Tips for School & District Administrators

3 Abandoned Teaching Strategies that Still Work

By Brian Gatens

I came up through the teaching ranks in the 1990s. Back then, the philosophy of teaching children to read ignited a vigorous debate between “proponents of ‘whole-language’ and phonics-based instruction.” Nicholas Lemann famously explored the controversy in “The Reading Wars.”

When all was said and done after these vitriolic and emotional debates, a consensus formed around the idea of “balanced literacy” — drawing on the benefits of both approaches. That teaches all of us two powerful lessons:

  • The act of teaching is far too complex, with the diverse needs of students, parents and communities, to latch onto a single approach.
  • Quality teachers need to employ a variety of strategies to meet these many needs.

Over the years, some teaching strategies seem to fall out of favor, but that doesn’t mean that they should be abandoned. Here are a few to keep in your arsenal even if they are not especially popular at the moment:

Use the (dreaded) lecture

Classrooms today strive for as much learner engagement as possible, based on the idea that an active and participatory person is far more likely to hold onto the knowledge and information in the lesson.

While you want to bring your students into the lesson as much as possible, you should employ the outright class lecture when it is necessary. As the teacher, most of the time you’ll be the most knowledgeable person in the classroom, and your students will lack what you know. One legitimate way to transfer this knowledge is to speak directly to your students on the topic at hand.

The key to doing this successfully is to keep your lectures short, as most studies set a maximum of 17 minutes (an eternity, in my opinion) for a person’s attention. It should also be tied to a high-activity class experience either immediately before or after.

You also need to employ good public speaking skills, moving around the room, making eye contact, changing the tone of your voice and engaging the listener when necessary. In other words, don’t be boring.

Don’t burn your worksheets

The worksheet is a classic low-engagement activity that has fallen out of favor in the classroom for good reason. Far too many teachers err in thinking that completing this piece of paper demonstrates that students have learned the topic at hand. In reality, it really only shows that the students can complete a worksheet.

Though retention of the information on worksheets typically is extremely low, the worksheet can be effectively used to do two things in the classroom:

  • Helping to identify your students’ general understanding of a topic. If your next unit is about the origins of the Revolutionary War, a student-completed worksheet is an appropriate way to gather the baseline knowledge of the class and then plan your instruction appropriately.
  • Collaborating in group activities. Students should work together to establish the basic information necessary to move forward in your class as you address more complex work. The group activity enables students to collaborate on developing a deeper understanding of the topic. These worksheets can then be kept and used to review as necessary.

Share that novel

With the advent of balanced literacy, an approach borne from the Reading Wars, teachers are encouraged to develop an understanding of students’ reading levels and then have students select a “just right” book that is interesting to them and just challenging enough to help develop their reading skills. As a result, the use of the whole-class novel has declined.

The argument against a whole-class novel is that with a wide variety of student reading skills, many students would find the book too easy, many would find it too hard and only a few would truly understand it. I agree with the logic behind this approach, but I think we’re doing our students a disservice if we neglect to create a shared experience around a classic novel.

Many adults look back with a fondness for when they read “To Kill a Mockingbird” or “Of Mice and Men” as students. The best way to approach this would be to find the time to read the novel together, perhaps over the course of the year. I could see teachers setting aside 20 or so minutes every Friday for months at a time solely to read the book aloud to their students. What I wouldn’t recommend is embarking on a months-long single novel unit of study.

The important thing to remember is that there are no “right” or “wrong” teaching strategies. Rather, teaching strategies should be viewed as tools to learning, and the more of them you have at your disposal, the more effective you will be in meeting the needs of your students.

An educator for two decades, Brian P. Gatens is the Superintendent of Schools for the Emerson Public School District Emerson, NJ. Gatens has worked at the K-12 level in public and private school settings in urban and suburban districts. He has been a classroom teacher, vice principal, principal, superintendent/principal, and now superintendent.

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