Teaching Strategies

Treehorn Express

Teaching Strategies

A Practitioner’s View
Phil Cullen

Any observer of a primary school in action will see a number of different teaching strategies in use during the course of the day.  Many are planned to suit the topic in hand and many spontaneously arrive as particular circumstances arise. There is an enormous assortment. Let’s arrange the kind of  strategies that you might see……

Didactic                                                Group                                                  Maieutic


Adult Controlled                                   Inter-active                                           Child-centred


This continuum is meant to represent individual gradations of teaching styles stretching from didactic styles of teaching to the maieutic.  Between the two extremes, there are hundreds of techniques. In days past, folk would refer only to the use of ‘traditional’ techniques [the left-hand end of the continuum] or ‘progressive’ [right-hand]. It was a mindless distinction, and gave little credit to those who were skilled at strategies located anywhere on the continuum. Good teachers understand the use of all techniques. They move up and down the gradations at different times of the day.

Try this. Visit a school on a Sunday or any holiday. Try to identify the prevailing strategies used in each classroom from the arrangement of the furniture and equipment . If all desks face in orderly rows towards one end of the room, you can be assured that adult-controlled didactic strategies prevail. Think twice about sending your children to a school that has all its desks facing in the same direction. This  statement is not  intended to rubbish the technique itself, even though the furniture setting indicates that didactic chalk-talk methods, overloaded with boredom,  are used for most of the day.  Of course, didactic strategies have to be  used at some stage during the course of each school day; when the teacher needs to be dominant or needs to explain matters in a general fashion or has to use the ‘board’.  As a constant or prolonged  pupilling device, however, such methods are limited in their effectiveness.

With pride, I would claim that my generation was the first in endless decades to remove the screws embedded in static desks, firmly attached to the floor, all facing the same way. It was the ‘enlightened sixties’.  Slow as we were to learn and confined by bureaucratic and exam-based procedures, we adjusted our cojones and went for it. We had started to take the child as the point of reference, and tried to come to terms with the differences between children. We started to recognise the need for active participation and conversation and laughter and fun and freedom to enhance genuine learning and healthy cognitive development..

Until then,  pupils, subject to explicit, direct instruction, in almost every classroom in the country, were expected to sit still on a  chair or a form, all day, every day, for a full year….for twelve years! Yes. The style that schools are now being encouraged to return to.

Didactic Strategies

The left-hand extreme above represents the sermonising strategy. Priests and Ministers use this technique regularly during their weekly instruction at church, when they talk to a large group of sitting people. A good test of its efficacy is to stand outside a church on any Sunday morning at the completion of a service, and ask members of the congregation what the sermon was about. Never-the-less, sermonising is a legitimate, oft-used, didactic-teaching technique in classrooms, and some are better than others at using it. Instructional techniques at this end of the spectrum are favoured where there is a large group to be instructed or when one is preparing a class for a blanket test and wants each one in the class to be at the same level.  On such occasions, there is little choice. ‘Jug to mug’ process of instruction are favoured. Add plenty of practice and a fear-of-failure to the class culture and approved scores will be ejected at the same time on test day…..sometimes with the morning breakfast..

Usually, there is no place for the expression of emotions or basic humanity. Didactic techniques are  usually gradgrind/hard-grind that expect clear, formal, testable outcomes.

A didactic strategy can be improved upon as a teaching technique if a chalkboard or whiteboard is used… or an OHP or a Power-point presentation or a computer program or some other appropriate teaching-aid. Just listening has limitations; so, as one moves along the continuum towards the right , learning-attention is increased. Eyes and hands join the ears.  Packaged schemes, often described as ‘teach-proof’, can be used by the instructors. I used to love the SRA Structured Reading kits!

In my own time as a student-teacher, we were instructed in ‘school method’. All were didactic techniques; and the textbooks of the time emphasized only adult-controlled methods. We were obliged to practise our blackboard writing as often as possible. We were instructed on how to write on the black-board while keeping alert for misdemeanours that might be committed behind our backs. [In many authorities at the time, left-hand writers were not employed as teachers even though they had an advantage. As they moved across while writing, they did not stand in front of the screed.] We also learned not to repeat the reply to our questions because children must learn to remember what we tell them. I don’t recall learning much more than this from our lecturers. Direct teaching was the only mode, it seemed. We learned some useful tricks of the trade from teachers at our practising schools, but were  never taught to use a variety of teaching strategies. We should have been.

When the study of the use of all teaching strategies is combined with the knowledge of teaching and learning research as revealed by Dunkin, by Gage, by Biddle and others [i.e. about what really happens in the teacher-pupil exchanges], the topics used at teacher-preparation institutions became more academically rigorous. They became ones of high academic calibre, practicality and of prolonged practice-based study. I think.

As one describes teaching techniques, using the above framework,  moving from left to right one can also see that teachers are moving off the stage and, as pupils are allowed to talk to each other, the pupils start to believe that they have more control over their learning. Group practices are brought into play. There is an enormous number of group settings [5. Learning in Small Groups] and, as we move along further, the teacher’s role starts to become one of confidence trickster. They ‘set up’ the learning exchanges. As they move more to the right, pupils undertake learning with greater enthusiasm because they start to believe that they have control, that learning is their business; and they want to learn more about the topic-in-hand and share personal achievements with their teacher and others. Learning becomes personal. Evaluation is a serious part of it. The act of learning per se becomes important. Each has a different way of ‘doing it’.

The desire to learn is a natural thing for pupils and has been from birth.  When they feel that they have control over the choice of what they are learning, the world is theirs. As for teachers, they are teaching learnacy at the same time as they are pupilling knowledge because child-centred efforts are more effective than any other kind. The two-way exchange, called ‘pupilling’ is a serious affair. I will teach; you will learn. It’s why schools are established.

As pupils and teachers  move along the continuum of teaching strategies towards the more affective end [repeat AFFECTIVE],  the strategies become much more complex and demanding. The school day usually provides a healthy mix.

Let’s now consider consider the maieutic styles, keeping in mind that true learning resides in each individual. It has to emerge. It cannot be forced with the likes of fear of examination failure, heavy didacticism and  other crippling personal, stress-ridden  distortions. The emergence of learning confidence through true learnacy techniques is paramount. The teacher’s pupilling task is to draw it out and refine it.

Maieutic Strategies

Maieutic strategies convey midwifery roles to teachers; and the strategies towards the right-hand end of the continuum imply that a child’s natural desire to learn is helped to manifest itself as the child develops. The teacher is there at the birth of learning of something new and nourishes the child’s personal control of it. Learnacy is part of a child’s psyche from birth and its development is the real business of the concerned teacher. The pupilling processes accelerate cognitive development with genuine concern for achievement. As one moves to the right along our continuum, [towards ultimate Emile-type activities] the methods become more inter-active, more pupil centred. The pupil starts to take centre-stage. Since there has to be close one-to-one contact as much as possible, this style of interaction requires intense effort. It is extremely physically demanding and mentally challenging on the teacher. The smaller the class, the greater the interaction and more purposeful the learning and sharing of effort. Smaller classes do not mean easier teaching, as smart-alec, ‘ne’er-do-anything’ critics are wont to espouse. The closer one gets to one-on-one pupilling the more intense the interaction becomes and the greater the learning outcomes.

There are schools that try to operate on the premise that pupils should believe in full control of learning.  It’s a hyper-version of confidence trickery. When pupils feel that they are learning what they want to learn, even though the teacher has ‘set them up’, the world is their oyster, so the classroom becomes learning-attractive and achievement-effective in every sense. I have only ever visited one school that verged on the extreme right-hand maieutic strategy. It was a splendid infant school in a suburb of Bristol, England [Sea Mills] where quality teachers performed extraordinary confidence tricks. The children really believed that they were doing what they wanted to do. They arranged their own curriculum – what they wanted to learn – and the school took it from there. Extreme? Yes. Successful? Yes. Popular with parents? Outrageously so. Children learn?  Amazing achievements.

Higher up the school, one has difficulty in imagining a present-day Huntingdale Tech., Victoria, kind of secondary education where attendance at classes is completely voluntary…a school that really believed that “Learning resides in the individual. It is a voluntary act.” and it shaped its curriculum to suit…..no graduating examinations….advice offered  to post-school occupations and institutions [e.g. Universities] when requested?  The laws of compulsory education insist that children attend school….and say nought about attendance at classes.

Some people used to think that the term ‘open education’ or ‘alternative schooling’ referred to these child-centred activities to the right and, because some classrooms appeared as if there was little adult-control and too much freedom…children allowed to walk around and talk to each other… they did not like it. The term ‘open’ however was meant to apply  only to school architecture , in places where teachers shared large spaces. The use of ‘open’ as a learning descriptor was a monumental misuse of the English language. Use of terms such as  ‘traditional’ and ‘progressive’ teaching styles, ‘direct’ and ‘child-centred’ instruction are sterile terms when used in a classroom context. It’s a plain, fair-dinkum pupilling place with the pupil in the middle of the teacher’s eye. Critics just did not appreciate the distinction, nor the terminology, nor what was happening in  schools. Still don’t.

If official judgements are based on misused terminology, the future is bleak.


Phil Cullen [….still looking for more humanity in the classroom]

41 Cominan Avenue, Banora Point Australia 2486

07 5524  6443



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