Rote teaching vs enquiry learning: the debate continues

We shouldn’t ask what our generation has to offer young people, rather ask what they need to learn to face future challenges, says Teaching Council director

A response to Dr William Reville:

Dr William Reville has expressed his concerns regarding modern teaching methods (Click here to read "Beware of faddish teaching methods that scorn 'rote learning'", 17 September ). It is unfortunate he didn't appear to consult fellow professionals closer to home in the course of his research. If he had, he would discover modern teaching methods are not failing.

The questions that have been asked of the past are a poor fit for the challenges of today, and offer little guidance for the unknowable challenges of tomorrow. Modern teaching understands that the pace of change and the scale of the challenges facing future generations means we must change the questions we ask, and how we ask them.

The fundamental flaw in Dr Reville’s approach is that he starts with what our generation has to offer those before them, rather than with what they need to learn, and more importantly, how they need to learn it. Such a view is understandable, but fails to take account of the rapid pace of innovation in teaching and learning in the past 30 years.


Teaching in the 21st century is not just about the imparting of knowledge. It is the challenging and complex task of teaching learners to form questions of their own, explore possible answers and choose the one they think fits best, based on the evidence to hand and their own judgment.

Collaboration is key to teaching today, and is reflected in the learning experiences of our children and young people. One has only to look at the students of Kinsale Community School who won the Google International Science Award recently as an example of this. George Washington Carver, a scientist, said “All learning is understanding relationships.” If that is true, and I believe it is, then all achievement is the fruit of those relationships.

I addressed an annual gathering of teachers and doctors doing postgraduate studies in leadership through Maynooth University and the Royal College of Surgeons this year. Here I witnessed a remarkable degree of mutual professional learning, where both groups engaged in shared learning in a spirit of reciprocal vulnerability, ie, nobody came to the learning space thinking they had all the answers.

The learning I observed across the two most trusted professions in society was humbling and inspiring. Central to this spirit of shared learning was strong spirit of mutual respect, that acknowledged the common challenges that both professions face, and the different skills and knowledge that they both offer to address those challenges.

There is a depth of research being conducted in teaching and learning. All 90,000 registered teachers have free access through the Teaching Council’s website to the EBSCO Education Source of research journals.

In co-operation with the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment and the Centre for Effective Services, the Teaching Council is seeking to create a new dynamic space where the richness of this research can be made more visible and accessible for all. In keeping with the spirit of teaching and learning, this space will have a singular focus on connecting people. It aims to enhance the learning for our children and young people and improve the connections between teachers and researchers, so that we can continue the process of ongoing improvement in teaching and learning.

Through their professional leadership, teachers are spearheading the enhancement of standards in initial teacher education, induction and teachers’ learning. This has resulted in richer, updated programmes of initial teacher education, a deeper process of guidance and support for newly qualified teachers, and the forthcoming first national framework for teachers’ learning. In each of these processes, teachers have taken the lead in enhancing the standards of their own practice. The impact of this can be seen in the most recent report from the Education Research Centre on the Literacy and Numeracy Strategy, which showed the most statistically significant improvement in pupil attainment in over 30 years. Teachers were pivotal in enabling students to achieve these results.

Of course, teachers will tell you education is about the processes of teaching and learning, more than the results of a particular test or research project. There is ample evidence for this on the council’s website through the recordings of the proceedings of FÉILTE, the Festival of Education in Learning and Teaching Excellence (the third annual event is at the RDS on October 3rd), where teachers are eager to tell their story of the innovation that they are leading in learning in schools around the country to parents and the wider public.

At its heart, teaching is about people and teachers know that teaching only happens when others learn. If Dr Reville would like to ask them about the whole story of teaching, they would be happy to enlighten him further.

Tomás Ó Ruairc  is director of the Teaching Council