The reason why modern teaching methods don’t work

Whole-class teaching, in which childern learn to use their long-term memory, has been abandoned for a more personalised, naturalistic approach, and it’s been a disaster

Substantial reports warn us that educational attainment at all levels is declining in English-speaking countries (; OECD Reports 2007 and 2014). A UK maths primary teacher delegation recently visited Shanghai to investigate why Chinese children score 30 per cent higher on international tests than children in the UK. The teachers reported that much of China's success is down to its teaching methods, methods the UK and Ireland have moved away from over the past 40 years. The research I have read indicates that newer teaching methods are sharply inferior to the older teaching methods they supplanted.

China uses the traditional whole-class teaching method, in which the teacher stands at the blackboard, teaches the whole class the established body of knowledge, tests the children with questions and ensures a disciplined class environment. This type of teaching was the norm in Ireland until the 1960s, when educationalists argued that it was too authoritarian and introduced new child-centred approaches that encourage students to "discover" knowledge by themselves, working at their own individual speed or in groups in a minimally guided environment, with the teacher offering support.

The newer methods largely dispense with rote-learning such as memorising multiplication tables and doing mental arithmetic, give children more control over what happens in class, base learning on children's interests, present information in students' "preferred learning styles" (whether by sight, sound or movement) and continually praise students. These newer teaching methods are intuitively appealing but their effectiveness is supported by very little empirical evidence.

The scientific reviews I have read (such as Paul Kirschner and others in Educational Psychologist, 2006) claim that the new methods are far less effective at imparting knowledge to students than whole-class teaching methods. Nevertheless, academic educationalists have successfully resisted any reintroduction of whole-class teaching methods. However, the climate is changing. Following the teachers' visit to China, Britain's minister for education Nick Gibbs told the Mail on Sunday: "I would like to see schools adopt whole-class teaching methods, particularly in maths and science."


JE Stone describes, in Education Policy Analysis Archives (1996), how child- centred teaching methods emerged from a long-standing educational doctrine called developmentalism, a form of romantic naturalism focusing on natural development. It has long pervaded teacher education, stimulating sharp teacher discomfort with anything perceived as incompatible with natural development.

A review of more than 200 research studies to identify teaching elements with the strongest evidence of improving attainment was published by the UK's Sutton Trust in October 2014. It identified common practices that have no grounding in research but can be harmful, including using praise lavishly, allowing learners to discover key ideas by themselves, grouping students by ability and presenting information to students based on their preferred learning style.

Indeed, as Kirschner explains, consideration of the short and long-term memory architecture of human cognitive structures clearly shows that child-centred minimum-guidance-during-instruction teaching methods cannot lead to effective learning. Long-term memory is the dominant structure of human cognition. Problem-solving skills draw on the extensive experience stored in long-term memory. The aim of all instruction is to add to long-term memory, and, if nothing is added, nothing is learned.

Working memory can only process a small number of elements, and almost all information stored there and not rehearsed is quickly lost. Minimal guidance methods proceed as though working memory has no relevant limitations when dealing with novel information. On the other hand, whole-class teaching aims to give specific guidance on how to cognitively manipulate information and store the results in long-term memory.

Academic educationalists who formulate teaching methods do not seem to privilege scientific evidence, preferring a romantic naturalism that appeals to left-liberal philosophy. If medicine had evolved along a path informed by naturalism we would not have the benefits, for example, of antibiotics or vaccination.

William Reville is an Emeritus Professor of Biochemistry at UCC.