ institutions).
Didactic teaching has been labelled with the derogative term, ‘Chalk and Talk‘. This term implies:
a) There is no differentiation in the explanations (to the class, let alone for groups of students).
b) There is near-zero preparation time.
c) Following on from the above, the explanation is often unplanned and can easily move off on a tangent.
Needless to say, until about 18 months ago, I still saw didactic teaching as almost a term of offence. The conventional impression of ‘ineffective’ (or uncharismatic) didactic teaching was that the teacher explained (or ‘taught) a concept at a very high level, and the student understood very little.
I attempt to depict this below: while the student might recognise terms and notions, and feel as if they do understand the teacher (or at least feel interested!), their actual understanding demonstrated is very low. In this case ‘5’. The teacher is pitching the knowledge at ’20’.
The kind of teaching activities that make learning ‘interactive’ or ‘personalised’ involve the teacher dropping the level of their teaching. They simply cannot (or, rather, do not) pitch their teaching at a level much more advanced than the understanding that which the students are capable of currently achieving.
The above example drove practice in teaching in learning quite dramatically after an inspection in a school in our area. As a result of judgements made by agencies, an assumption amongst a critical mass of teachers was made: that the more personalised the learning, the greater the level of understanding the pupils would gain (and the more rapidly progress would be made). Needless to say, this is a natural consequence of the disdain for ‘chalk and talk’, and an inevitable extension of the idea that teachers should have an ‘all-singing, all-dancing‘ lesson for Ofsted, and other observers. Indeed, on the TES it is common to hear that teachers are surprised when the ‘same lesson’ receives different judgements from different observers: surely a series of rapid activities that excite the students should be judged as outstanding each and every time?
One of the movements in Ofsted is to step away from the ‘all-singing, all-dancing’ model of observations. Below you can see this referenced in their criteria:
25. The key objective of lesson observations is to evaluate the quality of teaching and its contribution to learning, particularly in the core subjects. Inspectors will not look for a preferred methodology but must identify ways in which teaching and learning can be improved…
…Quality of teaching in the school…
…111. Inspectors must not expect teaching staff to teach in any specific way or follow a prescribed methodology…
Of course, observers cannot help but want people to teach in their image. The observed can but hope the observer has a develop enough self-image to realise the spectrum of teaching styles. What does this mean?
It means that the assumption that pupils ‘learning it all for themselves’ may not (or, more likely) will not work. For example, students analysing evaluative analysis might devise constructs of tripartite structures, or could even memorise lists of connective sign-posts that suggest a type of analysis (antithetical, for one). But whether they will (ever) reach a level of specific understanding of how evaluative analysis differs from conventional PEE cannot be guaranteed by ‘individual learning’.
Indeed, in the graph below, another crude attempt is made to suggest that, if a teacher chooses to not model a higher level of understanding than the students might be capable of themselves, their actual learning drops immensely. In this example, a teacher has students complete an activity where they explore how to analyse evaluatively, but they never give them a higher-level answer, or model what an outstanding answer would look like. As the teacher pitches the work at ’10’, the students only achieve ‘5’ in understanding. Of course, the truth of pedagogical effectiveness may exist somewhere between the spaces provided by these examples. Without receptiveness (stimulated, at times, from from personalised activities where the teacher does not model a high level of understanding), the students may not respond to didactic demands to receiving higher-level theoretical knowledge.
But to suggest that the ‘students learn everything for themselves’ model of teaching is especially effective is, for me, somewhat naive. I think that it has its place a method in the range of teaching. But it does not deserve its current emphasis, especially not without a proviso that the students should be stretched by the teacher’s questioning and explanation at times, too.
Where might didactic teaching not be enough, though?
Another assumption that has driven Western education for a time now is that of Bloom’s Taxonomy.
As the demonstration of ‘higher-order’ questioning and thinking is deemed to be impressive to an observer, there is a temptation for a teacher to focus on these types of skills in a lesson (I know that pressure!). The activities planned may compel students to rate ideas and reorder texts (such as judging what animal imagery is most effective in Of Mice and Men) above factual understanding (what order the events occur).
The truth is, factual knowledge of texts isn’t tested in exams (although it is assumed). So a teacher can happily teach ‘higher-order’ skills almost exclusively (which isn’t a terrible thing). However, rigorous higher-order skills require, I think, a rigorous basis of understanding. In the study of English, specific analysis makes specific evaluation possible.
At this time, I assume didactic teaching in English is a necessary tool, specifically in the teaching of analysis and understanding. Modelling expectations for the level of factual understanding and accuracy of students leads, I believe, to more rigorous higher-level skills (even if students do not achieve that level of factual understanding). However, even higher-level skills also require ‘even-higher’ levels of understanding modelled by the teacher: not, though, to the extent as that of understanding-skills. This is especially the case in English, where once the techniques of evaluative analysis are mastered, meaning becomes a somewhat relative concept, especially amongst gifted and talented students.
So what does this mean for my teaching?
This means two things (or, in the words of Monty Python, three things!):
1) More didactic rigor expected across texts studied for my students.
2) Judicious (and occasional) didactic modelling during higher-level evaluative tasks.
And, as a source for future reflection:
3) Use increasingly varied structures of interaction to encourage personalised learning skills, especially in higher-level challenges.
The first point will result in the form of more supportive/differentiated worksheets and close-modelling.
The second point will lead to more essays and examples of extended, specific analysis.
The final point requires me to explore the following website, and see which of its models for group-interaction are functional in the classroom: