Asking, “Which Teaching Method Is Best?” Is Like Asking, “Which Tool Is Best?”

[Photo: teaching methods are just tools]
Photo: @Sian_W via Twenty20
Which tool in your tool kit is best? The screwdriver? Hammer? Pliers?

That’s obviously a ridiculous question. There is no “best” tool in your tool kit. A more sensible question, of course, is “Which tool is right for a particular moment or job?”

Same with the question “Which teaching method is best?” In fact, there is no one best teaching method. It’s not true that hands-on experiments are better than lectures or books. Nor is it true that group learning is better than solo learning.

There is no “best” teaching method

Like carpenters, effective teachers choose methods that suit their objective in the moment. We know this because, about 18 years ago, dozens of the brightest minds in neurology, cognitive science, and learning science spent several years synthesizing and describing what we know about how people learn. They wrote:

Books and lectures can be wonderfully efficient modes of transmitting new information for learning, exciting the imagination, and honoring students’ critical faculties — but one would choose other kinds of activities to elicit from students their preconceptions and level of understanding.… Hands-on experiments can be a powerful way to ground emergent knowledge, but they do not alone evoke the underlying conceptual understandings that evoke generalization. There is no universal best teaching practice.1

This book, published in 2000 by the National Academy of Sciences and aptly titled How People Learn, is a treasure trove of insights for teachers and parents.

Teachers should know when to use the correct method

So, as you consider the quality of your child’s school or which school would be best for your child, don’t worry about whether teachers are using the “best” teaching methods. Rather, as the book How People Learn suggests, ask whether they know when to use which methods.

Admittedly, it’s difficult to assess this. I suggest starting with a straightforward question: Which teaching methods do you use and why? As you evaluate the answer, look for signs that the teacher or principal knows there is no one best teaching method. Look for signs that they are knowledgeable and thoughtful about which teaching methods to use in different situations.

In this way, you can at least screen for some obvious red flags: teachers who believe there is one universal best teaching method, and teachers who have not thought much about when to use which method.

Asking, “Which Teaching Method Is Best?” Is Like Asking, “Which Tool Is Best?”
  1. National Research Council, How People Learn, p. 22